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The Unifying World of Freediving

March 16, 2014

The training board at Freedive Dahab, the biggest freediving shop in the world. The first column lists times for static (not moving) breath holds in water. The second column lists the distances, in meters, that people can swim horizontally in shallow water. The third is the most famous discipline, vertical diving under your own ability.

Perhaps more than anything, I have been amazed by the power of freediving to unite diverse peoples.  Here in Dahab, Egypt, I train alongside folks from across the globe. My country list so far includes: Croatia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Italy, Holland, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Ukraine, Egypt, Russia, and Korea.

And these folks represent a wide range of social groups, from white collar to blue, students to professionals, and rich to middle-income.Yet at no point do I feel that there is a division between us. Even the apparent gender divide (about 80% of the shop divers are men) disappears when you see that Freedive Dahab, the biggest freediving shop in the world (with sister shops in Thailand and S. Africa) is entirely owned and operated by two very talented and savvy women.

In spite of all the ways we might differ, the sport of freediving is imbued with a welcoming and genuine spirit of camaraderie.

Similarly, I find it fascinating how ‘flat’ the global freediving community is. Here current and former world record holders are talked about by their first names – e.g., “William”, “Sara” – and pros might train right alongside complete novices like myself.  Just take a look at the picture of Freedive Dahab’s training board above to see the range in abilities.

Part of the reason for this fairly level ‘training field’ between professionals and amateurs is that the freediving community is small.  Freedive Dahab is clearly the biggest dive shop in the world, and yet currently boasts no more than perhaps 15 freedivers in training. But far more important, I believe, is the fact that freediving is inherently a humbling and grounding experience.

What do I mean? Well, consider that every diver faces his or her mortality when they dive down to set a new personal record, and every diver, no matter how good they may be, depends on the good grace and support of other divers for their safety and improvement. These truths cannot help but remind us that we are all one people with the same basic desires – to live, to breath, to overcome our fears – and that no matter how how much we train, none of us can go it alone.

Ultimately, I think the sport of freediving has a lot more to teach us than how to hold our breathes underwater.

Panel on Conservation in the 21st Century

February 21, 2014

I invite you all to remotely attend a panel on “Conservation in the 21st Century”. I will have the distinct pleasure of serving as the moderator for the event, and I am quite willing to bet that it will be a fun and thought-provoking experience for all.  The event will take place at 5pm EST at More details are below.


Panel on Conservation in the 21st Century - Final

The Coming Age of MPA Certification

January 29, 2014

This WWF inforgraphic shows MPAs in the Coral Triangle and touches briefly on what constitutes effective MPA design. CLICK for a larger version.

We’ve got a certification for forest products (FSC), wild-caught fish products (MSC), and aquaculture products (ASC). But what about a certification program for a non-consumer good?  That there gets interesting. I’m not entirely convinced that certification for MPAs would work, but it might with a little tinkering. Because of this, I’m quite excited to read a new article on “The Coming Age of MPA Certification?” from MPA News.  I recommend you read the entire thing, but is the essential summary.

[T]wo new programs promise to open the door to what could be a new age of wide-scale certification in the MPA world. Designed to provide an incentive for stronger MPA management worldwide, the programs are taking two distinct approaches: The Green List, developed by IUCN and partners, will assess whether an MPA’s management is effectively meeting its conservation goals. In short, the program is assessing management effectiveness. Sites that meet the criteria will be added to a list of approved MPAs – the Green List. The Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) developed by the Marine Conservation Institute (a US-based NGO), will convene a coalition of partners to build scientific criteria for “strongly protected marine areas”, then assess whether an MPA meets those criteria. In essence, GLORES is assessing conservation rigor. Sites that meet the criteria, judged on a sliding scale, will earn a ranking depending on their rigor.

The discussion in the article says that these programs are still in development.  I suspect that the designers are very carefully considering the incentive to MPA managers to bother with certification.  Certification has costs. So what’s the return to the management regime? This is a challenge even in the MSC, which has clearly demonstrated benefits. In my mind, the benefit to MPA managers could be the receipt of a grant to further streamline/improve the management at a well-run MPA. One requirement for receipt of funds could be that the key lessons for management are written up for other MPAs to implement.

The Path to Traceability

January 28, 2014

This 2012 video from Oceana gives a great overview of just why we need Seafood Traceability

Traceability exist in a great many industries, so why not in fisheries?  Why is it U.S. seafood retailers know little more than who they bought their seafood from?  Why not also where the seafood was caught?  And with what gear and by whom?  These are important things to know for the purposes of sustainable fisheries management.  The more philosophical explanation will never be known, but pragmatically, we know there is little traceability…because so few governments require it.  Ostensibly, this should be a priority for governments because traceability requirements benefit society and domestic fisheries, assuming at least that there is good domestic policy on fisheries management.

Thankfully, there is slowly a shift occurring where countries pass laws that require companies to keep better information on their seafood products. The EU now requires catch certification. And as of January 2014, Chile is requiring “full traceability” and certification from foreign commercial fishing boats delivering seafood to its ports.

In case you want to know more about this trend in the seafood sector, check out FishWise’s White Paper on Seafood Traceability.

The Aquatic Ape (homo sapiens)?

