Once, when Annelie Pompe was very young, she was lying on a lilo in the Mediterranean looking down into the water through a diving mask. She could not swim but far below her on the bottom of the sea lay a plastic model car she wanted. So she jumped in and took it. She had made her first freedive.
Thirty years later Pompe has freedived in all the Earth’s oceans and holds a world record of 126 metres deep in one dive. She also holds courses, lectures, writes, and takes photographs. And when she is not doing any of these things, she is surfing. The ocean is her second home.
“I’ve always liked life in the water,” says Pompe when we meet at her houseboat in the Gothenburg archipelago in Sweden.
“It’s beautiful under the surface, but also simple: the weightlessness, the peace, the silence. It’s a completely different world,” she says. “Or several different worlds, each different. The ocean itself has different depths: there is a zone down to five metres, another for perhaps 10 to 20 metres, and so on.”
Pompe grew up around diving. Her father was first a scuba diver and then a freediver. Her family was often in or near the ocean. But Pompe believes that longing to be under the surface is natural for most people.
You learn to control your thoughts, to be calm and focused. The calmer you are, the deeper you go.
“We are made to be in the water,” she says. “We have ancient features in our bodies that still condition us for life in the water: as soon as you start holding your breath, for example, your pulse goes down, and the spleen emits red blood cells. There are scholars who argue that we were once beach apes who hunted shellfish and other marine animals because it was easier than chasing an antelope on land.”
Our features inherited from an existence entirely or partially in the water can easily be trained and improved. Pompe can now hold her breath for up to six minutes and bring her heart rate down to 20 beats per minute (the normal resting heart rate is 60-80 beats per minute). But it was not always so.
“I worked my lung capacity up from 3.8 to 5.5 litres in six months,” Pompe explains. “Everyone can learn. After 20 minutes of exercises in the freediving courses I teach, almost everyone can hold their breath for three to four minutes. You form a different relationship with your breathing when you start holding your breath. It’s very exciting.”
To those who think that freediving is scary or perhaps even dangerous because divers swim so far below the surface without assistance, Pompe says that scuba diving is more dangerous – if you tangle your equipment, she explains, you are done for. Freediving, by contrast, is all about getting to know your body and trusting yourself. It makes you mentally strong and even provides great benefits in everyday life.
“You learn to control your thoughts, to be calm and focused,” Pompe says. “The calmer you are, the deeper you can go. It should be understood that this requires a good physique, which you also benefit from.”
Looking at Pompe’s life, it is clear that excellent physical fitness is central and not only in relation to diving. If Pompe’s second home is the ocean, the mountains are her third. In 2011 she was the first Swedish woman to reach the top of Mount Everest from the north side. Since then, Pompe has climbed several of the world’s most extreme summits. Total focus, control, and commitment are necessary in order to achieve these feats. Pompe says she sees similarities between the depths of the ocean and mountain peaks: total serenity, silence, and a feeling of being at one with the surroundings.
Both diving and mountaineering have made Pompe aware of environmental pollution. As a maritime ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), she witnesses climate change from beneath the surface.
“It is the finest assignment I have received, and also the most important,” says Pompe. “The situation is critical now, but it is not too late. What is interesting is that the environmental issue is creating new opportunities for cooperation between nations that may not have cooperated very much before. They share the ocean, and the ocean makes the similarities clear.”