One hundred metres beneath the ocean surface would be a torturous place for many, but it’s where you’ll find William Trubridge in his element. It’s where he’s chosen to make his living.
“I have a relationship with the depths, they beckon me beyond my means, cold dark vacant pressure, forever night, endless dreams,” the world-record free diver scribed.
Only a short time ago, any New Zealander representing their sport at a national or international level did so outside earning a primary income. Today, being a professional athlete is considered a fiscal profession like any other.
Speaking from his residence in the paradise that is the Bahamas, William Trubridge has forged a successful career as a professional free diver.
Not just successful by the accolades and sponsorship he’s received, but successful in that he’s created a life that’s provided for by doing what he loves.
The extreme sport of free diving consists of descending deep into the ocean on a single breath. There are nine competitive disciplines but William specialises in no-fins free diving.
Wearing only a wetsuit and goggles, and using only a rope to guide him to his target, he draws a single breath and plunges to depths of 100 plus metres on it.
“For me it’s the most pure form of free diving and it’s also the purest measure of human aquatic potential in the same way that a 100m sprint is the purest measure of human speed – we don’t think of human speed as someone on a bike or in a race car.”
“For me it’s the most pure form of free diving and it’s also the purest measure of human aquatic potential in the same way that a hundred metre sprint is the purest measure of human speed – we don’t think of human speed as someone on a bike or in a race car,” the 36-year old says.
It was at the age of 22, while in London studying for a bachelor of science in physiology and genetics, that William became aware of the sport of free diving. Having been long fond of recreational diving this titbit of information beckoned his attention.
“I travelled to the Caribbean from where I was in London at the time to give it a go and from that moment I was hooked,” he says.
One decade and eighteen world records later, William continues to redefine what the human body can achieve.
One breath at a time
You could swap William’s blood for sea water and he’d probably function just as well. Not because our blood contains a 98 percent similar chemical composition and almost the exact same PH as ocean water, but because that’s how innate being the in the water is to William.
William’s family made the move from England to sunny Hawke’s Bay when he was just a young boy. Somewhat unconventionally, they sailed here, and as it so happens this was quite the influential voyage.
Growing up in and around water leant to William the proclivity for the extreme, and the changes the human body experiences during a deep dive are nothing short of extraordinary.
When we hold our breath, or when our face is cooled such as by diving into water, a set of internal reflexes take place enabling us to function on a lower level of oxygen.
These reflexes are more commonly known as the mammalian diving reflex and they occur in all air-breathing vertebrates. Three main changes happen to the body: bradycardia, peripheral vasoconstriction and blood shift.
The heart rate slows up to 50 percent, blood vessels narrow, reducing blood flow to limbs and instead directing it through a concentrated circuit to the heart and the brain, and blood plasma and water pass through organs and circulatory walls to the chest cavity to protect it from increased pressure. The lungs gradually fill with blood plasma which is then reabsorbed when pressure drops.
Preparing for a deep sea free dive is understandably more complex than holding your breath – which William can do for eight minutes when static, though a competitive dive typically takes about half that time.
“As you swim you’re going to build up CO2 in your body because you can’t off-gas that by breathing, so you need to develop a high tolerance to carbon dioxide and to lactic acid in the muscles,” William says.
“The main components [of training] would be CO2 tolerance, hypoxia/low oxygen tolerance training, which is a lot of pool training, breath-hold stuff.
“Flexibility is really important for both efficiency in movement and also for adaptation to pressure, so I do a lot of exercises similar to yoga, others are targeted at increasing the flexibility of the lungs.
“Mental training is really important as well as it’s a discipline that requires a lot of calm and composure, so we use a lot of techniques like visualisation, positive affirmation, mental anchors; those kinds of things,” he says.
“The first record attempt I made was in May 2006 in the Red Sea in Egypt. I was just trying to calm the jitters more than anything else. Ultimately that record attempt was unsuccessful – I blacked out just upon reaching the surface.”
In competitive diving, passing out within five seconds of surfacing renders the dive inadmissible.
Not to be deterred, William’s first successful world record attempt came in April the following year, a depth of 81m in the constant weight without fins discipline.
He’s since broken 17 further records, many of them his own, and the deepest he’s descended stands at 124m, last year in the successful free immersion record attempt.
He was the first free diver to descend to 100 metres on a single breath in the discipline of constant weight no fins, and in 2011 won the World’s Absolute Freediver Award (WAFA), naming him best all-round free diver.
While the records are a welcome recognition of him and his team, they’re not the be all and end all for William personally.
“It’s not really so much about racking up that record tally, it’s more about exploring my own potential, trying to push my body and mind as deep as they’re capable of going and in that process defining human aquatic potential.”
Given that diving is unlike any other sport in that those bodily reflexes don’t occur anywhere else, the low-fatality statistics are a testament to the safety measures practiced by those involved.
William admits they’re still discovering what depth humans were capable of reaching, but he wittingly theorises, “More than the current world record!”
Somewhat similarly, he believes there isn’t an age humans shouldn’t dive past – the late female world champion and multiple record holder, Natalia Molchanova, was still breaking records at 53 – and he hasn’t lost his motivation for training and competing so it will be a while yet before he hangs up his goggles.
Looking to the future
Somewhere in the mix William has managed to become an Apnea Academy instructor and AIDA instructor and trainer, and establish a dive school in the Bahamas, Vertical Blue, through which he personally teaches two to three courses per year.
“I enjoy doing that, I enjoy the process, so it’s something I will definitely keep up after I stop competing,” he says.
This year is the free diving world championships in Honduras in August and this over record attempt is William’s priority right now.
“My main focus is to try and do well at world champs where it’s more about being consistent across all disciplines, so I’ll be training with fins this year.”
Speaking of fins, William feels strongly about ensuring the protection of our native species of dolphin: the Hector’s dolphin and their subspecies the Maui’s dolphin. He’s been advocating their protection since 2010 when he dived 100metres (one hectometre) as part of Project Hector.
“It’s really reached the eleventh hour for the Maui species. If nothing happens in the next year or two they will probably fall over the edge of a number they can’t recover from,” he says.
Maui’s numbers have been reduced to where they are now through by-catch from fishing, trawling and gill net setting in their territory.
“The problem is that the government has failed to put in place measures to protect them inside their territory – a pretty small strip of water down the west coast out to a depth contour of 100 metres.
“For me it seems illogical – say we do render that species extinct and in 10 years you go out there and can’t find a single Maui dolphin, how does that look against NZ’s image of being a clean, green, eco-friendly country if we can’t even protect a species that lives in our own waters?
“That effect on our image would impact tourism which is a multi-billion dollar industry as compared to fishing which, especially for that strip of coastal water, probably amounts to a tiny percentage compared to tourism.
“But more than that, it’s about trying to maintain biodiversity of our species. Shutting down a few businesses and trying to find jobs for a small number of people is the smallest price you could pay to protect native species.”
Despite being born in the UK and now based in the Bahamas to be near Dean’s Blue Hole where he trains, William still calls New Zealand home and he loves the al fresco uniqueness it offers.
“The bush, the mountains, the sea – I love getting back there and I love the wilderness of it. There’s something about it, it’s very different.”
It’s a paradise, it’s our paradise, and it sure would be a shame not to protect it.
By Lydia Truesdale