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

Amateur Photographer - - 7days - Wendy Tim­mer­mans is a record-breaking free­d­iver and pho­tog­ra­pher based in Da­hab, Egypt. To see more of her im­ages visit www.sead­rop­spho­tog­ra­phy.com or www.to­tal­free­d­ive.com.

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.’

Tech­ni­cal con­sid­er­a­tions

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

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