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A real-life mermaid

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South African champion free diver Beth Neale (Photograph supplied)

The average person can hold their breath for two minutes; Beth Neale can hold hers for six. The South African plans to put the skill to use in September when she will attempt to free dive 164ft without fins, to raise $20,000 for the Bermuda Zoological Society.

Her record at the moment is 154ft, achieved last April off South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Coast.

“I first came here five years ago to teach Kids on the Reef,” said Ms Neale about BZS’s free diving and ocean appreciation programme. “It’s two day programme that I teach in the spring and fall with M1s. The children dive to 33ft.

“I have seen huge talent coming out of it.

“There is a holistic mind body connection that goes with this. I want to raise funds so more children have the opportunity to experience the ocean. The idea of Kids on the Reef is that you can only understand the ocean if you have experienced it for yourself.”

She also runs a free-diving camp in the summer where some kids have gone down to 60ft.

“The transformation that happens from day one to day five is just incredible,” she said. “Even if they are not going as deep as they want or holding their breath for as long as they want, there is always a huge improvement.

The 36-year-old hopes to complete her upcoming challenge in two minutes and 45 seconds. She has not decided whether to make the plunge off Bermuda’s south or north coastline.

She aborted a practice dive off North Rock last week after she spotted a “mysterious grey shape” swimming towards her.

“My heart beat went up,” she said, explaining that because free diving depends heavily on being able to stay calm, she had to abort at 65ft and return to the surface.

The fear was real. Ms Neale has narrowly missed being swallowed by a whale and last year had her hair chewed on by a shark while diving off South Africa.

“It just left these little gashes on my head,” she said.

“I didn’t need stitches. If it had wanted to bite me, it would have. I think it just saw something in my hair.”

Aside from raising cash for BZS, Ms Neale hopes the September event will draw attention to Bermuda’s free diving potential.

“It’s one of the best places I have ever free-dived,” she said. “There are beautiful coral reefs and shipwrecks. You can always find a place to go free diving, and yet it is not really known as a free-diving destination.”

Ms Neale grew up in landlocked Johannesburg but would travel with her parents every summer to the Durban coast, where she learnt to swim.

She can remember pouring salt into her bathwater, hoping it would turn her into a proper mermaid.

“I was so excited when my fingers started wrinkling because I thought it was happening,” she laughed.

When she is not fundraising, she is running Aqua Souls, a South African company that builds water confidence and develops free-diving skills.

She got into the sport a decade ago, while living in Britain.

“I took a diving course in the city of London in a pool, then dived in a quarry outside the city,” she said.

“The water was so cold and murky I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I still loved it!”

Her free dives were recorded by a Cape Town organisation called Pure Apnea. With no representatives to monitor her attempt here, she had to train and certify judges.

Ms Neale has set a target date of September 1, but whether she sticks with it depends on weather conditions.

For a dive to be officially recorded there is a two-minute countdown before the person goes underwater. Once it is done, if they take longer than 30 seconds to go under, the countdown begins again.

A lanyard attached to a rope helps guide Ms Neale’s descent.

“The rope isn’t anchored to the bottom for the record, we just drift in deep water and the weight at the bottom of the line keeps it taut and straight,” she said.

Divers are disqualified if they yank on the rope to propel themselves upward more than once. Athletes must also keep their mouth and nose dip out of the water once they have surfaced until the judges have made their decision.

Safety divers will be posted at 90ft and 100ft to make sure she is all right.

What most appeals to Ms Neale is the sensation she gets when she hits about 65ft.

“It is the most amazing feeling,” she said.

“It’s like flying. You just keep dropping down, at a rate of about a metre a second.”

Swimming back to the top is the most difficult part, when divers fight the entire weight of the ocean.

“As the pressure hits you, it is like the ocean is hugging you,” Ms Neale said.

Money raised through Beth Neale’s free dive in September will be given to the Bermuda Zoological Society by way of The Atlantic Conservation Partnership Ltd. Visit bit.ly/2Sj8va0. Look for Ms Neale on Instagram: @onebreathbeth

Free diver Beth Neale headed to the surface after exploring a ship wreck on the sea bottom (Photograph supplied)
Beth Neale headed to the surface after a free dive (Photograph supplied)
Free diver Beth Neale (Photograph supplied)