Freediving: A Journey Between Two Breaths With Julia Wheeler

Freediving is the act of staying submerged or swimming underwater on a single breath of air, completely free of compressed gas or a breathing apparatus. For most, freediving is a means for enjoying ocean life beyond the constraints of scuba. But for an audacious few, it’s also a competitive sport, one where its premier athletes reach depths of 702 feet and hold their breath for around 10 minutes.

Whether for recreation or competition, freediving itself isn’t just about breath hold—it takes focus, composure and extreme mental fortitude. As humans, we all have what’s called the Mammalian Dive Reflex which occurs after we have held our breath for a period of time. How long we can stay underwater, however, is entirely up to us as individuals and this is where conquering the perils of your own mind matters the most. A discerning few have not only made a living doing this, but some have even built an impressive career.

Some of us don a freshly-pressed suit for the office, while others work from the comfort of their own kitchen in slip-on moccasins. Then there is freediver Julia Wheeler. Her daily outfit ranges from wetsuit to bathing suit—the world is her office and the ocean is her home. A typical week can land anywhere from freediving with humpback whales in Tahiti to spending time in the Outback of Australia with the Aboriginal tribes. She is a certified adventure addict, champion athlete, motivational speaker, professional photographer and most of all, a student of life.

Wheeler grew up in Perth, the coastal capital of Western Australia which blends chic city vibes with a great display of the country’s wild, innate beauty. During her early years, she and her family spent a lot of time traveling down Australia’s southwest coast—a place she believes to be the wildest place on Earth despite all she’s seen. It’s from these trips that Wheeler ultimately developed her sense of adventure. Whether it was fishing with her father or riding ex-racehorses bareback on the beach, she grew up in an environment where she was constantly encouraged to immerse herself in the natural world.

freedivingDuring her years of adolescence, it comes as no shock that Wheeler, now a champion freediver and instructor, was constantly mesmerized by the beauty of the deep blue. Like most children who grow up in Australia, she often recalls fond memories of marveling at the giant glass fish bowl above the travelator at Underwater World—but she didn’t stop there. Wheeler buried herself in books and David Attenborough documentaries and was always in the water, representing her school in watersports but also doing a lot of open ocean swimming. At just 15, she swam from Perth to Rottnest Island, a 22-kilometer (14-mile) trip from coast to coast.

Today, Wheeler is not only a champion competitive freediver, she’s a huge advocate of ocean conservation—serving as an ambassador for Take3ForTheSea. Her Instagram following (@iamjuliawheeler), now nearing 90k, serves as a platform to help share her adventures and shed light on the issues plaguing our planet’s oceans. Before Wheeler headed out to South Africa to film a new TV series (which involves freediving with great white sharks), I spoke with her to learn more about her lifestyle, ocean conservation, and of course, some of her favorite diving experiences. 

How did you make the transition to freediving? What was your professional life like?
I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was seven years old and worked as a professional photographer for 10 years. Freediving is something I started after I finished my degree. I moved to Sydney when I was 19 and from there, I was accepted into NIDA; The National Institute of Dramatic Art where I studied TV and then went on to finish a Diploma of Journalism and Degree in Media Communications, focusing on cultural studies. One of my favorite philosophers is Edward de Bono who came up with “lateral thinking” which is all about thinking outside the box and looking at things differently. I just loved that side of my education. Then I decided to go to Thailand to do a scuba diving course and I became a divemaster. Coincidentally, not long after, I heard about freediving. I took a course and basically worked my way through to advanced. It really is another level of exploration because you’re in a world where nature calls the shots. You don’t know what’s going to come out and say hello to you, but you just have to be really open to it. That’s what I love about exploration in itself but more so in freediving because you have this excitement mixed with that need to breathe. 

When did you start to freedive competitively?
A year and a half ago, I was photographing a freediving competition in Indonesia that I usually document every year and the girls said to me, including the Australian national champion, “Jules, we’re short on competitors. Can you compete?” It was crazy, you know? I had never competed in this sport in my life and now I’m with these supreme athletes who are diving down 80 meters and they want me to be a part of the competition. So I gave it a go and honestly, it scared the crap out of me. I actually ended up placing third overall in the Australian Championships. From then on I really entered the world of freediving and self-discovery. Freediving gives you the courage to reach your potential psychologically, mentally, physically, and really opens the doors to how much control we have over our minds—it’s so powerful. The sport isn’t just about breath hold, it’s about tapping into those triggers and things that worry us and learning to control them so that we can reach our full potential. So whether that is going down to 50 meters for two and a half minutes or getting out of bed in the morning knowing you have to go to a meeting, you can kind of work your way through things with that skill set that you’ve learned from freediving. It’s such an incredible way to unlock your superhero and really discover who you are as a person. We’re always telling ourselves we can’t do things, but we can. For me, it’s not about winning competitions, it’s about learning.

