Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Extreme cold water isn’t exactly on everybody’s summer swim agenda. Indeed, Antarctica is the coldest, the dried and the most remote continent on Earth with water temps hovering around 28F or 1.9C at the warmest – and yet a bunch of hardcore French freedivers decided to pack up their skivvies and take the plunge this spring. Why? To inspire kids and youth to protect the oceans. How? By freediving with wild marine creatures in their waters and bringing back photos, films and stories so kids can start discussions on ocean conservation.
If only for the photos, that expedition would be the stuff of legend that makes explorers drool. Now the reason you’re reading about this here rather than say, in Outside Magazine, is not because I was part of the expedition – though secretly Antarctica is a dream of mine. Alexandre Voyer, one of the divers, happens to be a good friend of my brother’s and we’d previously connected over open water swimming and Alcatraz. When I saw Alexandre’s pics with penguins on Facebook, my heart jumped. We exchanged emails and he agreed to share his experience, his story and his pictures. A big thanks to him and the marine conservation non-profit L’Ame Bleue (Blue Soul) because thanks to them, you readers get a special insight on a unique expedition none of us will ever live.
Now put on your Jacques Cousteau red hat and gear up for a very special swim report.
First things first, freediving.
The free in freediving is about freedom. It’s the act of diving while only holding your breath, no breathing apparatus needed. Think Man from Atlantis or The Big Blue – only face mask, fins, good lungs and in cold waters, a drysuit. The way Alexandre Voyer describes freediving is pure blue love. “It’s first and foremost an incredible sensation. When I’m underwater, I experience this amazing feeling of wholesomeness in a comforting element. In water, I feel good and when all sounds around me are so peculiarly muted, being able to move around in three dimensions with very little gear is completely surreal. Freediving is much more liberating than diving with air compressors.”
I asked Alex a few questions.
Frog Mom: How was it like to swim with penguins or seals?
Alex: It’s awesome to swim with penguins or seals! I’ve always enjoyed discovering new marine wildlife and these guys were particularly intrigued by us. The most amazing encounters probably featured humpback whales and seals, who both came to “play” with us. Initially, they were slightly offstandish but after a few minutes they warmed up to us and some pretty cool interactions took place. In fact we were having so much fun that we forgot all about cold and stayed for hours in zero degree (33F) water.
Frog Mom: What was the most surprising or wonderful discovery of your Antarctica trip?
Alex: Landscapes. After four days of sailing off the coast of South America, we came across huge glaciers that dropped from 6,000 feet high straight into the ocean, we saw whales splash about in valleys lined by icebergs. Everything was otherworldly. I was really surprised that animals weren’t afraid of us – but then, they’ve never seen men before. Last but not least, I was impressed that the whole trip – 4 weeks – went so smoothly. There were seven of us on a 50-foot sailboat and we all got along famously.
Frog Mom: What would you say to kids about your expedition and what they can learn from it?
Alex: First of all, this expedition was a unique opportunity to explore places where nature still exists in its most pristine state, to discover wonderful landscapes every day. It’s incredibly relaxing to get away from it all, disconnect from all electronics. It really makes a difference and allows you to re-energize close to Mother Nature. Last but not least, we organized this trip with minimal impact on nature – no air compressors, no motorized boat, and no nasties that could pollute the most pristine environment on Earth. Think about what you can do to protect the environment next time you go on vacation.
Frog Mom: How did you get from swimming to freediving?
Alex: I grew up in Polynesia until I was six years old and I waded in a lagoon before I could walk. In a sense I developed a strong attraction to water really early on. Growing up, with my family or with friends, we vacationed by the seaside every year. Obviously I love to swim and that turned into snorkeling, discovering the aquatic world with fins and a mask. Then when I turned 28 I signed up for an apnea/freediving club around Paris. Something clicked, I progressed quickly and I’ve been freediving instructor for the past four years. Pool training helps me improve my technique so I’m more comfortable underwater in natural environments. You see, it still feels as great now as it did when I was a kid to be in water.
Frog Mom: What did you have for breakfast in Antarctica?
Alex: Let’s see, we ate a lot for breakfast. We ate oatmeal, toast and jam, washed down with tea and coffee! We needed to maintain a healthy diet to keep fit as we dived every day and cold water drains a lot of calories and energy out of you. Thanks to our skipper we were lucky to eat balanced, nutritious and big meals every day.
Frog Mom: Your thoughts on protecting our oceans and Antarctica?
Alex: Fortunately Antarctica enjoys a very protected status. Fifty countries have already signed The Antarctic Treaty and together decided that this continent would serve only peaceful pursuits (nothing military) and that it would be protected as a flora and fauna sanctuary. It’s really great and we must ensure that this treaty stays in place and is applied for a very long time. If we could achieve the same results with other oceans, it would be ideal for marine conservation.
Frog Mom: Who inspires you in life?
Alex: I don’t really have heroes but I admire divers and freedivers who discover places where so-called “dangerous” animals live – like my friend Fred Buyle who’s an amazing underwater photographer and who was part of our expedition. I also recently discovered a quadruple amputee swimmer and athlete called Philippe Croizon. He’s swam across many seas and I think that’s just amazing. I also have a lot of respect for people who believe in and fight for marine conservation.
Frog Mom: What was the most challenging moment of the trip?
Alex: Without doubts, coming back to civilization. After a whole month at sea with friends far from everything, coming back to the real world was brutal. At first I barely replied to phone calls or emails. I didn’t listen to my voicemail messages. Now, I’ve made my peace with it and everything’s fine. I usually exercise a lot and the other reason coming back was challenging is because you hardly exercise at all on a boat. It took a while to get back into my exercise groove.
Frog Mom: What are your next projects?
Alex: Basically anywhere where there’s water and 6-foot visibility I’m happy to bring my fins. Secretly, we all dream of a second Antarctica trip. If we can do it again, we’ll go with the same skipper Gilles Rigaud. He’s an exceptional sailor, a very good freediver and knows all about South Pole wildlife. Other than that, only minor projects – seaside summer vacations in the Azores or La Réunion to swim with whales and sharks. I also have a few swim races lined up, Ile de Ré to La Rochelle, Marseille du frioul to the Roucas Beach. Now that I have a drysuit that keeps me warm in freezing water, I can swim anywhere!
Frog Mom to reader: If like me you’re dreaming, keep on dreaming with the photos. I wasn’t too creative on the captions but none of them really need subtext anyway. Let Antarctica speak for itself!
Photo gallery – Click to enlarge thumbnails (note: all photos by Alex Voyer)
Video: courtesy of Gilles Rigaud’s website