Nov. 1, 2019

Saltwater People: Michael Adams on how a legendary freediver helped him understand our ancient connections to the ocean

Saltwater People: Michael Adams on how a legendary freediver helped him understand our ancient connections to the ocean

Michael Adams on how freediving unlocked ancient ways of connecting with the ocean


Jason Elias: (00:01)
Hi, and welcome to our new podcast, Big Deep. My name is Jason Elias. And along with my good friend, Paul Kelway, we've created a show about people who have a deep connection to the ocean. Just a quick note before we start. After you've listened, if you like what we're doing, please subscribe, like, comment, and rate our show on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference for our show. Okay. Thanks for listening. And I hope you enjoy what we've created. Welcome to Big Deep. Hi and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean. People for whom that connection is so strong, it defines some aspect of their life.

Paul Kelway: (00:55)
Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. Then each episode we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection.

Jason Elias: (01:04)
In this episode, we speak with a professor of human geography whose free diving experiences opened him to deeper parts of himself and the world's oceans.

Paul Kelway: (01:15)
Hello, this is Paul Kelway.

Jason Elias: (01:17)
And I'm Jason Elias.

Paul Kelway: (01:19)
Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias: (01:23)
Over the course of our series, both Paul and I will be interviewing interesting people we've come across who are in some way deeply connected to the world's oceans. In essence, something they've done has caught our attention. And so we reached out to them to talk a bit more about what they do and why they feel so connected to the water. Our first guest is Michael Adams, a professor of human geography at the University of Wollongong in Australia. When Paul sat down to speak with him, they discussed how free diving had changed his entire way of looking at things, from Aboriginal views on connections to nature to meditative takes on his own mortality.

Michael Adams: (02:02)
Most of my work has been in and around relationships between indigenous people and environments. It meant that I spent a lot of time in the bush with Aboriginal people. And throughout that time, Aboriginal people were continuously teaching me about sacred and spiritual relationships to land. It always happened that people would be talking about the significance of wind, of birds, ancient stories connected to places. My focus and my training as an academic is to use your head, but what these situations were telling me was to use my heart and then learning about my place amongst these places.

Paul Kelway: (02:40)
When the indigenous communities talk about sacred and when they talk about country, what is their relationship to the elements to that environment?

Michael Adams: (02:51)
People see themselves as fundamentally integrated into country. Whereas in Western scientific training, it's partly how we define nature as places where humans are not. Aboriginal people don't hold that view at all. People see themselves as being part of this integrated community of other beings, which have an equal status in some ways to people. And here, I live on the Southeast post now, people here call themselves saltwater people, Aboriginal people, and they talk about sea country as being part of their traditional territory. So, not a distinct vision between marine and terrestrial in the way that we tend to do in the west.

Paul Kelway: (03:37)
You talked a little bit about your methods, and perhaps your methods changed somewhat at this point. How did this experience then lead you to deeper exploration of the ocean?

Michael Adams: (03:48)
I took on full immersion where you attempt to become the thing that you were researching and to think about what was involved. For me, personally, when I did that when I hunted in the ocean as a spear fisher. But one of the things Aboriginal people say is, "Why would you just restrict your knowledge of the world to your intellect? Why wouldn't you also think about your emotional responses, your dreams, your intuitions, the whole sphere of engagement with the world?" So I have dived for a long time in a fairly casual way, essentially harvesting food from the oceans. But when I started to think more about how I was in the ocean from the lessons from indigenous people, it opened up a whole new series of understandings.

Michael Adams: (04:32)
Then three or four years ago, I went to a free dive center on the north coast of Bali in Indonesia. And that first introduction to thinking about depth and sustained time underwater, and understanding not just the physiology of your body, but the way that you need to work with your mind was extremely interesting. The idea that when you're freediving, it's very meditative process. It's about being as quiet and calm and empty as possible when you're underwater. I then dived in Hawaii with a very legendary diver called Carlos Eyles. So Carlos is 75 or 76. He's dived all his life. He's written half a dozen books and he dives in ways that no one will ever be able to dive again.

