Back in Salt: I Went to Help a Freediving Amputee Get His Gills Back. He Dove Deeper Than I Did.

by Owen James Burke

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Ever wonder what it feels like to lose your favorite thing on the face of the earth at the drop of a dime only to find that a year later, you’ve still got it? Me neither. I couldn’t even envision it, but it might look something like this. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

A few weeks ago, a friend, fellow expatriate and US Marine called “Mac” rang me up to see if I wanted to join him on a freediving/spearfishing trip to the Queen Charlotte Sound. It’s one of several embayments that make up the Marlborough Sounds, an emerald maze of deep flooded valleys lying just below the fiercely tormented waters of New Zealand’s Cook Strait.

Mac’s Kiwi friend Brent Bythell was spending the weekend out on “the Sounds” and had planned a freedive for scallops, which were just coming into season.

“Sure,” I said without reservation. I’d never caught a scallop before.

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Still days like these on the Marlborough Sounds are hard to beat–unless you’re sailing, that is. Photo: Owen James Burke.

It turns out that Brent is in recovery after an infection crept up his foot, leg, and eventually into his spine. He showed up at the hospital complaining of a curiously numb right foot, but was shocked to learn that he had developed gangrene. Brent had to undergo an emergency amputation of the lower part of his leg and he’s now nearly paralyzed from the waist down. The simple fact that he’s alive today is nothing short of a miracle. With the help of a crutch and prosthetic limb, Brent actually gets around pretty damn well–on land anyway.

In the water, things are a bit harder. With only one leg, and a weak one at that, he doesn’t have the strength to wear big dive fins to kick his way down to the depths like he used to. Still, Brent is an experienced freediver who has reached depths of 30 meters—a place in the water column at which scientists once thought the pressure would be fatal, and the human lung would be crushed flat. (Now competitive freedivers reach depths of about 215 meters or 700 feet.)

It was now about a year since Brent’s surgery—and amputation–and he had mentioned to Mac that he was thinking about getting his gills wet again. It was a mild, clear and dry late fall day. The air temperature was accommodating, the water not so much. In fact, it was gonna be freezing, as far as I was concerned.

I had never met Brent, but shaking his hand, it instantly became obvious that he was a “glass half full” kind of guy. He was extremely hospitable, perennially optimistic and wore the kind of infectious smile that festers inside you until you produce one of your own. It was a smile that made me—and I think everyone around him—happy to be alive.

Brent was seated on his patio out back, humoring himself while painstakingly stretching into two separate 2 millimeter surfing suits, cut off at the legs.

“This is one thing I haven’t missed,” he cracked.

His thighs were bare, and we’d be in 4-6 degree celsius (about 39-43 fahrenheit) water in short order. The cold water would not be an obstacle for him. What really complicates diving for Brent is the actual diving part. As most of us know, we’re all buoyant at the sea’s surface. In order to get down without expelling too much energy (and therefore oxygen), divers attach weights to themselves that leave them just barely buoyant. This way, it’s easy to dive, but if something happens and for some reason you can’t consciously make your way back up, your body will float to the surface on its own.

While Brent and I were still suiting up, Mac swam out and set bags of burley (or “chum”) at different depths to see if we could entice a few fish to congregate and maybe give Brent a chance to shoot one for our lunch. Though it’s winter and many fish have migrated into deeper waters, we figured it was at least worth a try.

With no fins and no weight belt, getting Brent down to a depth of about 10 meters where he could spear a fish or gather a few scallops would be the day’s primary objective. Mac, being the ever-innovative Marine, came armed with a plan.

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Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

Mac had brought along a 12 kg weight and hooked it up to his spearfishing float (a plastic canister about the size of a buoy, similar to a lifeguard’s float), which we tethered to a separate floating line. The float kept the weight at the surface until Brent was ready to dive. Then all he had to do was pop off a clip and hold on as the weight pulled him down to the sandy seafloor.

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Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

The one inconvenience of Mac’s jury-rigged pulley would be having to drag the weight back to the surface after each of Brent’s dives, while we were still in the water. This would require that one of us hold the other steady while they balanced on the float and, hand over hand, reeled the anchor to the surface. With a heavier gauge of line and a bigger float—or a kayak or standup paddleboard to sit on and reel in the anchor—things would have been, and perhaps in the future will be simplified.

We got into the water and lazily swam out to where Mac had set the burley bags. There was no wind, and there were no sounds. There wasn’t even a ripple on the surface, apart from the occasional dolphin or seal porpoising nearby.

It had been about 15 minutes, enough time for the frozen fishy bits to begin thawing, even in the chilly water 20-30 feet below–it was only 10°c (50°f) on the surface.

