Finding the Quiet Below

Freediving and Filmmaking Inspiration and Tips
by Mathilda de Villiers

“I think freediving is the one thing that can totally calm down everything in my head. Just completely thinking about one thing at a time” – Emmett Sparling

Taking a deep breath in, submerging yourself underwater, diving down into the abyss below, and putting all your trust in yourself. You feel the immense pressure building as you’re diving deeper, all the while ignoring the voice in your head that’s screaming for you to stay above the surface in order for you to stay alive. Freediving opens up a whole new world in the depths below. It opens up a whole new understanding of our bodies and minds.

Our bodies, with the correct training, are capable of so much more than we think. Freediving goes against our natural instincts. It calls for a deep understanding of what happens to our body when it’s submerged deep underwater for minutes at a time without air and how our senses react to that unnatural state of being. Our minds are capable of being pushed far beyond what we think it’s capable of. For our minds, in the end, control everything.

Diving down, down into the blue abyss, interacting with the wild creatures that roam under the surface of the water, is a choice that a select number of humans on this planet make. Those that make that choice and that stick with it for long enough to become experienced divers, get to a point where they are able to experience a series of adaptations that translates into their dive reflex. It is how the body aids itself in breath holding and immersion in water. It allows the free diver to handle pressure and depth better, allowing the body to more efficiently use oxygen by increasing the body’s capacity of carrying oxygen through the blood system.

“You have to be hyper present, hyper aware.” – Chelsea

Emmett (@emmett_sparling) started freediving a little over a year ago, after he was introduced to it by his good friend, Chelsea Yamase. Since then, he has improved at an unprecedented rate, according to Chelsea. Since he started, he has taken his camera down with him and has created incredible underwater content. But it has been a difficult process to get to where he is today. “Underwater photography is challenging.” Since he has gotten more comfortable underwater, he has worked on various projects together with Chelsea and Josiah Gordon where they have created breathtaking images and films. The three of them are close friends and they understand each other in the working environment, whether that be on land or in the world of breath holds.

Josiah & Chelsea. Photo by Emmett Sparling

Chelsea (@chelseakauai) grew up in Kauai, Hawaii and today freediving is a huge part of her life. But she didn’t always spend her free time holding her breath underwater. Her path that led her to that world began with her scuba diving. But when she started to be surrounded by free divers it didn’t take long for the sport to take over. “When you see someone just hanging out at the bottom and they’re just dancing and interacting with whatever wildlife is there…it seems so easy and so blissful. I just really wanted that feeling,” she says. 

Josiah (@josiahwg) started his underwater journey through spearfishing while he was living in Hawaii during his college days. “Freediving has always been a very meditative thing, and it’s all because of breath,” he says. He explains it in the way that when you free dive, you have a lot less space to think, so you enter into the meditative state where you’re not thinking about anything.

“The only thing you’re thinking of is what’s immediately in front of you. There are no distractions, there’s nothing else.” – Josiah

Photo of Chelsea Yamase by Josiah Gordon

Tips for getting started with freediving:

  • Always make sure that you never push yourself further than your own capabilities. Starting a new sport always requires safety measures, especially one that can potentially be dangerous. If you’re starting out with people who are more advanced in their training than you, then it could make you push yourself unnecessarily. So it’s important to stay true to yourself and your limitations. “Educate yourself on what happens in your body when you’re doing this. [Develop] that knowledge and comfort and self awareness,” Chelsea says.
  • Invest in a course. As much as you can learn from others, going on a certified course teaches you about the biology of your own body and capacity as well as all the breathing techniques. On top of that, being surrounded by professionals in the learning phase also gives you an important sense of safety, giving yourself more space to learn and grow the talent. 
  • Always dive with a buddy. This is paramount in creating a solid safety net. Chelsea recently took Emmett to a spot in Hawaii where they went diving in a cave with sharks. She says that she would not have taken him there half a year ago. She only took him because she knew that he was comfortable doing it. Diving with a responsible buddy that won’t push you unnecessarily is also vital. 
  • Stick with it. Of the free divers that I have spoken to, not one of them ever said that freediving was easy when they started with it. It’s the type of sport that you really need to stick with and push yourself with to exceed. You’re not only training your body, but you’re training your mind in a big way. Personally, from what I’ve learned, is that that’s the biggest lesson to be learned – the training of your mental capacity. Because if you’re diving down into a cave and you start to freak out mentally, that’s when accidents happen that can end badly.
  • Be patient. Freediving opens up a world that is unique and you need to allow your body to adjust to the underwater world. 

When Chelsea started, she struggled. The level of comfort and expertise she has today – that came with years of practice and dedication. It first took her getting comfortable being in the water, then followed by her developing her techniques.

Photo of Chelsea Yamase by Emmett Sparling

Being a filmmaker under the surface:

  • Having a good report with the person you’re shooting with is probably one of the most important things when it comes to shooting underwater, according to Josiah. He says that it’s a lot harder than what it looks. Knowing your own limitations as well as the model’s limitations is key because if you are both not synced up with one another, then it can take up a lot of time figuring that out and timing your breath holds with one another. 
  • While you’re still above the surface, work out a game plan. As soon as you duck down, you’re not only having to think of the composition – you’re having to be aware of your breath hold and your body. There is already a lot to think about, so if you have an idea of what you’d like to achieve before you head down, it makes the process that much more seamless.
  • As a model, it’s vital that you know what you look like underwater, because as graceful as Chelsea makes it look, that’s not how people usually look when they’re submerged in the deep blue, according to Josiah. It’s actually quite a challenge to make yourself look that graceful and it comes with a lot of practice.  
  • Know your equipment and its limitations. Josiah says that on a recent trip that he did with Chelsea and Emmett, they dove down so deep that his housing started making a crackling noise and that the buttons stopped working. Knowing where those limitations begin is crucial, but it also allows you to create content you may not have known you could get if you didn’t allow that push. Their equipment got through unscathed, but they also knew where they could push it to.
  • “A lot of the process is inspiration,” Josiah says. Inspiration from other creatives and from other images online. Often, for him, a quick search that comes up with an image he likes that he would like to try and recreate or make his own is how he comes up with an idea.
  • Keep in mind that when you’re diving down with a camera and underwater housing, you’ll be expending a lot more energy than you would without it. A housing floats, so you have to push it down with your own body. One trick that Josiah and Emmett have both used is to add weights to the housing, which makes it a bit easier on the diver to go down with. What’s important to remember with added weights, is that your housing will not float anymore so there’s an added risk of it being dragged to the bottom if you let go of it. 
  • Underwater photography and working with housings are both very challenging skills. A lot of people think that having the gear alone is enough, although it requires a lot of persistence and dedication, just like freediving. 

Josiah and Chelsea have worked together for a few years and they have developed an extremely natural way of knowing what the other person is capable of underwater. They have a strong love for the water they immerse themselves in and they know how the other person works, making their creative time together seamless and enjoyable. “No matter what the chaos is going on around me, [that’s] how can I stay in that really centred place with my mind and with my heart,” Chelsea says.

Photo of Emmett taken by Josiah Gordon
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