It’s fair to say that Daan Verhoeven has ‘totally made it’ as the best-known freediving photographer and cameraman. If you’ve ever looked at freediving images in the media or videos on youtube, then you will have almost certainly seen his work.
Since 2013, Daan has been the official photographer for the elite depth competition Vertical Blue, held the iconic Deans Blue Hole in the Bahamas. Known as the ‘Mecca’ of freediving, this unique location is widely recognized thanks to his underwater images.
As well as Vertical Blue, since 2012, Verhoeven has been an official underwater photographer for nearly all of the AIDA World Championships – both depth and pool – and he chronicles most of the significant freediving competitions around the world.
Add this to his background as a competitive freediver and a competition safety freediver, Daan has witnessed and documented more world records (or at least comes a close second to Carla Hanson!), national records, celebrations, commiserations and excitement around the competition line than any other person. His work forms a registry of the sport of freediving throughout the last decade.
As an athlete, safety diver, instructor, judge and photographer, Daan’s involvement in freediving is as comprehensive as it gets. With such a connection to the sport and its small community, he is more than an artistic observer; having been party to many of the more exciting, dramatic and even tragic events in the sport, there is also an emotional involvement to the highs and the lows.
Verhoeven is also considered to be the hardest working person at freediving competitions. Diving twice for every athlete, editing photographs long into the night, and most often working alone – his job is physically and mentally demanding.
With this, he has also earned the respect of his fellow underwater photographers for more than just his work. His ability to move around athletes, safety freedivers, judges, and sometimes other underwater photographers, in the narrow column of a freediving competition zone, requires a deftness that defies the length of his legs.
Daan Verhoeven is the standard in competition freediving photography, and also in underwater film and photography of freediving athletes outside of the competitive environment. Viewings of his YouTube videos range from the tens of thousands to several million. Having made his name as a freediving competition photographer, he has grown into mainstream media, documentaries, commercials, and even corporate events as a motivational speaker, working with big names such as Red Bull, The New York Times, the BBC, The Guardian, Peugeot and many more.
As a freediving athlete, Daan held national records in five of the six competitive disciplines (except static), and competed in approximately 35 AIDA competitions. He also excelled in his work as a safety freediver, as he was named Safety of the year in 2010 and 2011.
Now based in Cornwall in the UK, he co-owns Aquacity Freediving School with Georgina Miller, his partner. Georgina is an instructor, a competitive freediver, multiple national record-breaker for the UK, and has been an integral part of the BFA (British Freediving Association) for many years.
Before finding freediving, Daan studied communication arts in New York and then fell into working in publishing and graphic design, which became his living for many years. Curiously, he was rejected from photography school, so shelved that ambition – a story worth sharing with anyone who has ever met a bump in the road towards their dreams and aspirations! Outside of his freediving world, Daan dedicates time to the translation of the philosophical works of his late father, Cornelis Verhoeven.
Daan Verhoeven possesses a smile almost as broad as he is tall, a name that most of us mispronounce, arguably the sensibilities of a teenage girl, and yet all the insightfulness you’d expect from the son of a famous philosopher. However, as the man behind the lens, we see through his eyes more than we see into his mind. Luckily for us, he took time out to share with DeeperBlue what he has learned from freediving, the freedivers he admires, and locations he loves to freedive. As well as an important tip about the lining of your wetsuit..!
DeeperBlue.com: What continues to inspire your freediving?
Daan Verhoeven: Well, there are the sensations themselves: I love the feeling of freefalling, the water flowing over your face and hands, that slowing of the heart and mind, the experience of ease of movement in the water. There’s the challenge, always, as there’s more relaxation possible, more meters, maybe. And then there are the sights, both what I see happening and what I sometimes see in my mind. Every dive has its moments, as water and light play together so well, and if you throw in an exceptional athlete or model, you often get something spectacular. Seeing friends do well is a joy shared. Sometimes I dream up something I’d love to see and have an idea come to life, watching it become a reality, is very thrilling and inspiring.
DB: Who do you most admire in the freediving world?
