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IT often seems there is something irresistible about the idea of water, and more particularly the ocean, as a metaphor for the most mysterious and protean aspects of existence. In its constant flow and change water echoes our sense of the mutability of our selves and the deep wells of dreams and imagination that move beneath the surface of our daily lives, even as it suggests something larger.
Certainly it is not accidental that Freud chose to describe the feelings of boundlessness and oneness with nature he believed to be the birthplace of religious sentiment as “oceanic feeling”, or that Heraclitus chose water as symbol of the transience of things when he observed that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. Whether we speak of transience or infinity, time or the unconscious, images of water and the oceanic are rarely far away.
That these ideas should intrude on a study of freediving, the increasingly popular practice of challenging the body by diving to 20m, 30m, 50m, even 100m or more without breathing apparatus or equipment other than fins, might seem unlikely at first. After all, as American journalist James Nestor observes in the opening pages of his new book, Deep, at first blush freediving “seems like the kind of oddball hobby people take up, like badminton of Charleston dancing, so they can talk about it at cocktail parties and refer to it in their email handles”.
Nestor’s formulation is perhaps a bit benign: while he is at pains to distinguish the questing, frequently spiritual practice of non-competitive freediving from the focus on achieving depth at all costs that drives competitive freedivers, the considerable risk of permanent disability or death still means freediving is probably closer in spirit to basejumping or big wave surfing than ballroom dancing. Yet as the surprisingly intense and suggestive Deep demonstrates, freediving is, at least for those seduced by its narcotic pleasures, more than an oddball hobby.
Nestor’s book has its genesis in an assignment to cover the 2011 world freediving championships in Greece. This leads him to the decision to learn to freedive himself. Along the way he sees divers at the world championships emerge unconscious and bloody after dives to 100m or more rupture ear drums, tear larynxes and induce strokes and seizures; swims with the ama, or sea women of Japan, the last practitioners of a deep-diving discipline once practised by thousands of women on Japan’s east coast; and finally, in an interesting echo of Philip Hoare’s 2013 book The Sea Inside, dives unassisted with sperm whales in the Trincomalee Canyon off Sri Lanka (“they look like landmasses, submerged islands”).
Yet these experiences are merely the pretext for an account of a more personal journey, one that demands Nestor travel inward as well as down. The trajectory of this journey is set early on in a discussion of the mammalian dive reflex — or the master switch of life as it is sometimes known — a set of physiological mechanisms activated by immersion in water, slowing and stabilising our heartbeats, moving blood away from our extremities even as we dive deeper, engorging the vessels in our lungs with blood to prevent them from being crushed by increasing pressure.
Exactly why humans possess these amphibious reflexes is not clear, yet some, like Nestor, see in them a remnant of another, older way of being, a memory of a time when we too were creatures of the sea. There is something wonderfully resonant about the idea we bear within us the memory of other, older ways of being. After all, as Nestor points out, we carry the salt of the sea in our blood, and human embryos grow fins before they grow hands. Even the amniotic fluid in which we spend our first months of life suspended is salty, barely distinguishable from sea water.
How literally we’re meant to take some of the ideas Nestor traverses in Deep is an interesting question. Resonant as they are, many seem to blur the line between science and poetry, usually to the detriment of the science (at one point a professional scientist snarks that the research behind one freediving group’s whale interaction study is little more than a “pretty flimsy scientific cover to go swimming with whales”).
Yet in a way that doesn’t matter, for as Nestor’s often thrilling account of the exploration of the lightless realm of the abyssal deep demonstrates with marvellous clarity, he is less interested in the literal truth of these ideas than in their capacity to provide imaginative tools, ways of thinking about not just the ocean, but time and its immensity, a process anticipated by French poet Paul Claudel a century ago when he said that “water is the gaze of the earth, its instrument for looking at time”.
While Nestor sees in the ocean not just beauty but also some intimation of the sublime and its terrors, American scientist and author Wallace Nichols, author of Blue Mind, has a rather more upbeat story to tell, arguing water has the power not just to make us happier, but healthier, more empathetic, even more productive. Those of a more cynical bent might find Nichols’s relentlessly sunny, West Coast-style a little difficult to take. Yet if one looks past the somewhat solipsistic self-help surfaces of Blue Mind, it becomes apparent Nichols has something important to say.
Drawing on EO Wilson’s argument that humans possess an instinctual bond to nature, and the late New Zealand sociologist and philosopher Denis Dutton’s ideas about beauty and our tendency to describe landscapes with water when asked to talk about ideal places, Nichols deploys research by philosophers, neurobiologists, rehabilitation doctors, marketers and more to argue water is a sort of universal panacea, and that the route not just to happiness but to a more profound state of mindfulness is to be found in getting wet.
He is at pains to point out his ideas aren’t “touchy-feely, let’s save the dolphins” stuff, and while they are not always the hard science of “pre-frontal cortex, amygdala, evolutionary biology, neuroimaging, and neuron functioning” he claims them to be, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any number of fascinating and provocative ideas buried in Blue Mind. Not the least of these is the extensive research connecting water and mood and colour and mood (Japanese researchers have found exposure to blue slows our heartbeats and relieves fatigue).
All of which makes the book’s tendency to gloss over gaps in its arguments with bluster all the more frustrating. When Nichols declares that people’s preparedness to pay a premium to live beside the water demonstrates an affinity with water, it’s tempting to point out that certainly wasn’t always the case, and that in pre-modern times many people who lived by the ocean were terrified of it. Similarly his otherwise lucid and thought-provoking discussion of water as metaphor almost entirely neglects the cultural dimension to our ideas about water and the ocean, many of which are the creation of the Romantics.
Ultimately, though, Nichols wants us to learn to see the ocean differently, and not just because it will make us happier, but because by reimagining it we become able to reimagine ourselves, and by extension our relationship with the world we inhabit. Or as Nestor, watching his companions turning double helixes in the blue, seven storeys beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean puts it, “What are we? I thought to myself. And with every breath I hold, I still wonder”.
James Bradley edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean. His new novel, Clade, will be published next year.
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
By James Nestor
Profile Books, 280pp, $27.99
Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do
By Wallace J. Nichols
Foreword by Celine Cousteau
Little, Brown, 320pp, $35
Read more here.
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