Champion freediver William Trubridge on what scares him about the ocean

Anyone who was told to “relax” during lockdown knows how stressful it can be to chill out under pressure.

Relaxing on cue is about as simple as ‘acting natural’ for a photograph.

So spare a thought for freediver William Trubridge, whose entire career – and, potentially – his life, relies on relaxing in intense situations.

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* Kiwi William Trubridge breaks his own freediving world record in the Bahamas

The New Zealander, 41, has set more than a dozen world records, including becoming the first person to dive unaided to 100m, in 2010.

In January, he became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to freediving.

His chosen sport is the art of making a single intake of breath stretch considerably further than it should – competitors don’t use scuba gear, or air tanks.

Before a dive he lies on his back on the ocean’s surface, sipping in maximum air. Then he’s swimming down, his lungs contracting, until the water pressure becomes so great that his body stops floating and begins free-falling. After grabbing a velcro tag at the dive’s lowest point, he must use his oxygen-starved arms and legs to swim back to the level where buoyancy kicks in and helps him back to the surface.

Any stress before or during competing wastes precious oxygen.

But knowing you have to relax makes it harder to do so, Trubridge says.

William Trubridge has set more than a dozen freediving records in his career.


William Trubridge has set more than a dozen freediving records in his career.

“In any sporting performance, right before the performance your levels of adrenaline and cortisol are going to be elevated. The whole system goes into a fight-or-flight response, and in any other sport that gets you to perform, to run faster, etcetera,” he says.

“But this is the opposite. If your heart rate is elevated, you’re using oxygen.”

“That is one of the main conundrums with the sport. We see it a lot in competition – people who perform very well in training, when it’s just their friends and there’s no pressure [are] just suddenly unable to do those depths.”

“Managing stress is a huge part of the sport.”

Trubridge founded a freediving competition at Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas. At 202 metres deep, it is the second-deepest Blue Hole in the world and the site of many world record attempts.


Trubridge founded a freediving competition at Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas. At 202 metres deep, it is the second-deepest Blue Hole in the world and the site of many world record attempts.

Trubridge is speaking from a hotel room in a managed isolation facility, where he’s biding time before he can get out and see his family. He and his partner, his partner, Sachiko Fukumoto, typically split their time between Okinawa, Japan and the Bahamas.

Right now Fukumoto is in New Zealand with the couple’s young daughter, Mila, ready for the birth of their second child, due this week.

The pair came here for Mila’s birth because Fukumoto wanted a water delivery. She was told New Zealand midwives would support her, and they did. A successful freediver herself, she was filmed looking remarkably calm while delivering Mila, in a short documentary called Water Baby, directed by Katherine McRae. (McRrae is best-known as Shortland Street’s Brenda, though she’s also an experienced TV director).

All going well, McRae will film the couple’s second birth for a feature-length follow-up to Water Baby, called Pacific Mother, featuring women’s experiences from around the Pacific.

Trubridge and partner Sachiko Fukumoto with their daughter Mila, in a still from the short documentary, Water Baby.

Water Baby/Supplied

Trubridge and partner Sachiko Fukumoto with their daughter Mila, in a still from the short documentary, Water Baby.

Trubridge and his soon-to-be-family-of-four are planning to be in New Zealand until January. Both athletes are outspoken about their love for the environment: before Mila’s birth, Trubridge dolphin-dived across the Cook Strait to raise awareness of the plight of Hector’s and Māui dolphins.

Does being a dad make him more optimistic that we’ll nail climate change, and protect the oceans?

“That hasn’t changed from becoming a parent. I guess my optimism over the years has reduced because I’ve seen how the problem is getting worse, and the institutions that have the power to do something about it are complacent,” he says.

“Fortunately, in general, I’m fairly optimistic. But it’s waning.”

He’s tried hard to showcase the ocean’s beauty – before Water Baby Trubridge was the subject of a 2011 documentary Breathe, following his quest to break the 100m depth barrier.

What else does he do?

“I’m mostly vegan. I eat some seafood – pretty much only the stuff I catch myself, or if I know that it’s being caught locally in a certain way,” he says.

“The reason wasn’t just ecological… it was also for performance.”

“For driving I’ve put the deposit down on Tesla Cybertruck, one of the fancy new all-electrics. [I’d like us to] put solar panels up and hopefully get off fossil fuels for local travel, because at the moment I’ve got a big Ford F-150, which I need for moving around platforms and diving equipment.”

The toughest challenge, he says, is air travel. “There’s no all-electric (long-haul) planes coming any time soon.”

