Saturday, August 09, 2008

Debbie Millin: Sea Salt in the Blood

Debbie at her 21st birthday. Some mermaid, huh? Now, aged 24, she still looks the same.
(Guys: don't gawk; gals: don't get jealous!!! Hahahahaha)

I met Debbie Millin in March 2007 in Umkomaas (South Africa) where she assisted Gail Addison in running a smooth Tiger Shark dive operation. Little did I know about her then. Sure, she came along a few times to freedive with the boys, and I could see that she felt very comfortable in the water, enthusiastically swimming among sharks and other 'big stuff'.

Debbie could dive down to 15 - 20m with normal fins which is quite an achievement for someone who did not seem to be either competitive or trained. At that time I thought that her boyfriend, Sijmon de Waal, an avid spearo and experienced shark dive guide, was the one who got Debbie into freediving and overcoming her 'natural' fear of sharks.

No fear: Debbie swimming with a bunch of lovely doggies of the ocean.
(Photo: Sijmon de Waal)

Now I know that the ocean, and swimming in it, was in her blood since her earliest days on earth: Debbie did her first apnea dives when she was a couple of weeks (!!) old, and she absolutely loved it.

beats even sharkwaterman Robert Stewart who claims to 'remember' that his love for the ocean was ignited when his parents gave him a goldfish at age one.

Debbie was fortunate enough to grow up in South Africa, an excitingly wild and exotic country where being close to the ocean and living an outdoor life is just completely natural. When you see Debbie during the summer months next to the water, you'd think she could be a typical southern Californian chick - green-eyed, blond, sporty, exquisitely tanned.

It's only when she talks that you'd note she is not a typical southern Californian chick. Her English is 100% South African - which I am sure most foreigners find hard to describe. For instance: South Africans don't say "two years", the say "two yoooeeeeeaaahs" - "Durban" is something like "Doooeeehb'n", and they sing a bit when they speak. The accent is not always easy to understand but it is rather distinctive and quite charming.


About one week ago Debbie sent all her friends a circular mail to let them know, among other things, that she took some serious freediving courses both in London and Marsa Alam / Egypt under the expert guidance of Marcus Greatwood of No Tanx.

I completely underestimated this young lady - what really impressed me about her was her beaming friendliness and her modesty. I had no idea how determined Debbie can be. Rarely does she talk about herself, and trying to be in the center of attention is something she instinctively rejects. This makes Debbie (and her boyfriend Sijmon who is pretty much the same) my kinda people.... No BS, genuine, cordial, and rock solid.

So, here is the news, in a nutshell, in Debbie's own words:

Wow where to start :) Sij, his dad and I had an amazing time in the Red Sea in June. We spent the first week in Marsa Shagra Eco Village (Marsa Alam: with NoTanx (the freediving club that I joined 3 months ago:

Each day consisted of an early rise (some days we did an amazing yoga session whilst watching the sunrise) and freediving training session on the ropes about 100m from the beach. The water was 28 degrees!, and the visibility about 40m minimum... wow. This was followed by a wholesome brekkie, nap, lunch, tan in the sauntering heat and then an afternoon training session/snorkel in amongst the myriads of multi-coloured fish, corals and the deep turquiose blue surrounding us...

Delicious dinner was followed by breathing excercises/freediving talks/many a laugh beneath the moon and stary sky. There were 14 of us, all there to enjoy the ocean in one breath...:) I experienced my first night freedive! What an incredible experience; we had torches but did not need to use them as we were guided by the full moon above us...quite eery, catching glimpses of movement around me from the moonlight. Felt like I was Aerial in The Little Mermaid...dream come true!

There are 2 videos on youtube of our holiday: and You can see bits of me with my monofin in the sled video :P Oh and also my first attempt at swimming at depth with a monofin (look like a spastic fish but hey, I have time to improve on my technique, hehe).

Debbie training with No Tanx in the Red Sea
(Photo: Marcus Greatwood)

Also at Marsa Shagra, we went on a 2 hour camel ride into the heart of the desert, guided by Bedouins (local desert people) who then cooked us a traditional meal in the middle of the desert. (check out the pics on facebook). Another amazing experience, eating with our hands whilst cross-legged on carpets with trillions of starts above us and utter silence hanging in the surrounding wilderness.

The group also took a trip to a neighbouring bay to freedive with a dugong (manatee) but to our disappointment, the lone ranger was nowhere in sight...Grins rapidly appeared when we realised we were left with the many green turtles feeding on the sea grass on the bottom.

Nevertheless, the day was spent diving down to lie on the bed of sea grass, just metres away from a giant turtle happily munching away :P So many beautiful memories....

The second week was spent on the Emperor Superior ( with 16 others on an incredible journey though the southern red sea, exploring and diving the reefs. We did about 3 dives a day, and many a night dive: sleeping, eating, and diving all on one boat! Wow, the most beautiful reef diving I've ever experienced...

We freedived with our first Oceanic White tip shark, and I saw my first ever Thresher shark ( Hehe, excuse all the weblinks but I'm loving trying to give you a full experience of what we did :) I hope the links can all be opened.

