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Mission 2020: The Dive Industry’s Challenge to Eliminate Single-use Plastics

If you’ve been active in the dive industry over the last two years, and/or bought any of Fourth Element’s uber-divewear, you’ve no doubt heard of Mission 2020. Now quick, answer me this: What the heck is Mission 2020? Who’s behind it? What are they hoping to achieve? Ha! Thought so! Yes, it has something to do with conservation. Here InDepth editor Amanda White sits down with hyperbaric pied piper Fourth Element founder Paul Strike to get the deets. Hint: It’s all about the plastic, and the entire dive industry (well almost) has gotten involved.

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By Amanda White

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Almost two years after the announcement of the Mission 2020 Pledge, nearly 200 dive industry organizations and businesses have pledged to do their part to reduce their company’s impact on aquatic environments. 

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Mission 2020 is a collection of pledges from organizations in the diving industry to change their business practices in order to help protect and preserve our oceans for the future. The primary focus of the pledge is to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic before World Oceans Day in 2020. Plastic is an issue that is at the forefront of a lot of consumers minds.  Scientists from the nonprofit advocacy group “5 Gyres” found there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while almost four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. 

 Mission 2020 was founded by UK-based dive garment company, Fourth Element in hopes of combating their contribution to the growing plastic problem. We caught up with 4E co-founder Paul Strike who is in charge of product development to see what the state of Mission 2020 is now.

How did Mission 2020 come about?

Paul Strike:

Jim [Standing] and I had a number of conversations at the 2017 DEMA tradeshow about doing something for the environment. A couple of months later we were discussing it [Mission 2020]  again and came up with an idea: Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could actually encourage other people, other companies, to join us and do something that would make a difference? That’s how Mission 2020, as the industry knows it, was born.  It’s not about Fourth Element, but about developing an industry initiative that will allow all of us to speak with one voice.

Jim Standing (Left) Paul Strike (Right) founders of Fourth Element and Mission 2020. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

So it would have more power than just a single company behind it?

Yes, that kind of combined effect of having a number of companies: actually, in fact, a whole range of people and businesses and brands, dive centers, and organizations involved in the scuba diving industry, all coming together with one common cause– to do something positive for the ocean. There are nearly 200 entities that have made a pledge to effect change under that Mission 2020 heading. We are an industry that enjoys the ocean and makes a living off of it, so it’s in our best interest not to screw up our playground.

A strong and powerful message is being presented by the diving industry through Mission 2020. It could be the only and is certainly the first industry in the world to take some kind of combined, unified stance on this, one that is sending a strong message to consumers and other businesses. 

Why did Fourth Element choose to focus on single-use plastics?

Well, think about how much plastic is involved in packaging a pair of scuba fins. And that’s a big, relatively heavy-duty plastic bag with a plastic carry handle that sometimes clips together. And I suppose it would be interesting to find out how many pairs of fins are sold in scuba diving. You know, that’s probably hundreds of thousands, isn’t it? And that’s just one product! It’s scary. That is just a huge amount of plastic. The magnitude of these plastic stats and of what’s going on globally is just… It’s mind-boggling. It’s so huge, the impact, it’s almost a bit like when people are talking about distant planets; it’s very difficult to get your head around it because it’s too big.

Thankfully, it’s something that so many people are talking about and obviously not just in the dive industry. You can’t seem to turn on the TV without there being something about plastic. Thankfully, there are lots and lots of companies changing things. But equally scarily, there are lots of companies that don’t seem to be making any changes. 

What are you changing in order to reach your Mission 2020 goals?

Jim and I are both equally committed to trying to achieve these goals. The whole company is behind this mission. From the people designing and creating the clothing to those packing and dispatching it everyone in the company is behind this. 

With hand on heart, we couldn’t promote an environmentally positive product, something that’s been made from recycled nylon, and then put it in a plastic bag. Obviously, on one hand, we were doing something that was in some way beneficial, while on the other hand, completely eradicating it. So that made us look more carefully at the packaging. And we have found various, or we have tried various means to package our Ocean Positive swimwear, ways that would be without the use of plastic right down to the Kimball tags and everything.

That’s your swimwear line made from recycled ghost finishing net right? 

Yes. 

Fishing net removeal. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

[Note: In 2009 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that there were approximately 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets in the oceans, accounting for one-tenth of all marine litter.]

What is your timeframe?

Our deadline, our self-imposed deadline, is the World Oceans Day in 2020, by which time our ambition is to be single-use plastic-free from all of our packaging. And it will have taken us the better part of two years to get there. It’s not just a linear progression. We’ve made some leaps ahead, and we’ve changed quite a lot of things already. By the end of this year, we should be almost there, if not all the way there [single-use plastic free]. But I suspect we may have one or two little nuggety ones to solve in the early part of 2020. 

