When marine biologist and photographer James Monnington got a severe case of the bends from an unlucky SCUBA dive, he thought his diving days were over. But that was far from the case. We spoke to James to hear more about his story, and his experiences freediving the shallows of the world.
I was always obsessed with the idea of SCUBA diving as a kid. My Dad’s friend used to do lots of wreck-diving in the English Channel and I remember being blown away by his stories. Then when I was about 12, I spotted a local pool that was running evening session try-dives. I did it once, became totally besotted and managed to coerce my parents into dropping me off for “just one more go” almost every night.
Years later, post Uni and a stint trying to make a living as a musician, I went on holiday to Egypt to revisit my childhood dream of learning to dive, and once again, became quite obsessed. I set off travelling, during which time I undertook scientific diver training, a dive-master internship and volunteered on a project filming thresher-shark behaviour in the Philippines which is where I experienced the event that would be the catalyst for my transition to freediving.
On my ascent I was overcome by lethargy and my vision became distorted – classic signs of decompression sickness (DCS). Initially I tried to deny it, knowing that would mean the end of the trip and potentially my SCUBA career. Two six-hour sessions in the decompression chamber later and I was okay again but since the decompression sickness was pretty severe and did some lasting damage, SCUBA diving again would be very difficult. Thankfully, all hope was not lost and I was introduced to freediving.
In very simple terms, freediving involves the use of relaxation and breathing techniques to enter a state that allows a diver to spend extended periods underwater on a single breath of air. You’ll find me in the first 20-40m, where there is an abundance of light, wildlife and scope for exploration. Preparation for a dive usually starts the night before i.e. no alcohol and a good night’s sleep. In the morning I’ll try to have a pretty light breakfast as I find it quite hard to hold my breath with a full stomach. Some freedivers avoid caffeine, but I’m pretty unbearable company until I’ve had my first black coffee, so I don’t bother with that for the sake of the people around me.
Once in the water, a typical dive starts with a few minutes relaxation on the surface. I’ll try to clear my mind and think about relaxing each muscle in my body. Once ready, I’ll take three final deeper breaths, remove my snorkel, duck dive and kick down to the target depth whilst blowing gently into my nose to equalise my ears and sinus spaces to match the increasing ambient pressure. As this pressure gradually compresses the volume of your body, your natural buoyancy is overcome by your weight and you become slightly negatively buoyant i.e. you sink (but very slowly at first). This allows you descend whilst effortlessly freefalling, which is the aspect that many freedivers love the most. Once at the target depth, which might be mid-water or might be on the seabed, I’ll relax, take in my surroundings and then swim around a bit if something catches my eye to photograph.
I pretty much always shoot my photographs in black and white. I’ve never wanted to take those classic well-lit, saturated, colourful and super clear photos you see in dive magazines and competitions. They’re beautiful and require a lot of technical skill, but I find it hard to connect with them emotionally, and they don’t really represent my experience of the ocean, which can be very appealing, but can also be overwhelming, humbling and intimidating. Quite often, it’s a dark, murky, disorienting and surreal atmosphere, which is a side of the experience that I think is important to share as well. Black and white really helps with this. I also like the fact that it is a geographic leveller, rendering images taken in in the middle of winter in the UK close to indistinguishable from photos from paradisal dive locations in far flung locations around the world.
Baja California in Mexico is one of my favourite places to dive; the sheer variety of wildlife is mind-boggling. On my last trip we spent eight days in the water and saw whale sharks, tower-block sized schools of trevally, scores of sea lions, mako sharks, mobula rays, a fin whale, pelagic swarms of squat lobster, and so much more.
I do love travelling, but I also think it’s important to spend time appreciating what’s on your doorstep (or a few hours from it!). UK waters are generally assumed to be murky and devoid of life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When the conditions are good the diving here is absolutely stunning. Unlike the tropics, temperate waters are dominated by seaweeds, so you get these beautiful hues of greens, reds and browns that you don’t tend to see elsewhere. Even when the visibility isn’t great, these come together to create an eerie, ethereal atmosphere that I just can’t get enough of. We also have some amazing big animals, and it’s relatively easy to find ways of responsibly getting in the water with seals, blue sharks, basking sharks and more!
For me, freediving has impacted my life in ways I never thought it would. I actually seldom think about that terrifying day in the Philippines when my life abruptly and violently veered from the expected course. One of the things I love the most about freediving is that means that I always travel with a specific objective, which had led me to some pretty odd locations that I would never have visited otherwise. Obviously, it would be great if I still had the option to pursue SCUBA more aggressively in tandem with freediving, and I know I would have taken a different professional path if that were the case. However, I have no doubt I would have been drawn to freediving anyway – it’s given me a sense of purpose and identity and has introduced me to a community of so many amazing people.
To read more about James’ freediving experiences, click here.