Life in Salt: An Interview with Author, Freediver and Saltwater Adventurer James Nestor
by Owen James Burke
James Nestor diving with the Moken in Thailand
“…the sea remains the final unseen, untouched, and undiscovered wilderness, the planet’s last great frontier. There are no mobile phones down there, no e-mails, no tweeting, no twerking, no car keys to lose, no terrorist threats, no birthdays to forget, no penalties for late credit card payments, and no dog shit to step in before a job interview. All the stress, noise, and distractions of life are left at the surface. The ocean is the last truly quiet place on Earth.”
-James Nestor, an excerpt from Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
James Nestor is an author based in San Francisco whose adventurous exploits include freediving with the Moken in Thailand, surfing in Arctic Circle, and abalone diving in the waters of Northern California. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, NPR, and many more. His 2012 book, Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History’s Most Insane Around-the-World Adventure, chronicles the voyage of Australian madman Benjamin Carlin, whose circumnavigation of the globe in an off-road amphibious jeep — across both land and sea — cost him everything in life but life itself.
Scut: Was there any distinct moment or story that made you decide you wanted to write about the sea?
JN: It was just, more or less, coincidence. Every vacation I’ve ever taken has been oriented around being on the ocean. As I started writing stuff, I just found stories that were ocean related, and those two things just dove-tailed at the same time…A lot of people don’t realize — at least in my experience — it’s really hard to find good stories sitting at your computer. Everyone thinks everything’s online, but it’s not. The more you travel, the more you hear about stuff, the more people you meet, the more that leads into different areas. It turned out that everyone I was hanging out with had something to do with the ocean, and either were fans of being in it or worked in it in some capacity. And to me, that was the coolest job in the world, to be able to write about something that I have such a magnetic attraction to, and that’s been my main focus. I write about other stuff when it comes up, but my main sort of beat is ocean stuff, which is a pretty huge beat, but the vast majority of what I’ve written about has been all focused on the sea.
Scut: I just read your article in San Francisco magazine about abalone diving —
JN: Oh, I have to read that and see how it turned out.
Scut: Do you do a lot of abalone diving?
JN: Not a lot. I started a couple of years ago. I absolutely love it…you can’t buy it, gotta go down and get it.
Scut: That’s the only way.
JN: It seems to taste so much better that way, too.
Mostly, the conditions are pretty bad. Usually in fall it clears up, but I’m going to go a lot this year. They decreased the limit, or the take, for abs, which is great. They should have done that a long time ago…I just like going out there and having an excuse to freedive around there. It’s dangerous, but it’s personal responsibility. You’ve got to know your limits; it’s just like anything else. You’ve just got to know that you’re small and sort of meek in the ocean, and you’ve got to go with it. All these guys who have died up there, I mean it’s totally tragic, but it’s lack of education, I really think it is.
Scut: A lot of people go up there with nothing but food on their minds.
JN: Exactly, and that’s the problem. That can’t be the end goal. The end goal is getting in the water and enjoying it. If you happen to grab an ab and it’s safe to do so, and you know you can make it up, then go for it. If not, you know — I’ve been out there, and I’ve been pretty deep, seen a huge ab in a little crack of a rock, running out of breath and knew I probably could make it, but there was a chance maybe I couldn’t. So, I came back up, grabbed a breath, went back down, and never found it again. That’s how it goes. You just have to accept that and not get this competitive spirit in your mind. I was out there in November and these guys were just nuts. They didn’t know what they were doing and they were just pulling all this macho shit. They were just trying to really push down there, kick harder and stay down until they were just about to pass out. I was thinking, ‘you guys are bozos.’
Scut: They’re missing the point, huh?
JN: Yeah, totally missing the point. There’s enough competition on land — no need to bring that into the water.
Scut: How and when did the sea first intrigue you?
JN: I grew up pretty close to the ocean in Orange County, behind the Orange Curtain. So my earliest memories are playing in the ocean, being in the water. I’ve been in it as long as I can remember. That was a good salvation from the monotony of suburban life, and everyday I’d take the bus down to Newport and the bus home, and that’s what I’d do. San Francisco’s sort of a different world up here…but I actually prefer it up here.
Scut: I was going through Half-Safe, I can’t wait to read it. It’s been on my list for a while, but that must have been fun to write.
