Simply breathtaking

Taking the plunge with freediver Kathryn Nevatt.

“It’s all about the breathing – even though it kind of seems like it’s about not breathing,” Kathryn Nevatt explains. A Queenstown-based architect, Kathryn is also a record-holder in freediving. She can hold her breath for more than seven-and-a-half minutes, and she has dived to a depth of 65 metres – that’s about the height of a 20-storey building, but one pointing straight down.

Freediving, as the name suggests, is a form of underwater diving, but one which relies on breath holding rather than breathing equipment such as scuba gear. It dates back to at least Ancient Greece, when, due to a lack of the relevant technology, not breathing was the only option. Diving was used to gather food and harvest other resources like sponge and pearl, or to recover valuable goods from shipwrecks. It was also a tool of war; in 332 BC, during Alexander the Great’s Siege of Tyre, divers cut the anchor cables of attacking ships.

Originally from Palmerston North, Kathryn took up freediving in 2005, after a scuba diving friend invited her along to a training session in Wellington. Despite initially finding it an “odd” sport, she took to it after her first four-minute breath hold showed her what was possible. By 2008, she was voted the world’s best female freediver at the ICARE (International Center for Apnea Recognition and Education) Awards; in 2009, she made the Guinness Book of World Records when she broke the world record in the dynamic without fins class, with a distance of 159 metres.

A fair bit of media coverage has followed, including The Breath Connection, a documentary about Kathryn which won the Special Jury Award at the 2019 New Zealand Mountain Film Festival.

Competitive freediving covers several disciplines and can take place in swimming pools, in lakes or in the ocean. The ocean-based events are what most people picture when they think of the sport: descending headfirst as far as possible, then, importantly, coming back up. Variations include wearing or not wearing fins, using or not using a line, and sometimes deploying a weighted sled to help push the boundaries of depth.

PHOTO: Chris Marshall

Kathryn competes in pool-based contests. The dynamic without fins event is one of the three dynamic disciplines, which involve swimming underwater for as long as possible on a single breath. As she explains, “there’s no fins, which is swimming breaststroke underwater; bi-fin, where you have the two fins; and something called the dynamic, which is with a mono-fin. It’s like a mermaid tail.” Kathryn has set a number of national records in dynamic events, including hitting 165 metres in the no fins, and 200 metres in the dynamic mono-fin.

But most impressive (and the most alarming to watch on YouTube), are Kathryn’s accomplishments in static apnea, for which you hold your breath for as long as you can while floating face down in the water. In 2011, she became the world champion in the discipline, with a breath hold time of 7 minutes and 34 seconds. She has since exceeded that, setting a national record at the New Zealand National Champs in 2016: 7 minutes 45.

If the thought of that makes you feel panicky, you are not alone. According to Kathryn, one of the key things freedivers are aware of is “triggering that parasympathetic nervous system, because we obviously don’t want to be panicking all the time while we’re diving.” They undergo rigorous training to ensure they don’t succumb to fear while underwater. “Panic burns quite a lot of oxygen, so we have to be really calm and relaxed to conserve oxygen and be able to hold our breaths for a long period of time. You almost go into a meditative state – your brain actually burns about 20% of the body’s oxygen, so if your brain is working at a million miles an hour, you’re going to burn through oxygen quite fast. We need to be in a place where diving is second nature, not overthinking it, really relaxed and chilled out.”

Kathryn says that it’s all about knowing the difference between the urge to breathe and the need to breathe. Your body gives you signals, and you work through them, both mentally and physically. She explains that she gets to a point where she is completely in control of her body, hypersensitive to everything going on, yet so utterly relaxed that she loses track of time. “The best dive is when you really let go – they talk about flow state in a lot of sports, and when you get into your flow state freediving, you barely even remember the dive at the end.”

PHOTO: Aliscia Young

Kathryn moved to the Queenstown area with her partner in mid-2015. A two-hour drive from the nearest stretch of coastline, it seems like an unlikely place for a competitive diver to settle down, but she loves it. Sunshine Bay, on Lake Wakatipu, is “nice and deep”, and not long after the move she founded the Queenstown Freediving Club.

The club currently has about 25 members, though membership tends to increase during the warmer months, when people are keen to dive in the lake and develop skills for pursuits like spearfishing and underwater photography. “It is a pretty fringe sport, it’s a little difficult to attract people to it. It’s hard because it’s not something you can really fake – you’ve got to be fairly persistent, keep at it, and then it gets better in time,” Kathryn notes.

Mind you, it’s maybe not as hard as it looks. First-timers usually think they’ll max out at about 30 seconds of breath holding; many, however, can get to between two and four minutes in their first session. And there’s a lot of fun to be had, too “As a club, we also drift over the Clutha River every summer. You can just kind of fly in the water and see lots of trout.”

In fact, world records aside, Kathyrn says some of her most memorable diving experiences have involved aquatic wildlife, from diving with the sea lions in the Galapagos to the time in the Bahamas when a shark decided to say hello. “We went for a recreational dive and I couldn’t understand why my buddy kept swapping sides with me. She’d be on my left, then on my right and back to the left. It was because there was a shark circling around and she was using me as a shield. It wasn’t aggressive, just looking to see if we were spearing fish as it would have wanted a free feed.”

Nearly 20 years after she took it up, Kathryn remains a top freediver. She won the Freediving New Zealand Pool Nationals this year with three strong results: 6 minutes 33 seconds for the static apnea, 180 metres in the dynamic and 137 metres in the dynamic without fins. Her overall points total was best in the competition, ahead of every other diver, both female and male.

But the other competitors might not be the point. “Freediving is basically competing against yourself, because you need to focus inwards rather than outwards. If you try to beat someone else, you’re probably going to crash and burn.” Or as she puts it in The Breath Connection: “It’s a very personal sport. It’s something you have to feel, and want.”

Jessica Allen