Perched on the southernmost tip of the African continent, the city of Cape Town is renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty. Most iconic of all are its mountains, which cascade dramatically down towards the great, cobalt-blue expanse of the ocean. It’s an image that’s been replicated billions of times over on postcards, fridge magnets and posters around the globe. But what the pictures don’t show is what lies beyond the point where the mountains meet the sea, beneath the ocean swell that stretches away to the south.
That’s where I find myself now: seven metres underwater, weaving my way through a gently swaying, technicolour wonderland of a dense kelp forest. Shoals of fish swim past in the opposite direction, like traffic on an oceanic motorway, above a seabed strewn with starfish in every colour of the rainbow. Spiny purple urchins cling to pink rocks. The scene is illuminated by shards of golden sunlight piercing through the kelp canopy above. A small shark rests peacefully on a patch of sand nearby.
The spectacle is so overwhelming that it takes a few moments to remember that I’m running out of oxygen. On this journey of underwater discovery, I am experiencing the wonders of the Atlantic Ocean as a freediver, with nothing but a wetsuit, a mask, a pair of fins and a lungful of crisp ocean air.
Bobbing away at the surface above me is John Daines, a 40-year-old Cape Town resident and my mentor for the two day freediving course that I’m on. He’s also one of the key figures at the forefront of the South African city’s burgeoning freediving culture.
Tall and athletically built, with an unflappable sense of calm, Daines comes from the world of competitive freediving. He has broken records in South Africa and can hold his breath underwater for close to seven minutes. In recent years, though, he has switched his focus to non-competitive, adventure freediving, using his skills to explore the natural world beneath the waves.
Around four years ago, Daines’ dive school, Cape Town Freediving, became the first in the country to offer classes specifically in recreational adventure freediving. Since then, he has seen a massive rise in interest in the sport. “People are trying to de-stress and be healthier,” Daines says, explaining why the sport’s popularity has taken off in recent years. “With freediving you can pull yourself out of your daily life. It’s all about mindfulness and slowness, and that appeals to people.”
Daines reflects on the turns his career has taken. “I had to learn to stop chasing numbers and records,” he tells me over a cup of coffee at his dive school in Muizenberg, a picturesque surfing destination on Cape Town’s southern edge that’s about a 30-minute drive from the city centre. “[Freediving is] about being in a different world, surrounded by nature. With scuba diving, you don’t really feel part of the ocean. You’re a human with a machine; an onlooker, not a participant. But with freediving, you’re just another species in the sea.”
“With freediving you can pull yourself out of your daily life. It’s all about mindfulness and slowness, and that appeals to people”
On the first day of the course, Daines takes me through the breathing techniques that every prospective freediver must know. He explains that the key factors in learning to freedive are perfecting your breathing, lowering your heart rate and using force of mind to fight the urge to breathe that kicks in after a minute or so. The natural reflex to breathe is not triggered by the lack of oxygen, but by a build-up of carbon dioxide. This means that long after your body tells you to breathe, you actually still have enough oxygen to function. By the end of the first day of the course, Daines’ magic somehow enables me to hold my breath for more than three and a half minutes.
The next morning, I turn up at a spot recommended by Daines on the Atlantic side of the Cape Peninsula, near Hout Bay. Looking out from the parking lot, set at a bend in the coastal road beneath a towering sand-coloured escarpment, Daines points to a spot half a mile off shore where two whales are frolicking, their gargantuan fins and tails breaching the surface of the water, sending up clouds of spray. Closer to the shore, Cape fur seals soak up the sun’s warmth on a pair of giant boulders weathered smooth by the tides.
Daines hands me a wetsuit so thick it feels like it could stop a bullet, designed to protect the body from the frigid temperature of the water. The idea of diving in such icy water can be somewhat daunting, but these same currents carry with them the nutrients that sustain one of the world’s richest and most fascinating aquatic ecosystems. Cape Town lacks the coral reefs that are the main draw for divers in other parts of the world. But what it does have, in considerable abundance, is kelp. Vast forests of it – resembling an underwater rainforest – providing sanctuary for a dizzying array of creatures.