Testing the limits

Interview by Beth Finney
Photographs by Daan Verhoeven


After years in nine-to-five jobs as a graphic designer, Daan Verhoeven took the plunge and started two new careers, in freediving and photography. He has set several national records and been awarded Safety Freediver of the Year twice. A familiar face at nearly every freediving competition, his photography provides a stunning narrative of the sport and the underwater world. Now a certified AIDA freedive instructor and judge, he has opened Aquacity Freediving in Cornwall with his partner, British national champion Georgina Miller, to share their knowledge.

You can see more of his stunning work in Issue Five of Oceanographic Magazine, where his images help tell the story of the new Blue Element competition in Dominica. But what about the man himself? Oceanographic sat down with Daan to hear more about his life behind the lens.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): How was the Blue Element competition in Dominica?

Daan Verhoeven (DV): It was so inspiring to see how well the island is recovering, to see that luscious green returning to the trees, to see bees buzzing and to be able to dive in that amazing bay again. The sea is taking longer to recover from the hurricanes in 2017. The coral is quite badly damaged and there’s quite a lot of trash from the storm still in the sea, but the infrastructure is back in place, and the conditions are amazing.

I think freedivers tend to be a bit more eco-conscious than the average tourist, and we tend to stay longer and become repeat visitors, so we’re the kind of tourist you might want to have. Plus, the freedivers organise beach clean-ups and events around the competition, so we have a positive impact locally.

What Dominica can mean for freediving, however, is potentially huge: we need warm, calm, deep water, and that’s a rare combination. The bay of Soufriere might very well be the best deep freediving spot in the world, together with Dean’s Blue Hole in The Bahamas. I think the freediving world is slowly beginning to discover that, and it won’t be long till world records are set there. With a bit more infrastructure, it would be an ideal setting for a world championship.

OM: What emotional/psychological benefits have you found from freediving?

DV: Quite a few; I was moderately depressed when I started freediving, and just the physical act of swimming a lot helped me become fitter, which in turn helped me to become less depressed. The diet is hugely beneficial. Then there is the sense of achievement, overcoming fears and breaking through barriers, which helps boost confidence. It was also nice to discover that I can remain calm under stress, that my brain recognises panic as a not very constructive option. But most of all it was the sheer joy of being in water, the sensation of flying, that helped me be happier. No matter how rough the week was, on a Friday evening you could go to the lake or a pool and wash away all the stress.


OM: What have you learned about freedom and perseverance from freediving?

DV: I’m not sure if I believe in freedom – there’s usually a price to pay. In freediving, you pay with breath hold, so you can’t go into debt. Yes, you’re flying and completely free to explore an alien environment, but only for as long as you can hold your breath. There is always the surface to consider. The thing is that the duration of your breath hold, the duration of your freedom, can be increased by consistent training. When I started, I could maybe get to 15 metres and then rocket back up, now I can move about at those 15 metres for two minutes in comfort. But when we think of perseverance, we get images of big boulders on the beach defying the tides, of iron-willed explorers walking into snowstorms, frozen snot dangling from their moustaches. Perseverance in freediving is a bit different: you have to learn how to relax deeper, how to become softer – not tougher. It takes a certain mental toughness, yes, but you can’t just bully yourself into depth. That’s a recipe for disaster. So, perseverance to me is a gentler conversation with myself than just bluntly making myself do something.

I don’t feel like I persevered with freediving, it was just one of those things that I couldn’t stop doing. Even when I stopped competing, I still wanted to be around freediving, so I did a lot of safety diving and I became an instructor. It never felt like perseverance, more like going with the flow. The same happened with photography – I just couldn’t put that camera down, and I just kept learning from it, and taught myself editing. I must have spent thousands of hours working on it, but it never felt like an obligation.

Maybe that’s my freedom: following my own compulsions. It did help me escape my nine-to-five job, but I work harder now than ever before.

OM: How did meeting Georgina affect your freediving?

DV: Enormously. To have a partner who shares your passion is a bit like listening to your favourite song in stereo for the first time: you do something you love, with someone you love. It really amplifies all the feelings.