And I think again, that’s the sort of message I’d like to put out there to everyone: as much as we all need to change our behavior to reduce the waste of single-use plastic, I think it’s unrealistic to expect individuals and/or companies to change everything overnight and some immediate changes may not be the perfect solution, but steps along the way to achieving a perfect solution and a necessary part of the process.  

What are some of the difficulties 4E faced in achieving their plastic-free goals?

I mean there are so many variations, there are so many things to consider in this process. Everybody will have their own challenges, ones that are specific to their company structure and their supply chain. So it’s a multilayered, multi-complex challenge and a huge problem to resolve.

For us, it’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, it’s challenging. Unfortunately, the plastic bag is so good at what it does in terms of protecting a product. It’s clear; you can see the product through the bag. It’s cheap. It’s waterproof, just to name some of the beneficial characteristics of a plastic bag. And it’s incredibly good at doing what you actually want it to do. 

The major downfall is that it stays around for hundreds and hundreds of years afterwards. And of course, we’ve seen the result of that in waterways around the world and horrible wildlife footage where you see whales that have been cut open with thousands of these bags inside of them. So trying to find a product, or safe products, that actually replicate the plastic bag is challenging.

What kind of replacements have you found so far?

One of the ways 4E is packaging their merchandise. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

We have investigated and used bags that are made from vegetable-based or plant-based material. And that works pretty well for a lot of products, for a lot of situations. But it has some limitations. And unfortunately, it’s not a kind of one-stop-shop of going, “oh great, we’ve got a replacement for the plastic bag! However, we do have a plastic bag type thing made from plant material which biodegrades, and it actually will break down in the water, and it can be eaten by a turtle and it doesn’t kill them. It can be digested by sea life. But unfortunately, it has its challenges with temperature, and it can get brittle, and sometimes it can crack. So it doesn’t achieve all of what we need it to achieve. 

We’ve used paper bags, we are increasingly using paper bags for our T-shirts, which we then need to label very clearly. And so then, of course, we need to look at a paper-based sticker that is using a glue that is non-toxic. And that’s another little problem to solve.

Paper packaging for t-shirts from 4E. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

Every step of the way there seems to be another step or two related to it which is something that needs to be resolved or something that needs to be overcome; whereas your plastic bag is so damn simple. And that is the fundamental problem. 

So are there companies working on these problems?

There are companies that are taking the technology a bit further, there are better solutions every day. We are constantly looking at these because we haven’t found the ultimate solution, and they work for some products and not others. Sometimes there are size limitations to what’s possible and sometimes there are cost limitations to what is possible as well. So there are magnitudes of scale and economy like that, which can get quite scary from a cost point of view.

The other challenge is sifting through the actual science, the real science, behind the bags. Because a lot of the bags that are coming out, or at least some, will biodegrade. But they don’t necessarily biodegrade into biomaterial. They biodegrade into small particles of plastic, which is not what we want. The bag ceases to become a bag and it breaks down into little bits of plastic, but that really doesn’t solve the problem at all. 

So, not every solution you’ve found solves the problem?

That one solves some element of the problem, that it’s less of a hazard to marine life. But the little bits of plastic will end up getting into the water table and will get into rivers and then end up being flushed out to the ocean. It’s the same way that the microfilaments that washed out of your fabric or your garments when you put them through a domestic washing machine, you’ve got the same fundamental problem there. These little microfilaments of plastic. So it’s pointless replacing a plastic bag with a bag that just breaks down into tiny bits of plastic. So you have got to be careful with regard to what types of solutions you find.

Tags for 4E shirts in stores. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

There are some real challenges, and they all take time. But we are getting there. And I think what is really encouraging, and we’re not saying that we’ve solved this problem, but the more little steps that we all take toward achieving the sort of endgame of eliminating single-use plastic, the more solutions that become apparent in the process.

Nice! How do you feel about industry participation in Mission 2020? Has it been well received by the dive industry?

I looked through the list again today to see who has signed up. And I feel really heartened by the fact that a significant number of brands and companies have jumped on board with it and made their commitment to do something different in order to benefit the ocean environment. Obviously, we make quite a few competitive products to some of the brands but it’s really been encouraging to see who has come on board. It’s fantastic that they are seeing the bigger picture.

We’ve got PADI. It was fantastic to get PADI on board. They exert so much influence in the world of diving generally, and they’ve encouraged a lot of their dive centers throughout the world to consider getting involved. GUE has already signed up and is doing the same. It’s fantastic to get major training agencies on board. That creates a great deal of influence amongst the diving industry, the diving market, and people who are involved in diving. 

A lot of dive centers have also become involved. We’ve got dive centers that have signed up from Bali to the USA to the UK, virtually globally, and have made a commitment to doing things differently. I’m not exactly sure of the density in the areas that are the most significantly represented, but I was really quite encouraged by how widespread this has actually become. 

What challenges do you face with improving the sustainability of your products? 