freedivingIt’s problem solving with my mind, it’s problem solving with my body, with the environment, and really being able to control what’s going on around me and not letting it affect my dive. It’s a huge mental sport. I think it can really help a lot of people. I used to suffer a lot from anxiety and it’s definitely helped. I don’t really have it so much anymore.There’s a huge degree of mind control and that’s crucial to being able to hold your breath for a long time and know that you’re going to be OK.

What are the different forms of competitive freediving and what’s your focus?
When you discuss freediving, there are three types. One type of competition is held in an Olympic-sized pool and you have athletes who are going to compete in three disciplines. One being static breath hold where guys are holding their breath for, what I believe is the world record now, over 11 minutes. You’ve also got no limits freediving where you have someone like Herbert Nitsch who has been down to approximately 214 meters (700 feet). In no limits you have a sled, with a drop weight. You hold onto the sled and just plummet a line on one breath. Once you get down, you have to inflate a balloon that brings you back to the surface. I’m not into that. It’s very extreme. Finally, you’ve got your normal freediving championships all over the world. It’s a group of athletes coming together and the disciplines are: constant weight where the athlete has a monofin; no fins where the athlete does breaststroke all the way to the bottom and all the way back to the top; then free immersion is where the athlete uses a line to get down and back up again. It’s completely based on mental and physical ability. You don’t have someone helping you up the line or someone offering you oxygen at the bottom. You’re completely on your own which is why I love the sport. It’s entirely reliant upon self-belief and knowing that you are capable of incredible things.

What goes into the training regimen for someone like you? How do you prepare yourself?
Essentially, as a freediver training to compete, you’re training your body to maximize your oxygen and your mind to be still and in the moment. The key to freediving is relaxation. Before I enter the water for a competition or training, it’s all about having mental control. You have to practice a deep sense of meditation that nothing can hurt you. You trust yourself and you trust your body. We’re mammals. We’re meant to freedive. We have something called the bradycardia dive reflex which is an evolutionary adaptation that we have from our ocean ancestors. These adaptations are seen on a larger scale in aquatic animals like otters and dolphins. It’s a series of adjustments that happen to our bodies when we’re submerged in cold water, and some of those adjustments can reduce our heart rate by 10 to 30 percent. Once your heart rate drops, your metabolism slows to the rate that you use oxygen. When you’ve been freediving a while, for instance, my heart rate slows down to about 50 percent. It helps me enter a deep meditative state and that comes with just trusting your ability to maintain that breath hold. It’s very euphoric. You feel like a mammal; you feel like a fish. It sounds so crazy but I love when I’ve been training for over a week straight and I am so used to the feeling of holding my breath that I don’t think about it anymore. I just cruise the ocean floor, 20 meters (65 feet) down with no breathing apparatus, I might swim through a little cave—it’s awesome. You don’t have the urge to breathe because you’ve transformed, you’re like a real underwater mammal now. Your small blood vessels constrict, your heart rate slows, your facial nerves transmit information to the brain which then activates a vagus nerve which then causes bradycardia—this is all the dive response.

What’s been your most memorable encounter with ocean life?
I was in Tahiti last year in September for the whale migration. I was freediving and I’d never been in the water with humpback whales before and it’s been one of my dreams to interact with them. I’d learned they communicate via body language because I’d done a bit of research. I really wanted to swim with a whale and I was really nervous and it took me a couple of days of being out on a boat and watching their behavior because I didn’t want to disturb the marine environment or make the whales upset. We have to respect their space because that’s their world. Eventually the captain said, “OK, you’ve got to get in the water.” So I quickly threw everything on and we were literally dropped in the open ocean, like a kilometer off the coast and he just dropped my photographer and I in the water. I had my monofin on, my mask, and my photographer had a boogie board and we were sort of just kicking around with a whole other world beneath us! 