Plus being with her, and working for her landscape gardening company, allowed me to save up for camera equipment. The first photo I ever took with a professional camera in an underwater housing, borrowed from a friend, was of her, and the moment the shutter clicked, something inside me clicked as well. I knew this was it. So I worked for Georgina’s company, saved all I could, got my first underwater camera and went to competitions to take photos. The only reason I could do that was because she was helping me out. After getting the camera, it took about a year and a half before I could go full-time as an underwater photographer. All because of her.

Now we have a school together, Aquacity Freediving in Cornwall, and I get to help her out a bit with photos and occasionally teaching, but I will always be thankful to her for how she helped me.

OM: Do you still compete?

DV: No, I’m retired – but reluctantly. Like Rocky Balboa said in Rocky VI: “There’s still some stuff in the basement.” Every time I see that deep line, something inside me itches. I love that feeling of freefalling and to experience that again for a minute, maybe even longer, would be incredible. But my lungs injure quite easily – residue from being a former smoker, I guess – and to get back to interesting depths would takes months of adaptation and training; I can’t afford that. Plus, I’m very happy photographing freedivers.

I do get to go to a lot of competitions, and I get front row seats; in a way, I prefer that. As an athlete, you only get to really experience one dive, your own, but as a safety or as a photographer, I get to see all my friends dive, share their joy, experience the anticipation. This year I’ll go to Cyprus and Dominica again, hopefully also to Nice and Roatan.


OM: What has freediving photography taught you about control?

DV: It is interesting to explore the limits of control. Obviously, you can control the camera; that’s just a technical thing and you can easily learn that. Then you can start learning how to edit and exert control of your image that way. You can point lights a certain way and tell your model what to wear, where to look and what to portray. There are master photographers who get amazing pictures by directing every facet of it.

Maybe because I’m so in love with water, or maybe because I’m quite a fluid person myself, I’ve always preferred to give up control to reality. By that I mean two things: the first is that no matter how good an idea I think I have, reality has a way of filling in the details in such a surprising way, with such unthinkable detail, that it would be folly of me to try and control that. A real picture, by its nature, is much preferable to an imagined one. The second thing I mean by surrendering control to reality is that water constantly changes; the light changes, the visibility changes, the colours change. I let my environment dictate where I should be. In many ways it is the opposite to studio photography because I have no control over my surroundings.

I find that this lack of control helps me be free enough to forget about my silly self with its preconceived notions, and instead allows me to instinctively be where I need to be to get the shot. The freediver, the environment and the light tell me where I need to be, what settings to use. In order to work that way, I first had to learn how to control the camera and myself, for sure, but I reckon you’re only really in control of yourself once you can relinquish that control.

OM: How do you adapt to the constantly changing conditions of the ocean while shooting?

DV: It has a lot to do with understanding the elements you’re working with. You have to know the limitations of your camera, your lens, how far you can push them, also in editing. You have to keep in mind that the deeper you go, the more colour you lose. That those beautiful light rays at the surface will not be there as intensely at ten metres. That you’ll probably be shooting against the sun. That there might be boats overhead. You have to be able to adapt, even during the dive itself. I often have to change settings and focal point while I’m hanging at 20 metres, waiting for the diver to swim by. And you have to be able to call it quits when it gets too rough or dangerous.

OM: Are there any tools you won’t dive without?

DV: It’s not a tool, but I’d never dive without someone watching me. It is simply too dangerous to freedive by yourself. I’ve photographed without using fins, which is tricky when it’s a bit deep, and even without a mask (a selfie), so that’s all doable. These days I really like having a nose-clip over my mask so I can use both hands on camera. But I like to keep it as simple as I can – the less stuff you have, the less can go wrong.


OM: Why did you decide to open Aquacity?