As he went on reconnaissance dives to assess each of the burley bags, Brent and I hung around at the surface getting acquainted. Things hadn’t been easy for him on any front since his operation; family life, romance and work had all undergone drastic transitions. His parents are now on alert at all times, especially when he’s in the water, and though he still has no trouble charming the opposite sex, there are certain things he can no longer do.

“Relationships are so effing tough, but that’s why we’ve got this,” he mused. Closing his eyes and dropping his head back into the water, he turned his face up to the crisp, cloudless sky, basking in the apricity of that balmy winter morning.

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Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video. (Excuse the violet filter, which the Sounds’ emerald waters necessitate.)

Mac surfaced and began to swim toward us as we switched gears to more pressing matters; our hunt was underway.

First Brent was to go down, and once he had started to fall out of my line of sight, I’d follow, and then Mac as soon as he lost visual on me. This way, if Brent had any complications while he was submerged, at least one of us would witness it and hopefully have enough air reserved to help him or bring him back up. Really though, given Brent’s experience, there was little that could go wrong unless he somehow became entangled in the weight tether, and in case he did, he also wore a knife strapped to his calf.

Freediving is terrifying on a simple, intuitive level. How is it possible that we can hold our breaths for minutes at a time and withstand the immense pressure of the deep blue? Though we humans are equipped with the “mammalian dive reflex” that all mammals gain in the womb, we lose touch with this instinct as soon as we begin to walk. Still, a baby will hold its breath for something like 40 seconds upon submersion into water without any instruction. Maybe as we get older our consciousness gets in the way, but despite the immense physiological pressures we face–at 30 meters (99 feet), your lungs shrink to the size of a baseball–most of us are anatomically designed to dive. At almost exactly 10 meters (33 feet), the human body becomes neutrally buoyant and is no longer pulled back toward the surface. When diving, the deeper you go, the faster and easier you sink. (Read more about the “Renegade Science” of freediving in a Scuttlefish interview with James Nestor about his book, DEEP.)

It turned out that Brent was able to get down to the bottom on his first dive (about 25 feet), but it was slow-going for the first 12-15, where buoyancy still rules the human body. These extra few seconds stalled near the surface, trying to overcome his buoyancy, were costing him crucial breath and energy.

“Do you want to try a fin?” I’d asked Brent earlier on, trying not to be pushy.

“No, I haven’t got the muscle to kick,” he answered, believing he was fully aware of his limitations.

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Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

After a couple of slow dives without a fin, Brent was feeling more ambitious and began inspecting each of ours. Mac’s were too stiff, he concluded, but mine were softer, and might provide less resistance, making it easier to use. He decided to try it. Right away, he was kicking better than he’d expected after all. This relieved the diving weight of some of its duty and got him to the bottom much faster. We reckoned it might also serve as good physical therapy.

Brent doesn’t have much movement in his legs, but the addition of my soft fin allowed him to kick some and descend at a faster rate. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

This was a monumental trial run that neither Mac nor I could relate to nor control. Brent’s face had become more serious after entering the water, and he seemed anxious–I think to some degree we all shared that sentiment on his behalf. But a half hour in the water changed everything, as it so often does, and after two or three dives with the fin, Brent was getting more comfortable.

As Brent requainted himself with the ocean, we got into a routine. Watching him surface, something told me he knew all along that, in the right conditions with the right company, he’d dive again. He was, in fact, already diving with more grace and ease than I was. My difficulty was in trying to keeping up with him–that, and taking turns retrieving his diving weight from forty feet down. Imagine weighing an anchor from in the water while hanging onto a buoy to stay above surface.

After checking the chum bags three or four times over the course of about an hour, all we had attracted were some small baitfish—herring, with no predators in tow.

“$24 in chum to the baitfish,” someone groused.

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Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

Determined as ever to “get a feed,” Mac–who’s losing his mother tongue and beginning to speak like a Kiwi–had to haul something up. He suggested we go deeper and look for scallops.

“Let’s go,” Brent agreed.

I hesitated, but as Brent and Mac swam off, I was in no position to object. So far, we’d been diving to about 8 or 9 meters (about 26-30 feet)–which I can reach comfortably–but in this area, the scallops tend to dwell in highest concentrations starting at around 10-12 meters (33-39 feet). Three or four meters (10-13 feet) doesn’t seem like much of a drop, especially once you’re already down there, but the pressure keeps building, and your consciousness, which you may have thought was more or less at bay to conserve energy, still knows you’re that much farther from the joys of oxygen.

I wasn’t as thrilled as my companions about going deeper, for two main reasons. Firstly, I usually don’t have to go any deeper than 10 meters–most of the fish and shellfish I look for lie within the shallows. But secondly, and more critically, I’m not much of a diver at all; I’ve taken up freediving and spearfishing as a fisherman looking for a more efficient, responsible and sustainable way of harvesting my food from the sea. Only in recent years has the idea of the deep end of a swimming pool begun not to frighten me–not just because of the distance to my atmospheric lifeline, but my difficulty with “equalizing” (blowing air out of your ears to even out pressure), too.