The neoprene that we use in our wetsuits contains between 15 to 20% recycled material from car tires. So it’s an effective recycling process of car tires where 85 % of the car tire is recycled, and the black rubber material is integrated, or is used in the production of the neoprene and accounts for between 15 and 20% of the neoprene that is used in our suits. So again, it’s not the end game, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

There is a huge amount of investment going into the reuse and recycle-ability of neoprene. And it may be that the endgame or the ambition of recycling neoprene wetsuits to make more neoprene wetsuits is probably a long, long way off because of the nature of the neoprene once it’s been laminated with the linings inside and out and stitched together etc. And then in order to recycle that material, that suit, there are many processes involved.

And that is one of the biggest impediments and a huge challenge to any recycling process, for when you have mixed materials and mixed construction, it becomes much more challenging to recycle that product. It’s almost impossible to separate different forms of plastic because they have different properties. So that is something, again, in this whole manufacturing process that we’re thinking more about. Like, what we can do to make the product easier to recycle at the end of its life? That’s another thing, going back to wetsuits, I think it’s much more realistic to think of neoprene wetsuits getting recycled for repurposing not as neoprene wetsuits anymore but something else that perhaps requires material similar to neoprene. 

How about with your clothing? 

Well, basically certain garments shed little microfibers more than others. And it often depends upon how tight-knit that fabric is. And you have a traditional fleece, and the fluffy surface is created by brushing loops, knotted loops of polyester, usually, and breaking them and splitting them and fluffing them up, shall we say. Now that obviously damages these loops and it breaks them and consequently, that is then more susceptible to little fragments breaking off in the washing process. So if you had a garment with the same composition but it’s tightly knitted and hasn’t been brushed, then it sheds fewer filaments. 

So a rash guard and swimwear, by the nature of their construction, will shed many, many fewer filaments than a fleece that has been brushed significantly to create a fluffy, soft-feeling texture. Also, there is some evidence that at least suggests that the better the quality of the knit or the better the quality of the fabric, by and large, there is a reduction in the number of filaments that are lost because the knitting process is  higher-quality, is a more secure knitting and in effect the garment doesn’t shed its yarn quite as easily. I’m afraid I’ve become a self-confessed fabric geek. I know more about fabric and knitting than I ever wished to know really.

What are the future plans after Mission 2020 has “ended”?

Obviously continued commitment to do what we can do, and hopefully, we will have eliminated single-use plastic from our packaging. I’m pretty confident that we will have achieved that. And part of the Mission 2020 statement is also about our continued quest for using recycled materials in our product range and looking for alternatives to harmful plastics. Some of our products use waterproofing technology which is less chemically toxic. The water runoff is cleaner. 

We are actively working with fabric producing fabric knitters that are investing in more sustainable processes in their business. So, basically we will continue to choose a supply chain that minimizes environmental impact over ones that are carrying on as normal, shall we say. It’s about the plastic, in effect, but it’s also about the bigger picture. Therefore, we will continue to invest in and develop less impactful processes in the supply chain and production of our products.

Do you have hope for the future? 

Obviously as we are all very aware, elimination of the single-use plastic is a global issue and I’m excited by going online and finding that there’s been a new breakthrough with this or somebody’s investigating this or come up with a technology that may not be the end game, but it’s improving and it’s making progress. We shouldn’t feel like we’ve failed because we haven’t gotten to the end game straightaway.

And what the great thing about all these things is that the more that companies actually look for these products, the more there are manufacturers and companies starting up, creating and selling products to replace plastics. When we started, there seemed to be only one viable option available. I’m sure it wasn’t one, but we found there were very few options in terms of getting something that was like a plastic bag, but not plastic. And now there seem to be more and more alternatives springing up every month.

What about consumers? There are an estimated 500 billion single-use plastic bags used each year by shoppers. 

Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

Ultimately, it comes down to consumers because they are one of the most powerful drivers, from a company’s perspective, as we all know. The movement depends on them. Once consumers become aware, take a stand, and actually change their behavior, companies will have to come around. If a company experiences a decline in the sale of a product because aware consumers see little to no effort toward reducing or ending single-use plastic, the company will have to make changes. 

And I suppose this is almost a kind of plea or mandate to consumers to think about your choices. Of course, if it costs more to buy the environmental product. And some people may be lucky enough to be able to do that, but many people aren’t. However, we are finding that the price difference between an environmentally friendlier product, whether it’s the way it’s packaged or the way the materials are used, is getting narrower.

As for Mission 2020, it would be great to see the dive industry as a whole adopt this challenge. 
Global Underwater Explorers has made a Mission 2020 pledge. At GUE, we pledge to launch an annual GUE Cleanup Event. We feel we can have the greatest impact by utilizing our network of divers in a worldwide cleanup of our waters. We hope to power our office with solar in the near future, will continue to recycle, and eliminate any single-use plastic from our products.


Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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Deep Into DEEP WEEK

Aussie GUE tech and cave diver turned freediver Dean Laffan takes us deep into breath-hold culture at one of the premier freediving camps on the planet. Welcome to DEEP WEEK! Are you ready to stretch, meditate, do yoga, hold your breath, go underwater and dive as deep as you can go? Take a deep breath and click here.