JN: That’s more like a long, long magazine article. That was a story I heard about while sailing with a friend who didn’t know what the hell he was doing, and so we almost died. He was telling me about a guy who was doing exactly what we were doing, for 10 years…the photos tell the whole story. I don’t even have to write anything. Someone could just look at the photos and just watch this guy degrade over ten years.
Scut: That must have been a hell of a honeymoon.
JN: Well, hell, I think, is the operative word. [Ben Carlin] was just manic and crazy, but pretty fascinating. A forgotten story in history.
Scut: What’s your favorite ocean story?
JN: I would say, definitely — and this is not any sort of plug — but my new book that I’ve worked on for two years, in which I travel from the surface to the very bottom of the ocean. My main objective was not to write it and research it from the desk — to me, it was also a great excuse to just travel the world for a couple of years and hang out with some interesting people doing interesting stuff. I was required in each chapter to apply myself. I had to learn to freedive, to really see how these people were researching dolphins and sperm whales.
I had to ride in this guy’s homemade submarine down to 2,500 feet in Roatan, which was insane. The access you get from that — from the blood sweat and tears — was just incredible and these people are amazing and what I saw was just stuff I never imagined existed. Again, you can read about the sea — or anything — from a book, your desk or the internet, but until you go experience it yourself, you haven’t seen much. I just handed it in 10 days ago, and it’s nice to just sit back and process what happened, and where that adventure’s going to take me next.
Scut: How about your most terrifying experience?
JN: Montara in Spring 2004, I think. Big, nasty swell. Got out just fine but couldn’t make it back to shore. Huge closeout waves; outgoing tide. I was on a board I wasn’t used to riding and was having trouble making traction. No matter how hard I paddled I just kept getting swept further out to sea, into bigger waves and rougher water. I struggled for about 30 or 40 minutes until I started getting tired, really tired. At that moment — and this is all true — some French guy paddled in from nowhere. He must have seen me from shore. he started yelling at me to follow him. I paddled after him, my arms just burning. He led me to a channel at the north side of the beach and stayed right there, paddling beside me until I made it to shore. I threw my board up on the beach and sat down to catch my breath. I watched as he turned around, paddled back into the mess, and caught some death-defying rides. This guy was just out there in these miserable waves, miserable conditions, surfing alone. And he was French. A very surreal, humbling moment. And definitely not my last.
Scut: What are you working on now? No rest for the wicked, right?
JN: No shit. I promised myself — I didn’t really sleep much the last couple of years — I’m taking six months off, I’m going to surf, I’m going to sleep. It’s like the opposite has happened.
I just got back from Thailand, I was there for three weeks. I was working with the Moken, which are like the last indigenous freediving tribe in the world, and they’re just being completely screwed over by the Thai government now with overfishing. Half the time we were living on a rink dinky little boat, and living on little islands, and really trying to live the way they lived. That was the ambition at least — we had a bunch of spears and we were trying to fish — but it didn’t really work out that way, because there were no fish. We were just trawling for fish. So, the story turned from this adventure travel piece to an investigative journalism piece…These people — they’re not asking anyone for anything — they’re not saying ‘build us a house or give us money,’ they’re saying ‘leave us the fuck alone,’ but you can’t even do that nowadays.
I’m probably going to go out to Guadeloupe with a bunch of these DIY sperm whale researchers that have built this machine that they’re going to try to collect the 3-D sound of a sperm whale’s click and process it into a visual image and then shoot that image back into the whale’s head…So, this is very hairy stuff because you have to swim face to face with the whales to get the recordings.
I might be going back to the Philippines in May — I’m working with the California Academy of Sciences. They’re using this new rebreather technology that allows these guys to go down to 400 feet, and they’re able to stay down there for about a half an hour. No one’s ever been able to do this, ever. So when they go down there, they’re not just seeing new varieties of fish, they’re seeing new species…What excites me most are the people doing it on their own. One good thing about the modern age: all technology, software and hardware are so cheap, that anyone can do it…You’ve got to do things a different way if you want to make things happen. That really inspires me.
Scut: When you’re not on assignment, how do you spend your time on the water when you have free time?
