When the Ocean Provides

Free diving feels like you become one with the sea life

Practicing free diving in Klein Curacao.

I left South Africa four years ago, sold everything I had and bought a sailboat and set on a quest to find beautiful sunsets, inspiring people, distant shores and seafood. I did not realise I would be immersed into the world of freediving and allowing the ocean to provide for me. My free diving journey began in Curacao, close to Venezuela – a Dutch island that forms part of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). Free diving is different to scuba diving and with 200 scuba dives under my belt I prefer freediving, it feels like you become one with the sea life down there – time stands still but your lungs remind you that time is ticking. If you want to learn more about this underwater pursuit and prepare for your first freediving experience, read on.

Freediving is where you go underwater diving with no tank, you simply hold your breath for as long as you can until you return to the surface. At first, free diving can be quite daunting and it takes a lot of practice to be able to dive down to 15 metres and stay there for a while, as you can only travel as far as the air in your lungs will take you. Make sure you have the following before you actually go freediving – freediving fins, speargun and diving goggles. From my experience, the correct freediving fins will get you down deeper and googles help you see better as there is no time for clearing a mask or struggling to see through a fogged up lens – down there every millisecond count.

The more energy you exert the shorter you will be able to stay down there.

Stefan Heiberg

Start by practising holding your breath and remaining calm under water. The more energy you exert the shorter you will be able to stay down there. If you can practice to swim down slowly and make as little as possible movements with your body then you are on the right track. Start in shallow waters – less 10 metres and decent slowly, each time going down deeper and staying under longer. Once you can hold your breath and have mastered the technique you can take in your surroundings and try spot some fish or whatever you can find that is worth taking out for a feast. After some practice, you stay there for awhile, you start exploring finding fish, lobster or crab, shooting or catching it and still having enough air in your lungs to get back up. You could even begin stalking the fish – one can easily lose track of time.

Free diving for Lionfish in Venezuela

My free diving adventures led me to Las Aves Island in Venezuela, where I was spoiled for choice. These islands have more than enough sea life available to not leave you hungry. In any location, it’s important to adhere to the quota on the quantities allowed and know which species are legal and illegal. Unlike South Africa, there are places in the world, like Venezuela which have no regulation and it is up to the diver to decide what is a healthy catch. As a Primal Provider for Catch Cook, we live and breathe the motto: Limit your catch, don’t catch your limit. If I know I will be sailing for a few days non-stop, I might pickle some fish or catch the extra few lobsters to eat on passage. Usually I will take out only enough for a meal or two, it keeps going back into the water to practice my free diving technique.

In the Caribbean there is Lionfish everywhere – it’s considered a pest here and is often hunted in competitions. It’s not a difficult fish to hunt as they have no predators hunting them, they don’t scare easily which makes for an easy kill. They hang out in pairs and you can get quite close to them as they hover in one spot. Coming from South Africa I had never seen, let alone eaten a Lionfish before and the locals taught me how to clean them. So what you do is cut off the spikes with a pair of scissors and then when the coast is clear you fillet them. Lionfish is the best fish I have ever tasted in my life! My favourite used to be a fresh piece of Big Eye Tuna or fresh Dorado, but I was hooked on Lionfish hunting and I made everything from Lionfish burgers, Lionfish curry to Lionfish ceviche and my favourite was a Lionfish fillet baked in butter and lemon juice. This photo was taken during a Lionfish competition as they had completely taken over the reef and started killing most fish species. We were allowed to use scuba gear as the reef was about 28 metres deep and this was the biggest I saw and shot. 

Be very careful when hunting Lionfish, you must know that if one of those stingers get you, you will be in agony for 3 to 4 hours. I got stung by one not paying attention and it was most certainly the most excruciating pain I have ever endured in my entire life. My arm swelled up and It felt like a wasp kept stinging in one spot for hours – It was on fire. So what do you do when a Lionfish stings you? Well there are many different theories out there online and this remedy worked for me. After I was stung I immediately squeezed around the sting as hard as I could to get any poison out. I was crawling with pain and squeezed – I’m not sure if this was a good strategy but somehow I think it helped along with two strong painkillers on the boat. The tips and treatment I suggest here should prove helpful to anyone unfortunate enough to be stung by the spines of a lionfish. Heat water up, so hot that you can barely put your hand in it. The hot water breaks down the peptides and proteins in the venom, so the pain does not last so long. Soak your hand (or where you got stung) in the boiling water. Repeat this until the pain starts to subside. It took about an hour and a half for the pain to be manageable for me, which is half the time people record their pain to last without using hot water. 

Like what you see here? You can read more great articles by Stefan Heiberg on his facebook page The Paper Boat Project.

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