I’ve always felt at one with the nature around me and been a more artistic, spiritual person since I was young, and had an innate sense of all things being possible. When in the ocean, I never wanted to come out of the water and even coming up for air felt like such an inconvenience…yes like most other little girls at the time I wished I could be a mermaid!

Nicole6Growing up I was a true tomboy (we’re talking big, baggy jeans, a wallet chain, big t-shirts…), and would go to the everglades with friends to catch alligators and snakes. I would sit on the hood of a truck while we slowly cruised down a dirt road along the everglades at sundown, when the snakes would come to the road for the warmth. I’d yell to stop when I saw one and run to catch them, sometimes bringing them home to my snake tank for a bit before setting them free again in the future.

Then around 15 I began surfing. I took surf trips to Peru, Costa Rica, and more, which opened my eyes to new and beautiful natural places, people and cultures. In looking for new hobbies during down times when there were no waves I began to train in martial arts, and even won a few muay thai kickboxing competitions. Aside from the fun physical intensity of it all, I loved and appreciated how I felt it was a physical representation of how I viewed life and the mind’s potential; that you can do much more and go much further than you “think” you can. You only grow when you are training and applying yourself OUTSIDE of your comfort zone. If you are always comfortable living and operating within that zone, then you will stay the same and not advance. You will have the same limitations and boundaries, never move past the same fears, never have those epic breakthroughs and feel greater freedoms. No one can break you, only you can break yourself. In martial arts training, sometimes you feel like you can’t go any further, you’re so tired. But if you dig deep, you have SO much more in you. Once you know that, you practice never accepting that initial feeling of, “this is difficult, I need to stop”. You switch to, “this is difficult, so here’s where I dig deeper for the greater power of what I can do”. To me, this is the same principal when applied to mental/spiritual/physical. Practicing these affirmations also contributed to my future freediving and spearfishing passions.

Spearfishing was something I had never previously envisioned and wasn’t even on my radar. However, I believe we can do anything we want to do, if we just get ourselves to show up for it. I have always looked at it like; unless I am not physically strong enough, or it takes an absolute genius I don’t possess, than there’s no reason I can’t do it. That leaves a lot of options within that range! So far I’ve mainly gotten into surfing, kite boarding, wake boarding, paddle boarding, muay thai kickboxing, and a few more. Sometimes I’m a natural, sometimes I’m not. I’m not a phenom at any one thing…but I have my shining moments here and there! I don’t care as long as I’m having fun. Everyone is different and should follow their bliss!

When you want to try something new, just push yourself to give it a shot and try it on for size. I mean geez…you get this body in this life for one-go-round, take it for a ride! Get some wear and tear on it, and you will never regret the amazing times you’ve had for it. I don’t believe anyone said they wished they had “tried to do less” on their deathbed. The greatest rewards always come after pushing through the greatest challenges. It gets easier every time, and eventually you’ll stop turning away from fear, when you make it a habit to persevere.

As far as work goes, I’ve always been entrepreneurial and loved business. However, I’ve always made sure to avoid the typical 9-5 office job, so real estate has suited me well for the past 10 years. On the side I’ve dabbled in a few ventures, and for fun sometimes sell my artworks which are often ocean related, such as large life-like wave paintings. I’m working on some new exciting projects now as well!

Nicole4 Of all of the ocean sports I’ve done, freediving and spearfishing are the most recent. It just kind of gradually happened on its own. I’ve lived on the same South Florida beach for over 10 years now. It never had good waves for surfing so I would only swim or paddleboard here. I didn’t know about any reef nearby, or lobsters, or fish…or anything. I began paddle boarding in front of my house and would bring my mask and snorkel then jump off, and swim around. A couple hundred yards offshore I discovered a reef ledge and underwater life that I never knew was there. Right behind my house in my own backyard…I was so excited! All I wanted to do was hang out there all the time. I wanted to stay underwater as long as possible and started to research breath holding techniques and freediving. When I become passionate about something I tend to do an extreme amount of research and like to have an understanding of techniques. We’re lucky in this day and age to have so many resources online and of course…Spearing Magazine.

