Freediving With Fernando | Part 1
Words by Tarquin Cooper
Photos by George Karbus
There exists a rare breed of humans on earth who appear to be wired for a life aquatic—those few individuals who seem to spend more time in the sea than they do on land. Fernando Stalla is an archetype of this breed. Nicknamed “Tarzan” for his cascading hair and chiseled stature, the 28-year-old waterman is a two-time World Paddle Association (WPA) Champion racer who grew up surfing and freediving before turning to SUP five years ago. These days, Stalla says he spends more of his waking hours in or on water than on land.
Stalla’s resume as a thoroughbred waterman reaches far deeper than the paddle. Between SUP, surfing, spearfishing and freediving, Stalla’s arsenal of ocean-sport endeavors affords him more water time than most. When he’s not standing on water on his SUP, he’s underwater, freediving and spearfishing for supper. But for Stalla, the best aspect of his versatile waterman’s repertoire manifests in combining his passion for standup paddling with spearfishing. In pairing these practices, Stalla feels he’s found a perfect complimentary match.
“I’ve been freediving for as long as I can recall,” Stalla says. “Snorkeling, freediving—those were always the things to do. It’s a different world (underwater). It’s like going into space: no gravity, no sound. Everything is still, movement is slow, like you’re floating. You feel like superman.”
Originally from Fiji, Stalla was born into the nomadic life of an “ocean gypsy,” living variously in Brazil and Costa Rica until he eventually settled in Mexico in the mid-2000s. After being introduced to surfing at age eight, he later became a member of the International Surfing Association (ISA) Mexican surf team before he adopted a passion for SUP five years ago. Along with the evolution of his athletic career in boardsports, Stalla never stopped swimming. His proclivity for diving, be it in shallow or deep water, is a passion he’ll never surrender.
Freediving, Stalla says, is something all ocean lovers can experience.
“You just have to enjoy being in the water,” Stalla says. “If you’re five seconds or five minutes underwater, it doesn’t matter, as long as you enjoy yourself. I’m happy without going super deep.”
Another man of Stalla’s breed, Will Trubridge, is a multiple record breaking freediver who broke one depth record by diving 100 meters down without any assistance or artificial aids – including fins. Trubridge agrees with Stalla’s sentiment that depth isn’t the most important aspect of freediving.
“Most freedivers are doing it recreationally, whether that’s snorkeling, spearfishing or training to go deeper,” Trubridge says. “In some cases it’s to test their own limits, but for most people, it’s about being more integrated into the aquatic world.”
Trubridge points out that unlike scuba, where you’re basically just a tourist limited by the bulk of your equipment, freediving allows you to move around more freely underwater.
“You feel like you’re a sea creature yourself,” Trubridge says. “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. Freediving offers the greatest intimacy with that 70 percent of the planet that’s made up of water.”
Additionally, the breath control attainable through the practice of freediving is a major asset to standup paddlers in racing, downwinding and other SUP niches that rely heavily on a healthy cardiovascular system. The ability to stay calm under water and preserve oxygen while submerged is perhaps most valuable to SUP surfers, particularly in big waves.
“Wherever there’s a risk of being held down, freediving can definitely help a person to be more confident and OK with that idea,” Trubridge says.
To safely combine standup paddling with freediving, and particularly spearfishing, the fundamental first steps aught to include a gradual introduction with an experienced freediver, as well as a few added pieces of gear. Along with the standard paddling and safety equipment—board, paddle, PFD and leash—a paddler who’s new to freediving will also want a mask, snorkel and fins for their underwater escapades. Beyond those essentials, a well-rounded and versatile dive watch that displays water conditions and bodily vitals (Stalla recommends the Suunto D4i dive watch) can be imperative for safety and underwater awareness.
With guidance and gear locked down, the only remaining necessities for
an introductory dive are a bit of ambition and a will to step off your
SUP and sink into the drink. Just don’t forget to hold your breath.
This is the first installment in a three-part series with Fernando Stalla focusing on introductory skills for freediving as it relates to SUP. Tune in next week for an exhaustive list of Stalla’s recommended starter tips and practical techniques.
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