You’d think that being confined to a decompression chamber for two days after a bad case of the bends would put most people off diving. But for James Monnington, his passion for ocean exploration meant he was just spurred on to find another way to head under the sea.
We spoke to James to hear more about his story “Freediving with James Monnington”, to find out about his journey into freediving and where he gets his inspiration for his striking black and white underwater photographs from.
Before you started freediving, you were a keen SCUBA diver, which is how you ended up getting decompression sickness or “the bends”. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you got into SCUBA diving and your experience with the bends?
I was always obsessed with the idea of SCUBA diving as a kid. My Dad’s friend used to do lots of wreck-diving and I remember being blown away by his stories. Then when I was about 12, I did a taster session, became totally besotted and managed to coerce my parents into dropping me off for “just one more go” almost every night.
Years later, I went on holiday to Dahab in Egypt to revisit my childhood dream of learning to dive, and once again, became quite obsessed. I set off travelling, during which time I undertook scientific diver training, a dive-master internship and volunteered on a project filming thresher-shark behaviour in the Philippines. This led to the event that would be the catalyst for my transition to freediving.
Around four weeks into the work, after a perfectly normal day’s diving, I was overcome by lethargy and my vision became distorted – classic signs of decompression sickness. Initially I tried to deny it, knowing that would mean the end of the trip but eventually I had to give into a trip to the decompression chamber, known affectionately as “the pot”. Once back in the UK, doctors explained that because I had suffered Type II decompression sickness – where nitrogen bubbles affect the nervous system – any remaining scar tissue could be “sticky” for nitrogen bubbles, making a second accident much more likely. This effectively ended my SCUBA career. But it wasn’t the end of my diving career and soon after, I found freediving. With no external oxygen source, there is a much-reduced danger of decompression sickness, meaning I could safely freedive by just holding my breath underwater.
Can you talk us through the process you undergo to complete a dive?
Preparation for a dive usually starts the night before i.e. no alcohol and a good night’s sleep. In the morning I’ll try to have a pretty light breakfast as I find it quite hard to hold my breath with a full stomach. Some freedivers avoid caffeine, but I’m pretty unbearable company until I’ve had my first black coffee, so I don’t bother with that for the sake of the people around me.
Once in the water, a typical dive starts with a few minutes relaxation on the surface, during which I’ll breathe quite naturally. I’ll try to clear my mind and think about relaxing each muscle in my body. Once ready, I’ll take three final deeper breaths, remove my snorkel and kick down to the target depth whilst blowing gently into my nose to equalise my ears and sinus spaces. As this pressure gradually compresses the volume of your body, your natural buoyancy is overcome by your weight and you become slightly negatively buoyant i.e. you sink (but very slowly at first). This allows you descend whilst effortlessly freefalling.
Once at the target depth, I’ll relax, take in my surroundings and then swim around a bit if something catches my eye to photograph. I can hold my breath for more than five and a half minutes – but I must admit if I’m actively swimming it never exceeds more than two minutes.
You’ve travelled to some pretty amazing destinations to freedive – any particular highlights you can share?
Baja California in Mexico is one of my favourite places to dive; the sheer variety of wildlife is mind-boggling. On my last trip we spent eight days in the water and saw whale sharks, tower-block sized schools of trevally, scores of sea lions, mako sharks, mobula rays, a fin whale, pelagic swarms of squat lobster, and so much more. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I love travelling, but I think it’s important to spend time appreciating what’s on your doorstep (or a few hours from it!). UK waters are generally assumed to be murky and devoid of life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When the conditions are good the diving here is absolutely stunning. Unlike the tropics, temperate waters are dominated by seaweeds, so you get these beautiful hues of greens, reds and browns that you don’t tend to see elsewhere. Even when the visibility isn’t great, these come together to create an eerie, ethereal atmosphere that I just can’t get enough of.
How did you get into photography?
My dad has always been a fanatical photographer and used to have a small darkroom at home when I was a kid. Since then I’ve always dabbled, but never really took it seriously until I got into freediving. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without my Dad’s help, for which I am extremely grateful.
What are your favourite animals/fish to shoot? What have been the most stand out experiences with them, while you’ve been diving?
I really love diving with sea lions. They’re incredibly playful and interactive, and their speed, agility and grace put us to shame. I like to think about how much their high-spirited behaviour at the surface must contrast with the seriousness of their offshore, deep-diving foraging expeditions, where they descend to incredible depths and expose themselves to all manner of predators as they search for sustenance.
One experience that really stands out was in the Galapagos. I watched two juveniles playing with a piece of reed they’d found, passing it back and forth and chasing each other’s tails. After about twenty minutes, they included me in their game, racing up, leaving the reed floating in front of me before careening off, disappearing for a few seconds and racing back to reclaim their toy. It was a really special moment that I’ll never forget.
Black and white is such an interesting medium for wildlife photography and not one that you see that often. Why do you choose to depict your freediving stories this way and what impact do you think this has on your photography?
I wish I could say I had some sort of cerebral, high-concept rationale for shooting black and white, but the truth is, it’s never really occurred to me to do anything else. I’ve never wanted to take those classic well-lit, saturated, colourful and super clear photos you see. They’re beautiful and require a lot of technical skill, but I find it hard to connect with them emotionally, and they don’t really represent my experience of the ocean, which can be very appealing but can also be overwhelming, humbling and intimidating. Quite often, it’s a dark, murky, disorienting and surreal atmosphere, which is a side of the experience that I think is important to share as well. Black and white really helps with this. It can also make taking photos a lot easier when there isn’t much light or colour, which is an issue if you are deep and choose not to use artificial lights.
In what ways do you think freediving has impacted your life?
It gives me a sense of purpose and identity and has introduced me to a community of many amazing people. One of the things I love the most is that means that I always travel with a specific objective, which had led me to some pretty odd locations that I would never have visited otherwise, including shark-fishing outposts, military bases, innumerable dead-end towns, abandoned oil rigs, harbours and many more.
To read more about James’ freediving experiences and travels, click here.