How long can you hold your breath underwater? 1 minute? 2 minutes? 2.5 minutes? Now try doing that as you dive to depths up to 100 metres. Malaysian freediver, Azua Shafii lives and breathes (well, slowly) for this. Unassuming and affable, this petite woman is definitely someone you want in the Atlantis squad. Azua is a freediving champion who holds multiple records in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. She is also an instructor trainer (she can train certify from beginner until freediving instructor level) and founded Apnea Odyssey, a freedive centre in Petaling Jaya that provides courses and trainings solely for this extreme competitive sport.

A self-proclaimed “mermaid”, Azua loves being in the water and naturally learnt how to scuba dive before she discovered freediving in 2012. Freediving doesn’t use a breathing apparatus; instead, you travel underwater as far as your lungs can take you. This extreme activity isn’t new. It is traditionally practised by the Bajau people (freediving sea gypsies in Southeast Asia) who can hold their breaths underwater for up to eight minutes and the legendary Ama freediving fisherwomen in Japan still dive till the age of 80. It started as a competitive sport in the West during the 1980s, and the International Association for the Development of Freediving (AIDA International) was established in 1992. AIDA International organises championships and athletes compete in eight disciplines. Competitive freedivers are constantly pushing their minds and bodies to the limit, which makes this sport immensely dangerous.

This element of danger keeps Azua focused during every dive and more importantly, to pay attention to what her body tells her. “You can attune your body and mind underwater because we have to calm ourselves and like yoga, we control our heartrate before we start. This stage is akin to meditating and is called ‘bradycardia’ where the heart can slow down up to 20%.” Azua explains that freedivers can maintain their heartrate at 20 beats per minute; her senses are magnified as she clears her mind and tries to achieve her longest or deepest breath-hold dive. “In freediving, your body is your equipment. To excel in this sport, you need to understand the science and practice because we are constantly pushing the limits of human breathing. We don’t do this for ‘fun’ – there are a lot of risks involved and we try to reduce the risks for every athlete. The more information and experience we have about what we can and cannot do, the safer we make this sport.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Happy Thaipusam to those celebrate today..

A post shared by apneaodyssey (@apneaodyssey) on

The risks are mainly paralysis from hypoxia (a deficiency of oxygen in the tissues) and hypercapnia (a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood) due to a long time spent underwater and the depth in which athletes dive. The brain and heart are supported by the spleen and adrenal glands hormonal reactions for survival. But not all things can be controlled by freedivers. Bad weather and choppy waters pose a serious threat and an athlete’s response will determine the outcome of such events. “As an athlete, I believe in systematic training and consistency. I practise visualisation, so regardless of the conditions of the ocean or weather when I perform, I focus on my dive and breathing. I also always trust on my training.” Azua’s records are a testament to this dedication. For example, for Static Apnea (a pure breath-hold discipline where athletes lie face-down in the water for as long as possible) her record is 5 minutes and 2 seconds.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Never freedive alone! Thank you Eemon for your photo. We will have pool training next Thursday.

A post shared by apneaodyssey (@apneaodyssey) on

Azua hopes to expand this training to more Malaysians as freediving is becoming more popular in the country. Men are more drawn to this sport because of its competitive nature, she says, and the challenge is to rope in more women to freedive professionally and to join international competitions. “I don’t think Malaysians differ that greatly with competitors from other countries because physically, I think we can achieve the same records as them. But we have lost an advantage because we are late getting into this sport and we don’t have enough coaches or the proper pools to train in.” She adds that her hope is to get more certified instructors in order to increase participation and interest in freediving amongst Malaysians.

There has been increasing acceptance of freediving as a sport with formidable athletes. More investment has been made to make it a spectators’ sport where the public can see athletes’ beautiful movements and skills. Azua’s role as an instructor trainer has enabled her to actively promote the sport. She has been traveling to Sabah and Sarawak more frequently to build a new market. She also travels to compete in various championships, which are expensive to participate in – another setback for local freedivers. “I am encouraged though when I see my students and protégés are now competing together with me. One day, maybe one of them will break my records,” she enthuses.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Last year we encounter whales hark during our training in Dayang island and stay around us during our training.

A post shared by apneaodyssey (@apneaodyssey) on

Personally, Azua doesn’t find herself too competitive and considers any improvement to her records, however small, as an achievement. “While it is considered as ‘extreme’, freediving has been a constant source of tranquillity in my life. It is also more enjoyable to dive as a freediver because you can connect with the marine wildlife. Some of my best experiences underwater was when I swam with whale sharks in Pulau Dayang and sailfish in Weh, Aceh.” It is no surprise then, that Azua is an ocean advocate. She has witnessed how her “playground” is full of rubbish and plastic, and follows in the fins of her idol, Frederick Buyle, a freediver, conservationist and underwater photographer. In fact, many freedivers have started their own NGOs to protect and conserve the ocean.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Experiencing Bajau life.

A post shared by apneaodyssey (@apneaodyssey) on

Azua will keep drowning her thoughts with each dive. “Freediving is so liberating. I can release everything in my mind, enjoy the deep blue and achieve a sense of peace I can’t get elsewhere.”

Subscribe to the magazine

Subscribe Now