Life beneath the surface

They weigh 30 tonnes and can move at 16mph. Freediving with a humpback whale is like going for a walk with a moving bus, while holding your breath. But how does it feel when they make eye contact with you underwater?

When Nicki Meharg was 32, she gave up her job in the city and made a major change in her life. She travelled to all corners of the World to be closer connected to the ocean, the source of wonder in her childhood. Nicki now works for TV productions as a water-based camerawoman and safety diver. She is a freediver and advocate for marine conservation. These are her reflections on the lessons learnt from life beneath the surface.

Words and images by Nicki Meharg

Pic: @morlo_wildlife

As far back as even being a toddler, I was in the sea. I grew up in Northern Ireland, where one of my grandparents lived on an island called Sketrick on the Strangford Lough. I’d be on the beach, lifting up stones and finding what I could find underneath them. The visuals, the smells and everything about the sea have been embedded in me since I can remember. And probably even before that.

I worked as an architect in London for a long time. I’d always known the city life didn’t suit me, but I got wrapped up in that thing when you're younger and building up your career. In my early 30s, burnt out, I realised I didn’t want to sit at a desk for the rest of my life.

I quit and then went around the world to be near the ocean. That was the first time I tried scuba diving and I fell in love with the underwater world. I lived on a tiny island in Greece and just focused on training and working towards being an instructor for three years. 365 days a year I was in the water guiding, teaching and experiencing the incredible landscapes and animals in the different oceans and seas. In the Winter seasons I'd go South East from mainland europe to Thailand, Egypt, India, Bali and Indonesia, travelling and working under the sea.

Realigning my life with the sea made me feel completely different. As soon as I was in the water, it was a huge weight off my shoulders.

That really drove me to work in marine conservation and get involved in as many conservation projects as I could, as my dive skills built.

One of the unexpected consequences of travelling a lot is how it teaches you to appreciate home more. I'd always be in and out of Wales, the place where I've ended up. There's a group of my nearest and dearest, and we made a drunken pact when we were 20 that we'd all end up living together. Out of the twelve of us, five of us live in the same village now, by the sea.

Diving deep. Pic: @morlo_wildlife

I freedive, scuba dive and rebreather dive. Of all the disciplines, freediving is different. You have to be fully connected with your body. Holding your breath to dive is more natural than you might think. There is something called the mammalian dive reflex, a natural reaction our bodies have to being underwater. With the first step of breath hold, and then facial submersion in water, comes bradycardia (a drop of the heart rate sometimes as significant as 50% from the initial starting rate). This means the heart beat is slowed and the oxygen taken in the last breath is used more efficiently to give a little more time underwater. There are many more factors and steps to the mammalian dive reflex but this is just one that shows how incredible the innate reflex is and how naturally calming our connection with water is. The more you dive, that becomes stronger. Everybody has that capability. It’s just the same as any kind of muscle: the body needs to use it to make it stronger.

The amazing experiences you can have freediving go beyond the water. It is great for general wellbeing. The way you learn to breathe, or control your heart rate, is a skill you can use in your everyday life, it relaxes you.

Surfacing. Pic: @morlo_wildlife

The lack of equipment is a special thing. You are way more at one with the water, but also with all the sea life within it. Freediving is the only way that you can spend time with these animals and have less of an impact on their environment and behaviour. They’re much more curious, they see you as one of them rather than something “other”. Your mind is clear.

You’re in this other environment and it's otherworldly. The interactions with the other species, the pure eye contact.

Puffins on Skomer, south Wales. Pic: @morlo_wildlife

I once freedived alongside a humpback mother and her calf in a lagoon with really clear water with a white sand bottom. I could see everything really clearly and they could see us. They got used to us and as we put our arms out and belly to her, she would put her pectoral fins out and show her belly to us. She’d dive next to us and dive back up with us in the same position and we held this pure eye contact. It was an incredible experience.

The great tragedy with the current state of our oceans is that people can’t appreciate something they can’t see.

On top of that, for a lot of people the sea can be scary - there is a fear of what lies beneath - so it makes a difference to show people what's under the surface. Sometimes that’s through a camera lens, other times it’s about encouraging people to try diving. With a lot of people, as soon as anyone has got a mask on their face, it seems to take away the fear of being in sea water. Often as soon as you give someone a snorkel and a mask, it takes away that fear of being out of your depth in the water, not knowing what's there.

Basking shark in the coastal waters of the Hebrides. Pic: @morlo_wildlife

The UK has some of the best diving in the world. We have such a wide variety of species, everything from incredible macro life to huge species. Once people understand that, and you take their fear away from it, it has this transformational impact for so many people.

I've taught a lot of very young kids, but I’ve also seen adults who have been scared of the sea for their entire life. They have this physical and emotional transformation from having their face in the water for only a minimal amount of time. Those moments make me hopeful.

Recently I did a lot of stuff with Steve Backshall for TV who is a great advocate for getting young kids inspired about nature. I pick productions where the message we’re trying to convey is really meaningful. When it comes to climate change and sustainability, the wildlife filmmaking world is doing what it can to make a difference.

I try to make the right choices to protect what has been such an important part of my life as I’ve realised life beneath the surface has changed the way I see life on land. I want to share that with people, and take them there with me.

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