She hangs out with turtles, swims with sharks, was nearly swallowed by a whale and was gifted a pansy shell by a dolphin . . . Umdloti’s Beth Neale is living every little girl’s dream of being a real-life mermaid.
Floating into the deep blue with nothing but one breath is where Beth feels her best. The African Continental record holder and four-time South African Freedive Champion has recently broken her own freediving record, reaching the 50m mark with no fins. “The conditions couldn’t have been better! I had a 20-person support team out on the water with me, 12 miles offshore Bermuda. This was the most relaxed performance of my career, despite having a wardrobe malfunction at 50 meters,” laughs Beth. She had lost the tag she needed to present to the judges on completion of the dive. The Velcro band on her leg had slipped off due to the compression at 50m depth.
“I grabbed it and tucked the tag in my wetsuit – but it fell out at 40 meters! According to my dive computer, these incidents added 17 seconds to the dive, which was a total of two minutes, 52 seconds. I felt comfortable enough to go deeper, but my medical insurance only covers me up to 50m,” says the nomad mermaid who has her home base in Umdloti.
Beth discovered her mermaid alter-ego about 10 years ago during a low point in her life while living in London. “I watched a film, The Big Blue, and immediately started searching for freediving courses. Two weeks later, I started my underwater journey.”
Freediving unlocked her love for the ocean and has made Beth a passionate ocean warrior who is on a mission to share her love for the sea with others through her free-diving workshops and fund-raising projects. Over the past five years, Beth has taught more than 500 adults and over 3000 children, aged eight to 15, the magic of freediving and ocean conservation through her company, Aqua Souls. She recently completed the largest freediving GoFundMe campaign in history raising close to $25 000 for ocean education programmes. “I love changing the perceptions of children who are fearful of the water and watching their confidence grow as they become mermaids or Aquamen. It is inspiring to identify children who are gifted or interested in a future of conservation, knowing they may become ocean guardians.”
She says freediving allows you to connect not only with the ocean, but also with the body on a deep level, without the heavy gear and distraction of technology. “Building confidence as a freediver is about becoming aware of the innate abilities we have as humans. These allow us to experience life underwater, which is known as the mammalian dive reflex. These physiological responses allow us to relax, lower the heart rate, conserve energy and move blood flow to the vital organs when holding the breath. It is truly magical!”
While the mental and physical aspect of freediving fascinates her, Beth’s primary motivation to dive is to experience that connection with ocean life. “I am very lucky to have dived with a humpback whale mom and her calf on our coastline. I have often heard them singing while I freedive, which is incredible. Once, they were so close, my whole body vibrated.”
Her most cherished underwater interaction was with a dolphin in Mozambique. “One of the dolphins separated from the pod and dug in the sand with his nose while looking up at me. He swam towards me and I saw he had something small balanced on his nose. The dolphin then swam above me, tilted his nose down and dropped the object which slowly drifted right into my hand. My heart stopped. A wild dolphin had just given me the gift of a pansy shell! It was the happiest and most significant moment of my life.”
Beth is still hoping to tick two particular experiences off her bucket list: swimming with humpback whales in Tonga (a Somoan island) and diving with the elusive Dugongs or sea cows in Mozambique. On the conservation front, she is working on developing the first children’s freediving certification system. “This means children will be taught by qualified instructors and receive a recognised certification when they are done. The focus is not so much about how deep they dive or how long they can hold their breath, but more about conservation and their role in protecting the reefs and marine life as little ocean guardians.”
Details: Instagram @onebreathbeth or Facebook: Aqua Souls SA
Text: Elana Wagner | Photo: Stuart Philpott