JN: Luckily, I live about 12 minutes away from the ocean, without traffic…I can zip down to Ocean Beach in mere minutes, and I do all the time. I have an office in the back of my house and I check the surf every couple of hours, and if it looks good, I can just bail and then work later…luckily a lot of my work has allowed me to be around some pretty amazing places, so I have access to the ocean that way too…The long surf trip thing hasn’t really happened for a while, but my work has taken me to places where I’ve been able to surf and have ocean adventures — which isn’t to say Baja isn’t always on my mind. I’m always checking the swells and the prices on Virgin. That said, I love how San Francisco is just foggy and crappy and usually there’s a slight onshore wind, and the waves aren’t the best quality, and you can just be out there alone.
Scut: Makes for a good deterrent.
JN: It does, and it’s just such a rare privilege. I’ll take crappy waves with no one on them any day, any day. In San Francisco, there’s plenty of that.
Scut: Tell me a little bit about this FRV (Freedivers Recovery Vest) that you tested.
JN: I really want one, for one thing…It’s amazing what [Terry Maas] spent. He’s losing tons of money on this thing, he has no other reason than that he wants to save freedivers and spear fishermen, and I just think that’s so cool…I think that this thing could really change the sullied reputation that freediving and spearfish have — and that reputation is well-warranted, by the way, I mean, people die all the time in recklessness — but this thing is just another layer of protection…When I tried it out, I knew at all times I could get back to the surface. I was just down there for about a minute where I was right at the edge with maybe about 45 seconds left of oxygen. I was just starting to feel it when I turned it on and it’s just like a magic carpet ride back to air. It’s so fast and effortless and you don’t have to do anything, and you come up head first. It’s just extremely impressive, and I’m planning to buy one before my next trip and just travel around with this thing. I just think it’s a great idea…It’s super expensive, but his quote is, ‘What’s your life worth? Is it worth $1,500?’ That’s just something to consider, but I love it.
Scut: So what’s your favorite piece of gear or gadget to have on the water, other than your pen, I suppose?
JN: The hand plane. I love surfing, but when the waves are right, I think bodysurfing is the most primitive, coolest thing you can do on the water. A hand plane or maybe a set of goggles. I always travel with a hand plane with the hope that there will be some good waves — usually there aren’t…That something I’m trying to get better at. It’s just so liberating. Surfing’s great, but there’s just something simpler about bodysurfing that’s really appealing…It’s so liberating. That’s the real attraction about freediving, for me as well. Once you get down past 30, you know 35 feet, the gravity reverses, and you’re sort of pulled down, it’s just a free zone. You can just do whatever the hell you want. You can just sit there, upside down, right-side up, vertical, horizontal; it doesn’t matter, and you can just sit there and watch things pass by…It’s the closest thing to interstellar travel that I’m every going to experience. This is outer space — it’s another universe and everyone has access to it.
Scut: The poor man’s outer space.
JN: Exactly. Listen, I’ll take it any day.
Scut: I’ll take it over outer space, not having been there.
JN: Hang out with a bunch of Russians in a steel box? No thanks.
Scut: So which hand plane, and which pair of goggles?
JN: I made a hand plane — my buddy has a wood shop — and he got a hundred year old piece of redwood. He owed me a bunch of favors, so I said, we’ve got to make this thing. To his credit, he kind of made the thing, and I sort of sanded and pretended I was helping out…I drilled two holes and tied a shoelace through it and it’s just awesome. Maybe someone else’s works better, but this one works great for my purposes. I have a large head and a big nose so I can’t find any goggles that fit me. The only ones that kind of fit me are the Evo Stealth goggles — they’re the low, small volume freediving goggles. I have two pairs of those and I use them all the time, and they’ve been great. People with normal sized heads can probably get away with wearing anything, but that’s just my preference.
The Moken don’t use masks. Their eyes — when they’re born — they can see twice as far underwater, compared to you and I. Now they’re having to use masks and fins because there are no fish. These guys are diving about 150 feet. This is what they’ve had to do. When we were out there, we delivered a shitload of gear to them — a ton of masks, fins and spears so they can continue what they’re doing. They don’t want to use all that crap, but the world’s changed and they have to. That was part of the mission: western freedivers going out there with the people that started it all and being like, ‘there you go.’ We want to keep trying to support them and what they’re doing.
Scut: What’s your favorite book about the ocean?
JN: I have so many of these things in my office, I can’t even say man. Read ‘em all. I’ll say The Manual of Freediving: Underwater on a Single Breath is pretty fascinating.
(Top and bottom images courtesy of James Nestor)
Read more about James Nestor here