Beneath the surface
Champion freediver Wendy Timmermans relies on an ancient evolutionary reflex to assist her in creating prizewinning underwater pictures. Tracy Calder hears her story
tracy calder speaks to champion freediver Wendy timmermans about her prize-winning underwater pictures
When you’re 83m under the water and you haven’t taken a breath for nearly three minutes, it’s hard not to panic. The pressure on your body is nine times what it is on the surface, your lungs are shrinking, and your heart rate is slowing down. Levels of carbon dioxide in your body are rising, and your spleen is contracting to squeeze extra-oxygenated blood into your circulatory system. You have lost your natural buoyancy and you are effectively sinking. If you don’t know what you’re doing you are seconds away from drowning.
If, however, you’re an experienced freediver like Wendy Timmermans you can relax, let your body find its natural equilibrium, and enjoy the privileged sensation of exploring the ocean without any breathing apparatus. ‘Humans have a natural response to water known as the mammalian dive reflex,’ she reveals. ‘We all have it, but because we live on dry land it’s not very strong. If you train to freedive this reflex becomes stronger and it helps you adapt to being underwater comfortably.’ But even Wendy experiences moments of unease under the surface. ‘Competitive freedivers, like myself, do long or deep dives, and we get to a point where we start to build up a lot of CO in our bodies, which leads to the contraction of the diaphragm,’ she explains. ‘It’s not a pleasant sensation, and the mind can kick in at this point making it hard to stay relaxed and not use more energy and oxygen than needed.’
As a freediving instructor based in Dahab, Egypt, Wendy has plenty of opportunities to strengthen her mammalian dive reflex. The waters here are remarkably clear and the town is famous for its proximity to the Blue Hole, a natural sinkhole about 100m deep. This curious phenomenon attracts hundreds of divers every year, but has earned itself the grim moniker ‘divers’ cemetery’ for the number of lives it has claimed. ‘Your body needs to be very flexible and adapted to the water,’ warns Wendy. ‘If you push yourself or are stressed you can really injure yourself.’
Born and raised in Rotterdam, Wendy has enjoyed a deep connection with the ocean since her childhood. She was a competitive swimmer until her teens, but she didn’t discover freediving until she embarked on a trip around the world in 2006. sold my house, I was between jobs, and I had some spare money so it seemed like the right time to go travelling,’ she explains. While exploring Southeast Asia she took up scuba diving, and became transfixed by the marine life she encountered. By sheer coincidence one of the diving sites she visited was also home to a freediving school. ‘Until then I had never even heard of the sport,’ she admits. ‘In my country, nobody really had. My scuba diving instructor talked me into trying it, and I was hooked straight away.’
Passion for people
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about mindfulness and the way it benefits physical and mental well-being, and Wendy points out that, once mastered, freediving can result in feelings of peace, calm and tranquillity – just some of its many attractions. ‘When you’re
underwater you are disconnected from the world above the surface,’ she says. ‘It’s peaceful and it’s quiet – you are in the moment. People talk about mindfulness, but freediving is like super mindfulness!’ Being aware of her environment and the workings of her body allows Wendy to respond mindfully to the marine life she encounters. What’s more, the absence of bottled air means there are no bubbles to disturb skittish subjects. ‘ You still have to think about how you move in the water,’ she says. ‘If you go down splashing around then the turtle, or whatever, is going to flee, but if you are gentle in the water you can get very close.’
It was Wendy’s love of marine life that led her to take an underwater compact beneath the surface some 10 years ago. ‘ To begin with I took lots of pictures of fish,’ she recalls, ‘ but I was also attracted to macro subjects like nudibranch and hermit crabs. The desire to take pictures of other freedivers, or people in the water, came much later.’ Wendy currently uses a Sony Alpha 6300 with a Nauticam housing, and relies on natural light to achieve the look she desires. ‘I’m inspired by the light underwater, particularly light beams,’ she explains. ‘At some point I might get some strobes, but I don’t feel the need at the moment – the natural light changes throughout the day, and from day to day, and there is so much you can do with it.’ In 2017 Wendy won the One Shot - Primary Colours category of Travel Photographer of the Year with her image of a freediver surrounded by beams of light (see below).
Unfortunately freediving and photography are not natural bedfellows. Even a small mirrorless camera such as the Alpha 6300 feels bulky in an underwater housing, and the combined weight creates significant drag, which makes swimming harder. ‘It can feel like double the workout,’ confirms Wendy. ‘It’s one thing doing a freedive for yourself, just swimming around and enjoying it, but it’s quite different doing the same thing with a camera.’ Wendy shares her passion for photography (and love of freediving) with her boyfriend Guillaume, and they often work together on a project. ‘We tend to alternate: either I’m taking pictures and he is in front of the camera or the other way around,’ she explains, ‘ but we are also each other’s safety. You cannot safely freedive alone, so we watch each other and are careful to stay within our limits.’
Generally speaking, the deeper you go in the water the poorer the light, which is one reason why Wendy and Guillaume’s pictures are often taken at depths of 20m or less. Rather than push themselves too far on a single dive they carry out multiple
short dives, holding their breath for anything up to two minutes. ‘When we are taking pictures there is a lot of repetition, with shorter breath holds,’ explains Wendy. ‘We rest a bit between each dive, but it’s still a pretty good workout!’
Having so much to contend with on every dive, Wendy keeps her camera settings simple. ‘ You don’t want to be fiddling around with your settings in the water,’ she advises. ‘Sometimes you have to accept that the settings you use might not be perfect. We shoot a lot in shutter priority and try to keep the ISO between 100 and 400. My camera has an automatic underwater white balance setting, but it doesn’t generally work well for us, so I set this manually.’
Looking at Wendy’s pictures reminds us of the profound connection we all have with water, and the powerful mammalian reflex that lies dormant in most of us. Her images remind us that there is still a place where silence, peace and light coexist; a place that’s both alien and familiar: the sea.
‘When you’re underwater… you are in the moment. People talk about mindfulness, but freediving is like super mindfulness!’
Far right: To obtain a shot like this you need to move slowly and show respect for your subject, in this instance a turtle in Marsa Alam, Egypt Right: Swimming alongside a dugong grazing the sea bed, Marsa Alam, Egypt
Feeling free and weightless by a stunning coral reef in Ras Muhammad National Park in Egypt
Left: This beautifully composed silhouette won Wendy the One Shot - Primary Colours category of the Travel Photographer of the Year in 2017
Right: It’s a thrill to photograph where two continents meet. Here the ice cold, clear water of Silfra in Iceland creates a surreal playground for freedivers Below right: Wendy’s partner Guillaume moves very naturally underwater, but a freediver can only look serene when his/her state of mind is the same