There were so many incredible dives on the liveaboard...swim-throughs, caves (Little Mermaid full throttle!), a wreck, drop off reefs, feeding devil firefish at night by shining our torches on little cardinal fish, hehe.... wish I had an underwater camera!!!

I cant fully describe the blue of the ocean, the bright colours of the fish and corals, the crackling of the growing reef... Sij, words are meaningless when I say thank you... truly one of the most amazing moments of my life. And I look forward to many more with you to come :)

And now the BREAKING NEWS: Debbie Millin is the new South African freediving champion in the Dynamic No Fins Category. She swam 78m underwater. The previous record (75m) was held by South African world-class freediver Hanli Prinsloo, another most graceful ocean lady. Read on:

On the freediving front, I couldn't be happier :) Last week Thursday I broke a South African record for Dynamic No Fins discipline (swimming lengths of a pool underwater)! I still cant quite believe it and am so happy :) Sorry I kept this quiet until now, but to be honest I really didn't think I'd do it...

I was only told of the record attempt 3 weeks before by MIG, the coach and owner of NoTanx club, and therefore only had 3 training sessions to prepare for the 24th July record attempt. The current record was 75m by SA's top freediver Hanli Prinsloo. The night of the attempt was the first time I'd actually properly done that distance: 78m :)

I'm over the moon! But whew, quite a stressful experience knowing that everyone there is there for you, watching your every move: from the safety team, to my coach for the night, to the international AIDA judges...The UK men's record holder (who also trains with us at the club) also broke a national record :)

My record was captured on video ( and since then there have been a few press releases/articles and pics. Hehe, still not used to all this:;; and

Pity they got my age wrong... hehe, oh well. Hopefully this is the first of many records to come. Mom was there that night to watch: mom, it meant so much to me to have you there :P tears and all! What a moment shared together...

Sounds pretty enthusiastic, huh? Well, that is Debbie all over. Just the way Sijmon and her friends love her.

Congrats, Debbie!!! You are an inspiration!!!!

Others feel the same about this very special young woman - so much so that a fine Italian diving watch company, "Immersion", gave lucky Debbie duck one of their fabulous time pieces, the Challenger, in recognition of her success. "Immersion" sponsored the record attempt night on July 24, 2008, where it all happened. Marcus Greatwood of No Tanx called the event appropriately "The Immersion Challenge."

Wanna know a bit more about Debbie? Click here.

Now let me tell you something about Sijmon, or Sij, as Debbie calls him. Sijmon de Waal is the guy who taught me how to handle tiger sharks when they become a bit too "personal".

My tiger shark "instructor" probably could not imagine that I have since become an almost neurotic tiger shark lover. Sijmon now wants to see me kissing a striped beauty on her nose. No problem, next time we dive together in Umkomaas, I'll show him..... :-)

Not only that, I think I could now teach him a thing or two in the vast field of photography. Sijmon is a very talented underwater photographer, yet he still needs to learn a couple of useful things - for instance how to take out a camera of a tiger's mouth.

What do I mean?

Here is what happened to good ol' Sij a few months ago while freediving with tigers: Sij had some bait in its left hand, camera plus strobe in his right hand, and did not notice "Dartboard", a lovable and most spectacular resident 4 m tiger girl, approaching him from behind. "Dartboard" didn't feel like mincing matters, and went straight for the bait AND the camera.

Sijmon: "She snuck up behind me, and I just saw her at the last minute and had enough time to roll onto my back. However, "Dartboard" was already snapping at this stage and got the bait and the camera at the same time. I held onto the camera as the strobe was in her mouth, and put my foot on her head and tried to pull the strobe out, but she refused to let go and started swimming for the bottom."

Sijmon with his camera equipment, and "Dartboard" - maybe already having second thoughts...(Photo: Wolfgang Leander)

Tiger sharks seem to like cameras as my friend Jifa can testify... So, after darting in to get the carcass and the camera, "Dartboard" went to the bottom, bit off the strobes shaking her head vigorously, and then gulped down the whole "schmiehl" - worth some 4.000 dollars.

Ooooohhhh, that must have hurt badly - Sijmon, of course, not "Dartboard", as she probably regurgigated that indigestible metal object soon after swallowing it .... :-)

Sijmon should have perhaps tried to take the camera out of "Dartboard's" mouth rather gently (easier said than done, I know...); instead, he put his foot / fin on the shark's head trying to make her loose her grip on the shiny - which got the lady quite determined to have it her way, and, well, that was the end of that.

I have seen excellent photographs taken by Sijmon. Here is one. What a masterful shot - dig it:

Sijmon is on assignment in Dubai; he works with an international oil company as an offshore engineer, hopefully making tons of money to compensate for the hardship of being out in the desert without his Debs!!

Sijmon and Debbie are lovely individuals, and a perfect match - I have not the slightest doubt that they will eventually end up exchanging rings and the vows of eternal love.

Yes!! Eternal love - that is what I wish these two great friends of mine.

Eternal love - and many little Debbies and Sijmons, all children of the ocean!!!


the One called "Bitey"... said...

awesome post, awesome stories, awesome pics!
(78m?! That's just crazy talk....)

Wolfgang Leander said...

78m - that's correct! However, not deep but distance in a pool. No fins!! Quite remarkable, huh?