“In 2020, I definitely flew less, but at the same time I lost a few sponsorship deals, partly because of Covid and them having to tighten their belts, but it’s also more difficult to have a presence and satisfy sponsors, if you’re not competing throughout the year.”

It wasn’t an easy year, all-round. Trubridge might be good at managing stress, but he’s not impervious.

Last month, the former world record-holder returned to New Zealand from competing at the event he founded in the Bahamas, Deep Blue.

He won silver – not the outcome he was hoping for.

He had been on track for a world record in training.

“And then the organisation, especially this year, with Covid, was so much more stressful. That kind of crippled my performance,” he says.

“I was on track to break it, I’d done more than that depth in training,” he says.

“I still held a hope, towards the end of the competition, that I might be able to dive to that depth.”

It wasn’t to be.

Gold, and the new world record, went to his main rival, Alexey Molchanov, who dived to 126m in the men’s free immersion, without fins. Now, Trubridge needs to go deeper, if he wants the crown back.

Striving isn’t without its dangers. In a tragic reminder of the sport’s risks, Molchanov’s mum, Natalia Molchanova, who was widely considered the world’s best freediver, died in 2015 when she failed to resurface from a recreational dive near Spain.

Last year Trubridge had a serious blackout while deep underwater during training. He was underwater for seven minutes before his safety divers revived him. Small blackouts on or near the surface are fairly common in freediving, but this was a different, riskier, experience.

Most blackouts in freedivers are due to low oxygen, but, because where this one happened at a point in the dive where he should have had good oxygen levels, Trubridge is fairly sure it was due to excessive carbon dioxide. Too much of the gas building up has a toxic effect on the body.

I admit to Trubridge that I don’t know very much about freediving, but I write a lot about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide – albeit in the atmosphere.

He laughs a bit at the comparison. When he describes the human body, or the ocean, he gives the impression he would have made a decent biology professor, had his life turned out differently. After high school, he studied genetics, then worked briefly in a DNA-sequencing lab. He once debated whether climate change was real – on the affirmative side – for the school debate team.

Climate change soon drifted off his radar, but freediving brought him back to seeing people’s impacts on the planet more clearly.

When he moved to the Bahamas, he saw plastic all over his training grounds. “We’re on a shore that kind of acts like a trap. Plastic floats along the side of the island and gets trapped in the bays that face towards the south.”

“Some of those beaches are just carpeted with plastic. We’d clean up fairly regularly, and the next time… the winds would change direction, there’d be more. You’re not even treading water,” he says.

“What you see is bad enough. But there’s an underwater cave I like, near the blue hole (Dean’s Blue Hole, site of the Vertical Blue competition).

“It’s a cool place to pop in. You swim in underneath, and pop up into an air chamber.

“The first time I went in, I discovered there was a lot of plastic in there, so I went in with a bag to clean up.

“[But] the plastic must have been trapped there for several years, because when you touched it, it just disintegrated into tiny particles, right before your eyes.

“What we see is mostly the bigger chunks, but plastic that has been in the ocean for years is still there, it’s just broken down into microscopic particles. That’s the most concerning, because those are becoming part of the food chain and leaching,” he says.

“What we see is the stuff that washes up on the beach and bobs around, but what is probably the most dangerous and problematic is the stuff we don’t see.”

Trubridge playing with an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin in the waters of Bimini, Bahamas.

Peter Zuccarini/Supplied

Trubridge playing with an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin in the waters of Bimini, Bahamas.

It’s similar with climate change, he says.

There’s a scene in Water Baby where Fukumoto speaks wistfully about giving birth in the ocean, before ruling the idea out.

I tell Trubridge there are parts – maybe all – of New Zealand’s oceans where I’d fear to dunk a newborn.

How does he feel, after spending so much time under the ocean?

Again, he says, it’s the changes he doesn’t notice that worry him.

The oceans absorb huge amounts of heat and carbon dioxide, saving humanity from experiencing much worse impacts from pumping out greenhouse gases.

In the process, however, the oceans themselves become hotter and more acidic.

Like the invisible pieces of plastic, carbon dioxide is changing the ocean in ways that aren’t always easy to see.

“I definitely do notice change, but what is insidious about it is that the greatest changes are the ones that we don’t see,” says Trubridge.

“You can’t really notice a change of, say, 0.4 or 0.5 degrees Celsius. When the average water temperatures go up and down over the year, you don’t have an impression of what average water temperature is,” he says.

“But that can be critical for coral bleaching or a bunch of other stuff, and it’s the same for acidity, as carbon dioxide dissolves into the water. We don’t really notice it, but that’s one of the things that is impacting the oceans the greatest.”

“What I’m most worried about is the change we don’t see.”

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