The three of us swam out another 75 yards or so, filled our lungs with precious surface-side gases, and broke for the bottom, continuing in shifts.

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Above: Brent, casually checking his dive watch at 14.6 meters. Not bad for over a year out of the water. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

“Scallies,” as they’re colloquially known in New Zealand, aren’t terribly hard to find if you can hold your breath long enough to dive to about 10-20 meters and, once there, spend about 15-20 seconds scanning the bottom for their conspicuously-shaped shells. Sometimes they’re slightly embedded in the sand and sometimes they’ll even swim, or jet-propel themselves away from you, but generally speaking they’re not the best escape artists. When scouring the seafloor for scallops, a diver has to peruse the sandy bottom as quickly as possible. For Brent, this would mean shot-putting 12 kgs (about 30 pounds) of anchor in front of him and using it to pull himself along, all while holding his breath. Clearly, Brent has some incredible innate endurance which I will never have, or sure as heck have yet to discover.

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Brent (left) dove first, but after every descent he broke the surface many seconds after me (right). Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

We were all averaging dives of around a minute (Brent and Mac maybe a minute and twenty seconds) spending anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds on the bottom. It came as no surprise to me that Brent had a better breath hold than me, and about as soon as I reached the bottom, I had to look for Mac to make sure that he was on his way down behind me so I could resurface for air. Brent came up with Mac, at least 10 seconds after I surfaced, also empty-handed.

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Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

Mac, on the other hand, showed me up as always, this time with a palm-sized scallop.

Above: A video of scallops jetting away from divers off the south coast of the UK.

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Amongst the clamholes, horse mussels and scarcely strewn weeds, scallops (dead center above) are not difficult to find–if you can get down to them. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

Mac and I had the ability to let weight belts and fins do most of the work for us while we trace along the sand. For Brent, it was different. Once at the bottom, he had to hang onto the weight until he was either out of breath or his hands were too full of shellfish to grab another. Otherwise, he’d have floated right back to the surface.

Reaching depths of around 11 meters, Brent and Mac reasoned we still needed to venture deeper. Great, I thought. Not only was I starting to dive out of my comfort zone, I was also beginning to shiver in my surfing wetsuit (less than ideal for diving). We swam further out and another dive commenced. I don’t know where I copped out, but it was somewhere above Brent on his 14.6-meter (48-foot) dive, as measured by his watch.

After a handful of pitiful attempts at trawling just above the bottom for 5 or 10 seconds before returning for the mercy of oxygen, I gave up and remained at the surface for the rest of the excursion, keeping an eye on things and helping to retrieve the weight.

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Still: Michael McEntee.

Brent continued to dive with Mac, who was averaging one or two scallops on each dive. Finally, though, Brent surfaced with a fistful of mollusk and a huge smile I won’t soon forget. There weren’t many words shared that day, but spirits were high and I recall something to the effect of “I like this!” coming from Brent’s mouth.

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Bliss. You don’t know it until you’ve shucked a scallop and eaten it right at sea level, before it even left the water. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

Mac came up a little behind him with the camera, so a shot of him with the scallop in his hand—his first harvest without rod and reel since his surgery—never came to be.

But just after Brent slipped his dive knife into the sweet, tender bivalve and had his first bite of self-caught scallop sushi, Mac rolled the GoPro and caught a quick clip that shows his satisfaction far better than my keyboard ever could:

“How’s that?” asked Mac. “Delicious.” ‘Nuff said. Screenshot: Michael McEntee’s YouTube video.

Recently, I bumped into Brent outside of a cafe, and we decided to meet at the pub later on. Sitting outside by the fire that night, I could feel the euphoria emanating off of him which, the whole night through, remained far more intoxicating than the many beers we put down. He told me that after being roused by his return to the sea, he’d taken to swimming on his own again. He was finding it therapeutic, both for body and soul.

A week or so beforehand, he told me, on a day not unlike the one we’d had with Mac, he was bathing in the Queen Charlotte Sound, paddling along on his back when he felt a nudge. Eh-oh, he thought. There really aren’t very many sharks that pose any threat to humans in the Marlborough Sounds, but panic struck anyhow, he admitted, before a curious seal popped up a moment later and his heart stopped pounding through his chest. The seal gave him a gentle nudge, almost a ‘welcome back’ and swam off.

There are few gratifications in this world that surpass being able to rip your clothes off and throw yourself into the sea, but to witness someone regain such liberation, such independence, after such tragic misfortune, might just be one of them. -OJB

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