Michael Adams: (05:22)
The way he swam with sharks in places where sharks are now massively depleted. He's skinny, deeply tanned, pretty sort of battered looking. And when he taught in Panama Bay below the volcano, we didn't talk about safety, we didn't talk about technique. He just said, "Look, I want you to watch what I do and then copy my movement. We sat on the rocks, at the foot of those volcanoes and talked about philosophy for an hour before we dived. And then we just swam together for about a mile out to sea effectively. So when you swim 100 meters off the Rocky lava shore, you can be in 100 meters depth of water.

Michael Adams: (06:06)
And the first time I did that, I've never been in water that deep. And I actually found it pretty scary. One of his lessons to me was that you have to throw away those imaginative fears. Yes, there are real dangers, but you don't want to bring earthly monsters from your cultural upbringing out into the sea with you. It's about letting go of those fears, letting go of the numbers, the minutes of breath hold, the meters of depths. Don't think about that, just try and into your mind and become one of all those other creatures that you see and experience in those warm tropical waters.

Michael Adams: (06:45)
And those waters are amazing. There are spinner dolphins around us. We're listening to the crackle of shrimp. We see many, many fish turtles, all kinds of marine things in this intensely biological environment. But it's also amazing blue depths as you move further offshore, and it just drops away into darkness below your fins. I think that was the single strongest lesson to me from Carlos. He says the ocean is a non-linear system. It's about a much more meditative approach, a much more unstructured throwing away your acculturated, intellectual thinking about all these things and opening yourself to the experience, being in this deep blue water, which extends across the planet.

Michael Adams: (07:53)
All oceans in the world are connected. It's the world ocean. You're actually in this vast body of water which covers 71% of the planet. Also, the sense that the saltwater goes all the way through you, that you carry within your body these versions of the ocean, the blood in your veins, tears in your eyes, the sweat on your skin, that salt water is continuous with saltwater that you are swallowing and tasting in your mouth and rinsing through your sinuses. When you start thinking like that, that you are this tiny spec in this immensity of blue, which extends across every continent, across the whole sphere of the planet. In some senses, the correct responses are through poetry and meditation rather than through science and calculation.

Paul Kelway: (08:55)
You mentioned fear. And freediving, of course, has an element where you are literally putting yourself on the edge at times. So I wonder if you could maybe speak to that as far as safety and fear and even contemplations on death.

Michael Adams: (09:08)
Once I started training in freediving, I was Googling around to see what had been published on free diving. And there's quite a bit on the physiology of freediving, and almost nothing on the cultural or embodied experiences of diving. So I decided I was going to focus on this. I interviewed divers, I looked at a lot of literature through the free communities, throughout all of the academic approaches I'd been using, and tried to write in a more [inaudible 00:09:42] way to try and honor what I was feeling in the experience. And what had happened just prior to that, I had come across my father's death certificate, my father killed himself when I was 14 and I knew very little about that event.

Michael Adams: (09:58)
And in my diving, I had been increasingly aware of how close diving brings you to death, in the risk sense. But the really interesting thing was, that it wasn't at all frightening. It wasn't about an adrenaline rush of being close to death. It was this very peaceful, connected feeling of being unafraid of being close to death. And that's what the free diving was doing. Reminding me of how vulnerable we are as living beings on the planet, as well as how strong we are. That connection, our kind of joy and strength in swimming in the ocean, and our incredible vulnerability in the face of engaging with the biggest thing on the planet was a key to working through my thoughts on this.

Paul Kelway: (10:53)
You're speaking to a very personal experience of almost processing your own family experience around death. How has this engagement in the water, this relating to fear in that environment, how has that helped you with that processing of that personal experience?

Michael Adams: (11:10)
Well, when you're underwater, fear is not good. Physiologically it kicks in adrenaline that choose oxygen, gets you ready to fight or flee, and you can't do either of those things underwater. When free-dive training, a large amount is about letting go of your mind. If there are thoughts of fear coming in, just looking at them and letting them go past. One of the lessons to me from my many, many indigenous teachers and from freediving is that death in life, it's two sides of the coin. Every living thing dies. We all die. Our continued lives depend on the deaths of other living things in what we eat to sustain ourselves.

