After five years into her banking job, Anqi caught the travel bug and fell in love with the sea. Her stints as a scuba diving instructor eventually brought her to Thailand where she discovered her love for freediving, which is breath-hold diving without any breathing apparatus. Last year, she set a new national record (62m) for Singapore at the CMAS 2019 World Freediving Championships in Honduras. Anqi’s love for the ocean also led her to set up the Sea Glass Project where she upcycles glass bits from beaches into jewellery pieces.
In this episode:
When did you first fall in love with the sea?
“I've never really been like a strong swimmer or water kind of person. I would say probably, it happened when I started scuba diving. My very first time, or rather, even before scuba diving, snorkelling off the waters in Malaysia, in Tioman for example, and then I realised, ‘Wow, the underwater world seems amazing!’ I don't want to just be on the surface, I want to immerse myself into the waters and check out this incredible world that we have under water, which is 70% of our planet.”
Banking job in Thailand led to her to discover love for travel
“I guess the travelling bug hit me during my stint in banking, I was actually in the Bangkok office for almost two years. So that opened me up to realising that ‘Wow, there is so much out there.’ It wasn't really my intention to be completely out of the industry, so after five years of working, I thought I never had the chance to travel. We Singaporeans have a job even before we finish our degree, so I just never had that chance to travel. I also really wanted to study abroad, but I didn't manage to have enough funds or scholarship. Therefore, after five years of working, I just thought that, ‘Oh, I'll just take a short break,’ but I didn't think that this break would be a change in my life’s direction in many different ways.”
Tips on breath hold for freediving
“In order to have a good breath hold, you need to be able to completely relax before you hold your breath. Then the breath hold itself is a matter of understanding what happens to your body when you hold your breath, and what are the sensations that you feel. Because the initial part of the brain so it's actually quite comfortable, (and) some thoughts come into your mind. But basically, you should feel quite okay, and eventually you will start to feel the urge to breathe because your body's telling you, ‘You need to breathe.’ This is due to the carbon dioxide levels in your body, because you're not exhaling. That is the trigger for the urge to breathe, it’s not the lack of oxygen that most people think. Your body's telling you to, ‘Okay, start breathing now,’ because it's detecting this increased level of carbon dioxide, and you start to feel a little bit uncomfortable in your belly or your diaphragm area. So, the key to breath hold is just managing this feeling. It comes with practice.”
“When I'm preparing for the breath hold for driving, then I try to just focus on the breathing. It's probably the same for the meditation classes that you go to, because it's almost impossible to say, ‘Empty your mind.’ The minute someone says, ‘Don't think of anything,’ you think of something, isn't it? So just by focusing on your breathing, and if you need to, picture something in your mind, something really calm. Yeah, something that keeps you nice and relaxed – I think that's the way, and with increased practice. But for me, it's actually not so much the meditative part, it’s not really the preparation before the breath hold. It’s the actual breath hold itself, because it's even more challenging. During the breath hold, you really can't think of anything. The minute you think of, ‘Oh dear, can I hold my breath for longer?’, or after you're right at the bottom, imagine 70 metres down there alone like, ‘How am I going to make it to the surface?’, the minute your mind starts to have such thoughts, it will create stress and then it will be more difficult to hold your breath. So, the actual dive itself on breath hold, forces a state where you can only focus on the present moment. You can’t think about whether I can reach the bottom, or I can reach the top, or any other things that would spoil that kind of present moment feeling. That is why for me, freediving is my meditation, because on land I'm not a very calm person [laughs]. But in water, it forces me to face this state.”
Participating in the 2019 World Freediving Championships in Honduras
“So (in) 2019, I was hoping to join this World Championships, but wasn't sure whether it would be possible because it was a long way (away). The thing with freediving is that it’s not something that I could train effectively in Singapore in our waters here, which is too shallow and (has) strong currents. Which (also) means that I would have to spend quite a long-extended time training before the actual competition itself. I decided what could be the ways that I could get some assistance? I was running one day – I still run a lot here, it helps to clear my mind a little bit – (and) during my run, I was thinking, because I've seen other divers to do it as well, because similarly in some other countries, there's also not much support for this new and growing sport. Not yet at this moment, but I hope that in time to come, there will be more support. So, I decided that crowdfunding could be one way to help the situation because the registration fees were much more and it's a further destination. I was hesitant, because it just felt maybe a little bit embarrassing to reach out like this to ask for assistance. I think I was running the idea through some friends, and they told me, ‘So, what's the worst thing that can happen if you don't raise enough funds? Are you going to be okay with that, knowing that you don't meet your target?’ I said, ‘Yeah, okay, if I don't reach my target but maybe you know, half or less, at least it will help subsidise some of the expenses and I could see what I can still make it there.’ They say, ‘Ok yeah, then just go ahead.’”
“(Singaporean diver) Shuyi was with me almost the whole time in Honduras. She (hadn’t) really participated in so many competitions before, but she was there and you know, we are team Singapore [laughs]. Yeah, we are representing Singapore and I had already reached the (crowdfunding) target, and so I extended the campaign to say any other additional funds should cover her cost as well.”
Highlight of the whole experience
“I think it was the fact that the event had all top divers from all around the world. So, imagine you're meeting all the world record holders, and I really enjoyed having a lot of time with the Italian team. They are really friendly, and they gave me so many tips for diving. They are great company; they make good pasta [laughs].”
Ocean conservation through Sea Glass Project
“How I came about the Sea Glass Project was last year during my final competition in Indonesia, I booked an accommodation that was right by the ocean…I didn't have much money [laughs] to go for the competition, but it's like, okay, you know, right by the beach. And guess what? When I arrived there, it was just tonnes of trash on the beach. So, I went along the beach and started to clean up the beach a little bit, and I started to find all these glass pieces. I started a routine where I would clean up the beach every day. Eventually after two weeks, I had I don't know how many kilogrammes of glass.…I went to the tool shop and bought a drill, and that was how the Sea Glass Project started. I started to drill, and I started to realise I could make really nice jewellery out of this sea glass. The intention is to spread the message of ocean conservation because basically these glass pieces are all trash…the thing is that these glass pieces are actually not so common anymore. Because if you think about our history, we used to use glass bottles, isn't it? Your Coca Cola bottles (were) in glass, and now the manufacturers have changed the use of glass into plastic. These pieces (of sea glass) that you see today are from decades ago. So, I have a vision for the project. I just started on this last year over Christmas, started hand making these individual pieces and asking friends if they might, you know want to try it or give them out. My bigger vision is for the communities by these coastal areas to actually do the sea glass jewellery because this will provide them livelihood and they can keep the beaches clean, and for these to be on sale and for the proceeds to go to these communities. For now, it is still trial and error for me to see what kind of designs will work. But eventually, I would like the coastal communities and the women to be empowered to make this their livelihood.”
Note: This interview was recorded in the early part of the year before Covid-19 shut down travel.Anqi and I did continue our conversation off-air over coffee and she did tell me more stories about the mysterious captain she sailed with to Belize. Unfortunately, I can’t share them but what I can share is that she told me that her parents finally told her they were proud of her after she returned from the Honduras championship last year with the new record for Singapore. Guess at heart, no matter how far we travel or how deep we dive, we do want our parents to be proud of us.
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