Iru Balic
Iru Balic

Aug 06. 2 mins

YOU AND ME BABY AIN’T NOTHING BUT MAMMALS

My first encounter with marine mammals shattered all my expectations. It was magical, yet it freaked me out at the same time. Yes, a dolphin scared me!

Some freedivers have rituals that help us prepare to dive deep on a single breath, and one of my favorites is a pull-down along a line to a certain point — maybe 10-meters, maybe 20-meters — where we disconnect from the surface and enter the blue world. It was on just such a warm-up when our encounter happened. I was hanging on the line at 20m, with my eyes closed and feeling the warm Venezuelan waters of Mochima, a very special place for me, not only because it’s my country and it’s beautiful, but because it is where mama dolphins go to give birth to their babies, feed them, and teach them how to hunt!

I planned to hang there for two minutes, and in that first minute, I felt completely relaxed. Then I felt a presence around me as if somebody was staring in my direction.

“Relax, Iru,” I said to myself. “it’s just your imagination.”

But I was being observed, and since I was so tranquil and quiet, the dolphin decided to make a very loud noise, like a strong ring, to wake me up.

I heard his call, but I also felt his vibration in my gut, and it took me completely out of my relaxed state. I was both terrified and embarrassed for my fear because when I opened my eyes, I could see that floating directly in front of me was one of the cutest creatures on earth!
The dolphin seemed just as surprised by my reaction. I kept blinking my eyes over and over, trying to focus. He was beautiful. His skin spotted, and he was much bigger than what I expected. We gazed at each other for a few seconds, and when he took off, I decided to go back to reality and pulled my way back to the surface.

When I’m teaching freediving, I always enjoy highlighting our biological similarities with dolphins. Like them, we humans also have our own Mammalian Dive Reflex, which can be triggered with warm-up dives. This reflex, one of our greatest gifts from nature, happens automatically and allows the body to adapt to being underwater for longer than most humans can imagine, by increasing vasoconstriction in the extremities, and shunting our blood flow to the thoracic area, thereby protecting our internal organs at greater depths. Our pulse will slow to half its normal rate and the slower the heart beats, the more efficient we become in metabolizing our main body fuel: oxygen.

Of course, dolphins can hold their breath approximately three times longer than I can. My personal best is around five minutes. The average dolphin can stay under for 15 minutes. My deepest dive ever is 73m. I reached that depth with a monofin, kicking down and back up while trying to swim the way a dolphin does. The deepest dive ever recorded by a bottlenose dolphin is 300-meters! Which is nothing when you compare it to the beluga whale which can swim to over 1000m!

Yes, even though we all have the ability to tap into the mammalian dive reflex with proper training, we are still mere humans! But that’s okay. I still love diving deep and pushing my limits because more than anything, freediving allows me to generate a state of awareness about my own body. It makes me feel calm and connected to nature, and my sport has gifted me with a secret superpower too – the ability to generate bonds with other species!

During this past seventeen years of my freediving career, these magical encounters with dolphins kept happening, and over time something changed inside me. I surrendered my fear and began focusing on our similarities. We both have warm blood and a beating heart. Their blowholes are like our snorkels, which we use to breathe at the surface, and they also love to play and explore with their friends and family. I learned that on my most memorable encounter when I was diving on the open sea to be swept up in a pod of dolphins. For thirty minutes I swam with them on the surface and down deep as if I was part of their herd. I felt welcome but also protected.

Like all marine wildlife, dolphins also face so many human threats, from fishing nets to marine plastic to being captured and forced to perform in ridiculous dolphin shows. I believe the dolphins I meet can feel my love. I only wish I could protect them from us, too.

Let us know about your experiences when diving with dolphins or other marine life in the comments below. We would love to hear from you!

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