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by Dean Laffan

It’s almost 1:00 am as my taxi from Denpasar airport bumps to a stop at my warung in the sleepy little town of Amed, in the North-East coast of Bali, Indonesia. A ‘warung’ is your typical Balinese locally owned accommodation, often with an attached restaurant, all run by the family. Amed is far from the picture of a typical Australian Balinese holiday which is usually centred around the tourist mecca party towns like Kuta or Canguu. Arriving in Amed is like visiting the United States bypassing LA and New York and heading straight to small-town USA; a Balinese version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. 

The three-hour taxi ride follows a six-hour flight from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Everything I need for this trip to Bali is contained my single freediving gear bag. As a tech and cave diver, I still chuckle every time I pack my freediving bag. ‘Now let me see what do I need? Fins, booties, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, weight belt and … err what else?  Well no that’s it! Cave diving this isn’t.


Jemaluk Bay and the town of Amed.

My room is ridiculously awesome. It is literally on the beach and the sliding glass doors face east out over the waters of Jemaluk Bay. I lay on the bed with my doors wide open, breathing in the warm Balinese air with the sounds of the waves washing gently onto the black volcanic sands of the beach. 

As I fall asleep I’m still in disbelief I’m even here. Six weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of Amed and did not know where it was. So what am I even doing here? Though I’ve been a tech diver, a cave diver, I’m here to learn freediving from the best instructors in the world for a training camp called “Deep Week.” There are 80 students and 40 accompanying instructors here in Amed and we are here because of one man, an internet phenomenon named Adam Stern


Lucky they don’t have a super tide in Amed, or I’d need to sleep with a twinset.

How To Make Deep Dives and Influence People

Adam is an Aussie from the New South Wales central coast, but he spends a lot of his time offshore in various tropical locales around the globe either running his freediving courses or competing in the various global freediving championships. He is the current Australian Champion in Constant Weight which means diving on a monofin up and down. He also scored a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2017 with a personal best (PB) dive to 106m/348ft. As he jokingly says in the introduction to some of his videos; “Hi, my name is Adam Stern. I hold my breath and dive really deep.”  Funny and true. He’s seriously good.

In mid-2016, Adam began to upload various YouTube videos on freediving, sometimes of his own dives in competition, but he quickly started to build a library of useful ‘how-to’ videos for beginner freedivers. Tips like how to Frenzel equalise, how to ‘breathe up’ prior to diving, dry training tips etc. 

When you watch him you instantly get his appeal. He is highly engaging, projecting endless levels of energy and fun, with a famously distinctive giggle. His laid-back delivery and loveable character combined with the highly insightful tips and hints he dispenses have made him a global superstar in the booming sport of freediving. 

Let me throw a couple of numbers at you so you understand his astounding social media reach. When I first started to think about this article in mid-June, Adam had 70,000 YouTube subscribers, but now at the time of writing this piece only a month later, he has already grown to 80,000+ subscribers on YouTube, plus another staggering 167,000 followers on Instagram. But to be clear, his social media profile is not a result of him chasing ‘Likes’ but rather grown organically because he has ‘paid it forward’ and the community has responded.

Dean and Adam.

By comparison, GUE’s own YouTube channel has just over 5,000 subscribers, TDI/SDI  has just over 3,000 and PADI has 36,000. I’ll just let that sink in for a while. A kinda goofy, but highly likeable Aussie guy who makes his how-to videos in his backyard, shot and edited by his amazing wife Erin on the niche sport of freediving, has more than double the digital footprint of an industry behemoth and marketing powerhouse like PADI. 

As another comparison, the current world championing in Free Immersion and Constant Weight (Monofin) the much loved and highly respected Alexey Molchanov has only 1,300 subscribers to his own YouTube channel. The landscape of elite freediving is a pretty small club, Adam and Alexey are great mates. Indeed Deep Week is run under the Molchanov School banner.  So you would assume Adam must be doing something right and I’m here to tell you, he certainly is at that. Adam has done a brilliant job of building what Seth Godin calls ‘the tribe,’ a passionate group of followers who loves what he does and can’t get enough.

It Takes A Village

Over the next 24 hrs, I am slowly joined by my fellow students from literally all over the world. A few Americans but a veritable United Nations pile into Amed. Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian, Australian, New Zealanders, Middle Eastern, South African, French, Greek, Italian, Croatian, Belgian, you name a country and there’s probably one of them here. It’s my first time meeting a real live person from the home of Genghis Khan, Mongolia!   

Before long we are all ready to begin the latest of Adam Stern’s famous Deep Week training camp. Oh and to further boggle your mind I am in the second Deep Week for this month, the previous one booked out within days, also with 80 students, forcing Adam to scramble and put in a second course. So, in less than a month, Adam has run 160 students through his week-long freediving program. A staggering number, especially considering he does four or five Deep Weeks per year. So annually the total numbers are around 400 students per annum.

