Diving into the depths of the ocean with a single breath and no breathing apparatus can seem terrifying to most, but to Mario Fernandes, it’s relaxing.
India’s first freediving athlete to win four national records for the country in Israel, he remarks that his childhood in Goa meant that there was literally an ocean in his backyard. “But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up here,” he tells The Better India.
“When you emerge, it’s like you are born again,” he says, adding that he started exploring the ocean and diving rather early on in life.
He was always keen on finding out what lay under the ocean.
‘No luxury of any fancy gear’
As children, Mario and his siblings would explore the depths of the ocean, always without any equipment. “Even without any proper mask and equipment, what I saw beneath kept me fascinated. I wanted to explore more and that interest kept pushing me,” he says.
He continues, “The first time I went under water with a breathing apparatus, it left me speechless. The visuals I got to see remain etched in my memory and no words or description can do justice to it.”
Seeing the wonderful world down there made Mario think about taking this up professionally.
Belonging to a family that was heavily into sports was helpful, he says. His grandfather was known to be a good footballer in Goa. “I think being a sportsman is a part of my DNA. I also played professional football in the beginning following my grandfather’s footsteps. Thereafter, I also participated in table tennis and various athletic meets.”
In 2013, when Mario was 26, he took up scuba diving for the first time. However, the prohibitive cost of learning kept him away from it. This is what led him to look at freediving instead. Even though he comes from a family where sports was given a lot of importance, the idea of taking up freediving did cause them concerns.
“I remember they were worried. We had several conversations and they would always request me to be extra careful in my pursuits. They never stopped me though,” he says.
Breaking records, one step at a time
Mario says that he only feels safe while diving, and has never had an instance where fear has taken over and left him paralysed. “Given that while in water I am in a completely different environment, I take utmost care to ensure full safety while diving,” he adds.
In 2013, Mario met Milena Mezhuieva, a Ukrainian underwater target shooter and spearfishing instructor who inspired him to explore freediving. Like Jacques Yves Cousteau said, “The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.”
Inspired by this, he went on to become a dive professional and spent his life savings to train in Thailand (Koh Tao), where he also did his level-1 freediving course.
“I did feel that freediving was harder when compared to scuba diving, however it was a more natural and economical way of exploring the ocean,” he says.
He went on to become India’s first and only SSI (Scuba Schools International) level-2 freediving instructor. India has a coastline of 7,516 km and a population of over one billion, and yet the country has not been featured on any of the global freediving or diving maps.
To change this, Mario worked in the Andaman Islands for eight years. Here, he met and connected with many freediving world champions who came to India to learn yoga and improve their athletic performance, but had never imagined the potential of freediving in India. This led Mario to take on competitive freediving more seriously and put his country on the global map.
In May 2022, he won four national records for India in Israel with AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea). It was here that in the Static Apnoea (STA), where Mario rewrote the record by registering a 4 minutes, 29 seconds hold underwater to eclipse the previously held 4 minutes, 11 seconds record.
“While my personal best breath hold is seven minutes, for the national record I broke the previous record of 4 minutes and 11 seconds. My coaches suggested that I remain conservative and take it easy during the competition. I now intend to continue training and break my own record soon,” he says.
At present, he runs Freedive India, his own freediving education system to turn beginners into elite free divers. “I have systematically identified problematic aspects and structured a series of dives to address those areas, providing feedback on performance after each dive.” To ensure personalised attention, he ensures that the number of students be kept to a minimum.
Mario’s advice to anyone looking to make a career in freediving:
- Always remember that safety comes first — whether you are diving for fun, competing or pursuing it as a professional.
- Do not be hasty in pushing your limits. Be conservative in your approach. You would rather wait and achieve your goal or break a record than do something that puts your life at risk.
- Enjoy each experience and learn from every dive. In this field, always remember that you will remain a student for life. Be receptive to learning and do not go chasing after numbers or records.
- Compete with yourself. With each dive look at bettering your own previous number and depth reached.
In India, one can learn scuba diving and freediving in Bangalore, Chennai and Andaman at
Freedive India, Temple adventures and Scuba Love Academy.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)
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