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University of Wollongong academic wins prestigious Calibre Essay Prize

Associate Professor Michael Adams explores the fine line between life and death through freediving.

University of Wollongong (UOW) Associate Professor of Human Geography, Michael Adams from the Faculty of Social Sciences's School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, has been awarded the prestigious Australian Book Review’s Calibre Essay Prize for his essay ‘Salt Blood’, a deep dive into the ancient practise of freediving.

Considered Australia’s most revered essay prize, Associate Professor Adams’ piece was selected from a field of 180 submissions from 14 countries by judges, award-winning historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, ABR Editor Peter Rose and Picador Publisher Geordie Williamson.

‘Salt Blood’, which he penned during a 10 day ‘Writers in Residence’ program at Bundanon Trust located on the Shoalhaven River, explores the relationship between the human body and the ocean and our innate ability to descend deep into the ocean without supplemental oxygen.

His research examines how humans can tap into our ancient evolutionary origins and can willingly expose themselves to coming close to death. He discusses the mindset control and physiological management required to be able to descend through five atmospheres of water and survive.

Associate Professor Adams said there is a direct relationship between yoga practise and freediving.

“When I ask divers, what were you thinking about, they say, I try not to think which is the deal, it’s the yoga practise as well you try and empty your mind, which of course is ridiculously difficult to do.

“It’s this funny process of putting yourself into this situation which is really quite dangerous and having to completely relax, completely get rid of tension, anxiety, thoughts, the whole thing. I guess it’s a form of meditation, it’s just extraordinary.”

According to Associate Professor Adams, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with the immense fear of dying associated with taking your body into a knowingly dangerous situation.

“Freedivers die quite regularly, so it quite clearly is dangerous, so you’re aware of that, but it was this thing of being close to death that just felt comfortable.”

His essay acknowledges his own life experience of losing his father to suicide and his curiosity about what death is about.

“Freediving and thinking about death quite consciously and not in an abstract sense because you’re there with it, took me back to thinking about what was going on with him (his father).

It was some sort of sense of having some understanding of what that decision might be about,” he said.

The essay also depicts the physiological response freediving has on the human body. As the diver increases their water depth there is a reduced heart-rate, a redistribution of blood from bodily extremities to central organs and a contraction of the spleen, all of which increase access to oxygen by reducing the rate it is consumed or changing its availability in the body, according to Associate Professor Adams.

He cites learning to understand and recruit these processes enables freedivers to routinely reach depths of twenty to fifty metres, and to set records at depths of one hundred to two hundred metres.

Associate Professor Adams said winning the Calibre Essay Prize is a huge honour, one he was extremely surprised to receive.