Benny Meredith shares how she got into freediving and spearfishing...
I’ve always been a water baby. From growing up with a pool and having my brothers challenge me on how many laps I could swim underwater while holding my breaths (and I wonder why I’m competitive) to gathering Paua and Kina as a kid with my whanau, to watching my brother surf cast for hours at the beach in Gisborne (where I grew up). I always knew I loved the water, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised how much the water feeds my wairua, brings me joy, quietens my mind, and heals my soul.
A few years ago, I went through a breakup from a long-term relationship, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through. But, as cliché as it sounds, I had to go through this massive challenge to find myself and my passion for freediving.
While I was in that relationship, I remember being too scared to try new things unless I had someone I knew there with me as a safety blanket; I was stunting my own growth, stuck in a place of being ‘comfortable’. I had to change that mindset once we started to separate, and as a result, I started to find out who I was and who I wanted to be as a person. I challenged myself constantly by trying new things, meeting new people, and getting out of my comfort zone. That uncomfortable feeling started to fuel me!
Cue my old high school friend Renee, @saltaotearoa, and their ‘Intro to freediving’ pool session. I remember really wanting to go along, but none of my friends could make it, so I was on my own. Previously that would have been a big enough obstacle for me not to go, but I wasn’t going to let fear win this one! So off I went, with a borrowed wetsuit which was far too big (brave of me considering how many people pee in their suits) and a bunch of other gear I had managed to wrangle. I remember walking into the pool feeling nervous and giving myself a pep talk; it was a prime example of fake it until you make it. After that session, I knew I was hooked! Freediving was like a therapy session: my mind went quiet, all my tension and anxiety were minimised, and I was able to build trust and connection with others in a way I never had before. At the time, I had no idea how instrumental that night would be for me, but looking back at it now, I realise it was the key event that paved the way for my freediving and spearing journey.
So naturally, when Salt released the Kai Iwi Lakes SSI level 1 Freedive Camp later that same year, I was in! Again, I didn’t know anyone going along other than Renee, but I joined up anyway, rolling up to the Kai Iwi campground in my newly purchased 1990 Toyota Hiace campervan. (On a side note, who knew that using a picture from this trip of me in my wetsuit in front of my van on the dating apps would generate the most interaction… the amount of “Are you a spearo?!” messages I received was pretty funny – there’s a wee dating tip for the girls!) Kai Iwi is an amazing place to learn to freedive; it’s like being in the tropics, with crystal-clear blue water and white sand. Excellent diving conditions make it quite easy to get depth and mean the weather doesn’t play as much of a factor as it would in the open ocean.
This camp set me up with all the skills to start on my journey, from learning safety skills to body positioning and streamlining, to duck dives, to practising diving to depth. Although I hit 20m at this camp, in all honesty, the focus shouldn’t be just about depth; there’s so much more to diving than that! Since I started freediving, I have found that it’s often the first question I’m asked. I understand it’s a reference point for people to relate to the sport, so I will tell them my PB, but I always preface that this isn’t the most important part of diving and that it’s a process. However, at times I must also remind myself of this as I’m driven to push for greater depths for my own personal goals and achievements. I try to remind myself to sit with my achievements rather than rushing to get the next depth PB or smash the biggest fish. Respect the process!
My friends are extremely keen fishers, so I’ve always been quite lucky to be provided with fresh fish when camping or after they have been on a fishing mission, so my next goal was to learn how to spearfish so I could finally be the one to supply to my friends and whanau, as well as for myself.
Renee knew that this was a goal of mine. We’d struck gold with great weather, so we took off on a mission to Northland to head out to the Poor Knights with Kent Remihana (@uncle_spearo). The plan was to go for a scenic dive, and then try to do some spearing on the way back into Tutukaka.
Freediving the Poor Knights is out of this world. On that day, the marine reserve had incredible visibility with an abundance of fish. It felt so magical diving in amongst huge schools of Blue & Pink Mao Mao, and then being schooled by a huge group of kingfish – I was in awe. Being down there, in their domain, with so many varieties and different colours of fish bursting from every direction, it felt like I was inside a rainbow! I remember thinking, I’m so lucky to be a visitor in their underwater world.
Renee and Kent hadn’t forgotten that I wanted to spear; they didn’t have much chance to forget with my eagerness to learn. We stopped at a reef on the way back to the boat ramp, and teacher mode kicked in for both Kent and Renee. Kent is an extremely patient and knowledgeable spearo, and along with Renee’s help, they were teaching me the basics of the speargun, safety, and hunting skills. It wasn’t long before I was diving down, speargun in hand and shooting my first fish. From that moment on, I was hooked!
Following that mission, I started to plan holidays and weekends around diving – from reef diving for Paua up North, to flying to Mexico for a month and partaking in some amazing training at a women’s-only freediver retreat with @amancayfreediving and @girlsthatscuba, to becoming an SSI Level 2 Freediver, to then hitting 30m and becoming an SSI Freedive Instructor. My life has really become about the water. When I’m not working in advertising, I’m squeezing in diving wherever possible or helping with Salt Aotearoa. I feel extremely fortunate for all my experiences so far, some might say I’m lucky, but a lot of what I’ve achieved has been due to dedication, drive, and a lot of help from friends along the way.
I spent a chunk of the summer holidays in the Far North diving and spearing, hitting a lot of ‘firsts’. The most memorable was my first kingfish, which I miraculously managed to stone! However, I felt a little like a bit of an imposter as my first kingi was 23-25kg and I had stoned it – there was no fight whatsoever, except for getting my diving buddy to help me lift it onto the boat. The biggest lesson I learnt that day wasn’t around spearing; it was that if I shoot a fish, I have to fillet it. Being a big fish, it took a long time and kind of felt like some kind of unusual punishment. But, after it was done and I’d had a bit of time to rest, I felt a sense of achievement, and it felt even more rewarding to share all the fish with my loved ones after the hard work filleting and preparing it.
It’s surreal to think about everything I have achieved since that very first pool session. I still have so much to learn in freediving and spearing, but I still always try to pass on to others what knowledge I do have. There’s something so rewarding about seeing others get out of their comfort zone and hit their own goals.
It feels great to sit in my achievements and reflect on how far I have come. We’re all new at something at some point in our lives, and there is nothing wrong with that, so now I just try to be that supportive stranger, friend, or family member that pushes everyone to try new things and to go after what they want. The hardest part is starting, but once you do, you never regret it.
May 2023 - Benny Meredith
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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