ENCINITAS — What could you do in one breath?
In the span of a single inhale and exhale, free diver Brady Bradshaw descended 51 meters (about the height of a 17-story building) below the surface of the water and then resurfaced two minutes and five seconds later. That was his deepest dive to date.
Bradshaw’s longest free dive was two minutes and 40 seconds, and on land he has demonstrated that he can hold his breath for five minutes and 50 seconds.
Free divers like to say that they dive to look within, while scuba divers dive to look around.
Like Bradshaw, those who rely on the physiology-defying ability to hold the breath and surrender to the ocean’s pressure find a zen state that keeps compelling them back to the depths.
To understand the sensation of free diving, Bradshaw explained how the lungs compress during the descent and that around a depth of 15 meters, the buoyancy of his body gives way to increased atmospheric pressure, allowing him to sink rapidly. This is called the free fall. At the same time, blood moves from the extremities to the core, and the heart rate slows in a process called bradycardia — a name that makes Brady smile.
Around 30 meters below the ocean’s surface in the San Diego area, the water becomes dark. Sometimes the only thing Bradshaw can see is the dive line, and the only sound — as he descends faster and faster — is his hand running down that line.
Bradshaw said the dark, quiet state of the water “melds” with a relaxed, meditative state of the mind and body for what he described as the “best feeling in the world” and the “perfect opportunity for total surrender.”
Bradshaw lives in Encinitas, works for the environmental nonprofit Oceana and free dives twice a week off La Jolla Shores. About one-quarter mile from the shore there is a canyon about 50 meters deep, providing the perfect spot for diving. Sea lions occasionally swim underwater alongside Bradshaw and his friends.
But like other extreme sports, such as big-wave surfing or climbing daunting peaks, free diving comes with risks. Bradshaw, for instance, is currently recovering from a tear in his trachea brought on by what’s called a “squeeze,” which results from the pressure of going too deep too fast without first being adapted to that depth. He’s refraining from diving for four weeks until his trachea heals.
Bradshaw once blacked out — a common risk brought on by a lack of oxygen — during a free diving competition in a pool. In those competitions, participants swim as far underwater as they can in one breath. Bradshaw attributes his blackout to being too competitive that day and not relaxed or in sync with his body.
At the extreme end, people have died from free diving, including the female phenom Natalia Molchanova, who was hailed as the greatest free diver in the history of the sport. In 2015 off the coast of Spain, Molchanova went down for a dive of her own after giving lessons to a wealthy Russian. She never surfaced. It’s possible that if Molchanova had been with another experienced diver that she might have been saved.
“Free diving is not dangerous if it’s done in the right way,” Bradshaw said. One of the top safety rules is to always dive with an experienced partner who functions as a safety.
“We can get obsessed with the depth” and about setting records, Bradshaw noted. He said it’s important to rein in the ego and realize that “it takes a long time for the body to adapt to a new depth.”
As a trained and frequent practitioner of yoga — with the om symbol tattooed on his right palm — Bradshaw explained how a person doing yoga can increase his or her range of motion over time as the muscles stretch and strengthen. He compared that process to free diving and said the nervous and circulatory systems require proper training, too. Bradshaw also stressed that “the body’s limits change day to day,” which is important to stay attuned to.
Before diving, Bradshaw likes to float on his back and look at the sky to get into a calm state. “If I’m too competitive with myself, it doesn’t work,” he said. He likes to keep his diving style as natural as possible, using fins only and no weights.
During dives, he’ll have fears that he pushes from his mind. Bradshaw laughed, recalling how he’s occasionally wondered if a shark was swimming nearby in the dark. “I also felt panicked the first time I dove to 51 meters. I looked up at the blackness, saw only the line in front of me, and wondered what have I done? Did I do something I can’t get out of?” That feeling reminded him of times he’d been mid-air on his skateboard and doubted whether he could land the jump safely.
But as Bradshaw sees it, “Panic is not an option. It’s physiologically discouraged because you need the oxygen.” He has worked to untrain the panic response and sees free diving as a “sanctuary and total reset. I come up and everything’s all good.”
One could call Bradshaw a free diving devotee. In 2015, he withdrew from graduate school in Australia to pursue his newfound and rapidly escalating passion for free driving, brought on initially by reading the book “Deep” by James Nestor and diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
Nestor describes the marine mammal diving reflex that relies, in part, on bradycardia and the blood shift from the extremities to the heart, lungs and brain. Free divers utilize those same mechanisms, which, it turns out, are also inherent to humans.
In fact, newborn babies up until about 6 months of age exhibit the diving reflex. Put them under water and they’ll naturally hold their breath and open their eyes. Their heart rate will slow to conserve oxygen, and blood will primarily circulate to the vital organs, where it is most needed. According to an article in Live Science, that “instinct may be a vestige of our ancient marine origins.”
For someone who was studying marine mammals at the time, this connection between humans and marine mammals was fascinating and pulled Bradshaw away from the textbook and into the water.
While Bradshaw says his ego wants to win a competition and set a record, “which might be in reach in a pool,” his ultimate goal is to teach people to free dive. “I want to show people the capability of their own bodies,” which he compared to “magic.”
Bradshaw also hopes that anyone who experienced the beauty of silence while deep in the sea would want to protect and preserve our marine environments.