January 27, 2014

Did our ancestors inhabit aquatic environments? Consider the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’.

On March 5, 1960, professionally renowned and knighted marine biologist Alister Hardy delivered a speech proclaiming that humans evolved in an aquatic environment. Thus was borne what is today known as the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’ of human evolution.  And while there are many doubts as to this theory’s veracity, the modern version is quite compelling.  As explained by the abstract to Niemitz 2010:

During the last century, approximately 30 hypotheses have been constructed to explain the evolution of the human upright posture and locomotion. The most important and recent ones are discussed here… The Amphibian Generalist Theory, presented first in the year 2000, suggests that bipedalism began in a wooded habitat. The forests were not far from a shore, where our early ancestor, along with its arboreal habits, walked and waded in shallow water finding rich food with little investment. In contrast to all other theories, wading behaviour not only triggers an upright posture, but also forces the individual to maintain this position and to walk bipedally. So far, this is the only scenario suitable to overcome the considerable anatomical and functional threshold from quadrupedalism to bipedalism. [bold added]

Niemitz goes on to show that this form of the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’ is consistent with paleoanthropological findings, functional anatomy, energetic calculations, and evolutionary psychology.  And then of course…you have all the great evidence from modern human experience.

Consider babies, neuroscience, and freedivers.

Babies. Did you know that newborns are able to hold their breath upwards of 45 seconds?  It’s true, and studies suggest that newborns aren’t even apprehensive about it. Though babies lose this ability after about six months, they go on to develop a considerable amount of control over their breathing as adults, which is an involuntary reflex for many other mammals.

Then there is the evidence of ‘blue neuroscience’, or what the beautiful marine biologist Wallace J Nichols has positively termed ‘neuroconservation’. Nichols has found some really compelling evidence that suggests that our proximity to water impacts our performance, increases calm, diminishes anxiety, and increases professional success. (Keep an eye out for Wallace’s book this summer.)


A promotional image for Wallace’s annual Bluemind symposium.

Finally, freedivers.  About fifty years of sport freediving has led physiologists to rewrite their text books on several occasions. For the first part of the 20th century, in fact, it was believed that freedivers could go no deeper than about 50 meters because any deeper and the pressure could crush the rib cage. Then in 1961 famed Sicilian diver Enzo Maiorca hit 50 meters, and he began a much mythologized competition with Frenchman Jacques Mayol, who later hit 100 meters in 1976.

How did they do it? We now know water pressure and temperature induce the ‘mammalian dive reflex’, consisting of bradycardia, peripheral vasoconstriction, and, perhaps most amazingly, a defensive pooling of blood in the lungs during really deep dives. And freediving continues to reveal; only recently it was found that freedivers are more adept at maintaining blood acidity levels.

So are we all just uninformed aquatic apes?  We’ll perhaps never know, but what we do know is we are only scratching the surface of humanity’s potential to explore the ocean.

Kevin Costner as a mutant manfish in the movie Waterworld - the moder freediver's "wet" dream. (Sorry...bad joke...)

Kevin Costner as a mutant manfish in the movie Waterworld – the moder freediver’s “wet” dream? (Sorry…bad joke…)

Aquaculture and Feeding the World

January 23, 2014

Here’s a great talk by Rohana Subasinghe, Senior Aquaculture Officer at the FAO on feeding the planet, global seafood demand, and how aquaculture can be used to feed the future.  The talk provides an overview, while the Q&A gets really quite interesting and tackles tough questions like farming carnivorous fish species.

INTERPOL and Illegal Fishing

January 22, 2014

At the request of South Africa INTERPOL has issued Purple Notices for two vessels suspected of illegal fishing.

Today the third country in less than six months requested that INTERPOL put out a “Purple Notice” on suspected illegal fishing vessels, which encourages the international community to compile and share information about illegal fishing vessels. That country today was South Africa, which follows on the heels of Costa Rica and Norway. This constitutes a new and exciting trend that puts INTERPOL in an leadership role in coordinating action on illegal fishing vessels operating in Africa.

Here are the choice bits from INTERPOL’s press release:

The South African DAFF believes the two stateless vessels fled the port of Cape Town on 29 December to avoid further investigation. The authorities requested the INTERPOL Purple Notices to warn other countries of the potential threat posed to the safety and security of the persons on board, in addition to a pollution risk to the marine and coastal environment. The vessels are likely to have changed their flags, names and other identifiers.

“Through INTERPOL we ask the global law enforcement community to assist our investigation into the disturbing activities associated with these vessels, and to help put an end to lawlessness and duplicity at sea,” said Mr Mtoba, Chief Director, Monitoring, Control and Surveillance of DAFF and the leader of the capacity building and advocacy project of INTERPOL’s Fisheries Crime Working Group.

“The activities of these vessels are not only a threat to marine living resources, but also to the safety and wellbeing of the fishing crews on board,” added Mr Mtoba.

INTERPOL’s Purple Notices are used to seek or provide information on modi operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals.

“South Africa’s request shows the commitment of our member countries to use INTERPOL’s global tools and services effectively in their efforts to suppress fisheries crime,” said David Higgins, head of INTERPOL’s Environmental Security unit.


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