Martin Stepanek, 30, is one of the world's stars in the emerging sport of freediving. Unaided by scuba tanks, he has broken several world records for depth and length of time underwater, including the record for holding his breath for eight minutes and six seconds. With a view of the underwater world unencumbered by diving equipment, Stepanek has a unique perspective on our changing oceans. He recently joined Oceana as a spokesman. Learn more about Stepanek at www.martinstepanek.com.
You're from the Czech Republic, a landlocked country. How did you get interested in diving?
My mom used to be a competitive swimmer, so she wanted me to be a competitive swimmer as well. I knew how to swim before I knew how to walk. [When] I was about seven years old, I saw the local scuba diving club training in the pool. I was really impressed by those guys that were crawling on the bottom, and could stay underwater a pretty long time. So I told my mom, I want to be a diver. In Czechoslovakia back then, a communist country, it wasn't like here with a dive shop. It was all in clubs that were supported with the government. In the summer, when there was no snow and ice outside like most of the year in the Czech Republic, we actually went out and we were diving. My favorite discipline was the 50-meter sprint, which was done underwater holding your breath. So doing these sprints since I was a kid I developed good breath hold without even knowing it. In the summer when we were out diving, I was the youngest kid in the club, and usually the older guys took my tanks. I ended up freediving anyway.
What makes you want to do freediving versus scuba diving?
I enjoy scuba diving as well; don't get me wrong. I find a lot more freedom in freediving. To me, it's the purest way of connecting with the ocean because you don't wear any extra equipment that separates you from the environment. Therefore the experience you're having out of it is much more pure and more intense. Also, the world around you, the animals you encounter on a freedive, they allow you to get much closer to them because they are not afraid of you, they're thinking you're one of them, they respect you much more.
There's a lot of potential dangers involved in freediving, such as blackout, loss of motor control, laryngospasms, freediver bends, lung contractions, and cardiac arrest. Do you ever worry about this stuff?
No, actually I don't worry about it that much because I understand where this is coming from and how it is happening. Unfortunately our sport's getting a little bit of a bad name; people perceive it as a really dangerous sport. I've heard it called the oldest extreme sport in the world. It's all a little bit misleading. Actually all these things that you just mentioned can happen on a scuba dive as well. The thing about free diving is there's certain rules you need to follow, just like driving a car or when you scuba dive. When you follow them, the sport is relatively safe. When you look at the statistics of death and injury, we are far behind many normal sports or activities. The problem is when people don't follow the rules, the very basic safety precautions that are not very difficult or challenging to follow, we don't have any grey area. You either live or you don't at the end. If somebody is dumb enough to go out and freedive by himself, hyperventilates and stuff like that, yes, it can be dangerous. I would call it the same as Russian roulette.
What would you say to someone who's a scuba diver who's interested in trying freediving? How can they get started with that?
I think the best way and the right way is to take a class. There's certain rules that need to be followed, and you get the knowledge from someone who's a legitimate teacher. That would be the best way to do it. I think scuba divers will be amazed with how much it helps them with their scuba diving - air consumption, streamlining, enjoying the dive, feeling more secure and more confident because when you can freedive 100 feet, and then you scuba dive 100 feet, then you feel a whole much more secure than when you're thinking, maybe my tank or something will fail, what will I do? Well, I'll hold my breath until I fix it. You figure out the solution. People are much calmer and better divers after that.
While you've been diving, have you noticed any changes in what you're seeing over the years? What is it that you see under the water that you really want to preserve for the future?
The changes are incredible. It's heartbreaking and it's really sad. The locations that I've been diving ten years ago and diving them now, they're not the same. There's so many less fish, and the coral reef looks totally different. It's heartbreaking, literally. Unfortunately it applies everywhere I go. I dive all around the world and it's not just one spot. I'm living in south Florida, but I travel quite a bit. That's something that I've observed pretty much everywhere.
If we go to my backyard, that's a local beach here. That's where we used to go freedive quite often, a beautiful reef with a lot of fish in it. What you see now, it's just the reef. If there's any fish on it, they're very skittish, very small. You don't see groupers anymore. There used to be a lot of groupers. You don't see snappers there either, and there used to be a lot of snappers. It's all gone.
What made you want to partner with Oceana?
Actually the way I find out about Oceana was my girlfriend was roaming the internet and she found the website. She said, wow, these are cool guys and you probably want to read about that. We had a lot of discussion on the ocean and conservation topics, and she noticed many times we were disappointed by how certain organizations are actually acting in this matter. When I read what Oceana did, how they tried to pursue their goal, what they do and what they achieve, I was so impressed. I thought, well, maybe there is something I can do to support these guys. Most of the freedivers, because of the experience of freediving is so much more intimate than scuba diving, so they're all conservation-mindset people. I see that I could deliver the Oceana message to them.