Written by PADI AmbassaDiver, Jillian Morris
My name is Jillian Morris, I am a marine biologist, shark conservationist and proud PADI AmbassaDiver. I live every week likes it’s Shark Week and I am excited to share this series of shark adventures with you. I hope they inspire you to DIVE IN and explore the incredible world of sharks.
There is something completely surreal about taking a single breath and slipping beneath the surface of the ocean. The world as we know it disappears; no status to updates, deadlines to meet or to-do lists to stress over. On a single breath, we can find a quite peace and truly connect with the ocean.
I have between 1,500-2,000 dives under my belt (weight belt that is) and have worked as a scuba instructor, divemaster, and dive guide around the world, but I am also absolutely in love with freediving. From a young age, I was challenged by friends to see who can hold their breath the longest. Little did I know those challenges posed early on would actually become a huge part of my adult life. Living in Bimini, the Bahamas, we are blessed with lots of sharks (the Bahamas is considered by many to be the ‘shark diving capital of the world’), crystal clear water, and shallow shark diving sites. This makes free diving an ideal way to interact with some incredible animals. I have been lucky enough to freedive with 8 different species of sharks in Bimini, including great hammerheads, bull, and tiger sharks. As I take my breath and dive down, I am relaxed. I watch the shark approach. I watch their movement and my body is free, not restricted by gear, and only limited by my breathhold.
On a recent dive with great hammerheads, I noticed a light colored shark in the distance. The “ghosts” as we call them, often linger at the edge of view. I rested on the bottom and saw her moving closer. If I had been on scuba, my bubbles might have kept her away, but on a single breath I was quiet. She turned towards me, rather than away. The other hammerheads we regularly see come close all the time, but this moment was really special. She passed me and was gone. We did not see her again during the remaining hour we spent in the water. This moment happened because I was freediving and these moments are why I love this form of diving so much. It creates a connection to the water and the animals we find there in a way nothing else does.
While great hammerheads are my favorite species to freedive with, I also love Caribbean reef sharks. The site we dive here in the Bahamas has anywhere from 5-20 of these sharks at a time and is an entirely different encounter than with the hammers. The hammerheads are typically on the bottom during the dive, where as the reef sharks can be anywhere in the water column. I love diving down, hovering near the bottom and looking up. It’s a beautiful site to see shark silhouettes circling above. With no other distractions, I can really focus in on the detail of these magnificent creatures, looking at their eyes or the way the sun rays cascade over their backs as they cruise along. I also notice the scars the shark might have, these tell a lot of stories about the life of this particular animal. When I really take a moment to look, I realize how unique each individual actually is. Each animal carries a story and if you look closely, you will get a glimpse of it.
The best part about freediving is anyone can do it. It requires minimal gear and people of all ages can participate. I love taking local kids out to see sharks and giving them the opportunity to freedive with the animals. Through Sharks4Kids, we offer students this opportunity several times a year, partnering with Bimini Scuba Center to do so. It’s incredible to watch them go from being afraid to not wanting to get out of the water. They stay at the surface for a little bit, but it’s only a matter of time before they want to dive down, they want to get closer. They want to get closer to these animals they’ve been taught to fear. It’s astonishing what a mask and snorkel can do to change the way people perceive something; fear to fascination.
I have also taken both of my parents freediving with sharks, most recently my dad with great hammerheads. These sharks are my favorite animals on the planet, so being able to share them with my dad was incredible. A mask, snorkel and fins were all it took to share this remarkable creature with him. Despite it being cold and my dad not having a great wetsuit, he watched the sharks for over an hour. Freediving is a window into a fascinating world, one which is drastically different than our own.
Freediving and scuba are different, so naturally freediving with sharks and scuba diving with sharks is different. Here are a few things I think are important to consider when freediving with sharks.
- Find a good operator: Does the operator offer freediving excursions? Are they familiar with freediving and how to best support freedivers?
- Go with someone knowledgeable: If you have never been freediving with sharks, I would suggest buddying up with someone who has! It will make the experience not only safer, but far more enjoyable.
- Observe the sharks: While it is tempting to immediately start diving down to get closer, your interaction will be better if you observe the sharks for a few minutes. Are they looping around in a pattern? Which direction are they coming from? If other divers are diving down, do the sharks turn away? Watch and learn for the best possible interactions.
- Respect the animals: All wildlife deserves our respect and sharks are no exception. Freediving, in many situations, can get you closer to the animal, but respect for their space must still be maintained.
- Timing: If you are shooting photos or filming, it’s all about timing. Scuba makes is easy to sit there and wait, but freediving means you need to time your dive with the animals. Observing the animals will also help you perfect (or nearly perfect) your timing.
- Enjoy! Forget about getting the perfect photo for Instagram or rushing to update your status. Truly experience the moment, the freedom and the connection you are making.
Even if you are a die hard bubble blower, I definitely recommend slipping off the gear and exploring the ocean on a single breath. It will change your experience, your perspective, and hopefully provide a truly memorable experience.
Learn more about the PADI Freediver Course.