Take a deep breath. Do you think you take it for granted? Imagine holding that breath for several minutes. But also don’t think about that. Just focus on keeping your body still and calm. How long could you hold it? How long before you panic and exhale?
Now imagine you’re 60 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Not only are you swimming, attempting to keep your heart rate down, but you’re also fighting the pressure of being at that depth. How long could you ride the line?
Twenty two-year old, Atlantic Beach native Halle Piacente pushes herself along that line as often as she can. A senior marketing student at UNF and founder of the UNF Dive Club, the Florida Freedivers, GoScope and Tribe & True-sponsored, Piacente is also a divemaster in training seeking certification through Atlantic Pro Divers in Neptune Beach.
Through a chance snuba session, a sort of snorkeling-scuba hybrid, Piacente discovered a passion for diving. After that, every vacation, and most weekends, became a diving trip – from South Florida, the Virgin Islands, to Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and everywhere in the Caribbean.
Two years ago she took her passion to the next level in pursuing freediving – no equipment, just one, deep breath. Her boyfriend and friends are avid spear-fishermen, something you can pursue to a greater degree as a freediver, and Piacente “dove” at the opportunity for a new challenge.
We did a deep dive (why not) on what drives Piacente, keeping cool under the ocean’s pressure and whether or not having gills would take the fun out of freediving.
So what’s the longest you’ve held your breath?
The longest I’ve held my breath was one minute and 45 seconds and the deepest I dove was 47 feet. But that’s while training, practicing, during the training course. It takes a lot of practice to increase your breath-hold and depth. Because whenever you’re diving deep you have all the pressure of the ocean on you and all that carbon dioxide building up in your system.
And mentally you have to keep that even-keel or else…
You have to calm yourself, yes. Anything that you do in your body uses up oxygen. If you start thinking and freaking out underwater your heart starts beating faster and your oxygen gets used up.
What’s going through your mind on a dive? Are you thinking about those things to keep your body in check? Or just enjoying it?
If I’m practicing free diving and I’m challenging myself to hold my breath, I just stay in a complete calm state of mind. I go there to do what I’m doing. If you’re practicing to increase your breath-hold and your depth, you want to be just completely calm and relaxed, you don’t want your heart rate to increase. So I’m not really thinking about anything besides just staying calm. If I’m doing it recreationally, like snorkeling and end up freediving, I just go and look for fish, look for lobsters, see what’s out there.
What’s the craziest or scariest thing that’s happened to you on a dive?
I’m an advocate for sharks. I don’t want to dis sharks in any way because they’re an important part of the environment. But I was in Puerto Rico and the guys were spearfishing and I was just taking pictures of them and one of the guys speared a big wahoo. When you’re spearfishing there’s a lot of blood in the water. You chum up the water and then you spear the wahoo and it takes off running. So one guy speared a wahoo and left his gun at the surface and was chasing it on the reel line.
This huge bull shark came straight up to the surface and went to the gun and was sniffing it and bumping it. And it was just crazy seeing that shark. I was about 10 to 15 feet away. I dive with sharks all the time. I’m totally fine with it, but when you’re spearfishing it’s a different story with all the blood in the water.
Who or what inspires you?
Being able to hold your breath for a longer time allows you to see so much more and be better able to experience nature. And the spearfishing aspect I want to spear bigger fish and try to be “one of the guys” on the trip, I guess. And bring home my own fish for dinner.
Specific people, Ocean Ramsey. She’s in Hawaii and owns One Ocean Diving with her fiancé, Juan, and they are advocates for sharks and marine life. They inspire me to be open minded to the different creatures in the ocean and help the environment for conservation. For spearfishing specifically, Kimi Werner is my huge inspiration. She tries to live a fully sustainable life by freediving and spearfishing her own fish to bring home for dinner throughout the week. Check her out on Instagram and you’ll see what I’m talking about. She’s amazing.
How do you measure yourself in a sport like free diving?
It depends what you’re trying to go for. If you’re trying to go for depth, then breath-hold, static apnea, there are competitions year round for that. I’m not really into that because I’m not willing to push myself that much. Some people take it very seriously and they want to be the best of the best and that’s all they care about is winning, and others are trying to challenge themselves and just enjoy it. So I’m not one to push myself to win. I don’t plan on joining any competitions, but to be able to stay down there for minutes at a time and check things out—I want to be able to do that.
This is kind of out of left field, but would you be on board with humans having gills or would that take away the novelty of diving and exploring?
I would love gills, I would totally ditch land life to live underwater and leave everything behind. Anytime. But if everyone had gills, that would suck [laughs]. I just wish people had more respect for the environment. I guess if they had gills, it would open up a world for people to understand it better—but personally I would love to have gills, yes!
This interview originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 2, The Outdoor Issue.