Freediving champion & film maker Pepe Arcos goes deep to capture breathless life beneath the waves. He spoke to The Yak’s Tony Stanton.
Pepe, you’ve been free diving for some time now, can you tell us how you fell in love with the ocean in the first place and how you got into such an extreme sport?
I was eight years old when I got my first glance of the underwater world in the Mediterranean Sea, Spain. After that I waited every single summer to come so I could put on my mask, snorkel and fins and dive into those clear waters. As an ocean lover I think I can consider the Mediterranean as my first love. Then of course there was the movie The Big Blue, which had an enormous influence on me. I started diving around 10 years ago, and then freediving, then years of training and competitions so that my life became fully focussed on the sport.
So how long can you hold your breath?
Six minutes, but I am a bit rusty. When I am shooting I only hold my breath for one to two minutes, as it involves many dives, and I can be doing it for hours.
When did you decide to introduce your passion for film making into the equation, and what practical restrictions are there to filming underwater?
As a friend told me the other day, I am actually an artist that can freedive. Before freediving I was a graphic designer and I have been working with photography since getting my first manual Nikon FM10 when I was young. Then it was Lomos, first digitals and now taking a big DSLR into the ocean. Underwater photography and filmmaking in itself are complicated as the low light environment and the technical aspects (artificial lighting, housings, gear) are not easy to master. Adding freediving into the equation is challenging and radical. And that’s what I like! I could speak for hours on the advantages of filmmaking while freediving, but the main reason for me is freedom of movement. I dive into a 3D environment where I can freely move up, down and in any imagined position to achieve my shots. I can simulate with my body different camera movements, dollies, sliders, steady cam, continuous takes. And as I don’t breath from a compressed air tank, I have no decompression problems, so I can go deep and come back up as many times as I want. The fact that my models and I recover on the surface allows me to talk and direct my scenes.
What’s the deepest you have ever gone? Can you talk us through the thought process as you go for a dive?
My deepest freedive so far is 80m. I am a former national champion in my sport, and in the past I participated in national and international events. The preparation for such high level performance is demanding, like any other competitive sport at that level. You basically need to plan a slow progression into your target depth, and safety is obviously of paramount importance.
I guess the sport is all about mind control, the power of the mind over the body? What do you do on land to prepare yourself?
Thinking alone takes around 30% of the body’s energy and the freediving goal is to save the maximum amount of energy and oxygen when performing. So you are right, mind control is the most important part. I personally have a, let’s say, meditative state of mind when I am in the ocean before a deep dive or a specific demanding shooting session, and this is designed to allow me to calm down and slow my system to the minimum . . . heart rate, muscular activity . . . but most of my preparation is related to breathing patterns and not thinking much, so I can stay focussed on one activity.
What do you think about when you’re down deep?
As you said, the key to this game is to not think too much. To bring your body to a total focus into only one activity and stop the brain connecting hundreds of ideas in a single second. I don’t think much, I feel much. I get into the sensations of the pressure around my body, the temperature of the water, the darkness of the deep ocean, and I let myself go with no resistance.
Why do you do it?
Because I love it. I actually miss my deep training days as those deep dives made me feel very happy, and as a true explorer of a world unknown to humans. When I am in the water, my human problems dissolve into insignificant topics, and I just observe the wildness around me in the ocean.
Looking at some of your images … there’s a kind of super hero look to some of the figures as they free dive … is this a sport for superheroes?
Freediving is absolutely for everybody, no matter what body shape or fitness level you have. I am also a freediving instructor and I have taught hundreds of people how to dive on a single breath. No superhero skills necessary.
What about the immense dangers? Do you go down deep enough to have to worry about the bends?
Safety, as I said before, is the most important part of freediving. And rule number one is to never freedive alone. When my friends, world champion record holders, train hard, there’s always a big safety team. The ratio of accidents in this sport is really low as long as we follow all procedures. There’s no decompression issues with freediving as we don’t breath, and therefore don’t accumulate nitrogen in our systems. What we have to deal with is narcosis.
What’s the strangest thing you have ever seen when you’re underwater?
Unfortunately all the strangest things I always see underwater are caused by humans. It is very sad what we are doing to the oceans: plastic pollution, overfishing, shark finning … as ambassador of filmmaking at Asian Diving Expo, I am turning my work and talks towards conservation and awareness about the dangers that the oceans are facing and the fragility of the underwater ecosystems. Time to think globally about this issue and take precise actions to avoid further damage.
How does it work? Are you weighted down, then what, you take off the weights so you can go up? Sorry, we’re just curious landlubbers …
We use a line as a reference to follow to the target depth. Let’s say I am planning to dive to 80 metres. I will follow that line by only swimming with my freediving gear down . . . and then swim back up after reaching the bottom of the line marked with a bottom plate. No help from weights or other devices, just swim down and up.
How many people worldwide are into this?
Freediving is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, and gaining popularity every year. Especially here in Asia, we are living in amazing times where many people are joining courses, expeditions, competitions, photo/video sessions or just fun dives. I don’t have the numbers but is getting quite popular out there.
Where can we get into free diving in Bali?
Bali is a great island for freediving with amazing spots and warm calm waters to learn and train. In the Island we have many freediving schools with the highest standards in the diving industry.
Amed/Tulamben are very popular destinations and only in that area we have four freediving facilities with good friends around to teach people, explore the Liberty wreck or the reefs and many more activities. Gili island in Lombok is growing very fast and you can also find the busiest freediving schools in the world there. One of my favourite spots for freediving is Nusa Penida, where you can swim with beautiful Mantas almost every day and enjoy crystal clear waters.
How about working with models underwater, presumably it’s not for every one…
Underwarter modeling is challenging for sure. I work with professional fashion models that were also competitive freedivers. As a fashion photographer I work daily with models and fashion teams and I am collaborating lately with some of my models to help them stay longer and calmer in the water. I know it is not an easy job: opening the eyes, moving with heavy dresses, holding the breath . . . but they are learning fast to be calmer while posing for me.
How do you keep your photography fresh and appealing? After all there’s a danger that the images in your world can start to reflect themselves …
Creativity is the most important part of it. Always looking for new angles, light scenarios, wild animal encounters, new conceptual works. I personally find an endless source of inspiration around me and challenge myself to capture original emotive moments that will allow the people to connect with my work and the topics of my pictures.
If you weren’t free diving, do you think you would be so passionate about another sport?
I’m kind of obsessed in exploring the oceans so at the moment I still have a long lasting stable relationship with freediving! But I always been into different sports, martial arts, rock climbing, snowboarding. But for now it’s all about the water. T.S.
Pepe, thanks so much for your time. Stay safe down there.