Journey to the centre of the earth

In this interview, Jesper Stechmann, one of the world 's best freedivers and a highly experienced cave diver, shares his personal experiences about freediving in caves. Purposely, he does not share any exact locations of caves and strongly discourages even experienced freedivers from exploring caves by themselves.

An interview by Lena Kemna
Photographs by Jesper Stechmann
Additional photographs by @suahuatica

Lena Kemna: Most people, including myself, when thinking about cave diving, let alone freediving in caves, often ask ‘isn’t that wildly dangerous’?

Jesper Stechmann: It is indeed. Freediving in itself is dangerous. A friend in the federation once said: “If something happens under water, it’s a very hostile environment to be in”, because you don’t have much time. As a scuba diver, you don’t have much time, and as a freediver, you have almost none. So of course, it’s dangerous. You have to make sure nothing happens. And that’s why you really have to know what you are doing. You don’t take uncalculated risks. And when you take risks, you need to be fully aware that you are doing it. Because if you make a mistake, it is unlikely that you fall and hurt your leg. It is more likely that you die.

If we are not diving on a line in a controlled environment, there is very little a safety diver can do. Of course, that depends on the kind of cave, but imagine you are deep inside a tight cave. There, it is very hard to rescue someone who is blacked out or to help with anything. If I am the safety diver, and I know exactly where they are in a cave, I have to dive down myself into the cave, grab them and somehow get them out. If it ́s narrow, I cannot push them in front of me, so I have to somehow try to slowly pull them out, coming up for air in between, and this takes time. Depending on the cave and here thinking about some of the deeper or more complex ones I explored, this can take too long for me to bring them back alive.

When freediving in caves, absolutely nothing must go wrong. And caves are deceiving. One thing is knowing how your body reacts, how your body is situated in free waters. But caves are something else. Once you dive under or into something, it’s easy to get disoriented. To not know anymore what is up and down. So, when I dive into a cave, it may look daring, but actually I explore step by step. Slowly and safely. When I dive into something unknown , I always have at least 60% of breathhold time left when I turn around to go back and out.

Lena Kemna: Are waves and currents an issue in caves?

Jesper Stechmann: Yes, for sure, they can be. Most caves were made by waves, eroding the rocks. Imagine you are in a cave with a small air pocket and a wave pushes in. Suddenly, you are being smashed against the rock above you. Or when you want to go out, there can be currents pushing against you. We have an easily accessible cave here in Gozo but sometimes, there can be currents pushing against you on your way out which is why I don’t show it to people.

Lena Kemna: So why do it?

Jesper Stechmann: I just love cave diving, or any diving in open water. I also love competitive freediving that focuses on depth but just as much I love diving under and into things. When I was a kid, I read A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. When I look for and dive into caves, I feel like I am exploring and finding the inner worlds of our planet, as well as myself. So on the one hand, it is about exploring the underwater world and discovering the extreme beauty of caves and our planet below the surface. And then, there is the other side of it that is all about the mind. Freediving is about exploring the mind. And freediving into caves is a new, maybe a more extreme, version of exploring our minds.

You know that it’s something you can do, whether it’s a dive for 20 seconds or 2 minutes, it ‘s something that you have in yourself, no matter the external circumstances. Many of the dives we do in caves are much easier than the dives we do on the line. But, of course, there is the possibility that if you can’t do it, you will be in big trouble. And that’s where your freediving becomes a dive into your ability to have mind control as well as trusting your breathhold.

It doesn ‘t matter what happens around you, you have to be fully in there, externally and internally. You explore the interior of the earth, but really, you dive deep into yourself. In a way, freediving in caves reminds and requires me to be there – with the inner core strength of my mind’s ability to stay focused and relaxed.

Why do we need to take on so many problems? Regardless of the circumstances, we have the right to stay calm at our core, and to deeply enjoy our life. And whether that’s an email coming at us unexpectantly, or another rock in the dark. It doesn’t have to scare or stress us, or rather, we can’t allow it to. First, because we will deal with it much better when we don’t let it throw us off balance, when we acknowledge it, deal with it calmly, or deal with it later. And second, because our lives, lived peacefully and joyfully, are more important than that. Whether that’s an email, or something deep inside a cave, maybe a fishing net, or a dark thought, anything you didn’t expect. You cannot let that take your calm, or your enjoyment of the dive.

Lena Kemna: Did you ever have a tricky situation freediving a cave? What was the most dangerous cave dive you have ever done?

Jesper Stechmann: Let me tell you a little story here, because it actually happened during the world championships in Okinawa. At the world championships, they usually organise some excursions to explore the local dive sites and we get to see some of the underwater world while we are there. It’s very nice, but I usually never go. When I compete, and I am passionate about this side of freediving. I am focused on it. I train, I dive, I sleep.

But this time, I did go on a small trip to a shallow reef. Just with speedos and rubber flippers. And I saw this little swim through in the reef, maybe at two metres depth, and thought I’d explore it. I went down, had a look and saw that it would get narrower and narrower. I thought “I can get through there”. So, I dove in, and it did get more and more narrow. And then you reach a point where you have to decide – do I turn around or do I continue? Because if you continue, it may be so tight that you cannot go back anymore and the only way is to move forward. I was diving with my hand in front of me, so if my shoulders got stuck, I wouldn’t have much room to get myself out of there.