DV: Most often? My girl: Georgina Miller [UK]. I train with her, and every time I see her push through that difficult phase in a static, between 3 and 5 minutes and then go on to over 6 minutes, I’m full of admiration.
She might also be the one I admire the most in general, as she keeps on working on her freediving, sometimes without immediate visible result or even by taking a step back. She does it purely for the love of the thing, not so much for the results.
But I also admire a lot of other athletes. With the women, I admire Alessia [Zecchini, Italy] for her talent and her seemingly fearless spirit. Alenka [Artnik, Slovenia] has an amazingly steady approach and appears to not let ego be a factor at all. Hanako [Hirose, Japan] has such beautiful fluidity and playfulness. Sofia [Gomez, Colombia] is such a complete athlete and fun competitor, and has such natural media presence.
With the men, obviously, Alexey [Molchanov, Russia] has to be admired for his sheer dominance and ease with which he performs. Strong mentality and a good attitude, too. Morgan [Bourc’his, France], for his incredibly beautiful technique – there’s something almost surreal and poetic about how many meters he can get out of one downwards arm stroke. I love Adam’s [Stern, Australia] laugh, his spirit, and media presence. But overall, it’s Will [Trubridge, New Zealand] – he is of another level, both physically and mentally. Read his book ‘Oxygen’ and you’ll see.
Outside of the competitors, I’m in complete awe of what Julie Gautier and Guillaume Néry [both France] make. Their collaborations elevate both freediving and moviemaking to a deeper level – can you elevate deeper? They seem to do it.
Historically, I admire Natalia Molchanova [Russia] the most – she had the best freediving mind, I reckon. Her concentration, or de-focus- before a performance was palpable, and her grace after, both in glory and defeat, was exemplary.
But for me, the best freediving spirit, so to speak, was Sayuri [Kinoshita, Japan]. The way she had fun before her dives, giggled after, the way she supported all other athletes – that is something I always admired – so much love for the sport.
DB: What is/are your favorite place/s to freedive?
DV: Oh, everywhere! Pools are fun, the seas are amazing, rivers are cool, lakes are funky. Specifically? Well, Dominica is very high up my list, as you won’t find a livelier island and sea. Dean’s Blue Hole is epic in the literal sense of the word. Cyprus probably has the best blue. There’s a cave in Ibiza that might very well be the most beautiful place on earth. The sea here in Cornwall is very much a character, very much present and alive and moody, and I love it for it. My favorite pool must be Y-40, because wow – and freefalling in your Speedo’s is delicious.
DB: Can you tell us about any exciting locations that you would love to freedive?
DV: Everywhere! I get excited every time I go freediving. Ok, so, I’d love to dive Silfra [Iceland], where two continents meet. Them Australian sinkholes look like fun. What Jacques [de Vos] is doing in Norway looks amazing. Okinawa seems cool. There are a lot of caves around Taiwan that I want to see. There are thousands more cenotes [natural water-filled sinkholes, most famously in the Yucatan, Mexico] I’d love to explore. There’s a reserve in Colombia that I want to dive. Tiger Beach. That park in Austria that floods every spring. I’d love to swim under an iceberg. Frozen lakes. Tonga, with wales. Mexico, with sea lions. Etc ad infinitum.
DB: What would be your best piece of training advice for beginner/intermediate freedivers??
DV: I wish I’d focused more on process and relaxation rather than numbers when I started. I think if you make the process all about joy, technique, and relaxation, the numbers will come, and you’ll keep the love for the sport alive.
DB: Top freediving athletes favor a variety of cross-training methods. What is your preferred form of dry training, and why?
DV: If I were a competitor, I’d probably focus more on flexibility combined with strength, but as a photographer, it’s more of an endurance test for me, plus I’m a bit vain, and I hate stretching, so I do more HIT strength training.
DB: What is your pre-dive preference: breakfast or fasting?
DV: Oh, I have to eat breakfast to be able to do the 50-60 dives a day that I do! Plus, I need coffee; otherwise, I’d be too foggy and forget stuff like memory-cards – ironically. When I was an athlete, I would usually have a light breakfast about three hours before a performance. For dynamic, I could get away with coffee too – but not before static or deep dives.
