PROGRESSION: A FREEDIVING EXPEDITION IN OREGON
6 min readAdventures
Humans know more about outer space than they do about the depths of the world’s oceans. Slipping the familiar and oxygen-rich surface and diving into the vivid and raw wilderness under water is a chance to let go of control and hopefully learn something along the way. In today’s new post by Jeff Shapiro, he describes how the cold, green waters along Oregon’s coast line can provide a chance to experience a different world, allow the opportunity to forage for food and become a link to his childhood memories.
Journal Entry #8
Each and every summer when I was a kid, my parents used to ship my brother and I off to my grandmother's home in Hawaii. I know..... hard life. But, I think it was their way of promoting a close relationship with her, encouraging us from a young age to find some independence and probably most importantly, to get a break from their two psycho boys. Making a living as an adult by racing hang gliders and paragliders, BASE jumping and climbing might give some insight as to what kind of a terror I was as a youth. One thing is for certain, my mom is a tolerant woman and deserved summers, if not a lifetime of relaxation, after what I put her through.
While on the island and when we were barely old enough to do so, my brother (only slightly less terrible than me) and I earned enough money doing odd jobs to go through a Scuba certification course. There was a local shop, close to my grandmother's home, who allowed 14 year-olds to enter their program and for us, it was an entry into another world. Being underwater is like being in outer space. Tank rentals were cheap then and for around eight bucks, we could each rent two, oxygen filled tanks. Just by walking across the street from my grandmother's home, we could easily enter the ocean and travel to another universe. It's funny, yes we saw turtles, huge manta rays flying above us, fish of all varieties and the colors of millions of microscopic organisms which made up the vast coral systems off the coast of the Big Island but my most vivid memories are from times when my brother and I would take off our fins on a patch of sand at the bottom, fully deflate our BC's (buoyancy control vests) and slow motion Kung Fu fight on the bottom of the Pacific. We'd lay on our backs and blow bubble rings, watching them expand and grow as they floated to the surface. It was a simple life. When the waves were up, we'd surf. When the ocean was calm and flat, we'd dive.
It's been a long time since I've last used Scuba gear but that love for being under water, and the curiosity found by entering that “other world”, has never changed or left me. And, although the blue, tropical waters of the south Pacific still call loudly, it's the cold, darker, green waters of this part of the Oregon coast I now call my home which has me more curious and fascinated than ever. There's something about this raw part of the Pacific that feels like wilderness. It appeals to my history as an alpinist. It's foreboding, full of strong currents, kelp forests, and without proper attire, will snatch the warmth right out of your being. Not to mention the “landlords”, our reference to the great whites who regularly cruise this coastline looking for seals and salmon, add an extra element of adventure. Although Scuba hasn't found its way back into my life, free diving here definitely reminds me of those early days with my brother and again, I find myself wearing a mask, fins and a weight belt to escape to that “other world”.
Photography: Jeff Shapiro
One of the coolest aspects of diving here is the ability to forage and feed your family. If done responsibly, legally and respectfully, spearfishing and collecting crab and shellfish can be a delicious conclusion to any dive. When I moved here, I quickly became aware that most of the people who have become friends (surfers and ocean people) were also keen free divers who were willing to share their knowledge. Ryan, a local waterman and skilled surfboard shaper, has become a trusted partner in the ocean so, after checking the freezer and seeing we were getting low on the ingredients for fish tacos, I felt the universe speaking to me as out-of-the-blue, Ryan texted “wanna go diving?”
We met at the jetty close to slack high tide. With a super active and strong current, it's important to try to get under water while we don't have to fight it one way or the other. The visibility wasn't horrible but, it seemed like 5-10 feet would have to do. I love the feeling of having a spearfishing wetsuit on, my spearing equipment sorted and sitting on the rocks with my legs in the ocean while I clean up my mask and get my fins on. It feels like the proverbial “space suit”. Ryan and I smiled and wished each other good luck, reminded each other to stay safe and quietly entered our own thoughts. In a special moment of any dive, I let go of control and silently slip into the cold water. Even with 20 lbs around my waist, I felt weightless, looking down at the orange and purple sea stars, the white and green anemones while gliding across the choppy surface. I followed the jetty of rocks, the jagged boulders fully submerged and deepening as we got further from shore. Once I could sense some depth below, I relaxed my body while breathing deeply and evenly, trying to keep my heart rate as low as possible. Turning onto my head, my fins being the last to fully submerge, I slowly drifted down to a depth around 30 feet and then tried hard to relax while carefully and deliberately preparing my gun for a shot. One light kick with my long freediving fins and the buoyancy of my thick wetsuit helped me to glide silently up the wall of rocks, looking in holes and for shapes of my favorite fish against the ghostly shadows of kelp swaying from the sand to the surface.
Photography: Jeff Shapiro
As with anything in life, intention is easy to detect if you're sensitive to it. Fish stay alive by being sensitive so, it's important to not move too fast, to not project your intention and to stay as calm as possible. My breath hold at this stage in my experience is no less than atrocious so, I try to remember that when I feel the contractions in my diaphragm and my body seems to need to breathe, that's really just the “beginning” of my actual breath hold. I try to remain relaxed and focus on the shapes; only choosing a shot when it's just right. When I'm lucky, and the preparation and opportunity comes together, I get to put a fish on my stringer and again, have a healthy dinner to share with family and friends.
Photography: Jeff Shapiro
I've said it before in this blog but, I'll say it again. No fish tastes quite as good as one that's cooked over an open fire. In today's modern era of camp stoves and insta-boils (believe me, I've used them all), some would argue that a grill over an open fire is less practical to travel with and use on a regular basis. But, you can't cook fish over a JetBoil. I love having light stoves for missions into the high mountains but, having a short, conveniently rolled grill, easy and fast to set up and deploy over any open fire, that I can take a freshly caught and cleaned fish and simply place it on and over the fire is a magical conclusion to the day described above. In the end, another day in the ocean became yet another lesson. Being thankful for the fish that fed us was easy, and the warmth of the fire was a nice addition to our meal. Oh, and the tacos were pretty damn good too!
Shop Jeff's campfire cooking gear here.