One of Adam’s popular ideas has been to have a special guest instructor at each Deep Week. In the one just before my own course, it was the Croatian powerhouse of the pool, Goran Colak. In my week, it is the superb French National Champion Thibault Guignes. More on Thibault and his incredible teachings later. In November of this year, again in Amed, Adam will host the undeniable Weapon of Mass Destruction in global freediving, the incredible no-fins World Champion and record holder William Truebridge. 

So at each Deep Week, it’s like learning Formula 1 from Lewis Hamilton, film directing from Ron Howard or dare I say, cave diving from Jarrod Jablonski!  It’s mind-boggling that basic freedivers can access such world champions for training. And all the instructors work their butts off, both in the water and out. They are available at any time for in-depth questions on all aspects of freediving.

Hippy Hippy Shake

As a GUE tech and cave diver, I cannot emphasise strongly enough what a different vibe, freediving is to what I was used to in compressed gas diving. By its nature, freediving tends to draw a certain kind of character. I would guess that 80% of freedivers are practising either meditation or yoga. Yoga is highly beneficial to achieving the sort of relaxed state you need to attain to successfully free dive. 

There is a definite ‘hippy’ vibe in the community, which are mostly younger people in their 20s and 30s, and in a major counterpoint to the tech diving community, easily half of the students are women. Furthermore, whilst you can skate a bit in terms of fitness when you have essentially limitless gas in big tanks or a rebreather, you cannot escape the need for good physical fitness in freediving. By nature, the sport self-selects to fit, healthy, motivated individuals. You simply cannot go very far, or deep if you are overweight, a smoker or are overly fond of beer. 

FANTASTIC SHORT VIDEO ON DEEP WEEK PRODUCED BY JOURNALIST ASHLEI PAYNE OF TRACING THOUGHT.

Our time here during the course is split between two locations. On the beachfront is the freediving school and café called Apneista. All our shore dives begin here. Up the hill about 2km along the narrow blacktop, you come to the stunning facility called Blue Earth. Some students walk, but many rent a local motor scooter for US$4/day and use that to get around as many of the restaurants and other facilities are sprawled out along the coast road which runs for several kms. 

Blue Earth is one of the most ridiculously beautiful and spectacular places you will ever see. Built in traditional Balinese fashion in a sprawl up and down the steep headland overlooking Jemaluk Bay. It features multiple levels of timber decks that jut out into space with sensational unobstructed views of the coastline and Mt. Agung. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and constructed entirely of local timber. 

Along with two bars and a restaurant it also contains several large ‘shalas’ or yoga halls which function as our classrooms over the week. There are no chairs or tables all the shalas feature large piles of cushions and bedrolls that you pick up and sit on then put away at the end of class. They also have a brand spanking new 25m fiberglass lap pool in the middle of the facility used for training.

Oh lest you think this is some exclusive, expensive operation like a ‘Davos ‘for freedivers, the entire eight-day program which runs from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm over eight days is only US$695. Living expenses in Bali are crazy cheap, my amazing room on the beach was US$20/night. Typical tasty freshly prepared breakfast, lunch or dinner is about US$5. Local Bintang beer is US$1 So my entire trip including the course, flights, transfers, food, drink and incidentals was less than AU$2,500/ US$1,800.

A Day At Deep Week

On day one we all meet at Blue Earth in the biggest of the yoga shalas with an insanely spectacular view of Jemaluk Bay. Adam outlines how the week will go to the 120 odd people scattered all over the shala sitting on cushions on the floor in a lotus position. The vibe resembles a modern-day Woodstock for freediving. After the briefing is over we all have a massive group selfie and split off into each of our various student levels which in the Molchanov school are called ‘Waves’ and the first of the day’s concurrent theory sessions begin. 

Each day starts with an optional yoga session which is very well attended. Then comes the morning theory sessions. By late morning students and instructors make their way down the hill to Apneista on the beach and get ready to dive.  The first two-hour diving session starts at 10:00 am the second commencing at midday. There are about a dozen freediving buoys already setup and each buoy has a dedicated instructor. 

The student numbers per buoy are capped at three students. So you get two hours of solid instruction, feedback and correction over multiple dives each day and the instructors are without exception, friendly and highly supportive and very capable. Occasionally you will hear a cheer from a nearby buoy and a lot of celebratory splashing as someone has surfaced with a PB dive to depth. 

Spare a thought won’t you, for Adam’s cadre of instructors. They pull consecutive two-hour shifts in the water without a break. Consider the work rate. In a three student group on a buoy one student is diving, one is breathing up preparing to dive, and one is recovering having just dived. Each diver leaves every five minutes or so, which is 12 dives per hour, so in a two-hour session, a student should get in at least four dives and eight over the two-hour training session. Pretty doable right?

