Diving with Danger – Feeling so Free
By Sam Squiers
Christina Saenz de Santamaria lives in another world. A world I have never seen, you have never seen, a world that is almost impossible for you and I to explore.
But not Christina.
Entry into this world is fraught with danger and Christina will this year compete in one of the most dangerous sports there is.
What is this world? It’s the world underneath our feet, below the sand and earth – the underwater world.
The sport? No Limits Diving.
Six minutes is a long time. In six minutes you can run a kilometre, some people two, ride three kilometres on your bike. You can read the entire paper, enjoy a cup of coffee, there have been daily exercise routines shrunk into six minutes.
And for six minutes Christina can hold her breath.
Her lungs shrink to the size of oranges, her muscles and skeletal system flexible as she gulps in that one breath and explores that almighty ocean.
“Over time we’ve adapted our bodies to become more flexible around the lungs, ribs and diaphragm so we can withstand such immense pressures at great depths,” Christina tells Sportette from her home on the Thai island of Koh Tao.
“We’re trained that we are relaxed at this depth, because you don’t want to do any jerking movements and you don’t want to be stressed at this depth for any reason because you don’t want to do any damage to yourself physically and you don’t want to be wasting any oxygen.”
When I talk to Christina there are still hints of her original accent clouded from years living abroad. But it’s her friendly and warm charm that tell me that she’s still the Sydney-raised girl who left on a gap year at the end of uni and didn’t return.
Her decision to explore Thailand’s islands in her early 20s changed her life. A week’s stay on the tropical & idyllic island of Koh Tao turned into a month, then a year. Having mastered diving, it was free diving she turned to next. Falling in love with her free-diving instructor wasn’t Christina’s plan but it was her fate. Eusebio is her coach, training partner and teammate.
“There’s always an equilibrium a balance between the physical side of free diving and the mental side of free diving…but I personally believe free diving is more mental than it is physical,” Christina, 34, tells me.
“To begin with it was a natural progression, of course 5 metres at first was daunting, then 10, then 20, then over the years it’s just happened naturally.”
“My husband gave me this mantra ‘“if nothing physical is stopping me then I will not stop’ it’s always helped me.”
Christina holds the Australian National Constant Weight Record – using a mono fin to swim down using a rope but not touching it, to 80 metres.
She also has the Australian National Record for Free Immersion Diving – using only your arms, no fins and pulling down the rope. That’s set at 80metres as well.
“This is where you have to be at your strongest mentally. When you’re at 80 metres and you turn and start to come up again you’re really negatively buoyant. You have 80 metres weight of water pushing you down and you’re extremely heavy in the water, this is where you have to have a lot of positive thoughts going through your head because you can have some strange thoughts there. It feels like the surface is a million miles away.”
Late last year Eusebio and Christina set a new World Record in Tandem Variable Weight. A world first, they rode a sled down to 105 metres and ascended together using just a rope.
That feat has set the pair up for their next daring attempt, No Limits diving. The discipline where they dive using a sled to pull them down even further and then ascend quickly using an inflatable air bag.
“This isn’t widely practised around the world anymore, mostly due to the logistics – the boat, sled, the fact you need calm deep waters. But also I think there’s a lot of free divers who are afraid of it,” Christina tells me calmly. Several divers have died attempting No Limits dives.
“If an accident happens, it’ll happen in No Limits, you’re relying on mechanisms to propel you down and mechanisms to propel you up again. But we have every safety procedure possible in practice.”
Christina will spend six months this year in Ibiza practising No Limits diving. She currently trains everyday with Eusebio but they’re limited to the depth they train at Koh Tao at 48 metres.
“So we have to adapt a lot of our training so that when we do travel somewhere overseas we can instantly do a very deep dive. Sometimes we’ll do dives that actually simulate depth so for example we’ll descend without any air in our lungs whatsoever.”
“If you put your mind to it, your body’s capable of a lot more than you ever thought possible.”
It’s hard not to be impressed by this brave, beautiful woman. When Christina talks the passion and excitement in her voice is balanced out by this calm, caring, almost nurturing tone.
She’s no daredevil, nor adrenalin junkie.
Christina finds beauty in fear.
Yet with all the accolades, records, discovery channel documentaries that come with the competition side of free diving. It’s being at one with the ocean, the underwater world, that she loves the most.
It’s far under the sea where unscripted experiences occur, like swimming with Tiger Sharks in the Bahamas with nothing but a one metre piece of pvc piping between you and one of the ocean’s greatest predators.
“To see such an incredible, powerful animal, it felt very empowering to be underwater with up to 8 of these sharks circling around us at one point. There was a lot of excitement, but never fear and we never once felt threatened.
Christina breathes the ocean within that just one breath allowed.
She’s taking free-diving to new limits.