As a rock hopping spearfisherman in Sydney, it can be pretty hard to improve your deep diving skills and experience. We simply lack access to the depth opportunities needed and if I had to be honest, with our water quality, probably the lack of will to find and dive them. So a chance to train and dive with Adam Stern, 106m freediver and Australian record holder for a “Deep” week in the warm, clear waters of Bali seemed like just the ticket to change that. Right?
It seemed a bit strange then, to be sitting in the departure Lounge/Bar at Kingsford Smith Airport with a beer in one hand and a big chunk of apprehension in the other. It has been such a long time since I had done any sort of deep diving, combined with a recent cold and ear infection and it felt like I might be setting myself up a bit. Would the sinuses behave? Would I be able to get to the depths I wanted? In between the Heinkens seems like a good time to catch-up on the theory at least …
Day 1 – 25.6m
Despite arriving at 1:30am, the parental force of habit has me up at first light and the sound of distant roosters. The sunrise over the sea lighting up the sheltered bay of Amed’s coarse black sand and giant volcanic sentinel, Mount Agung. It’s quite the start for Day 1.
The town of Amed is traditionally known for producing salt but thanks to its sheltered reefs and clear water, has seen a gradual transition toward the diving tourist dollar. Business must be good because it every third shop appears to be a dive shop. Fusion Free Diving would be our base camp for the week.
On arrival - its a scene of complete, organised chaos. There are over 30+ free divers who have descended from across the world to join the training event. A very wide spectrum of divers and abilities ranging from complete beginners, to national level free diving team members and instructors.
We are divided in to groups based on PADI course level, beginners, advanced and Master/Instructors. What swiftly becomes clear is the number of divers who have completed their Instructor and are simply here to learn more and train with Adam.
The morning commences with a theory session on advanced equalisation, using what’s called a mouth fill. Mouth fill is a method of bringing small amounts of air up from the lungs, to then carry out constant equalisation as opposed to the standard re-pressurisation of Frenzel or Valsalva techniques. Equalisation beyond residual volume without it, is nearly impossible. The only issue is it takes incredible coordination of a number of parts of the oral cavity and throat to do well. By the end of the course we should all be hoping for a “shitty” mouth fill. With everything else going on while diving - I’m hoping for barely that.
We finally hit the water – at 30C it’s only a few degrees cooler than the outside but a million miles more refreshing. The water is reasonably clear to about 15-20m and everyone is anxious to put their learning’s in to practise or like me, keen to just see where we are at.
Myself and Jeffrey, a student from Jakarta are put on a 25m buoy with an instructor. We begin our warm up hangs and I am immediately conscious of the grace and finesse in Jeffrey’s technique compared to my barrelling exertion. Its just one of the never ending moments, where as a group we learn from each other. After a few hangs – basically pulling yourself down the line to depth and then just hanging in a relaxed state for warmup – we get into it diving.
I have to keep telling myself it’s a long game and to just build into it. By the end of the session, I am hitting the bottom weight at 25m with a reasonably clean equalisation. Good start to the week
In the afternoon we do an empty lung dive to stimulate compression at depth and more importantly to practise our mouth fill equalisation. The emptied lungs are to keep you from ‘cheating’ by bringing more air up to equalise. Its hard work and leaves you feeling like you are vacuum packed. I’m struggling with the mechanics of the mouth fill and the constant equalisation but think I may have a hint by the end.
Day 2 – 30.1m – equal PB
Slept like a tired brick.
We start the morning with another theory session – this time covering sinus physiology, what squeezes are and why they are bad. Breathing up techniques and the other half of the mouth fill equation – the M charge. Also a way to imitate whale song underwater.
The biggest spinout though, is that early contractions actually mean better dive reflex engagement – meaning longer actual breath hold. Geez -mine must be bloody amazing then as they do kick hard early!
On that note – we head back out to the buoys and onto a 30m line. Its unbelievable how quickly the body adapts. Yesterdays 25m depths comes easy and its consistently onwards to just over 30m in depth – there is even a hint of a short mouth fill to be pleased about.
Deep, Clear and Blue - whats not to like?
In the afternoon, it's to the pool for static apnea training. Time to put that early contraction and longer breath hold to the test. There are some monster holds recorded, with one even past the 5min mark. The surprise packet though is a beginner free diver, Aaron pushing out past 4min and a lot of more of the more experienced divers.
Another great day
Day 3 - 32.9m – new PB
The day kicks off with an equalisation workshop. It’s swiftly becoming more and more apparent, that the major limiting factor to diving deep, is not holding your breath – its being able to equalise as you get deeper. Perhaps just as hard, is keeping relaxed while trying to remember and employ all the new teachings as your lungs are being compacted! Time to dive!
A big part of finding that comfortable space is the company you keep out on the buoy. The crew and vibe on this day is amazing, with the banter setting the platform for high fives and PBs all around in both constant weight and free immersion.
James - Free Immersion
Another major component to free diving is conserving energy and oxygen by free falling to depth as you become negatively buoyant. This feeling of weightlessness, this “glide” is like wearing an underwater wing suit and flying into the depths. It also has to be one of the coolest parts of free diving. One can only imagine what its like doing it for 100m.
