Day 6

How do you dive 82 metres underwater — without gear? A Canadian free diver shares her techniques

Free diver Sheena McNally set a new national record by becoming the first Canadian woman to descend 82 metres underwater without goggles, an oxygen tank or flippers. Here's how she did it.

'You feel like you're supposed to be down there,' says Sheena McNally

Canadian free-diver Sheena McNally says she finds diving comforting. (Alex St-Jean)
Listen5:45

Descending 82 metres underwater might seem like a terrifying prospect to some — but it's not for Sheena McNally.

The Canadian free diver broke the national record earlier this month by diving the equivalent of more than 20 stories underwater — all without goggles, an oxygen tank or flippers.

"It sounds like that would be a scary place to be, but it's quite comforting," said McNally.

But it wasn't always comfortable for her. McNally tried her first free dive four years ago in Honduras. She was scared and too nervous to open her eyes, she recalled.

"I started pulling on the line to make my way underwater ... keeping my eyes closed and suddenly, without realizing it, I reached the bottom," she said, adding that she was limited to 12 metres during her first attempt. "I opened my eyes and I was just thrilled."

She told Day 6 how she went from descending 12 metres, scared, to descending 82 metres, comfortable and a national record-holder. 

Free diver Sheena McNally set a new national record at the 2019 Caribbean Cup by becoming the first Canadian woman to descend 82 metres underwater without goggles, an oxygen tank or flippers. Video by Alex St-Jean. 0:29

How did you train to dive further?

McNally says the first, most important step, is to take classes and start with a "good foundation."

After that, she trains in small increments.

"If I have a goal in mind of what I want to do in terms of depth, in terms of a number, I like to do dives much shallower than that at first," she said. The goal is to make sure "they're really easy, and that I'm feeling good for the whole dive."

That means no unpleasant thoughts, no issues — only enjoyment.

Once she's done those dives comfortably, she'll add a couple of metres at a time.

How do fight the fear of free diving?

Basically, it's a combination of practice and repetition.

"I also like to remind myself before the dive that this is free-diving, it's not the end of the world if I have to turn early," McNally said.

She adds that she reminds herself that she can always turn around and try again another day.

Canadian free-diver Sheena McNally says that after her first dive, she was "thrilled." (Alex St-Jean)

What do you do before the dive?

"Before I start the actual dive, I spend several minutes in the water. I'm attached to the competition line and I'm just relaxing. I'm breathing slowly, deeply and breathing kind of like I'm about to fall asleep," McNally said.

She says she'll sit upright in the water, eyes closed, trying to think about nothing other than the water moving around her.

How do you breathe before you jump in?

It's all about making the most of the "breathing muscles," said McNally. It starts with the stomach, then the intercostal muscles, ending in the chest.

"So it's a sectional breath," she said.

Once you're now underwater, what's it like?

"At first it's a little bit of work," said McNally.

She pulls down on the rope to propel herself downwards, equalizing her ears along the way.

"But as I get deeper, it actually gets easier ... and eventually I'm going to reach a point where I become negatively buoyant, so I'll sink and I don't have to work as hard," she said. 

Sheena McNally makes her way up from an 82 metre free immersion dive, where she also set a national record for that technique. (Alex St-Jean)

That point is called the freefall.

"For me, this is one of the best parts of the dive." said McNally. "You relax, release all tension and it's like you're flying, but downwards, towards your target. It's just wonderful."

So you made it to the bottom of the line — now what?

McNally says this moment always brings with it a little bit of stress because she's 82 metres under water.

But she doesn't dwell long on it.

"Rather than thinking that the surface is far away — which it is — I think about what I'm doing. I try to have perfect technique, stay streamlined, make sure there's no tension in my legs since I'm not using them for free immersion," said McNally.

"[I'll] just enjoy feeling the water on the way up and wait for that point where I become buoyant again because then it's going to get a little bit easier."

What happens once you've resurfaced?

"The moment when you reach the surface is amazing," she said.

The first thing is to do recovery breathing. 

"I like to take a minimum of three nice, strong recovery breaths and it feels great. It feels great to finally let that breath I was holding go and get some fresh air in," she said.

Then, she has to give the OK that she's doing well.

"Once I've done that, then I can relax," she said. 

"I'm just just smiling and totally enjoying that moment."

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