A Mermaid’s Tale

Freediver BETH NEALE is living out her childhood dreams of being a mermaid while championing the cause for ocean conservation – with her little water baby daughter by her side.


I’ve always felt more at home underwater than on land,” says freediver and ocean conservationist Beth Neale. “It feels like my home and where I belong.” She’s video calling from her house on KZN’s South Coast, but Beth didn’t always live near the sea. “I grew up in Johannesburg, so I’m a landlocked mermaid,” she jokes. Sure enough, with her long hair falling in natural, beachy waves and her serene disposition, Beth is everything one might imagine a real life mermaid to be.

Freediving essentially involves going underwater while holding your breath – something Beth had practised in swimming pools and rock pools during coastal holidays since she was a child.
But it was only years later, while living in London, that she thought of trying freediving as a sport. “I was watching one of my favourite movies – freediving classic The Big Blue – and I decided to google ‘freediving London’.” Beth’s first lesson was 14 years ago at the bottom of a swimming pool in a London gym and her first proper free dive was in a quarry just outside the city. “Imagine, then, when I moved back to South Africa and did my first ocean-free dive!” Beth exclaims. It was at Aliwal Shoal off the coast of KZN in warm water, teeming with life. “We saw dolphins, sharks… it was just beautiful, blue water. I think my heart just burst open!” Beth had scuba dived before, but this brought a new element of wonder.
“Scuba diving is incredible but it’s not being a mermaid. When you are freediving, the marine life comes a lot
closer to you. You become part of the underwater world. It’s the most incredible thing that I want everyone to
experience for themselves.”

Beth diving in Hog Breaker close to the Caraquet ship wreck in Bermuda. Image credit: Stuart Philpott

Competitively, freedivers are scored on how deep they can go with or without fins and return safely to the surface. While it looks like a physically demanding sport, Beth says freediving is more of a mental challenge, which has worked in her favour. “Because I’m naturally a calm and relaxed person and because I feel so at home underwater, it came very easily to me. I haven’t had to train much,” she admits.
Because South Africa’s turbulent ocean doesn’t lend itself to depth training, Beth hasn’t had the opportunity to train in that part of the sport. Instead, she has focused on setting records, which she uses as
opportunities to raise funds and awareness for ocean conservation and teaching children freediving. She’s broken 4 South African national freediving records and most recently, she and her husband, Miles Cloutier, set a Guinness World Record for the longest underwater kiss – which they achieved on Valentine’s Day this year.

Record kiss. Image credit: Aank Afsah

“People think it was my idea, but It was Miles’s idea. He saw the record and he was like, we can totally do this. We landed up with 4:06 (four minutes, six seconds). We smashed the old record!”

Beth met Miles while running a programme in Bermuda, teaching children freediving and ocean conservation. He worked in finance and had never really spent time underwater. Beth, who is a master freediving instructor,
taught him freediving and today he is an accomplished freediver and self-taught underwater videographer. Using his skills and Beth’s experience working for a wildlife film making company, the couple started a documentary TV series Freediving Diaries.
It was on the eve of filming the first season that they discovered Beth was pregnant. “We were about to cross the border into Mozambique for eight weeks of 4x4ing, rooftop camping, driving on bumpy roads, going on bumpy boats…in the moment I was really concerned, about malaria as well.But it was absolutely fine,” says Beth – apart from ever-present nausea, that is. “To have all those experiences with my daughter Neve growing inside me was just so special.”

Beth diving
Beth and Neve

Now a year and a half, Neve is a water baby. “We go swimming every day. She absolutely loves it – which is a relief! Imagine if she didn’t,” Beth laughs. Little Neve even asks to go underwater, opening her eyes and smiling at her mommy. “The first time she did that was probably the happiest moment of my life,” Beth beams. Beth and Miles are currently developing a family freediving series and Neve travels with them wherever they go. “It’s certainly challenging to travel with a baby and, now a toddler, but it’s so important to us for her to be a part of it. I’m very blessed that I’m in the position where my greatest passion is my life and what I do.”

Beth and a nurse shark

Q: Can you tell us about your work with children through Aqua Souls?
Aqua Souls was founded to teach children freediving and ocean conservation. I’m one of the leaders in the world in teaching children freediving. I’ve taught thousands of children. I’ve seen the positive effect that it has on them and how it changes their lives on so many levels and I really wanted to grow that.

Q: What equipment do you need to start freediving? Basic equipment
Basic equipment – mask, snorkel, fins. There’s also no-fins freediving, which is my favourite. And then depending on where you’re going, a wetsuit. And a weight belt, depending on how deep you’re going. The primary thing is to find a good instructor who’s part of an organisation and to do a course.

Q: How has freediving impacted other areas of your life?
I use the breathing to help calm me down. And my achievements have made me realise what I’m capable of and made me more confident.

Q: What tips do you have for introducing babies to the water?
Start as soon as you can to familiarise your baby with the water. The earlier they start swimming, the more they can use their natural instincts to go underwater and hold their breath. Find a good instructor who understands about babies going underwater and holding their breath. A good way to tell is to ask about the mammalian dive reflex – if they don’t know about it, take your baby somewhere else.

Q: What’s your favourite underwater creature?
So tough, but I’d have to choose a dugong, the original mermaid. I’ve only ever seen one and dolphins. I swam with dolphins when I was pregnant with Neve. They use their sonar to scan our bodies and they can see when you’re pregnant. They love pregnant women because they love babies. They’re very similar to us in terms of their family structures. So, to be able to swim with dolphins and have those interactions
with them while being pregnant was unbelievable.

Q: What legacy would you like to leave for your daughter?
I’ve dived in oceans that are pristine and thriving, but I’ve also been to places where you can see the effects of overfishing and the many challenges facing the ocean – plastic, pollution, chemical spillage – and the legacy I’d like Neve to experience is oceans that are protected and thriving. You can see that in marine protected areas and I think South Africa is doing a good job in creating marine protected areas. If the oceans can be like those all over, that would be amazing.

Beth is sporting the Citizen Promaster Eco-Drive watch. Model no. BN0159-15X

We would like to thank our sponsors, the Two Oceans Aquarium and Treger Brands for their contribution in Beth’s cover shoot. Shot on location at the Two Oceans Aquarium; Treger Brands for Beth’s Citizen Promaster Ecodrive watch.

Follow Beth on her under water adventures at @onebreathbeth

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