I Am Water: learning To Free-Dive In Petit St Vincent

By HOWARD SWAINS The WEEK

It is early evening one recent Wednesday on the Caribbean island of Petit St Vincent and we’re sitting on a deck beneath the bleeding sun discussing the concept of “relaxing into discomfort”. It is not an obvious topic. For most visitors to Petit St Vincent, relaxing into near-total comfort is very much the order of the day.

The resort makes a feature of its lack of connectivity. There are no TVs, while wifi is only available in a few spots. However, running a yellow flag up the pole outside your cottage will have one of the army of servers at your door, carrying food, drink or whatever else takes your fancy. Hoist the red flag for privacy, and you’re master of your own domain.

I Am Water

Marshall’s partner is Hanli Prinsloo, a South African former professional free-diver, who can dive unaided to depths of more than 60 metres and stay submerged for around six minutes. Prinsloo is as close as this world has to a mermaid: she is an astonishingly graceful presence underwater and has swum up close with almost all of the ocean’s most magnificent creatures.

Marshall has taken dazzling photos of Prinsloo drifting alongside enormous manta rays, gambolling with cetaceans and hanging out with hammerheads. A pod of pilot whales once trusted her as one of their own and recruited her as a babysitter to mind their nursery of infants.

The guiding ethos is that you protect what you love, and I Am Water plays persuasive matchmaker between human and the ocean.

Both Prinsloo and Marshall have encyclopaedic knowledge of all underwater life, and are committed to its preservation amid the well-publicised issues of over-fishing, climate change and pollution, and the disruption to fragile ecosystems that all are known to hasten.

A few hours listening to tales of the deep can offer a convincing enough education, but when coupled with first-hand experience of the marine wonderland, the pair can create disciples (and donors) for life.

PSV itself is now part of the process, and the collaboration with I Am Water is part of the resort’s commitment to help stop whale hunting in the Caribbean.

Petit St Vincent has its own diving centre, established by Jacques Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel and still bearing the family name.

It is close to one of the world’s Marine Protected Areas, essentially the underwater equivalent of a National Park, where the environment is closely monitored and wildlife can thrive. We are kitted with fins and then we borrow one of the diving centre’s boats and a captain to head out to an area of quiet ocean to take the plunge for the first time.

The basics of free-diving — hold your breath and head downward — have been practised for centuries among the subsistence fishermen of any number of ocean-dependent civilisations. Latterly it became a competitive sport, with new marks regularly being set for depth and duration, expanding even medical understanding of the limits of the human body.

For us, at least at the start, few world records are being challenged. Instead, we require a weight attached by rope to a buoy floating on the surface and the encouragement of Prinsloo and Marshall to haul ourselves down, hand-over-hand, head first.

On our first dive we see a couple of nurse sharks and a spectacular spotted eagle ray, and are reliably surrounded by the shoals of brightly coloured fishes that transport us to the middle of a Pixar movie.

I find myself taking my responsibilities as a diving buddy incredibly seriously, watching hawk-like as my partner goes in search of sub-aquatic escapades, before it’s his turn to hover at the surface and regain his breath as my nervous dives become gradually longer and more adventurous.

Our diving skills grow stronger through our sessions in the water, which are punctuated by yoga and massages back on dry land, as well as fine dining and endlessly fascinating conversation with Prinsloo and Marshall.

On our final day, we take PSV’s sloop “Beauty” on a 90-minute voyage towards Tobago Cays, the smallest inhabited island in the Grenadines, where we’ve been told that “If you don’t see turtles, you aren’t looking.” Thus tempted, we all look intently.

The collaboration with I AM WATER is part of Petit St Vincent’s commitment to help stop whale hunting in the Caribbean. For more information visit iamwaterfoundation.org or iamwateroceantravel.com.

All diving photographs, including top image, © Peter Marshall.