Breath – SUP freediving in the Maldives

Words: Tarquin Cooper

Pics: George Karbus & Pedrag Vuckovic

Fernando Stalla is a world champion SUP racer but when he’s not on a board, he’s underwater – freediving and fishing for his supper. It’s the perfect sport he says, to complement SUP and surf.

There are some humans who seem to spend more time in the water than they do on land. Fernando Stalla is one of them. Nicknamed Tarzan for his finely honed physique, the 28-year-old is a two time SUP world champion who’s spent his life in the water, surfing and freediving, before turning to SUP five years ago. He admits, however, that he does come on land to sleep.

Fernando Stalla SUP Maldives

Pic: George Karbus

“I’ve been freediving since I can recall. Snorkelling, freediving, that was always the thing to do. It’s a different world – it’s incredible. It’s like going into space: you have no gravity, no sound. Everything is still, movement is slow, like you’re floating. You feel like superman.”

“If there’s a risk of being held down, freediving can definitely help.”

Born in Fiji, Stalla was an ‘ocean gypsy’, living variously in Brazil and Costa Rica until he settled in Mexico. Surfing at age eight, he later became a member of the Mexican surf team before he found his true sport with SUP five years ago. But he’s always been swimming in the ocean, diving underwater – often not very deep – just having fun.

SUP Maldives Fernando Stalla

Pic: George Karbus

“Now I do spear fishing. It’s like my main hobby. If there’s no surf and I need a break from training, I jump in the water, catch a few fish, bring food to the table and have a blast doing it.”

Freediving, he says, is something that all ocean lovers can experience. “No one is good right away. You just have to enjoy being in the water. Whether you’re five seconds or five minutes underwater, it doesn’t matter if you enjoy yourself. I’m happy not going super deep.”

Will Trubridge, a multiple record breaking freediver who was the first to break 100m without any assistance or artificial aids – including fins, also says depth isn’t everything. “Most freedivers are doing it recreationally, whether that’s snorkeling, spear fishing or training to go deeper. In some cases it’s to test their own limits but for most people it’s about being more integrated into the aquatic world. Unlike scuba, where you’re a tourist, you can move around more freely – you feel like you’re a sea creature yourself. That’s what attracts most people, especially in this day and age where there’s a worldwide movement to be more in touch with the planet. Since the planet is 70% water, it offers the greatest intimacy with that 70%.”

Suunto photoshooting at Ayada Resort, Maldives on 9th February, 2015.

Pic: George Karbus

He adds that for anyone into surf sports, there could be some life-saving benefits in learning to freedive. “If there’s a risk of being held down, freediving can definitely help to be more confident and ok with that idea.”

“If you love the ocean, go and try it,” adds Stalla. “The more you try, the better you’re going to get. Once you start going deeper, do a little research on the right breathing techniques. If you learn how to do that, your improvement is going to double.”

Suunto Advertising photoshooting 2015

Pic: Pedrag Vuckovic

Stalla says that the sports of SUP and freediving go perfectly together. “That’s how I do it,” he says. Some days he’s just out exploring reefs. If he’s spearfishing he uses the board as a buoy and has a line back to it when he’s underwater. Otherwise he loves to explore the coast, park his board and go for a dive. The Maldives, he says, were especially awesome for this.

“In the Maldives the water is super clear. You have a lot of sea life, a lot of colours and a lot of beautiful animals. It’s very entertaining to be underwater there. But the most amazing thing was the dolphins. While freediving they weren’t so friendly but when I was on the board, I was paddling with the pack. That was amazing.”

SUP is the perfect means for Stalla to enjoy the ocean. “The fact is that you can do it anywhere in the world. I can go freediving on a paddle board, go fishing, just paddle, take a friend or kid on the board, catch a wave, go explore. It’s a great sport and perfect for my lifestyle – I’m very happy.

Suunto Advertising photoshooting 2015

Pic: Pedrag Vuckovic

He may be nicknamed after a lord of the jungle, but Stalla is clearly a creature of the ocean. “I have spent more time in the water than outside the water. At night I have to sleep on the land though.”

Freediving tips

  • Stay relaxed

“The most important things are breathing and relaxation – and not to hyperventilate,” says Trubridge. “People think that they can get more oxygen by breathing quicker. It’s important to breathe passively, and be relaxed both beforehand and while you’re in the water. By being relaxed you can store more oxygen in your tissue and blood. You consume less, so you can stay down longer.”

  • Don’t panic

“Panicking is the opposite of what you want to do, as it uses so much oxygen. So resist that urge to panic and train for that. If you held your breath in a training course for three minutes, a minute or two of which was fighting that urge to breathe, then you’re better equipped to deal with that in big surf,” says Trubridge.

  • Exhale for longer

“Do a two second inhale, followed by a four second exhale,” says Stalla. “Do a few of those and if you feel relaxed take a deep breath and go down and enjoy. Professional freedivers will spend 20 minutes breathing to relax before a dive but just breathing for a few minutes beforehand will help.”

  • Double your surface time

“Rest on the surface double the time you spend underwater,” says Stalla. “So if you dive for one minute you should rest for two before you can go back down to prevent blackouts.”

Suunto Advertising photoshooting 2015

Pic: George Karbus

  • Use a watch alarm

“Alarms let me know that I’m at a certain depth or when I’ve been underwater for a certain amount of time,” says Trubridge. “But even for someone who’s not as serious about the competitive side, a dive time alarm can still be handy.” Stalla is a fan of Suunto’s D4. “It has made my dives safer and more fun and also shows all the cool information about each dive!”



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