DV: We wanted to make a living out of freediving. Georgina’s gardening business was doing well, but it’s also very hard work and her back was beginning to suffer, so we were looking for a way out. We’d found a house in Cornwall, on top of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. It needed a lot of work, but we’d fallen in love with the place, and there was a dive centre in the next bay, so we decided to take the plunge. It was scary, especially for Georgina since it was her house in London that we sold, but as soon as we made the decision, we got some great jobs in Cornwall and the school has been growing steadily. That’s mostly because George isn’t just a great freediver, she’s also a very considered, calm and well-prepared teacher, so our students really love her and tend to come back.

OM: How important is being in the ocean for mental health and do you think freediving could be used to help?

DV: Well, it helped me a lot, so from personal experience I’d say ‘yes’. One of the surprising ways the ocean helps you is a bit tricky to explain but I’ll try. I think most people innately have a sense of awe when they see the ocean. It has to do with elemental things: it’s so big, so vast and all-encompassing, so endless and powerful. It is a little scary – maybe a lot scary. We instinctively respect and fear that. Then you cautiously enter that element, and it lifts you, holds you at the surface without any effort on your part. You can completely relax all your muscles and it lulls you with its waves. You dive, you experience its pressure, feel its force, and you relax into it, like you’re being engulfed in a great big hug. And then something weird happens: you sort of dissolve into this hug. You become part of this enormous entity. You experience a fundamental connection to the water: it is part of you, and you are part of it.

Mental health has a lot to do with feeling connected. I think freediving connects us to the ocean. In finding freediving, I also found other freedivers, which helped me feel connected to other people also.

There’s is another benefit as well, which is a bit like a double-edged sword: freediving can act like a megaphone. Hold your breath for a while and whatever ails you will usually be the first thing that presents itself as an annoyance during that breath hold. Maybe it’s that kebab you shouldn’t have had last night, or the ankle you’ve strained, but in my case, it was my negative thoughts. Now, that can be quite confrontational: on the one hand it’s good to know what it is that is bothering you, but on the other, a lot of people would rather ignore it. The ocean can be like a mirror to our souls and minds, and we don’t always like what we see in there. But it’s certainly a useful tool for mental health.

OM: How do you manage fear or anxiousness with your students?

DV: Baby steps. I used to be a swim instructor for people with a fear of water and the same principle applies: baby steps. You don’t deny the fear; it is perfectly sane to fear something as powerful as the ocean or even a pool. I used to be afraid of water myself, and still recognise that feeling inside me. These days it’s more excitement, but that is based on that same fear for that same powerful element.

So you take it easy. If they are comfortable swimmers, you do a little duck dive, maybe hang for a moment at two metres. Then you go to three or four. If they’re comfortable with that, a bit deeper, if not, do repeats until they know they are fine. It’s all about finding comfort, finding relaxation, and you gain that from experiencing comfortable dives. You never push hard, just gentle nudges and usually people surprise themselves by how much they improve. But it’s very important to not think about certain depths – as long as they are relaxed and comfortable, that’s all that matters, that’s the only goal. Teaching freediving is mostly letting people discover what they can already do.


OM: What advice would you give to someone new to the sport?

DV: That depends on how new they are. If they’ve never freedived before, my advice would be to find a good instructor and take a course. If they’ve taken a course already, find a good buddy or a club and dive a lot. Focus on technique rather than metres, on relaxation rather than time, on experience and joy rather than achievement. The best freedivers I know still like to play in the water after training – water is a playful element, so give in to that.

OM: Is there anywhere you haven’t dived/shot that you’d like to?

DV: The more I travel the more I want to see: whales in Tonga and Sri Lanka, pink dolphins in the Amazon, Colombia’s nature reserves, the Galapagos Islands, the Thingvellir National Park in Iceland where continents meet and the weird structures of Okinawa. I want to shoot under ice, underwater towns, clear rivers, deep wells in Australia and a million other places.

Daan’s photography features in Issue 05 of Oceanographic Magazine. ‘Breathing new life into Dominica’ is a story about 2018’s Blue Element freediving competition and the positive effect it has had on the Caribbean island and the community of Soufriere Bay. Buy your copy here

Photographs by Daan Verhoeven