A link in the chain

Freediver, filmmaker, model: Ai Futaki is always looking to make a difference

Tim Rock

Ai Futaki is floating on the surface of the Philippine Sea in western Yap, Micronesia. Below her circle sharks, lots of them: gray reef sharks, blacktips and whitetips. The dive boat is nearby and conventional wisdom says it would be prudent to get in. But Ai takes a long, last breath, checks her video camera and slowly and deliberately sinks down to the pack of circling forms.

Just as the passage of time has wrought the shark into a supremely specialised predator, so Futaki’s life has been a journey towards a similarly narrow niche. Born in western Kanazawa, Japan, she was quickly at home in the ocean, learning to swim at three. After

dabbling in all kinds of watersports, she learnt to dive in Honduras in 2003. Here was a sport that offered a way to make a living too but she wanted more than simply to work in tourism so followed a friend’s suggestion that she attend a freediving competition in Thailand in 2007. It was a revelation.

Becoming an instructor, she started competing and then filming competitions for television around the world. In 2009, she set an Asian female record of 55m in the Constant Weight No Fins category in a deep Mexican cenote (a rocky sinkhole accessing a subterranean body of water).

But competitive freediving is a tightly focused world of zen-like breathhold techniques and constant tiny tinkerings with suit and fin design. Futaki soon felt that the connection she sought with the ocean and its creatures was missing.

“I want to do it [freediving] all my life,” she says. “But my way of freediving is not going to my limit . . . to go deep, deep, deep. Now I want to show the beauty.”

That quest has seen her turn her attention to photographing and filming: whether it’s local spearfishermen in Guam, Ama pearl farmers in Japan or the reefs of wild Komodo – all using breath-hold techniques that allow her to stay down for up to four minutes at a time.

“When I go down, the fish go away. But then I stay down and they come back and I can shoot,” she explains. “I film by freediving, not by scuba diving which means I have no bubbles, no sounds. I can go wherever I want, which I can’t do with scuba diving. I can film more action going up and down. I can be doing the movement with the fish,” she says, eyes sparkling happily.

“If you see video taken by freediving, you feel like you are there. This is very important for me. I want people to feel that they are there. And from that, I want them to be happy. Also to think about the sea . . . do something to keep our ocean alive.”

Futaki has not totally given up on competition but today it is more a means to an end: “Even if I make good videos, if nobody sees them, they are nothing. So I will make record attempts to get people’s attention to show my videos.”

She also shoots at freediving competitions, selling the footage to the competitors or to television companies, and teaches freediving.
Not surprisingly people are often envious of her lifestyle: “Everybody says “how great! Lucky you!, but that is not true. I am not always having fun. Most of the time, I am struggling to keep going . . . but always I tell myself that life is only one time, you got to do what you want.

What she wants next is to return to Mexico’s cenotes, to go for a Guinness world record for the longest distance freedived in a cave.
Even when not going for a record, Futaki has to train constantly and closely monitors her diet to stay in shape. Getting into the water, her first few immersions are usually down to 10-15m. As her endurance builds, she commonly reaches 30m or more and staying down long enough to shoot becomes easier. Filming the sharks of Yap’s Vertigo Reef for instance, she could wait for the animals to accept her intruding on their space.

“I saw in their eyes they were wondering what they should do with me, she says.

Well they might wonder, given the millions of their number killed every year, most simply for their fins alone – a level of wastefulness that Futaki finds particularly disturbing.

“If they just use the most valuable [body parts], then it’s just for the money,” she says. “They catch sharks, cut off their fins and they throw the body out. What can sharks do without fins underwater?

“If the fishermen use whole body, then I don’t have this bad feeling. It’s the  same for cows or chickens. Anything on this planet that has life. If we appreciate our food, and eat everything – that’s how we show our respect to them.”

Using natural resources more sustainably will take education among other things and this Futaki sees as being where she can really contribute, in particular among her countrymen: “Being Japanese, I understand how they are, and also being abroad, I understand how foreign people see us . . . The Japanese, most of the time, do not know where their fish comes from, how it was caught. I would love to help in this but in right way. I do not want to give any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ message. I want to tell the truth and want people themselves to think.