SA freediving champion reveals sea's secrets in new reality show
She has snuggled with nurse sharks, frolicked with dolphins, been in the presence of gigantic tiger sharks and fulfilled her life’s dream of swimming with an elusive dugong, all while pregnant and diving to the depths of the sea on a single breath.
Now Beth Neale, a four-time South African freediving champion from the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, is bringing her passion for the sea to TV screens with a first-of-its-kind reality television series.
Neale and her partner Miles Cloutier spent four months capturing underwater footage in Mozambique and the Maldives for Freediving Diaries, which will premiere on May 3 on PPL°WX — People’s Weather on DStv and Open View.
The couple want to use the series as a platform to not only promote ocean conservation and eco-tourism but to also show that “freediving isn’t just an extreme sport for elite athletes”.
“It’s the fastest-growing water sport and simply requires you to hold your breath underwater. You don’t have to go deep or hold your breath for a long time,” said Neale.
They chose to film in Mozambique and the Maldives because of the wealth of marine life. Canada-born Cloutier said tourists had flocked to the Maldives despite the Covid-19 pandemic, but lockdown regulations have left Mozambique’s tourism industry in tatters.
“The impact of lockdown on these local communities has been devastating, and we know this series will encourage more eco-tourism,” he said.
Neale, who is due to give birth at the end of June, got to fulfil her lifelong dream. “I always wanted to see a dugong, which is a very elusive sea animal and a protected species. They exist in Mozambique and sighting them is very rare. We travelled to Bazaruto and were very fortunate to get permission to film a dugong if we spotted them.”
Despite the murky water, the couple filmed a dugong and swam alongside it. “My heart exploded, especially because it is my life’s dream. We got to share this incredible, inspiring moment with our baby,” said Neale.
In the Maldives they swam with tiger sharks. “A special moment was when I swam with a pregnant female. She was eating all the food, and I thought I could relate to her because I also just want to eat everything that I see.
“We had quite a few night dives with the manta rays, whale sharks and nurse sharks, which was a bit surreal and eerie, getting in the water at night. But after a few minutes you forget about it and feel quite safe.
“I used to be terrified of sharks, it was my greatest fear, until I started freediving and saw my first shark.”
Neale described the “snuggle party” at the bottom of the ocean floor with about 50 nurse sharks as her favourite. “They lie on the bottom of the sand next to each other, you can literally swim and join in. I did that, it was so special. I had lots on my left and one came on my right and lay next to me like I was a shark.”
Neale was concerned about embarking on the expedition after discovering she was pregnant. “I contacted some world champion freedivers and spoke to them about it. They all said it was perfectly safe.”
Stephan Le Roux, CEO of PPL°WX said: “From the moment I met Beth and Miles and heard about what they do I thought it was completely crazy. Beth has had some unbelievable sports accomplishments in freediving, and it’s so amazing the three of them are now sharing these adventures.”
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