Long story short, it was a tight call, a very tight call, in the very literal sense of the word. I had to squeeze myself through, scratching my skin on my shoulders, chest and back. That situation for many years was unnecessary and I still remind myself of it regularly. The Danish Team won this competition and I made a 90m dive, but this fun dive at only a few metres was where it was most dangerous.

Lena Kemna: How do you explore caves freediving?

Jesper Stechmann: Here on Gozo, and also on the neighbouring main island of Malta, I explored many caves with my friend Henning Larsen, also a former World Champion. For one, it’s a challenge. Can I get through there? I remember that sometimes we found swim-throughs so tight that we actually had to let some air out to be smaller to push ourselves through them. Which, of course, is an even shorter one-way road.

When I first explore caves, I like to dive without a light, because it enhances your senses and makes the exploration more intense, but this is something people shouldn’t do. Do not explore caves. I do it because I am quite experienced and because I am very aware of my limits, and I respect them. On this one day, we dove into a cave which in this particular case, we had heard about from scuba divers, so we knew there was an air pocket in there. We dove in and in there, came up slowly, with our hand above our heads, reaching out into the air first. And then when you first come up, you have to decide quite quickly: Is it fresh air, or is it old, stale air? If it’s old air, or what we call ‘bad’ air, that’s not good.

Lena Kemna: What do you do if it’s ‘bad air’?

Jesper Stechmann: You try to not breath too much, maybe one or two breaths, and then you go out again. You really can’t stay in there. Anyway, this one was good air, so we were in there, but without any lights whatsoever. We went along the walls with our hands, feeling the cave walls and we realised it ́s a huge hall in there. And we really felt like Jules Verne, exploring the very inner of the Earth. It was total exploration, and I love that.

Lena Kemna: Do you ever explore caves first scuba diving?

Jesper Stechmann: No, I don’t scuba dive. And I think for me personally, it would not be the same thing.

Lena Kemna: Are there any more caves you want to explore?

Jesper Stechmann: Yes, there is one. It’s a deeper, longer one. But it requires some preparation because there is very little margin for error there.

Lena Kemna: What is your favourite cave you explored freediving?

Jesper Stechmann: There is another cave that I found with an access through a tight crack in the mountain. You dive down, through an arch, come up and push yourself sideways through this crack for maybe 30m or so and then you dive under another big rock, maybe for 25m. And then deep inside the mountain, there is this beautiful cave.

The way I found this cave is that I dove a few times close to there and saw the crack, because some light shines through. But then beyond that, it’s total darkness. So one time, I went under the rock, reaching out in front of me until I felt I came up to the surface. Very slowly coming up, I could feel the air pocket being large enough for me to catch a breath. I didn’t know how big the room was, but it was big enough for me to breath. Later on, we went again with a torch. And we saw that it was a huge room, with a huge exit actually. But anyway, that first dive into that cave was probably the best cave dive I have ever done.

Lena Kemna: What’s the name of the cave?

Jesper Stechmann: I call it Innercave. I think it’s nice if caves have names given by the one who found them. And that cave is incredible. It’s narrow, it’s tight, it’s pitch-black. And even inside the cave, there are some nice swim-throughs. There are slick paths formed by the currents. That cave has a daring entrance, and quite a long dive to exit, and everything in between. But there are many others as well as caverns. And also, at some point, you figure out when to go there.

There is a special one in the North, I call it Anja’s cave, after my girlfriend. At certain times of the year, at a certain time of the day, the sun shines through at just the right angle, and the sun rays create a wall of light and it’s the most beautiful thing.

Lena Kemna: You are being very vague about the location of the caves. Why? Would you ever create a map of the caves you have found?

Jesper Stechmann: I don’t share the location of caves. Whenever I take people to caves, I give them only my own names. I don’t put the locations on Instagram, or anything like that. I do not want to carry the responsibility of someone else going in there by themselves. Cave diving can be tricky and dangerous and even stupid. Only if you do it right, with an extremely experienced guide, it is beautiful and majestic and really, what freediving is all about.

Lena Kemna: So, if someone wants to learn freediving into cave, how does it work? How can you learn it and what do people have to bring with them?

Jesper Stechmann: I have taken many people freediving to caves.. But only after I have seen them freediving and after I have seen them being comfortable in the ocean. I look at them very closely freediving, their techniques and how calm they are.

And then, I take them only to caves I know inside out and which are easily accessible. I never explore new caves with other people, except for my friend Henning and few others. And still, even if I have been to the cave a hundred times, and even if I have been there the day before, first, I still dive into the cave alone, and check that there are no fishing nets, nothing unusual. Then I come out again. I tell them how deep and how long the dive is, let’s say “We will dive down to 5m, then straight for 5, and then up again for 5, and it will take us 15sec. I will be by your side the entire time”. And then, whenever they are fully relaxed and ready, I guide them, one by one, into the cave. I closely observe them, diving in front and above them, so they can see me, and I can prevent them from diving into anything or hitting their head. I never underestimate people ́s ability to lose their orientation when entering a cave. I will stay right by their side, at all times.

And this experience is the best. They can dive to 10m on a line and suddenly, they can take that skill to dive into a cave, into the inner core of the Earth – their reaction is fantastic. Because it simply is fantastic. It is how I feel myself.


*Freediving in caves is a highly dangerous activity. Do not try out anything you read here; never explore caves by yourself without an experienced guide.


Photographs by Jesper Stechmann
Additional photographs by @suahuatica

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