The afternoon is spent in theory and general knowledge transfer based on Adam’s experience, facts and a bit of bro science. Equalisation is the main issue and to help things we go through a training exercise where you do a CO2 table with your tongue sticking out. It strengthens the vocal flap while also simulating a dog choking on a chicken bone. If the ice wasn’t broken within the group yet – it was then.
Excellent day and if the training and trip had ended here I would have been happy but this is deep week, not deep long weekend!
Day 4 - 31.7m
The morning is spent doing a fun dive on the “Japanese” wreck at Banyuning. I use commas as very little is actually known about the wreck or where it came from. The assumption that it was Japanese comes from the wreck having an Asian style toilet. Either way, the name stuck. The dive site itself is quite shallow and compact which lead to a bit of elbow rubbing and fin dodging with the crowd. It’s still a fun session out and a little exploring down the drop off, reveals some surprising species in good size. Perhaps an indication of the importance the locals now place on preserving diving integrity over fishing to keep the dollars flowing in.
Freediving traffic on the "Japanese" wreck
Afternoon and time to dive again! The gang are back together but this time on the 40m line. Perhaps it was the mental leap of moving to that depth or the fatigue of 4 solid days of diving but the crew are all finding it hard work today. Diving is definitely a momentum thing and today is just not the day for some of us.
Day 5 – Rest day 15.9m
A FAD from below
It’s a down day to rest and recuperate. Some of the group climb the mighty Mt Agung and others just chill out. A couple of us head out to the FADS (Fish Aggregating Device) for a half-day of spear fishing. The FADs are anchored rafts made from bamboo that create structure in the middle of the ocean. This structure acts like an island attracting small fish, which then attracts bigger fish etc and eventually us. It’s a pretty surreal experience, drifting around these oases of the deep, the bottomless blue, miles away from land.
Arthur Kudla with a terrific Cobia
Day 6 – 40.2m – new PB
We start the day with a stretching session focused on increasing elasticity in the muscle groups central to diving and breath holding. It feels good to get some of the kinks out and flex the rib cage before the morning dive session.
Adam’s instructions at the buoys are simple, “do your warm-up hangs, then straight to the bottom!” - It’s a galvanising call to arms… which is cut short for myself with an equalisation issue at 16m during my second hang. Not a great start but a very slow ascent seems to help clear things.
On the next rotation, I do my breathe up and focusing on the equalisation, I begin to fin down. So focused on equalisation, that I forget about relaxing or gliding and simply power down as far as I can equalise. At 35.9m and back in 1:19, its a new PB but not quite the way I wanted it. It’s also not the bottom.
Next rotation, I aim to slow it down to conserve energy and work the mouth fill equalisation. It doesn’t go to plan and I turn at 31.4m and a belly of air.
No worries, the vibe is good on the buoy. Next rotation and I feel really relaxed during my breathe-up, I do my turn and fin down to 20m before letting the glide take over. Drifting down as a loose, fluid and inert blob to the bottom weight. Its almost perfect and I return to the surface fresh and pumped after the 1:51 dive. While its not good to focus on numbers – I would be lying, if I didn’t say that my goal this week was to get to 40m.
Bottom weight of the 40m line
The afternoon is taken up with a theory session to discuss training methodologies, schedules and general troubleshooting. Equalisation as ever is a key topic.
Goal achieved – super chuffed.
Day 7 – 24m
The USAT Liberty is a US Army cargo ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese Submarine in WWII. It lays in 5-24m of water and a mere 40m from the shore. With its concentration of colourful sea life and structural swim throughs its easy to see why its probably the premier wreck dive in all of Bali. Its an absolute blast to dive and drop next to the various scuba tours on nothing but a lung full of air.
Sitting on the stern of the USAT Libtery. Photo: Millsy Mills
That afternoon, we move onto the safety requisites for the course. Which in our case, is a recovery of Adam from the bottom at just over 20m. Followed by resuscitation and then a swim (drag) to shore. Its an important lesson, not only for the certification but for our own ongoing diving and safety development.
Safety diver on standby
Day 8 – 36.7m
Final day. The last opportunity to put it all into practise and discover new limits. There are some amazing dives done by our group and the other buoys. Unfortunately, my left ear equalisation makes the decision for me and while anticlimactic in a way, as I hang and enjoy the view at 36.7m, I can only feel pleased with the overall experience and reaching my original goal of 40m.
The last afternoon wrap is a pool session to cover the dynamic apnea components of the PADI master course. After a solid 8 days diving, the 70m dynamic is a breeze through and the entire group are straight into the Bintangs - the first of many (man) that evening.
It is a great sign-off to an incredible week. A week, which offered a unique opportunity to learn and progress under expert tutelage with like minded divers from across the world. To get to dive deeper than ever before and also meet some great people along the way. Big shout out to Adam Stern for the expertise, Adam Sellars for being a legend, even if he gets airports confused, Arthur Kudla for being a mad spearo like me, Kev Henry and the team at Fusion for sorting everything. Already looking forward to the next episode of "Deep Week" whenever that may be.
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.