Suddenly a 25-ton mother and her calf appeared. The mom was sleeping and so, when whales are sleeping, they hang upside down so they’re sticking out of the water a bit, and the mother was probably like 25-30 tons worth of whale—she was massive and so intimidating! Her baby, also quite big, he was about 17 tons or so. We just watched them swim around us for 40 minutes and let them know we were there. I was feeling a little nervous and I thought to myself when they kind of got a little bit closer to us, “OK, this is the feeling right now. They know that we’re here—it’s now or never.” And I dove down to 15 meters and got the baby whale’s attention. Once the baby caught on, I spiraled to the surface and I had this baby humpback whale right in front of me playing with me for 45 minutes. He would swim over to me and I would open my arms, and this whale is just like opening its fins and we’re copying each other. So then I thought, “This is kind of epic. Everything I’m doing, he’s doing.” Eventually I turned upside down and he turned upside down—it was super cute. Then he sort of disappeared and all the while this is going on, I hear its mother. I knew there was this massive whale somewhere around me in the deep blue. It was black beneath me. I didn’t know where she was but I could hear her. They make these grunting noises as if to say, “Hey, I’m still here. I’m watching you. You’re playing with my baby but we’re cool.” I’m diving on impulse and this baby whale knows I can’t hold my breath as long as he can. As I’m coming up to the surface with him, I’m over exerting myself but I just couldn’t stop because it’s this moment in time that’s a real-life dream. Eventually, I kind of dove down and I couldn’t find the baby anymore and I thought he was gone…but then I turned around and the whale is literally a meter away from me—his nose in my face. It opens your eyes to how closely related we are to these animals. They feel and they communicate like we do. It’s fascinating to be a part of their world. 

freedivingHow do you feel about diving with sharks?
I’ve been cage diving but I’ve been in the water with tiger sharks, black tips, bull sharks—sharks are pretty awesome. I’ve had a hundred sharks surround me in Tahiti underwater just freediving with them. Like all marine life, you need to take precautions and it’s mostly the media and movies who perceive them as dangerous. You kind of have to see it for yourself. There’s so much positive reinforcement about freediving and scuba diving with sharks but people only believe what they want to believe. 

I know you’re also a freediving instructor. Tell me about your retreats.
I’ll be doing freediving retreats, actually taking people to swim with the whales in September in Tahiti. We learn about whales, we learn about interaction, and there’s also some photography involved. It’s all about taking us to the wild places, back to where we came from and just really stripping away the bare bones of what makes us up and getting in touch with who we are. As I like to say, it’s about “unlocking your superhero” which will be a big focus on my retreats and my motivational speaking events. Discovering what you’re capable of and that’s what freediving is about. You face your fears, you’re constantly problem solving, and you learn to trust yourself and be more open to things. It’s a beautiful, natural way to engage with the world that we’re removed from.

Where are the best places in the world to dive?
I love diving in the Solomon Islands because there’s so many shipwrecks and it’s so untouched as well as Australia and Africa. I prefer exploring untouched and undiscovered marine environments—places you don’t hear much about. I love Tahiti as well-it’s incredible. Hawaii also for the volcanic, earthy feeling and you’ve got this beautiful, pristine blue as well as pilot whales, tiger sharks, dolphins, turtles—Hawaii, to me, offers this really incredible ocean connection. It’s very pure. There’s so many volcanoes in such a small area, I really think that whole place is so alive with energy. You can also dive through lava tubes! It’s my favorite place to freedive for sure.

freedivingYou’re a really big advocate for ocean conservation. Was there ever an ah-ha moment that  opened your eyes to the issues facing our planet?
When I was competing in 2016, I ended up diving through approximately three tons of rubbish in Bali. We took my GoPro out and filmed and it just kind of changed my life. It was a real-life nightmare. It was basically like getting all of the trash, going to a dump, throwing it into your pool and swimming in it. It was also scary with the amount of marine life I saw swimming through it and there were so many plastic bags. It really opened my eyes to what’s going on with the ocean—I wanted to share it with the world. Once I swam through that trash I thought, “How much trash is there going to the ocean?” And in fact, 8 million tons of the stuff is going to the oceans every year. Out of 20 of the top polluting nations, 19 of them are from developing regions. They just don’t have waste management systems to deal with trash accordingly. People don’t realize what the toxic chemicals in plastic is made of. It’s entering our food chain because the marine life we’re eating are getting this bio accumulation of toxic materials and we’re consuming those materials. At the moment, by 2050, people are estimating that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. We all have the power to change our habits and single-use plastic consumption. The video we took when we swam through the trash got about 7 million views and that was awesome. People’s reactions on social media were huge. It’s the public courtroom. Everybody has an opinion and everybody wants to say something. What I want to see is more visual inspiration around the world for people to want to make their lives better for the environment. I’m also an ambassador for Take3ForTheSea, an organization which encourages everyone to take three pieces of rubbish everywhere they go! Every waterway leads to the sea.

Photos by Christian Coulombe