Free divers: sunset
© Meiko Herrmann

Free divers


Bernhard Wache has developed a technique that enables him to cover long distances in and underwater: sea trekking is hiking for the adventurous. Our reporter ventured more than a toe into Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia

My destination is still a long way off, but my strength is already beginning to fail me as I swim against the current. To my right: a blue expanse stretching to the horizon; to my left: the jagged chalk cliffs of the rugged Croatian coast. My hands are already torn to shreds from my attempts to steady myself in the heaving waves. My only option is to move forward. Underwater, sea grass drifts back and forth – a soothing rhythm in light of my exertions. To save energy, I have to let my flippers glide symmetrically through the water. Just don’t swallow any water through the snorkel and don’t panic, I tell myself. Twenty minutes later, I reach the remote, stony beach we had picked out on the map as our destination. Bernhard Wache is already standing there in his neoprene suit, his goggles pushed up onto his forehead. I spot pomegranate and fig trees growing at the foot of the steep cliffs behind him that make this bay inaccessible from the land. With trembling limbs, I crawl exhausted onto the beach. “It only took these two kilometers for you to gain an existential experience,” says Bernhard in his gentle Bavarian lilt, laughing. I fall asleep right there at his feet.

Bernhard Wache is 47 years old but he looks at least ten years younger. That’s down to the ocean, he says. He’s in his element; the ocean is the great passion he follows whenever he can. This time, he has taken us – me and photographer Meiko Herrmann – along with him into his world on a sea trekking trip. Bernhard and the roughly 50 other sea trekkers in the world are drawn to the remote coastlines of this world, from Thailand to Tenerife. There, kitted out with carbon flippers, neoprene wetsuit, goggles and snorkel, they spend days covering several kilometers and nights bivouacking in the wild. On their trails, they aim to become one with the underwater world as they traverse it with flowing movements.

Free divers: Bernhard Wache and author Martin Theis

Bernhard Wache (foreground) and author Martin Theis beat at a path through the undergrowth on the Croatian coat. Their efforts are rewarded by a perfect sunset

© Meiko Herrmann

 We meet Bernhard a day before heading out to the mountain village of Beli on the Adriatic island of Cres. He looks like an alien among all the German and Austrian tourists on vacation here. Bernhard, otherwise a Munich-based artist who experiments with glass and light, is a man obsessed. His happiness awaits him out there in the sea, far from the beach bars and vacation hotels – the sensation of gliding weightless through the water at depth of between 15 and 20 meters. That feeling of happiness is something you cannot buy, he says. The ocean is Bernhard’s obsession.

He was in his early twenties when he developed this method of locomotion for himself and has been working tirelessly to improve it ever since. His role models were mammals – otters, seals and dolphins – that glide through the water with far greater elegance than we humans do. He wanted to break the routines with which we move in the ocean: the horizontal, as in swimming and kayaking; and the vertical, as in apnea and deep-sea diving. Sea trekking is a combination of breadth and depth, of snorkeling, free diving and covering distances, now a little below, now far below the surface. To move forward in the water, Bernhard stretches his arms out in front with one hand pressed flat on top of the other and with his body, makes a wave motion that flows from his fingertips to the end of his flippers.

Using a map, Bernhard explains the route to us. Then we pack our equipment, drinking water and food for four days into special travel backpacks that he designed. They are both watertight and airtight and also inflatable, so that we can pull them along behind us at the end of a line. When they float, you barely notice the 25 kilos they weigh. But first, we have to carry them across six or seven kilometers of rocky country, past dry bushes and gnarled trees. “When you move through open nature, you also have to give something back,” says Bernhard, “or it will destroy you.” We can smell wild sage, lavender and thyme as we walk the old mountain tracks where shepherds once drove their sheep. Not a soul far and wide, just a few shaggy sheep. At sunset, we arrive at a beach.

The group of drunken tourists who have anchored their white sailboat in the bay and are now recklessly lighting a campfire 20 meters away from us barely bother us. In any case, we are moving in different worlds. If you have brought only the bare necessities along, when you arrive on the beach, drenched in sweat and bone-tired at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour trek in the sweltering heat, the little things are suddenly just wonderful: the lukewarm beer we are now sharing; the porridge with honey, raisins and nuts stirred over the cooker; the salt breeze coming off the sea; the millions of stars in the sky. All of this is – as we all realize at this moment – just awesome!

Free divers: water ahoy!

Water ahoy! Wache and Theis reach the bay in the northwest of the island of Cres and discuss the next leg oft their trip ...

© Meiko Herrmann
Free divers: Water ahoy!

