Big Deep - An Ocean Podcast

Saltwater People: Michael Adams on how a legendary freediver helped him understand our ancient connections to the ocean

November 01, 2019 Hosts Jason Elias and Paul Kelway Season 1 Episode 2
Big Deep - An Ocean Podcast
Saltwater People: Michael Adams on how a legendary freediver helped him understand our ancient connections to the ocean
Chapters
Big Deep - An Ocean Podcast
Saltwater People: Michael Adams on how a legendary freediver helped him understand our ancient connections to the ocean
Nov 01, 2019 Season 1 Episode 2
Hosts Jason Elias and Paul Kelway

Michael Adams on how freediving unlocked ancient ways of connecting with the ocean

Show Notes Transcript

Michael Adams on how freediving unlocked ancient ways of connecting with the ocean

Big Deep:

Hi, and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong. It defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. In each episode we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. In this episode we speak with a professor of human geography whose free diving experiences opened him to deeper parts of himself and the worlds oceans. Hello, this is Paul Kelway and I'm Jason Elias, welcome to the big deep podcast. Our first guest is Michael Adams, a professor of human geography at the university of Wollongong in Australia. When Paul sat down to speak with him , they discussed how free diving had changed his entire way of looking at things from Aboriginal views on connections to nature, to meditative takes on his own mortality.

Michael Adams:

Most of my work has been around relationships between indigenous people and environments. It meant that I spent a lot of time in the Bush, in the forest with Aboriginal people in Australia. Aboriginal people use the word country with a capital C, and throughout that time, Aboriginal people were continuously teaching me about the sacred and spiritual relationships to land. It always happened that people would be talking to me about the significance of wind or birds, ancient stories connected to places, but I realized after a while that I was just talking about the practical and policy elements and not at all about the other dimension that Aboriginal people were teaching me. My focus and my training as an academic is to use your head, but what these situations were telling me was to use my heart in learning about my place amongst these places.

Big Deep:

When the indigenous communities talk about sacred and when they talk about country, what is their relationship to the elements to that environment?

Michael Adams:

People see themselves as fundamentally integrated into country and they are a constituent part of that. Whereas in Western scientific training, it's partly how we define nature as places where humans are not. Aboriginal people don't hold that view at all. People will see themselves as being part of this integrated community of other beings which have an equal status. In some ways to people and here, I live about the Southeast coast now. People who call themselves salt water people, Aboriginal people, and they talking about sea country as being part of their traditional territory, so not a distinct division between Marine and terrestrial in the way that we tend to do in the West .

Big Deep:

You talked a little bit your methods and perhaps your methods changed somewhat at this point, how did this experience then lead to you to deeper exploration of the ocean?

Michael Adams:

I took on full immersion where you attempt to become the thing that you are researching and to think about what was involved for me personally, when I did that, when I hunted in the ocean as a spearfisher, and one of the things that Aboriginal people say is, you know , why would you just restrict your knowledge of the world to your intellect? Why wouldn't you also think about your emotional responses, your dreams, your intuitions, the whole sphere of engagement with the world. So I have dived for a long time in a fairly casual way, essentially harvesting food from the oceans, but when I started to think more about how I was in the ocean from the lessons from indigenous people, it opened up a whole new series of understandings . Then three or four years ago, I went to a freedive center on the North coast of Bali and Indonesia and that first introduction to thinking about depth and sustained time underwater and understanding not just the physiology of your body, but the way that you need to work with your mind was extremely interesting. You know the idea that when you're free diving, it's a very meditative process. It's about being as quiet and calm and empty as possible when you're underwater. I then dived in Hawaii with very legendary diver called, Carlos Eyles. So Carlos Eyles is 75 or 76 he's dived all this live has written half a dozen books and he dives in ways that no one will ever be able to dive again in the way he swam with sharks in places where sharks are now massively depleted. He's skinny, deeply tanned , pretty sort of battered looking. And when he taught me in Honaunau Bay below the volcano , and we didn't talk about safety, we didn't talk about technique. He just said, look, I want you to watch what I do. And copy my movement. We set on the rocks in front of those volcanoes and talking about philosophy for an hour before we dived, and then we just swam together for about a mile out to sea, effectively. So when you swim a hundred meters off the Rocky larva shore, you can be in a hundred meters, depths of water. And the first time I did that, you know, I've never been in water that deep and I actually found that pretty scary. One of his lessons to me was that you have to throw away those imagined fears. Yes, there are real dangers, but you don't want to bring those monsters from your cultural upbringing out into the sea with you. It's about letting go of those fears, letting go of the numbers the minutes of breath hold, the meters of depth . Don't think about that and just try and empty your mind and become one of all those other creatures that you see and experience in those warm tropical waters, and those waters are amazing. There are, spinner dolphins around us. We're listening to the crackle of shrimp. We see many, many fish, turtles, all kinds of marine things in this intensely biological environment, but it's also amazing blue depths as you move further offshore and it just drops away into darkness below your fins. I think that was the single strongest lesson to me from Carlos. He says, the ocean is a nonlinear system. It's about a much more meditative approach and much more unstructured, throwing away your culturated, intellectual thinking about all these things and opening yourself to the experience being in this deep blue water which extends across the planet. All oceans in the world are connected. It's the world ocean. You're actually in this vast body of water which covers 71% of the planet. Also the sense that the salt water goes all the way through you, that you carry within your body these versions of the ocean, the blood in your veins, the tears in your eyes, the sweat on your skin, that salt water is continuous with the salt water that you're swallowing and tasting in your mouth and rinsing through your sinuses. When you start thinking like that, that you are this tiny speck indi this immensity of blue, which extends across every continent, across the whole sphere of the planet, in some senses the correct responses are through poetry and meditation rather than through science and calculation.

