Tank Talk: Human dolphin William Trubridge, the greatest freediver of all time

Just two weeks ago world champion New Zealand freediver William Trubridge became the first man to dive to 102 metres unassisted on a single breath, breaking his own previous world record of 101m. In the second installment of Tank Talk, a partnership with Float Culture, resident Spinoff float master Don Rowe goes floating with Trubridge, and subsequently gets his mind blown by the yoga practicing, deep diving, philosophising legend just hours before he leaves for Japan.

One hundred metres beneath the surface of the ocean, light is more of an idea than a phenomenon. Red wavelengths have been absorbed and scattered, and what blue remains is the colour of spilled ink at midnight. Most of the life in the ocean exists in the top 200 metres – however by 100m you would be lucky to see it. In Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas, freediving mecca and the deepest marine cavern in the world, light disappears entirely at 40m.

By this point, nitrogen narcosis has begun to effect the freediver, altering their perception of time and distance. At 100m, the pressure is in excess of 10 bar, inducing sensations ranging from euphoria to full blown hallucination. It is an entirely unique environment, unparalleled on earth. New Zealand freediver William Trubridge is the only person to have ever reached such a depth unassisted.

Trubridge is easily the greatest freediver to ever live, a multiple time world champion and holder of two of the three most significant world records in the sport. Midway through December 2010, he made history when he became the first person to dive past 100m on a single breath.

Just two weeks ago, at Dean’s Blue Hole, Trubridge dove again, this time to 102m.

It was a masterful performance, a combination of supreme physical conditioning, imperturbable mental strength and decades of preparation and perseverance. In his quest to dive ever deeper, Trubridge learned and ingrained the techniques of ancient yogic masters, developed an in-depth knowledge of human biochemistry and anatomy, and ultimately silenced the myriad negative voices which hold each of us back, whispering about the impossibility of our goals.

And so it was a great honour, and with considerable nerves, that I met Trubridge this week at Float Culture. Fresh from an interview at TVNZ he arrived early, dressed in formalwear and carrying a satchel containing, among other things, his own supply of Manuka honey. He wore the tan of someone who spends their time in a friendlier sun than our own, and spoke with careful consideration and presence.

After the float, Trubridge drank a herbal winter recovery tea – no caffeine – mixed with honey. I had a glass of cold water. We got talking in Float Culture’s tranquil lobby as Trubridge stirred his tea.

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So how did that treat you? Did you find yourself in the float state?

I was kind of going back and forwards into it, because you only really realise you’re in that state afterwards, right? So I would have a thought or become aware that for the last period of however long, I was just nothing. Then my mind would start working again, and then it would slow down and stop, so I was kind of going in and out.

Time is a slippery concept in the tank, right? Without a point of reference it’s hard to make a judgement.

You do get a little bit of time from your breathing, I guess; there’s a natural rhythm happening there. That’s the only thing you’re aware of. Sometimes I was just having really shallow passive breathing, other times it was deeper and I was doing some periods where I would stop breathing for a few seconds between breaths. I’d like to do it again because the first time I think you’re kind of analytical, thinking about what’s going on and recording it and documenting the experience. If I had no kind of agenda, it might be a deeper experience still.

One of the most beautiful things for me about it was the sensation, or complete lack of any. Even if I’m floating in the sea you still have to support yourself in some way, so just to be able to be in the water, completely relaxed, was awesome. When I went in I had a slight niggle under my shoulder blade, and that’s gone now. One of the other things that happened to me is that I started to kind of feel like I was being displaced laterally, flowing down a river or spinning, quite quickly as well. I guess that’s just the absence of any reference. That was mostly early on in the float while the music was playing.

That’s an impressive array of experiences. Do you think you possess an increased capacity to turn off the ‘monkey mind’ as a result of the mental preparation necessary for diving at an elite level?

I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s normal, my capacity to do it here, or at least it’s not adapted to this. But as soon as a freedive starts, I very quickly get into that empty mind state. There are different things that are happening in a dive, the pressure creates narcosis in the mind which helps, and the fact that you are holding your breath means there is no sense of time passing because there’s nothing with which to measure it. Those would be two differences, but I think…I often do a type of dive where I get pulled down by a weight to 50 metres and get into a position where I’m completely relaxed. Because I’m not moving and using oxygen I can stay down there for three, almost four minutes before I come up. That is probably the most equatable to this experience because it can be really really dark, and colours are so muted that there’s no sensory input coming in. It’s so quiet, you’re pretty much neutrally buoyant so you don’t feel any sensations in your body and your consciousness just goes inwards.

In the moments before you dive you’re floating on your back and breathing in a way that prepares your body for the experience. Is there a meditative aspect to this breathing?

