Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Emiratis learn ancient skills of freediving to preserve coral reefs

Women only courses are attracting more citizen scientists to monitor the health of coral reefs of the UAE

Emiratis are returning to their historical roots to take up free diving with a keen eye on preserving the nation’s coastline for future generations to enjoy.

With pearl fishing at the heart of Dubai’s fledgling economy, freediving was once a bedrock of Emirati life.

One of the world’s most notable advocates of the modern day sport of freediving is visiting the UAE this year to host women only courses.

They are also being encouraged to join the global Reef Check Foundation where citizen scientists record data on the health of coral reefs.

Instructors like Kathleen Russell, a Padi course director at the Al Marsha Diving Center in Abu Dhabi, said scuba divers and free divers have an important role to play in conducting coral reef health checks in the UAE.

“Divers see the coral in a different light when they know what they are looking for,” she said.

“We look at different categories, one is a fish survey to gauge the population, and also the substrate of corals and sea beds.

“It will help us to identify if there has been any reef damage caused by anchorage, fishing nets, coral bleaching or dynamite fishing that could be influencing the health of coral sites.

“We always have a marine specialist with us when we are recording data to verify the information we are passing on.”

Data is collected from divers once they have been given brief training on what do to during their dives.

That information is then sent to the Reef Check Foundation headquarters in California where it is entered into a global database so samples can be compared to spot any correlations and trends.

Every year, Reef Check trains thousands of citizen scientist divers who volunteer to survey the health of coral reefs around the world.

The results are used to improve the management of these critically important natural resources by creating partnerships among community volunteers, government agencies, businesses, universities and other non-profits.

“In the UAE, the reefs are fairly resilient and they seem to have adapted but there is a tipping point if variables become more extreme,” said Ms Russell.

“There is a strong environmental aspect with freediving and it is a challenge, just using yourself to examine the reef.

“Emirati women were the first to show an interest. They are so passionate and care about their oceans and the species that live here.”

Freediving once brought great wealth to the most successful pearl fishermen, but often came at a cost with many divers losing their lives in search of the most elusive pearls, recovered on a single breath of air.

Ayesha Alhashmi, 25, is one of those Emiratis to take a keen interest in freediving to monitor coral reefs.

“I always loved interacting with the natural environment and was curious to know its formation and function,” said Ms Alhashmi, who has an environmental master’s degree, is a qualified scuba diver and was the first certified in the Abu Dhabi Reef Check Programme.

“I worked on conservation and assessment of Saadiyat’s coral reef, where we conducted underwater reef check survey using scuba gear and appropriate survey tools.

“My level in freediving is a beginner, it is different from scuba diving as there are no such heavy gear required.


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“I love the fact that we cope with a single breath to get down there and enjoy it for a minute or two.

“Freediving is considered as a sport where you need to be physically fit to take the challenge, there are certain techniques that we must learn to avoid any risks.”

The interest in freediving and coral reef systems of the UAE is timely, with Abu Dhabi hosting the World Ocean Summit in 2019, to encourage discussion on the state of marine ecosystems.

Emma Farrell is one of the world’s leading freediving instructors and the author of One Breath: A Reflection on Freediving.

She has been teaching freediving since 2002 and trained British Olympians ahead of the 2012 London Games to improve their lung function.

“Whenever you learn about freediving you are always learning about yourself,” she said.

“Freediving is an incredible way to get close to nature, as the fish and animals underwater are intrigued and want to interact.

“Many who do it then feel a sense of duty to be interested in marine conservation, and do the best you can for that environment.”

Beginner courses begin with lessons in the pool before heading out into the open water, and are available to anyone over the age of 12 who has completed a safety briefing. An advanced course follows with different degrees of difficulty.

The focus of the next course is to bring the sport of freediving to more Emirati women like Ayesha.

“There has been a big interest in bringing a women-only course to the UAE,” Ms Farrell said.

“This is an amazing opportunity to share my love of the sport to teach Emirati women about how they can enjoy the beautiful marine environment.

“Being a woman makes it easier for me to open up this sport to other women.

“The UAE has an incredibly rich freediving history with its pearl diving industry, so it is exciting that this tradition is being taken up again by local women. It’s great to re-awaken these skills.”

  • The World Summit of Oceans will be held in Abu Dhabi next year:

Updated: March 24, 2018 02:38 PM