Big Deep:

You mentioned fear and freediving of course has an element where you are literally putting yourself on the edge at times, so I wonder if you could maybe speak to that as far as safety and and fear and even contemplations on death.

Michael Adams:

Once I started training in free diving because I kind of can't help myself as a researcher, I was Googling around to see what had been published on free diving and there's quite a bit on the physiology of free diving and almost nothing on the cultural or embodied experiences of diving. So I decided I was going to focus on this . I interviewed divers, I looked a lot of literature through the kind of free diving communities and then last year kind of threw out all of the academic approaches I'd been using and tried to write in a more kind of lyrical way to try and honor what I was feeling in the experience, and what had happened just prior to that, I had come across my father's death certificate . My father killed himself when I was 14 and I knew very little about that event, and in my diving I had been increasingly aware of how close diving brings you to death in the kind of the risk sense . But the really interesting thing was that it wasn't at all frightening and wasn't about an adrenaline rush of being close to death. It was this very peaceful connected feeling of being unafraid, of being close to death and that's what the free diving was doing. Reminding me of how vulnerable we are as living beings on the planet as well as how strong we are. That connection, our kind of joy and strength in swimming in the ocean and our incredible vulnerability in the face of engaging with the biggest thing on the planet was a key to working through my thoughts on this.

Big Deep:

You're speaking to a very personal experience of almost sort of processing your own family experience around death. How has this engagement in the water, this sort of relating to fear in that environment, how has that helped you with that processing of that personal experience?

Michael Adams:

Well, look when you're under water, fear is not good. Physiologically it kicks in adrenaline that chews oxygen. It gets you ready to fight or flee and you can't do either of those things underwater. In free dive training there are physical elements unquestionably, but a large amount is about letting go of your mind about if there are thoughts of fear coming in, just looking at them and letting them go past and that's a fundamental training in yoga and meditation traditions to not buy into your thought and that definitely is the case when diving. One of the lessons to me from my many, many indigenous teachers and from freediving is that death and life, it's two sides of the coin. Every living thing dies. We all die. Our continued lives depend on the deaths and other living things in what we eat to sustain ourselves in various ways. I don't sort of literally believe in the idea of reincarnation but reincarnation is nevertheless true in the sense of all the bodies of living things that die and then reassembled into other living things. Animals that die, their bodies break down into the earth and plants grow in that rich nutrient soil and then they are eaten by other plants. It's a cycle and engaging with the idea that we are going to die to some extent frees you from fear in different contexts. I guess that's the path that it's taken me.

Big Deep:

Wow . Thank you for sharing that. So there is this physiological aspect of free diving and I wonder if you could just briefly speak to that in terms of our own physical bodies and actually this approach to training ourselves to perform these deep dives without the aid of any equipment.

Michael Adams:

You know, as far as we know, humans have been breathhold divers for as long as there have been humans. We still only partially understand what enables deep and sustained diving. We do know a suite of things and those are that initially when you are immersed, particularly in cold water, your heart rate drops and as you progress your time in the ocean, your blood moves from your extremities into your core in a process which they call vasoconstriction when your your blood vessels get smaller and push the blood towards your heart and they call that movement to your core blood shift. As you stay down or go deeper, eventually your spleen contracts and releases oxygen rich blood into the body to compensate for the fact that you haven't been taking in oxygen in any other way. That series of three physiological responses is one of the reasons why people can dive deeply and stay down for quite a long time. As you go deeper, your lungs compress to the size of your fists and fluid moves into the space that's created there because you can't have an empty space when you've got increasing atmospheres of pressure on your body. We're still working on understanding everything that happens because competitive freedivers continue to push past the limits of what was thought possible. People regularly dive to more than a hundred meters with absolutely no equipment, but the fact that that's possible says quite remarkable things about why the human body is adapted to do that, and what I found fascinating about that is our ancient biological connection to oceans. The fact that all life comes out of the sea. We have a continuous thread taking us back to our origin as Marine animals and we have the physiology that reflects that connection.

Big Deep:

So rather than this being something unnatural that we're forcing ourselves to do, it's in fact something completely natural that we're almost remembering that we have the capability to perform.

Michael Adams:

Absolutely, and I think that it's a really interesting element. When we are in embryo in the womb we are in the tiny sea of the amniotic sack. During that nine months, there were stages where we have gils, and then, when a human infant is born, you can immerse an infant in water and he or she will open her eyes, hold a breath , and start to swim breaststroke like completely unstressed by the experience. It reflects that continuity of connection to oceans. You can look at the fluids in our body. Our tears, ourr blood, the amniotic fluid, our salt composition reflects the salt composition in ancient oceans itself. In some respects, we carry the sea inside us.

Big Deep:

Thank you for listening to the big deep podcast. Next time on big deep this six foot diameter sphere and they fit three of you in there. And during the safety tour they're like, don't press this lever. And we're like, what does that do? And they're like, well, it'll shoot the sphere you're in away from the sub all the way to the surface and we don't know how fast that goes. And I remember thinking, great, I can't wait to die that way. We really appreciate you being with us on this journey into the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe, like and comment on our show in iTunes, Overcast, SoundCloud or wherever you catch your podcasts. But those subscribes and links really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone you think we should talk to, just let us know at the big deep website. We are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.