Michael Adams: (11:58)
I don't believe in the idea of reincarnation, but reincarnation is never less true in the sense of all the bodies of living things that die are then reassembled into other living things. Animals that die, their bodies break down into the earth and plants grow in that enriched nutrient soil and then they're eaten by other plants. It's a cycle. And engaging with the idea that we are going to die, to some extent frees you from fear in a different context. I guess that's the path that it's taken me.

Paul Kelway: (12:29)
Wow, thank you for sharing that. So there is this physiological aspect of free diving, and I wonder if you could just briefly speak to that in terms of our own physical bodies and actually this approach to training ourselves to perform these deep dives without the aid of any equipment.

Michael Adams: (12:46)
As far as we know, humans have been breath-hold divers for as long as they have been humans. We still only partially understand what enables deep and sustained diving. We do know a suite of things, and those are that, initially when you're immersed, particularly in cold water, your heart rate drops. And as you progress your time in the ocean, your blood moves from your extremities into your core in a process which they call vasoconstriction. When your blood vessels get smaller and push the blood towards your heart. And they call that movement to your core, blood shift.

Michael Adams: (13:20)
As you stay down or go deeper, eventually your spleen contracts and releases oxygen-rich blood into the body to compensate for the fact that you haven't been taking oxygen in any other way. That series of three physiological responses is one of the reasons why people can dive deeply and stay down for quite a long time. As you go deeper, your lungs compress to the size of your fists, and fluid moves into the space that's created there because you can't have an empty space when you've got increasing atmospheres of pressure on your body.

Michael Adams: (13:53)
We're still working on understanding everything that happens because competitive free divers continue to push past the limits of what was thought possible. People regularly dive to more than 100 meters with absolutely no equipment. But the fact that that's possible says quite remarkable things about why the human body is adapted to do that. And what I found fascinating about that is our ancient biological connection to oceans. The fact that all life comes out of the sea. We have a continuous thread taking us back to our origin as marine animals, and we have the physiology that reflects that connection.

Paul Kelway: (14:37)
So rather than this being something unnatural that we are forcing ourselves to do, it's in fact, something completely natural that we're almost remembering that we have the capability to perform.

Michael Adams: (14:54)
Absolutely. And I think that's a really interesting element. When we are in embryo in the womb, we're in the tiny sea of the amniotic sac. During that nine months, there are stages where we have [inaudible 00:15:10], then when a human infant is born, you can immerse an infant in water and he or she will open her eyes, hold her breath and start to swim [inaudible 00:15:25] like completely unstressed by the experience. It reflects that continuity of connection to oceans. You can look at the fluids in our body, our tears, our blood, the amniotic fluid, our salt composition reflects the salt composition in ancient oceans itself. In some respects, we carry the sea inside us.

Paul Kelway: (16:11)
Thank you for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep.

Speaker 4: (16:16)
This six foot diameter spear, and they fit three of you in there. And during the safety tour, they're like, "Don't press this [inaudible 00:16:24]." And we're like, "What does that do?" And they're like, "Well, it'll shoot the spear away from the sub all the way to the surface. And we don't know how fast that goes." And I remember thinking, "Great. I can't wait to die that way."

Paul Kelway: (16:37)
We really appreciate you being with us on this journey to the big deep, as we explore an ocean of stories.

Jason Elias: (16:44)
If you like what we were doing, please make sure to subscribe, like, and comment on our show in iTunes, Overcast, SoundCloud, or wherever you catch your podcasts. Those subscribes and likes really make a difference.

Paul Kelway: (16:55)
For more info on our guests, extra audio and photos, as well as updates on anything you've heard, you can find a lot more content on our website,

Jason Elias: (17:05)
Plus if you know someone you think we should talk to, just let us know at the Big Deep website as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deep blue connected to our world's oceans.

Paul Kelway: (17:16)
Thanks again for joining us.