It’s not often I find myself woefully underprepared for a story, but watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid and cantering giddily through Newquay seaspray after a six-hour train journey do not, as it happens, prepare one adequately for a session of training to be a mermaid.
Apparently, being a mermaid has now become a profession. Ariel-esque women are employed in aquariums across the globe and as entertainment for guests at posh hotels.
I assumed I knew what the new activity class would involve: don a tail fin, find a pet crab, sit on a rock looking all sexy and pretend feminism never happened. Simple.
“I’m always trying to not have people dying,” said instructor Ian Donald when we met up the night before his mermaid course kicked off.
The warning bell in my head began to ring loudly. Being a mermaid is apparently a cross between free diving and synchronised swimming – with your feet strapped together.
Free diving, in which Ian is a master instructor, involves descending on a single breath, without apparatus, to depths of up to 253 metres, which is where the current world record stands.
How To Not Die As A Mermaid
Inadequate training and knowledge of one’s physical limits can lead to unconsciousness and death. So, on one of Ian’s one-, two- or three-day courses intense breathing techniques are taught, as well as how to swim through hoops and pick seashells up off the floor without goggles on. Trust me, that’s harder than it sounds.
“I want to steer people away from thinking free diving is solely this extreme activity that’s really dangerous and show it can be fun. Free diving shouldn’t be intimidating. If being a mermaid gets more people into the sport, that’s great.”
Most of Ian’s free-diving clients are professionals in their mid-30s and 40s looking for a challenge, testing their physical limits. My fellow mermaid-in-training, Polly, was curious to see just how jealous her seven-year-old daughter would be when she saw the photos.
Mist wrapped the shoreline and hugged the headland as we gathered on the cliff-top above Porth beach in the warm morning sun, to get to grips with the theoretical basics of breath holding to depth. If Ian and his fellow instructors, Lissie and Rich, had planned the setting to inspire romantic notions of diving with dolphins along rugged coastlines, it worked.
There’s a strong naturalist element to free diving because, without all the paraphernalia associated with scuba, it’s possible to experience an unencumbered closeness with marine mammals.
The theory became practical when we headed to the warm pool of the Glendorgal Hotel, which hosts the course. The key to being happy under water for long periods is, I discovered – after panicking – not to panic, to keep the heart rate low by “breathing up” or belly breathing for two minutes before submersion, and to know that humans take a breath long before we need to.
It’s the rule of thirds: for the first third of the time underwater, people are happy; the second brings the urge to breathe and it’s at this point most of us surface. But, resisting this urge means entering the third phase – the spleen will release more red blood cells, the diaphragm will stop juddering and this is followed by the discovery that the body has more oxygen than imagined.
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But how can natural instincts be overridden? Meditation techniques do this by focusing on the breath as a way of stilling the mind. Close the eyes, hum a song, repeat a mantra, listen to the heartbeat, make a shopping list and learn to get to a point where it’s possible to be alone and enjoy it.
When we took this to the pool, encased in wetsuits and masks, a feeling of claustrophobia crept in and it took a lot of willpower to believe I wasn’t going to die. I always surfaced before I meant to, caving to my craving to expel carbon dioxide.
And yet I kept going back under, keen each time to push it a bit further. Time slowed down (two minutes 20 felt like an age) and I found a sense of liberation, almost transcendence: a brief suspension between vitality and inanimacy.
It’s definitely important to be confident in the water, and a confident swimmer, but I treasured the potential for solitude rather than the sporting aspect and, speaking frankly, I value being pushed out of my comfort zone and free diving leads you into a whole new realm. And not just underwater.
Ian mentioned he’d just got back from a free-diving trip in Thailand and was off to Malta in a few months and I was hooked when I saw where holding my breath could take me. “Ah, but on a flat day the clarity of the water here in Cornwall is amazing,” he said. “If Britain had better weather, I’d free dive here forever.” That’s a maybe. But I was there to pretend to be a mythical creature and, frankly, water at eight degrees wasn’t gonna cut it.
Just as things were getting serious, Lissie lined up the mermaids’ tails, handed me a seashell necklace and informed me my name was now Sue-Sea. And this is when things got gnarly. Professional mermaids wear tails that can weigh up to 40 kilograms and cost over $4,000. Have you tried swimming with a small child holding onto your legs and making it look effortless?
The undulation starts in your outstretched hands and works its way down to the tip of your monofin, without a great bend in your knees. We lapped the pool, first with goggles, then without, dived through hoops, swam upside down and practised holding an exhaled breath so we could lie comfortably on the bottom for long enough to pose and preen for photographer Al. (Note: you are a more convincing mermaid if you can look like you’re having fun.)
Our instructors worked tirelessly to impart knowledge of how to swim with grace, and to see the water as an environment which liberates movement, rather than hinders it. Will I go on to star alongside Free Willy in a Floridian resort? Unlikely. Have I discovered a spectacularly fun way of bemusing the bejesus out of unsuspecting scuba divers? Oh yes.
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Susan Greenwood from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.