... they spend the night in a bivouac

© Meiko Herrmann

Bernhard Wache was just a child when he realized that the ocean has the power to make you forget time and space

 The cicadas awaken in the morning sun; their loud chirping is the signature tune of Cres Island. When I open my eyes to squint at the sky from my air mattress, there’s a pot of coffee already simmering. Bernhard is sitting next to it, holding an espresso cup made of dainty floral china that doesn’t quite fit with the functional outdoor gear who has to try and survive in the wild with just a knife,” he says, grinning, “but with just a knife and a cup like this, that would be okay.” Then he gazes serenely into the blue, his thoughts already somewhere way out there again.

At first, we humans behave pretty stupidly in the ocean. As far as grace and survival skills are concerned, we are clearly inferior to almost all the other creatures swimming there. We have lost our intuitive way of moving in the ocean, too long ago is it since our forebears crawled on land. The flowing motion with which Bernhard propels himself forward requires a great deal of practice. Trying it out, beginners look just as ungainly as teenagers at their first ballroom dance class.

But this man of the sea very patiently practices the motion with Meiko and me in the bay. We learn to dive into the forward motion. We learn, with nose pressed close and mouth shut, how to press air from inside into our ears so as to equalize the water pressure. Because we would otherwise float upwards like corks in the neoprene suits, we carry small drinking backpacks on our back, the kind marathon runners use, but ours are filled with tiny pebbles from the beach. Ever since I almost drowned in the Atlantic when I was twelve because the current was too strong for me, a dip in shallow waters has always been all I wanted. But Bernhard has been constantly pushing back his boundaries in the blue space ever since he was pushed into the salt water as a small boy. On the island of Elba in Italy, he went off on his own to hunt crabs on the beach when he was just three and didn’t return to the campsite until after sunset, where needless to say, everyone was involved in the desperate search for him. As a teenager, he let his air mattress drift kilometers from the shore and practiced free diving all day. That was how he discovered the mystery of pressure equalization and realized that the ocean has the power to make you forget space and time.

Free divers: diving equipment

Optimally equipped: Bernhard Wache with goggles and a floating backpack, which he developed especially for his tours

© Meiko Herrmann
Free divers: Seatrekking

Amazingly elegant: Author Theis making his first sea trekking attempts: in the background, instructor Wache watches his new student

© Meiko Herrmann
Free divers: The poetry of weightlessness

The poetry of weightlessness: Bernhard Wache finds a crab along the trail. Before he sets it down again in the sea grass, it performs a little dance in his palm

© Meiko Herrmann

 The Adriatic has already been extensively fished, but that in no way detracts from its meditative effect. Down there, with the corals and the sea urchins, the sea cucumbers and gently rippling sea grass, between the swarms of tiny silver fish that occasionally flit by, in the kingdom of crabs and comb jellyfish, it seems inconceivable that we could have such a thing as appointments on land. All the things that determine our lives up there are of no importance whatsoever down here.  These blue worlds seem endless, far larger at any rate than the foolish reality we perceive above the water.

It seems that Bernhard, the expert, is gradually becoming one with his element. He traverses the ocean, rises to the surface every few seconds to catch a single breath and then dives back down again. He passes me time and time again and checks whether I’m doing okay, then he’s back floating about 15 meters down, or sinking even lower, down to the seabed, where he kneels as though in prayer. Sometimes he can let go completely down there, he told us on land, and that it’s a healing method of self-abandonment and also a brutal freedom.

Even if many people could use such an experience, and as gladly as Bernhard would teach them, sea trekking would not work as a mass sport. For one thing, Bernhard and his fellow sea trekkers want to make as little impact on nature as possible, and for another, you have to really familiarize yourself with the subject before you start. This makes a sea trekking trip almost always an existential physical and psychological challenge. I know. I am still lying on the stony beach, gradually coming to after my final spurt in the ocean, but Bernhard has already set up a tarpaulin, beneath which we will find shelter from the impending rain. My exhaustion slowly gives way to euphoria – I made it! – and also an overpowering sense of hunger.

Free divers: Land in sight

Land in sight: for the pro (right in photo), the tour was a walk in the park, but our valiant author is visibly flagging

© Meiko Herrmann

 He has a dream, Bernhard tells us later; he dreams of a gigantic trail. Marine mammals – blue whales, sperm whales and hundreds of spinner dolphins – gather above the oceanic trenches roughly ten kilometers off the Sri Lankan coast near the port of Trincomalee. He wants to go there with a friend, a professional free diver for three days and two nights above the open ocean, at night, taking it in turns to sleep on a special, ultralight air mattress. Right now, they are looking for sponsors for the project. “I would like to visit the inhabitants of the blue wilderness and spend time with them,” he says, “in the place where the forces of the sea converge.” Then he walks through the rain to the water’s edge, his mat under his arm, throws it in and sits down cross-legged on it, as though about to meditate. Eyes closed, he drifts out to sea.