I started practicing holding my breath at home, and created charts where every night I would practice warming up my breath holds with short breaks in between, until I reached the maximum holding time I chose. For instance I would start holding for 1 minute and 30 seconds, then increasing every subsequent hold by 10 seconds, until I would reach 3 minutes. I would take 2:00 breaks in between each hold. I remember seeing my lips turn pale blue when reaching my first 3:00 breath hold, and when I inhaled the pink color flushed back into them…that was cool! Sometimes I purposely exert energy and walk around the house while holding my breath to increase different types of holding endurance. Heck I’ll practice while doing the dishes! If you’ve uploaded a video to YouTube of your freediving, there’s a good chance I’ve held my breath along with you as part of my practice sessions! It all helps keep it interesting through all the minutes of breath holding. But I remember thinking…unless I can hold my breath easily for maybe 4 minutes or so, and have all that specialized fancy looking gear, those long fins etc.,…I could never call myself an actual “freediver”. I’m just someone who is really comfortable underwater and can hold their breath a good amount of time, and has done a lot of research…I’m not legitimate to the degree of how “they” are. They’re the real deal! I also didn’t have a single free diving friend, so I was discovering this sport on my own.

Nicole5 I kept taking out my paddleboard to the reef by myself, wearing only a leg knife while I would dive down without any spear and exploring, for about a year. Then a new scuba diver friend introduced me to the pole spear that he would use mostly as a camera mount but also for killing lionfish. We even did some nighttime beach dives, where I would free dive while he would scuba. It prompted me to get a small pole spear as I was all too happy to feel like I had some sort of spear in the darkness, that I was at least somewhat “armed”. I bought a good underwater flashlight and felt very comfortable; it’s amazing to see so many sleeping fish, and the difference in the daytime vs nighttime activity.

Now that I had my little lion-fish pole spear I would begin bringing that on my solo dives to the reef near my house. I began leaving my paddle board at home and just swimming off the beach a couple hundred yards out, even in poor conditions…I didn’t care. In my opinion, to be out in nature is better than not being out there. When it came to equipment needs I liked to think of ways to use what I already had, or create my own solutions as I would progress in diving. That led to some interesting ideas that may have looked a little silly…but they worked! For instance I would always bring a dive flag, but used 2 of my 9ft longboard-surfboard leashes connected together and attached them to myself to drag it along. I used a wire clothing hanger as a stringer (works great but it rusted right away!). I bought a stake used to screw into the ground and secure large dogs’ leashes to…because I thought it was a brilliant idea to screw into the sand near the reef and I could tie my flag line to it. That way I could swim around the reef unencumbered (that idea didn’t last…I ended up just tying it off to some rocks, cinder blocks, sunken pieces, etc. I would find). So there was some trial and error there but it always got the job done! I did initially buy a (still too short) 4 foot pole spear with a slip tip to begin to try to spear actual edible fish with. Later I learned longer spears make a world of difference, and are much better to gain shooting range with.