But the instructor has to safety every student diver. This entails the instructor diving down to meet the student at roughly one-third of their maximum depth. So in that four-hour block, the instructor would make 48 dives. At Wave 1 level these dives may only mean meeting the student at 6 or 8m. But at Wave 3 and 4 levels, the students are diving 40-50m so the safety is required to meet them at around 15-18m. Forty-plus dives to 15m in four hours,  now that’s a workout. Oh, and it’s an 8-day course with a single rest day in the middle. On the final day, I spoke to instructor Julian De Hauteclocque Howe who had just returned from his final four-hour session. He commented that it had been, “a busy day.” A little prodding reveals he clocked 54 dives that day. Half of them ‘only’ to around 15m or so, but the other half ranging between 20m to 35m! No wonder the instructors are lean, mean diving machines!

By 3:30 pm we are back at Blue Earth for the afternoon theory sessions followed by an optional High-Intensity Training (HIT) session and finally a super relaxing guided meditation which is conducted by Adam’s amazing mother Andrea. This relaxing session is timed to conclude in the gloom of twilight and is the perfect way to end the day on a cloud of relaxed bliss.

By the early evening, people clump together in various social groups and either stay at Blue Earth for their excellent food and astonishing views or head downhill once more into town to one of the myriad warung restaurants that line the coastal road for several kilometres.  Mercifully there is not even a single rowdy bar in Amed and by about 9:00 pm most of the warung restaurants are closed, lights are off and everyone has retired for the night. 

You might suspect that the town comes alive at first light, but you’d be wrong. Certainly, just before first light the fisherman push off the beach in their outrigger boats, but by and large it’s a slow start to the day. You can’t even really get breakfast anywhere until 8:00 am. So if you need your 6:00 am coffee to get started, forget about it! This is ‘island time’ baby!

Hanging With Thibault 

The next seven days pass in a blissful procession of deeply interesting theory sessions discussing topics such as advanced Frenzel equalisation, mouth fill technique for deeper diving, dryland training for freediving, stretching your chest and intercostal muscles for increased lung capacity. At this point, I must say that the classes by Thibault Guignes were incredible. Whilst the sport of freediving is in its infancy of education and some instructors can be a bit laissez faire, Thibault by nature is super organised and highly prepared. He has his own school called Freediving HQ Philippines in Panglao, the Philippines where he has ten instructors on staff and is booked out for months in advance at a time, I can see why. 

I don’t have time here to recount all of his amazing lessons, but let me mention just two astounding moments. Part of his dry training exercises features a lot of stretching. The flexibility is crucial for staying relaxed in freediving, so part of his routine involves lying face down with a large plastic drink bottle between his sternum and the floor. Over time this and other stretching has loosened the ligaments that hold his rib cage together and allow him to greatly expand the maximum capacity of his lungs. Now that’s commitment! 

Although slightly built, (he was previously an avid competitor in triathlons), he takes off his T-shirt to demonstrate some aspects of physiology and at one point takes a full breath. Jaws drop all round as we see just how much flexibility there is in his chest and how his entire thorax now looks like a bodybuilder! To further boggle our minds, he puts his palms against the sides of his chest and pushes in hard, bowing and compressing his entire chest and ribs. Gasps ripple around the room. Its heady stuff.

Now, before I talk about Thibault’s deep hangs, I would be remiss not to highlight some issues around safety. Thibault is a world-class freediver with multiple dives over 100m. He is an elite freediver.  He was not recommending this for any of us students, but he was being very open in sharing what he does in training for his record dives His regime is meticulously constructed so he never has to push hard into the dangerous hypoxic territory. 

This technique that I’m about to describe is a way to build-up to the actual dive to depth before he physically goes there. His safety divers who meet him on his ascent, are themselves world-class freedivers. All his dives are calculated precisely for travel time, he is very consistent in his travel times and he does not hesitate to turn the dive at any time if he does not feel right. Ok, so on we go.

He showed some screenshots off his dive computer (pictured below) The profile shows a precise downslope and a symmetrical matching upslope back the surface and in between, a dead flat bottom time. He explains that as he is training to go deeper than his current PB, he can ‘simulate’ that to some extent without physically going there. It’s a peculiarity that freedivers no matter what level from beginner to world record holders all travel both up and down in the water column at about the same speed which is around 1m/second. 

The profile shows Thibault diving to 65m and then hanging on the line to simulate the travel to 120m and back 65m. Yes, you just got those quick maths right!  Not only does the man dive down to 65m on a single breath, he then just hangs at depth for two minutes, before starting his ascent! Drawing further wide eyes and slack jaws was another of his dives to 90m with a lazy hang of 45 seconds before returning to the surface Talk about gobsmacked. This is just one example of the level of instructor Adam has been able to bring to Deep Week and why they are such an ongoing success, booking out in record time, every time.

Throughout the week there are also dedicated workshops on the different freediving disciplines. Let me break down the various acronyms for you.

