Freediving pushes mind and body to limits
Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Aug 18, 2005 by Lm Otero Associated Press writer


Thirty feet beneath the Gulf of Mexico -- Floating atop endless blue water, Don Moore takes deep, deliberate breaths, calming his mind and lowering his heart rate.

Then it's time to drop. And to fish.

Pushing the human mind and body to their limits, Moore excels in freedive spearfishing, one of the oldest and purist of extreme sports. As long as humans have been chasing their next meal, swimmers have been pushing themselves to see how long they can hold their breath and dive down after dinner.

With only the oxygen in his lungs, Moore and his 4 1/2-foot spear gun descend into the Gulf of Mexico in search of just the right fish swimming amid the supports of offshore oil rigs 45 miles from the Texas coast. When he chooses a target, his challenge is to aim his outstretched right arm and hold his line throughout the shot, all without spooking the fish -- and while relying on a single profound breath taken before his plummet.

"Like a dance," Moore calls it, describing a slow and relaxing ballet between hunter and prey.

When perfectly choreographed, the fish instinctively swim closer to him while he keeps descending in a calm, smooth, controlled dive, careful to avoid the sudden movements or eye contact that would scare away the fish.

"You see the fish swimming through the water. You try and adapt to that environment," said Moore, a 45-year-old accountant transplanted from Oregon to Portland, Texas.

Freediving has gained popularity in the past few years. In Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece, top freedivers are treated like heroes. Tiger Woods has been doing it for about five years. It was the first thing he did after winning the Masters in April.

"It's nice and quiet down there," Woods said.

The sport is growing in Texas. Moore is at the forefront of the push, helping found the South Texas Freediver Association six years ago.

On this dive, Moore and his frequent dive buddy, Can Osten, have taken Moore's 28-foot Kevel Cat boat to one of their favorite spots amid the oil platforms. They picked this one, which is among the farthest they visit, because of the clarity of the water and weather conditions on this day.

The bottom is 250 feet down. Once in the water, Moore spots a promising school of amberjack about 40 feet down.

Moore sinks just below the school of silvery-green fish and the dance begins. As a few swim closer, he turns toward them. His gun comes up and the amberjack gracefully veer away, offering the broadside shot sought by all hunters.

Moore picks one fish and squeezes the trigger. A series of high- tension rubber bands propel the spear shaft like a laser. His shot is perfect, hitting midbody, just behind the gills, passing through the animal and also spearing a second fish. This is a first for Moore: two fish with one shot!

It will taste wonderful cooked over a Texas mesquite fire.

For spearfishermen, freediving is the most productive way to catch fish. Spearfishing can be done using scuba gear, too, but the bubbles from the equipment tend to scare away the fish.

Mike Miglini's Out To Sea Adventures offers both kinds of spearfishing trips from Port Aransas. He considers spearfishing the ultimate hunter sport because of "how close you have to get to the animal in an environment you are not meant to be in."

"It makes it all the more challenging," he said.

Woods has tried spearfishing both ways. Smiling, he points out that he prefers doing it the hard way, freediving, adding that he can hold his breath nearly four minutes. That's a very respectable time considering six minutes is when possible brain damage becomes an issue; most recreational divers are pleased to make it for two minutes.

"You definitely can get some bigger fish because they can't hear you coming," he said.

After a round of golf in Texas this past May, Woods was much more animated discussing his underwater hobby than his last 18 holes.

"I love fishing and I love diving. You just combine the two," he said.

The upcoming freediving world championships, a two-event competition in Switzerland and France in late August and early September, will highlight a sport with mind-boggling records by both men and women.

Tom Sietas of Germany stayed underwater on one breath in a pool for 8 minutes, 58 seconds in 2004. Tanya Streeter of Austin, Texas, set the women's record for depth on one breath with a 535-foot dive in the Turks and Caicos in 2002.

But Audrey Mestre, a renowned diver and the wife of freediver and author Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras, died while attempting a 561-foot dive in the Dominican Republic in October 2003.

Safety is a major concern for all freedivers. Aside from avoiding sharks, jellyfish and other harmful sea creatures, there's always the fear of shallow-water blackout, known as SWB. It is the sudden loss of consciousness within 15 feet of the surface when expanding, oxygen-hungry lungs literally suck oxygen from the diver's blood, causing a blackout.

The body's thirst for oxygen is most intense when surfacing after a long dive. Underwater, the freediver must fight the body's reflex to take a breath caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood. The diver's diaphragm muscles, which control breathing, contract. If the diver succumbs to the breathing reflex, water gets into their lungs, beginning the drowning process.