There was an initial learning period I would go for hours, and not catch squat! Either everything eluded me, I would miss or simply not see. My local spot is not teeming with fish and they are not all very big…but at least there is something. I just wasn’t coming home with any of them for a while. I would walk with all my gear to the spot, swim about 150 yards out and search for a few hours, miss everything and walk home with nothing. Though I was still having fun and had no complaints, there was certainly a dry moment in the beginning! I realized my aim was off so I took a moment to make a bullseye target underwater in the sand, and practiced hitting it over and over. I realized I was consistently always 6 inches to the right of my target, made an adjustment, and began hitting the center every time. It was like fate that the moment my aim improved a hogfish snapper swam right underneath me, as if to say, “here I am now that you’re ready for me…come and get me!”. I followed him and he immediately led me to an even bigger hogfish under a ledge where I shot and successfully landed my first fish. I love hand-grabbing lobsters, and have gotten pretty good at spearing even some tricky fish. I also began using a weight belt. With the cold water, it became more obvious with my wetsuits keeping me so buoyant! A disadvantage of being self-taught is that you end up taking the harder way many times without realizing it. However, I think the advantage to that is when you are given the easier ways afterwards, you are that much better! Trial by fire! So far I’ve speared yellow jacks, lesser amberjacks, mangrove and hog snappers, groupers, and more. I have also never shot a spear gun just yet. I love my pole spear, because it’s so primitive and simple and you really have to work and earn your fish. I initially used and made such a short 4 foot pole spear work for me it really made me better when I got a 6 foot spear, because it lengthened my range of shots which really helped against the more skittish fish. I do look forward to exploring new areas with much more spearing potential, and exploring new spear guns. Even though it’s not the Bahamas with those giant hog fish, I do love my home-reef where I dive from the beach and know every rock, ledge, and hole. I’m just happy and grateful to be out there and catching some dinner!

One thing I never played games with was taking certain safety precautions. In all my research, I very much respected the danger and risk of shallow water blackouts (or SWB). I understood how sneaky and unexpected they could be, the science of why they occur, and how to minimize the risks. As independent and fearless as I can be I have respect and consideration for these matters, in any sport. So even though I spent countless hours alone diving far out in the water, I NEVER push my breath holds during those times. I dive for around 1 minute in 15-30 feet even though I feel comfortable going longer. I look and listen for boats constantly and am hyper-aware. Fortunately you can hear the high pitched squealing from their propellers underwater while they are still very far, so that you can surface and identify where they are. You can never count on them to see your flag, they are generally not looking and will run it right over. The rest of the risk I accept, as anyone does in doing something that they love. If conditions are good enough and I can break away, I grab my gear and walk right out to the water whether anyone can join me or not….I need to get out there.

nicole2 As of today… I may not be the best or know my impressive diving depth numbers, I haven’t caught anything award winning or have impressive pictures next to mammoth fish…yet! But I do have a home reef where I spend countless hours diving alone and working pretty hard for the fish that are there, and love every moment of it. I appreciate and give thanks to everything I catch. I never get greedy, and want the fish to be there for a long time. I crave going back to my underwater world when too much time passes.

That moment you begin to not need air, when you become free to exist as one in the underwater world, when you’re thoughts dissipate and become singularly focused…you are free. This is where you find yourself. These moments are what create the obsession. They are nearly impossible to find in the regular world. This is what we know we share when we relate with someone who has the same passion. It’s what the people who don’t do these things don’t understand, because they haven’t felt it. It’s what I’m grateful for, and how I choose to live.

Sometimes I make sure to remind myself not to get overly focused on just getting fish or forget to appreciate where I am, what I’m seeing all around me, the little things. Those little underwater happenings that you see when you stop and just watch some small area and see how much life, and unique and colorful activity is going on. Sometimes it’s almost microscopic, the tiniest creatures living their lives and interacting. It’s amazing we are down there, and no one on land can see this in this world right now…but we can. That underwater magic that you forget exists when you speed past it, and getting frustrated with not seeing what you were specifically looking and hunting for. I realized I was forgetting when I saw a small turtle and didn’t look twice at him and thought, big deal…I need fish, my stringer is empty. I thought, uh oh, I don’t like that attitude I better set my mind straight. It’s been a new experience being in nature and hunting and developing that aspect with that laser focus. There’s a natural primitive part of myself that comes out that I really enjoy. But I make sure to balance it out and remember how I looked at it all before I held my spear, before I had a stringer, and I would just enjoy being in that world. Of being one with nature, and not getting hung up on numbers or achievements. It’s all good, and I’m just happy to be a part of it and have those special moments in a perfect blue world.