CWT – Constant Weight. This means you leave the surface with the same weight you return with (no ballast or sled) at beginner level this is done with standard long-bladed freediving bi-fins, in advanced cases you may choose to use a monofin which delivers more power and greater speed with better efficiency than separate fins.

FIM – Free Immersion. In this case, you don’t need fins as you pull yourself down the line hand over hand until you reach negative buoyancy and begin to freefall, on the return you also pull up the line had over hand back to surface. You cannot mix FIM and CWT, it’s one or the other, or you are disqualified.

CNF – Constant Weight No Fins. As the name implies bare feet and hands. This is often performed with no mask or goggles, just a nose clip clamped over your nostrils allowing you to clear your ears hands-free, as your hands are needed to perform the regular breast stroke like hand action to propel you up and down in the water column. 

VWT – Variable Weight. Divers ride to depth on a metal sled attached to the line and swim back up under their own power. This is a modern version of the classical Greek tradition where a rock was used by sponge fisherman to get quickly to depth.  It is still practiced today, called ‘Skandalopetra’

NLT – No Limits. Divers ride a sled down like VWT, but ascend using a lift bag attached to their wrist via a lanyard. The rapid ascent rate allows the deepest attainment of depth. 

It is worth a small detour here to mention that the current world record for NLT is currently held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch, at a mind-boggling 214m/702ft. If that’s not enough for you Herbert also ‘completed’ a deeper dive to the unbelievable depth of 253m/830ft in 2012, but blacked out on ascent and almost immediately after surfacing suffered a severe cerebral DCS which initially left him in a wheelchair but after months of therapy he made a substantial, though not complete recovery.  That dive ended his competitive career, though he still freedives today for his own pleasure.

Freediving Safety

When diving deeper than 20m it is a usual safe practice to wear a tether to the downline. This is a 1.2m plastic-wrapped steel cable with a shark clip on the line end and a Velcro wrist strap at the diver end. The shark clip is oversized so it falls freely on the line. In any emergency where the line ever became an entanglement hazard, the diver simply rips off the wrist strap and ascends the line, though in practice this is very rare. 

The other use for the leash is a little more serious. The downline terminates at a round aluminium plate about 0.3m in diameter. The shark clip cannot come off the end of the line. In an emergency where the diver has blacked out at depth, it is quite a speedy process for the surface safety to untie the down line at the buoy end and quickly haul the plate up and in so doing, recover the unconscious diver to the surface where resuscitation is usually successful. 

According to the 99% rule of thumb, 90% of blackouts happen on the surface, 9% happen between 5m and the surface, and the remainder occurs below 5m. The danger is not the blackout itself, but the subsequent aspiration of water and possible drowning. To make things worse, they generally occur without no warning. That’s why breath-hold safety divers, in the case, the instructors, meet students at one-third of their max depth on the ascent. In the event of a blackout, the safety diver protects the student’s airway by closing the mouth and nose and brings the diver to the surface for resuscitation.

 Whilst breath-hold deaths by spear fisherman, aka “spearos,” are not uncommon (over 50 per year in the US vs about 20 for tech divers), deaths in the world or national competitions are almost unheard of. Only two deaths have been recorded in the last decade. One was in 2017 when the Irish Stephen Keenan was rescuing Italian female champion Alessia Zecchini from 50m at Dahab’s Blue Hole. He successfully handed her off to other rescuing safety divers but in doing so, he suffered a shallow water blackout and could not be revived. This was the first death of safety diver in freediving history. 

The only other death in the competition was in 2013 when American diver Nick Mevoli was competing at the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas. He surfaced from his 72m no fins dive (CNF), but soon after collapsed, stopped breathing and could not be revived. An autopsy later established he had suffered lung barotrauma at depth causing bleeding into the lungs. Further investigation revealed had recently suffered similar but less serious squeezes and this led to medical recommendations that freedivers suffering lung squeezes leave a much longer recovery period before recommencing deep diving.

Ahead of arriving in Bali you receive access to the online Molchanov website which includes a community board, a series of WoWs (Workout of the Week) and a detailed PDF manual covering the many aspects of the course including diving technique, history, physiology and safety.

To meet my  Wave 2 criteria I successfully completed the following criteria in Amed:

2:30+ min Static Breath Hold 

55m+ Dynamic With Fins 

35m+ Dynamic No Fins 

24 – 30m CWT and FIM in the open water

15m Constant Weight No Fins 

Demonstrate Free fall technique

Moving Meditation

 As I progressed through Deep Week, I’m struck by what a contrast freediving is to tech and cave diving. So much about what we learn in GUE is dealing with ‘stuff’ and situations and a lot of that is to do with gear. Riding your scooter, rotating your stages, making the gas switch, tying to arrows and cookies, communicating with your team. For sure it’s all great fun and very rewarding when it all comes together. But compared to freediving, it’s very much ‘externally’ focused. 

You don’t need to consciously deal with what is going on inside your own body, it’s autonomous. You, you breathe in and out, it’s subconscious, your active mind is pinging out like a radar, where is buddy? where are we in the cave? how is my gas? how are my bottles riding?

