Bowermaster’s Adventures: Learning how to breathe in the Maldives

LAAMU, Maldives — A fast-moving rainstorm blew over the small atoll late in the afternoon, briefly cooling a humid day just 100 miles north of the equator. But within twenty minutes the sun was back hot and bright, the air even thicker with dampness. Aaaaaah paradise!

I was desperate for some cooling off, having spent the morning learning something I thought I’d mastered long ago: How to breathe.

The lessons had taken place in a pool behind one of the guesthouses at the new Six Senses Laamu resort where I’d joined a dozen superstar water athletes from around the world — surfers, kite boarders and wind surfers — learning not so much how to breathe, but how not to. My skimpy personal best for holding it while hanging onto the edge of the pool was about two-and-a-half-minutes; a couple guys went to five minutes and nearly blacked out.

Our task-master, standing waist-deep in the pool as we dunked our heads, stop-watch in hand, was German free diver extraordinaire Anna von Boetticher, one of the world’s best at holding her breath. While we were experimenting in the relative safety of a four-foot-deep, suburban variety chlorinated pool she has dived to record depths wearing just a pair of oversized swim fins and mask to more than 270 feet.

She was most enlightening when debunking the “Baywatch” notion of saving near-drowning victims by pumping violently on their chests and blowing spittle into their mouths. She demonstrated the preferred method, which she said most are actually “saved” by, which involves light blowing on the cheeks and a little slap. Of course if that doesn’t work, she admitted, then move quickly to the chest pumping and spit swapping.
A one-of-a-kind inaugural crowd — the event was dubbed WaterWoMen, co-sponsored by Six Senses and +H2O — had gathered at the newly opened resort, equal parts coming out party for the remote resort and a conference that included a bunch of world-class athletes as well as some of the planet’s more thoughtful thinkers on ocean issues.
On the athlete side were surfers Layne Beachley, Buzzy Kerbox and 20-year-old Bethany Hamilton (the subject of “Soul Surfer,” the recent feature film about her being bitten by a shark and losing her arm when she was 13), windsurfers Levi Silver and Keith Teboul, kite surfers Mark Shinn and Alex Caizergues and extreme wake boarder Duncan Zuur

The less-active-yet-super-committed contingent included biologist and oceanographer Dr. Callum Roberts; aquatic filmmaker and 3rd generation ocean lover Fabien Cousteau; Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the IUCN’s Global Marine Program; Bollywood producer/director Shekhar Kapur; Chris Gorell Barnes, executive producer of the film “End of the Line;” and Water Charity co-founders Dr. Jacqueline Chan and Averill Strasser.

The Maldives is a perhaps the perfect place for such a meeting since warming sea temperatures have put its coral reefs at risk, thus endangering both its local population, its reputation as a diving paradise and the very tourism industry that supports it economically. It was prudently also a fundraiser for a trio of ocean non-profits: The Blue Marine Foundation, created by Chris Gorell Barnes, a recent initiative that is pushing for ten percent of the world’s ocean be placed into marine reserves by 2020 (today less than one percent is thus protected); Plant A Fish, Fabien Cousteau’s hands-on marine education and restoration effort to engage local communities around the globe through schools, businesses and government agencies to “re-plant” aquatic plants and animals in environmentally stressed areas; and Water Charity, focused on providing safe drinking water, effective sanitation and health education to those most in need via the most cost-effective and efficient means.

After learning to breathe, I had lunch with Callum Roberts and Carl Gustav Lundin and the main subject was what to eat. Not just this day, but everyday, a common subject among ocean lovers. “To eat fish, or not to eat fish?” is the unending question.

Lundin, whose IUCN has been instrumental in helping set aside the world’s largest marine reserve in the Chagos Islands, suggests that in the Maldives tourism has actually been good for local fish because like most island nations local fishermen see the impacts of overfishing first hand. And here all tuna must be caught by pole, thus it’s a safer bet for consumers than most places.

The agreement we make is that if you know what you’re eating — where it’s from, when it was caught, what the impact of taking it may have had on its ecosystem — then a grilled fish is the perfect choice. The challenge — even for the fish savvy joined at a conference focused on how best to protect the ocean — is that it often requires a boatload of detailed information in order to make a wise choice.

[Flickr image via notsogoodphotography]