DB: What general nutritional principles do you follow?
DV: I’m one of those ‘sensitive’ types, so no gluten or dairy for me, regretfully. I was beginning to get a bit fat in the mid-section a few years back, so I tried to give up sweets and sugar, and noticed it made it easier for me to equalise over long periods; that was the first year I could do Vertical Blue without any decongestants or anti-inflammatory drugs. So I try and keep away from sweets. As my girl is a vegetarian, I’m 95% vegetarian – about once a week, I have meat. I try and eat as little processed food as I can, and have a bit of variety. But I also think you have to keep your system on its toes, so I like to sin.
DB: What essential life-lessons has freediving given you?
DV: Sometimes, the best course of action is not to act at all. Passivity is very difficult, and it has an almost dirty connotation in this very activistic culture; “just do it,” “actions speak louder than words,” etc. Very few people sing the praises of passivity, and I used to not understand its value, either. But there is a distinctly passive element to freediving: relaxation, to me, is essentially giving in to gravity. It’s a surrender of control; you let your body drop; however, it may. Useful during static, partially also during the freefall. Of course, there’s an active element to it as well, as you have to ‘let’ that happen, but if you don’t become passive and relax, the depth will only crush and hurt you.
Freediving also showed me what I was capable of in a positive mind-set versus a negative one. Once you become aware of that, a lot of internal hurdles can be circumnavigated.
And the basics: just breathe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve applied that in stressful situations. And because you’ve learned how to relax into a stressful situation, you learn how to deal with them a lot better.
And I’ve learned that if you’re going to spend a long day in the water, you better go with open cell on the inside rather than lining.
DB: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
DV: Here, hopefully. And by that I mean alive, around, still photographing freediving competitions, and also making movies, documentaries, hopefully, music videos. The last ten years have been the happiest of my life, so hopefully, the next ten is like that. Maybe a bit more writing and translating and less procrastinating.
DB: Can you describe your most memorable or significant dive?
DV: No – but I’ll try anyway. One of them was in Dahab, the blue hole, where I was trying to get past 45 (equalisation has always been an issue for me). We’d set the line to 60, as someone after me was attempting that depth, and I just wanted enough rope. I went into that dive with no desires other than to relax and get my equalisation right-ish. As I started my freefall, everything felt ok, I relaxed more at the point where I usually noticed the tension, and again when I had the idea, “oh this is getting to be a long dive, it won’t be so easy.” I just kept falling, also when I figured I’d gone well past my PB. There was some excitement, but I didn’t give it much room in my head.
Then suddenly I swallowed and stopped myself on the rope, and as my legs came falling past me I noticed something very blue to my left. I turned and saw the arch. Of course, I’d heard about it, saw pics and so on, but nothing can prepare you for it. It is insanely glorious. It was radiating blue. We were there on the right time of day, as well, early morning, the sun was coming up, and the arch faces east, so it was lit from behind. I just hung there, mesmerized. The blue was more intense than anything I’d ever seen; the structure was like a natural cathedral, I was deeper than I’d ever been, and I had a full-blown religious experience. In my reverie, I remember stretching out towards it, first with one hand, then the other wanted to as well – the notion of unclipping my lanyard and swimming into it occurred to me. It was that notion that snapped me back into reality – I was doing a hang at a depth I’d never been to before, I had buddies up on the surface who didn’t know I’d been messing about down here, and I was considering doing something extremely stupid. So I had an internal giggle and one last long look pulled the line and started swimming up, slowly losing sight of that miracle. It was the first time swimming below 50, and my first time seeing the arch.
DB: Which of your achievements are you most proud of, and why?
DV: Translating my dad’s work. He was a philosopher, and I’m not, which makes it very difficult. Still, I reckon what he had to say is very relevant, especially his work on violence, and deserves to be read by a bigger audience. I’m not sure if I can give him that, but I can try – plus, I get to hear his voice when I read him. There are a few photos that I took and videos that I made that I’m happy with, and I’m certainly glad that I get to make a living this way, but not as proud as I am of my dad.