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Bodies of Water

Self-discovery on the underside of a surf break

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The dirt road snaked past 20-foot-high cacti caught permanently in a hold-up stance, their arms reaching for the sun. We kept driving. An hour later, the desert craned open to that all-too-familiar scene: those ribbons of whitewash shooting eastward over the reef, that white-sand beach, the little ghetto shack on the cliff selling warm, overpriced Jarritos.

Illustration: Jeremy Miranda

Every year or so I spend a week down on Baja’s East Cape with a group of friends in spring or summer. We come to drink, play cards, and surf the many breaks along the southeastern coast. This year we’d come in August, which proved a little late on the south swell draw. Nonetheless, by the time we arrived at Shipwrecks, the dependable right point, the shores still heaved swell, the beaches were deserted, and the waves, while not great, were certainly exploitable.

But by our third day, everything went to hell—gray skies, onshores, and pancake-flat seas. While the rest of the crew tried half-assedly to hitch a ride on wind chop, I grabbed a mask and fins, pulled on a wetsuit vest, and swam into the lineup. I’d recently discovered freediving, and wanted to experience the break I’d surfed countless times before from a different perspective. One last big breath and I dove down, kicking my fins through the clear water. On the seafloor, about ten feet down, I found the long-dead coral colony responsible for producing the shapely, predictably running waves. I mingled with the technicolor parrotfish which make their homes just below surfers’ dangling feet. I pulled up a well-worn tube sock from beneath a rusting car wheel and wondered how the hell a car wheel got out there, and whether the tube sock had been lost on land or in the ocean. And I realized: you think you know a break after surfing it for a decade, but what you’re really seeing is only the veneer to what lies below.

This was my first time freediving a break I was intimately familiar with as a surfer, but it wasn’t my first time scratching well below the ocean’s surface. For the past two years I’d been sent around the world to follow a group of researchers who have plumbed the absolute depths of the ocean, from the surface to more than 28,000 feet below sea level. I’d watched guys hold their breath and dive to 100 feet and spear satellite transmitters onto the dorsal fins of man-eating sharks. I’d ridden thousands of feet down in a homemade submarine to commune with luminous jellyfish. I’d talked to dolphins. Whales had talked to me. I’d swam eye-to-eye with the world’s largest predator. I’d stood wet and half naked inside an underwater bunker with a group of researchers strung out on nitrogen. I’d floated in zero gravity, gotten seasick, and sunburned. What did I find?

I discovered that we’re more closely connected to the ocean than I had ever thought. While I had spent the last few decades of my life surfing, swimming, and sometimes sailing above the sea, it occurred to me that I had still experienced so little of its depths.

It’s no coincidence that the amniotic fluid in which human life begins and the blood now coursing through our veins shares the same makeup as seawater. We’re literally born of the ocean. And we’re born to do more than just float on the surface.

An infant will reflexively breaststroke when placed underwater. His larnyx will close to keep water out. He can comfortably hold his breath for about 40 seconds, longer than many adults. We lose this ability only when we learn how to walk.

As we grow older, we develop a set of amphibious reflexes we share with deep-diving animals like seals, dolphins, and whales, which enable us to dive to incredible depths. The second we plunge into water, the heart rate slows about 25 percent below normal; blood begins to flow from the limbs toward the more vital organs in the chest; brainwaves soften and enter a more meditative state. All of these reflexes enable us to go deeper and stay under longer. Then at depths below around 100 feet, something amazing happens: the organ walls open to allow the free flow of water and blood to inhibit them from imploding under the incredible pressure. The stresses of underwater depths below 300 feet would injure or kill us on land. But not in the ocean.

Ancient cultures knew all about these amphibious reflexes and employed them for centuries to harvest sponges, pearls, coral, and food hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean. European visitors to the Caribbean, Middle East, Indian Ocean, and South Pacific in the 17th century reported seeing locals dive down more than 100 feet and stay there for up to 15 minutes on a single breath. Today, modern freedivers regularly plummet downwards of 400 feet below sea level. The longest recorded breath-hold, by Branko Petrovi of Serbia, is 12 minutes, 11 seconds. “We’re born to do this,” a women’s national freediving champion told me. “Most of us have just forgotten how.”

And the deeper and longer we plunge into the ocean, the less we resemble our terrestrial forms. We become different animals altogether.

For instance, during extended breath-holds, freedivers have registered blood-oxygen levels far below those that should support consciousness. Under normal conditions, the human body has a blood-oxygen saturation of around 98 to 100 percent (the higher number being the most oxygen that the blood could possibly contain). Physical stress or sickness can decrease oxygen saturation to about 95 percent. Few healthy people will ever go below this, but during dives, expert freedivers have registered oxygen-saturation levels as low as 50 percent—an extraordinarily low number. Oxygen saturations below 85 percent generally causes an increased heart rate and impaired vision; 65 percent and below greatly impairs basic brain functions; 55 percent results in unconsciousness. But somehow, expert divers have not only remained conscious with oxygen saturations of 50 percent but have maintained muscle control and extremely low heart rates.

Heart rates of freedivers at extreme depths, 250 feet below sea level, have been recorded as low as seven beats per minute. According to physiologists, a heart rate below about 15 beats per minute cannot support consciousness. And yet, in a way, science still can’t explain, how deep in the ocean, it does.

All you have to do to trigger these amphibious reflexes is take a breath and swim down. Your body already knows what to do next. This simple act of freediving in the ocean not only gives you something to do when the surf goes flat, it allows you a window into a seldom-examined part of the world, and reminds you what wondrous and weird animals we are every time we dive into water.

You also feel that connection catching waves. The ocean’s transformative power is built into the experience any time you paddle out. A simple splash of cool water on the face triggers our amphibious reflexes. Within seconds, your heart rate will slow and your brainwaves will soften. You feel relaxed, calm, focused. You feel great. As it turns out, splashing cold water on your face to refresh yourself isn’t just an empty ritual; it provokes a physical change within us. This isn’t some New Age theory. It’s your body reacting to the life-changing energy of the ocean. It’s a reminder that you’ve made it back home.

James Nestor is the author of Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), from which this essay is partly excerpted.