Freediving is the exact opposite. Once you are tethered to the line and preparing to dive, there is almost nothing outside of your skin that you need to be aware of or care about. It’s a very singular pursuit, it’s only your own performance that you can affect and control. In tech diving, we need to deal with various degrees of equipment, in freediving you are the equipment. You get there and back based on your own body and mind. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.

Instructor Olga Dancing During Deep Week

As a long-time tech diver, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the change-up from compressed gas to breath-hold diving. I have in previous conversations with non-divers described cave diving as a form of ‘moving meditation’ the art of moving carefully, slowly, gently through a delicate environment.   

But freediving takes that moving mediation analogy to a whole different level. Yes, you need a base level of cardiovascular fitness, but it’s as much about training your mind as it is your body. The ability to completely relax in preparation for the dive, to remain calm and focused as the C02 driven contractions start to occur, keeping good form in the water and applying different ear clearing techniques as you descend deeper and deeper. It has been said that:

“The scuba diver dives to look around, the free-diver dives to look within.”

Filming my buddy Neats Tsoy during Deep Week with a 25m PB FIM

The thought has occurred to me that we as freedivers use our travel through the water column and it’s change in pressure on our body, to simultaneously take a journey within the mind. It’s a journey only possible by diving to depth on a single breath and feeling the big ‘hug’ of the pressure when you reach residual lung volume. It is both humbling and inspiring and you surface in elation, wanting to go again and again. In freediving, I have truly found a confluence of mind, body and spirit.  

Home on Blue Water Planet

Deep Week concludes with an absolutely wild party at Blue Earth. Guys and girls who have been on their best behaviour, cut loose and it’s booze and dancing till late in the night. It’s after midnight when I make my way back to my warung. It’s quiet, dark as I walk along the narrow road and there is not a soul to be seen. 

As I approach my room right next to the beach, I’m struck by a random thought. I walk the short distance to the water and peel off my shirt and shorts and naked as the day I was born I wade into the warm 32C degree water of Jemaluk Bay. I rock gently in the barely-there swells and float face up gazing into the sky … which is spectacular beyond belief.

Wreck Freediving on the USAT Liberty in Tulamben, which was dived on rest day at Deep Week. Video by Freediving cinematographer extraordinaire Daan Verhoeven

There is zero light pollution in this far-flung country town so the entire sky is lit up with stars, bright and dense from horizon to horizon like a photograph from the Hubble. I can see white stars and also hints of other stars in red and blue light.

I spot the Southern Cross, though it’s not quite where it should be to my Melbourne born eyes, some constellations are recognisable, a few more I don’t recognise. I can see the misty swathe of galaxies I’ve never even seen before and I’m filled with peace and wonder.

I float there, my face kissed by the cool starlight of the cosmos, my body embraced by the warm ocean water and I’m reminded of something the British astrophysicist Brian Cox pointed out in his excellent TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe.’ That is: if you took every single grain of sand from every beach in the entire world, and counted them out, they would not even begin to equal the number of suns in our universe, never mind the planets that revolve around them.

Floating on my back with the sand grains of Bali beneath me and the endless stars of the universe above, I am sandwiched between our own blue water planet and the endless majesty of the universe. I ponder the irony of gazing into outer space, while floating in inner space. I feel at once incredibly small, yet also connected to the universe and feel lucky that we live on this beautiful blue orb, the only water planet in our solar system and I wonder if my life will ever be the same again.

I certainly hope not.

Contributing photographers: Adam Stern, Trista Fontana, Bridget Ferguson, Dean Laffan 

Additional Resources:

Technical (Mixed Gas) Freediving Is Here: Are Breath-hold Divers Ready To Mix It Up? by Michael Menduno

Appendix

To give you an idea of what human beings can accomplish, here are the current world records for each freediving discipline.

* For clarification Variable Weight means the diver can use weight to get to the target depth, usually a sled or similar device and returns to the surface via a combination of finning and pulling up the line by hand. No Limits uses the same sled device, but divers ascend by deploying a small lift bag secured to their wrist for a more rapid ascent and less effort, allowing a much deeper target depth.


Dean Laffan: Fuelled by a boyhood fascination with the books and TV shows of Australian diving pioneers like Ron and Valerie Taylor, Neville Coleman and Ben Cropp,  Dean took a scuba course as soon as he left school and has never left the water since. After discovering GUE in 2001 he was instantly sure he had found his ‘tribe’. He was one of the organisers of the very first GUE class in Australia run by Jarrod Jablonski.

After many technical and cave dives including some ground-breaking cave diving expeditions to the Nullabor, it was only in 2018 that he finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to take up freediving, which has now become an obsession.

Dean lives in Melbourne Australia with his ever-patient wife and three beautiful children and remains eternally grateful to be born at a time in history when we can still find new frontiers to satisfy our endless curiosity of discovery.

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