Most of the mental preparation I’ve done earlier, most of the visualization and what have you. Usually I’ve done it earlier that day, or especially the day before, because if you do it at night the day before you dive then, overnight while you’re dreaming, your subconscious puts everything in order and files those memories of visualisation away deeper in your psyche, so I’ll even do it days before in some cases. The actual breath up I don’t visualise. I’m trying to empty the mind as much as possible. That’s probably the most delicate phase of the dive actually because you’re aware of this deadline coming up when you’re going to have to stop breathing and attempt this thing. You know that any excitement or adrenaline or anything like that, tachycardia, an accelerated heart rate, anything that comes in that phase is going to be counterproductive to your performance, but if you do experience that you’re stressed out or nervous then because you know that’s negative, it will make you more stressed out, more nervous. It’s really hard to avoid getting sucked into that downward spiral towards panicking or freaking out.

Can you actively pull yourself out of that spiral without there being a ‘you’ in the equation?

It’s not so much about pulling yourself out of it, but trying to find a different place to go. Normally I just try and focus on what I’m doing in that specific moment. Try and only control the things that you can control. Focusing on my breathing, relaxing in the water, making sure that there’s no tension in any muscles, counting my breath. When I reach a certain phase in the countdown I know I have to do eight of these style breaths, four or five of the others, then the final breath. Focusing on each particular moment.

That requires an incredible amount of presence.

The rehearsal helps. Every dive is a rehearsal for a record attempt, and each time you do it, it becomes more ingrained and embedded in your subconscious and your muscle memory, in the case of the actual swimming technique. So those processes, if it’s the first time you’ve done them you have to think ‘am I doing this correctly, how can I improve this?’ but once you’ve done it 100 times, it becomes like brushing your teeth. A routine you can do with a totally empty mind.

Do you think you could utilise the tank to facilitate this process?

I definitely think this would be valuable for visualisation prior to a performance, but also to relax and escape. When I’ve got a world record coming up, even a week away from it it’s starting to go through my mind, and I’m starting to get worked up, so being able to escape from that would be valuable for sure.

Amazing amphibious creature pictured with a turtle

Amazing amphibious creature pictured with a turtle in Float Culture’s Ocean Room

When do you make the decision to roll over and dive?

In competition you have a thirty second window to turn over and dive. My last breath actually takes about 30, 35 seconds from the time that I start the inhale to when I finish packing, which is the maneuver we use with our mouth to push more air into the lungs, so I have to start that process before I actually get to the zero. For record attempts, if it’s not a competition just a standalone record attempt, you can actually choose your moment. But for this recent one I ended up going pretty soon after zero.

Does incorporating yoga and yogic techniques of breath control also cultivate a certain mindfulness that transcends your freediving?

I definitely recommend those exercises to people who have difficulty with stress in their life or people who don’t feel grounded. In almost all of the Eastern practices of internal martial arts, yoga, there’s a lot of importance put on the breath and especially on breathing with the diaphragm. Without going into too much detail about the reputed physiological effects, they have made connections between that and being able to control other areas of your body and your mind. I think it’s really powerful.

Is that an area that interests you? I was reading some of your writing, and it’s not the work of a jock. There’s a certain amount of introspection and analysis there. Is that something that has come to you through freediving or have you always been that way inclined?

Freediving has definitely enhanced it, because it’s not a sport we know a lot about. We’ve had to discover as we go, to learn and research and experiment. But I’ve always had that kind of mind for sure, perhaps that’s why I was drawn to freediving. That was a challenge, not just physically but also mentally too, to discover the best way to train and to go further.

You wrote about using dread as a compass in terms of moving towards areas of weakness in training. In what ways have you been able to implement that philosophy?

In freediving, definitely competition nerves. When I first attempted a world record in 2006 I attempted it twice, both times were a failure, and I had health problems that year as well. But as well as health problems I wasn’t at all experienced at being in that scenario mentally. In that case there’s no substitute for experience, just putting yourself in that situation time and time again until you naturally develop strategies to deal with it.

My lung volume is average for my height and weight so I don’t have any anatomical advantage in terms of breath hold, which has meant that I’ve had to really ensure that my oxygen efficiency is as developed as it could possibly be. There may be other athletes who have bigger lung volumes and are able to get there a little more with a little more brawn than efficiency, but I can’t afford to be like that because of the parameters that I’m working with.

If you’re working without anatomical gifts, and there have been these two failed attempts, how do you design a training protocol, who do you work with to identify the issues and to make the dive under increasing pressure?

Going into the first world record attempts I had done two metres more than the current world record, and when I attempted it the third time, which was ultimately successful, it was the last attempt I could finance myself. I didn’t know if I had the willpower to go forwards if I wasn’t successful on the third attempt, so then I kind of decided on using the strategy of making it inevitable that I was going to succeed, so that I wasn’t just doing my best or going out and trying as hard as I could, but so that there was no possible scenario in which I didn’t succeed. That just involved training to a point where I was going well past the world record and had a really good margin, had huge confidence going into the dive. There were various other strategies as well, but that was the main one.

In your writing you mention there’s no time during a dive for inner-chat, but how much analysis are you doing at 100 metres beneath the ocean?

