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Surfers and Ocean Conservationists Gather in Maldives

LAAMU, Maldives — A fast-moving rainstorm blew over the small atoll late in the afternoon, briefly cooling a typically humid day just 100 miles north of the equator. But within 20 minutes the sun was back, hot and bright, the air even thicker. Aaaaaah, paradise!

Free diver Anna von Boetticher goes deep (Photo: Cat Vinton)

I was desperate for some cooling off, having spent the morning wrestling with something I thought I’d mastered long ago: how to breathe.

The lessons had taken place in a pool behind one of the guesthouses at the new Six Senses Laamu resort, where I’d joined a dozen superstar water athletes from around the world—surfers, kite boarders and windsurfers—for a unique conference of ocean doers and thinkers, dubbed WaterWoMen.

The morning test was actually less about learning how to breathe and more about practicing how not to.

Our supervisor stood waist-deep in the pool, the Indian Ocean serving as backdrop, as we dunked our heads. Stopwatch in hand, German free diver extraordinaire Anna von Boetticher was serious about the task and admitted to being a little daunted by the water talent in the pool with her…even though she is an elite as well: one of the world’s best at holding her breath and going deep.

While we were experimenting in the relative safety of a four-foot-deep, suburban-variety chlorinated pool, Anna has dived to record depths of more than 200 feet with one breath wearing just a pair of oversized swim fins and a mask.

The goal of the four-day conference was to connect water-doers with water-thinkers and see where their lives and experiences overlapped and what they might learn from each other’s experiences.

While intellectual surfing may sound a bit presumptuous, that’s exactly what went on between sessions in the pool and ocean.

Talks held under the shade of palms took on some of the trickiest questions facing the ocean today: how to protect more of it, how to provide clean drinking water for island nations and how to preserve and regrow damaged fisheries and reefs.

To my right in the swimming pool, taking deep breaths and then hanging by fingertips to its edge, was one of the best-known big-wave surfers in the world. This was a guy who had on many occasions been washing machined by 60-foot waves, having to fight to get back to the surface for a life-saving breath before being hammered again by thousands of pounds of crashing water.

It made sense that he’d lower his pride to hang out in a swimming pool to pick up some pointers on how to stay under longer. I think we were both surprised that his initial try lasted barely two minutes. Others in the pool were keeping their heads under nearly five minutes (and admittedly nearly passing out). It became quickly clear that thinking about holding your breath under water only made it more difficult.