At 21, Salma Ahmed Shaker, is a three times record holder in free diving, earning her the title of “Deepest Woman in the GCC”. Salma studies product design at Effat University in her home country of Saudi Arabia. She tells The Livehealthy Podcast — Arabic about her true love: the sea.
How did you get into free-diving?
I have loved the open water since I was a child and started scuba diving when I was 10. My father, Ahmed Shaker, got me started. He is a diver, fisherman, captain and marine biologist. Everything related to the sea interests him.
He’s also one of the most famous rescuers in Saudi Arabia. If there is any problem out at sea, if someone or something is lost, my dad gets a call for help. He studied sea rescue in the United States and has saved many people and he does it all as a volunteer.
My sister, my brother and I all learned to dive and my youngest brother, who is seven, is just starting. But I was the only one of my siblings who chose free diving. My siblings mostly practice scuba diving and have only recently started free diving.
What is the difference between free diving and scuba diving?
Scuba diving is diving and swimming with an oxygen cylinder, whereas free diving is diving without any oxygen tanks, depending solely and completely on your own lungs and breath.
Is there any difference in ability between men and women?
Many people say that because men’s lungs are larger, they can dive for longer, but I think that if a woman trains and practices the right stretches and breathing techniques she could reach the same level as men.
When I first started free diving, there were only three girls diving on a weekly basis in Jeddah. There was Mariam Shalan, who trained me, my friend Ghadeer and me. There were three other girls in Riyadh, so six girl divers in total in all Saudi Arabia.
Were you intimidated?
A few years ago, I was training on my own for about a month because Mariam and Ghadeer were away. The space was completely male-dominated and I wished there were more girls with me. I didn’t feel unsafe but I would have felt more comfortable if there were other girls around. But free diving has become much more common for women.
Is it possible to free dive anywhere?
It depends on ability and how you practice. For example, if you are diving really deep, you can only do that in certain spots. With deep free diving, you’re usually pushing your body’s limits, so you need to make sure that all the other factors are safe. You have to know that specific area well and have practiced there more than once and there should be a lifeguard on hand in case something happens.
If you are free diving for fun and not planning to go in too deep, you can do it almost anywhere. Recreational free diving does not require the equipment or safety procedures that are needed for deep training. Personally, when I’m free diving for fun, I don’t go deeper than 15 to 20 meters. That’s a comfortable depth for me.
What are the technical aspects of free diving?
Training needs thorough safety procedures. For example, the buoy is attached to a rope and can only go to a limited depth so there are weights to hold the buoy down. I wear a lanyard tied to the rope at the waist, foot or hand. Each free diver has what we call a safety diver — or just “the safety” — who never dives at the same time as you and watches the dive line constantly. He or she doesn’t have an oxygen tank but must be capable of rescuing a diver from at least 15m deep and is fully trained in rescue techniques.
The safety diver calculates the average time of my dives. Personally, it usually takes me one minute and 35 seconds to dive to a depth of 45m. My safety knows when I am going down the rope and once I reach my intended depth I turn myself round and pull on the rope. When my safety feels me pulling the rope, he starts to descend to pull me up.
Free divers use different breathing and equalizing techniques — it’s a matter of choosing what suits you best. I hold air inside my lungs, but when I release it, it’s not the same process as exhaling.
At some point, you cannot really use your lungs anymore because the pressure is so great that they could collapse; releasing air and equalizing has to be via the mouth, so you have to practice this technique so as not to cause damage to your lungs. I haven’t yet reached the point where I can’t use lung techniques, but when I do, I will need to learn the mouth technique.
How do you measure the time underwater?
With my watch. I set alarms for when I reach various depths because I can’t look at my watch while I’m diving. My first alarm is set at 15 meters just because I want to know when I’ve reached 15 meters. The second alarm is set at 19 meters because that’s when I start doing something called free falling; when you reach a certain depth, if you let yourself go, the water pulls you in.
I have another alarm set for 38 meters, because the deeper I go, the harder it is to look at my watch so the alarm keeps me in check. My last alarm goes off when I’m about a meter away from my intended depth.
Do you plan to make free diving your career?
That’s a tricky question. When I first started free diving, I thought I would do it all my life. For now, the aim is to take part in more competitions and break my own record. I want to travel for competitions and learn more skills, but I don’t know if I want to still be doing that in 20 years. I think free diving will always be a part of my life, even if just recreationally, but competitively, I’m not sure.
Do you do other sports to be fit for free diving?
When I first started diving, I realized I was not fit. I was always tired, but when I started getting fit, I was less tired, my breathing got better and there was a big change in my performance.
Is free diving considered dangerous?
I don’t see it as dangerous because I understand the protocol and take all safety precautions very seriously, and that applies to all sports. I really don’t like to say this because it scares people, but of course, free diving is a dangerous and challenging sport.
How did you earn the “Deepest GCC Woman” title?
The competition was held in Dahab in Egypt and it was my second free diving competition. I didn’t have a place but when I arrived in Egypt I asked if any spots had become available. They had, so I registered.
On the first day my dive was 42 meters deep and honestly, it was easy for me. The second day I reached 45 meters and that’s when I won my deepest free diver title. I wasn’t aiming to break the record so I didn’t realize I had until Mariam Shalan sent me a message saying, “Do you know that you are the deepest female diver?”
• Salma Shaker was a guest on The Livehealthy Podcast Arabic on April 21, 2021. If you’re a Saudi woman who wants to try free diving, contact Salma on Instagram or check out Jeddah free-diving school.
Lina Elmusa is a literature and coffee lover. She tries to understand the world through language. She's currently exploring the world of media at livehealthymag.