It’s not a dive to experience what’s down there, it’s a completely internal experience in the same way that floating is, essentially. There’s ideally no analysis. If I’m starting to get alarm bells coming up from deep in the subconscious then I would start to maybe listen to those and work out what’s going on, or if I need to abort the dive, but ideally I would be completely on autopilot from the start of the dive to the end.

I do have thoughts every now and again, but they would be much more spaced out than I do in day to day life. It’s mostly empty space I deal with. It’s about what it’s like to be at depth, and to have all the stimuli taken away, and to also combine that with the effects of narcosis and high partial pressures of nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

willux

How do you differentiate from the pain of the experience and actual danger?

It can actually be not uncomfortable for the whole duration of the dive, on a really good dive I can have pleasant sensations the whole way through. That’s again partially due to the narcosis which takes away the discomfort of holding your breath to a certain extent. If I hold my breath on the surface, in a swimming pool where I’m not moving, I can hold my breath twice as long but most of that, the last five minutes of it, is all pretty difficult. I’m going through contractions, really strong urges to breathe, a suffocating feeling. It’s definitely a lot more pleasant on the dive, but on a really difficult dive like this record attempt I’ll still start to feel that urge to breathe on the way up, and you might notice on the video my contractions. There’s an expansion of the ribcage which pulls the diaphragm up, it’s essentially a breathing reflex because the body is trying to breathe in, but you obviously don’t allow it to. On the whole, it’s not as dire as people would think.

At any point during the preparation, the dive or afterwards, are you considering death? Because that’s what happens when you stop breathing, right? You’re getting close to the experience, you’re getting close to the door.

When you stop breathing you actually, depending on the temperature of the water, you don’t go into any death – and there’s multiple definitions of death, clinical death, biological death – none of those start until several minutes after you stop breathing. Your heart will still be pumping, it’s pumping oxygen up into the brain, the blood is still at 50% saturation, which is more than enough to sustain brain life. It’s not until several minutes afterwards that it drops to 20, 15 or less, and that’s when cells might start to die off. Even if you black out under the water, you’re not going to be under for more than a minute at the most before your safety divers pull you up and start your breathing again.

I do get negative chatter, voices popping into your head saying ‘this could be your last breath’, that sort of stuff, but I never actually consider it as I start the dive.

Does the breath control, the pranayama, does that induce any sort of altered states?

I don’t use those techniques as preparation for a dive, but obviously in training. There are different effects. Physiological ones like the heart rate slowing down, it can get down to the high twenties, whereas I have quite a high resting heart rate normally, around 55bpm or so resting. More than that is, again, the experience goes inwards. If you’re sitting in a good position, completely balanced, then you can experience a dissolving of your body away from……like a central core, from your head down to your, what they call the mula bandha and with a lot of those exercises I use a series of contractions in order to control the breath hold and to get a strong bradychardia, a strong slowing of the heart rate, and those contractions are all along that central meridian. The tongue, jalandhara bandha, the uddiyana bandha and the mula bandha, like a stack, the experience is that the rest of your body falls away and you feel this central line of pressure, I guess, and nothing else.

I’ve felt that on a shakti mat! Nothing but a root stem of somethingness.

They call it a lotus stem. Your body just becomes a lotus stem from your head down to your root chakra.

Are there any applicable uses to this knowledge? Is there an advantage to knowing the terminology and the esoteric theory?

I think it allows you to shortcut some of the learning processes of it, or to enhance it in ways that you wouldn’t have come across naturally on your own. When I first started training for freediving and holding my breath, basically doing a breath hold where you breathe out all your air and just sit there, through that I noticed that my body was developing these tractions. My chin was coming forward, there was a slight raising in the abdomen, a contraction in the perennial muscles. It wasn’t until later that I discovered in yogic texts that those are bandhas that are used in yoga to control or to hold the energy in the body. That was interesting because it was a case of conversion and evolution, or confirmation that those techniques are actually applicable if you come across them naturally.

How did you conduct your search?

My mother is a yoga teacher, has been for a long time, so she has some really good old books from the fifties and sixties, and she was able to scan excerpts from those that she thought might be useful and sent those to me.

You grew up on boats as a young person right? That’s quite a good combination of knowledge and experiences.

For freediving it couldn’t have been a more ideal combination or childhood.

I find something similar to the dissolution of limbs happens in the tank. I sometimes feel like a berocca in there, just plopping in and fizzing and dissolving into everything…I don’t know where I was going with that actually.

I’ve felt that sensation. I didn’t get it in the tank this time, but I imagine I probably would if I repeated it, but I’ve had that in those dives that I described where I go down to 50m and just hang there. You feel an expansion of yourself outwards to the point where the concept of a body is kind of foreign. That’s the pinnacle of that experience for me, when I get that.

World records are good too though. What goals remain in freediving? What’s left to explore?

There’s a lot of depth below 102 metres. There’s no ‘how far’, it’s just deeper. There’s this gray area and I’m trying to go as deep as possible into that.


This interview was brought to you by the zen lords at Float Culture, Auckland’s first and premier floatation centre.

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