Life Beneath The Surface
Drawn by an unconditional love for the ocean, Enchante Gallardo dove headfirst into the world of free diving and quickly became America’s best female at it.
The morning of her interview with MidWeek, Enchante Gallardo decided to squeeze in some precious water time before jumping on the phone call. It was late July and she’d been on Long Island in the Bahamas for nearly three weeks training for the International Association for the Development of Apnea’s Vertical Blue 2022, one of the most prestigious, invitation-only competitions in the free diving world.
Right before dialing in from halfway across the globe, Gallardo experienced one of the greatest dives of her life, besting a personal record of 90 meters (nearly 295 feet) in a single breath of air. For context, that’s only 10 feet shy of the Statute of Liberty.
“I was really nervous about it yesterday. This is a depth that I’ve been wanting to do for some time now,” says Gallardo, who was born and raised on O‘ahu. “It’s been taking a lot of training to get up to this place, physically and mentally. Part of it is being able to let go and surrender to the experience as well as not completely attaching yourself, saying that it’s OK if it doesn’t go the way I want.
“Sometimes it’s hard — if you have a bad dive, it can be emotional and heart wrenching and you just feel really sad about it. But if you go out and try again, you can have this amazing dive. Today, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m just so happy to be here.’ It’s quite an amazing feeling.”
Perhaps an even better feeling came just a few days later when Gallardo officially broke the USA Women’s National Freediving Record for constant weight with bi-fins — a discipline that requires the diver to descend and ascend along a dive line without touching it (except once at the bottom to turn) and without altering their weight — by diving to a depth of 85 meters (278 feet). This is her fifth national record, making her the No. 1 female free diver in the country.
“It’s really cool to be accomplished in the United States, but also to be representing Hawai‘i is something that I’m really proud of because that’s my home, the people of Hawai‘i feel like my family and that’s where I came from,” says the Mākaha resident. “I carry that with me in my heart all the time.”
Back at home, Sandy’s is the beach she considers her home break, but Gallardo grew up all over O‘ahu, from Salt Lake to Hawai‘i Kai. Her favorite might’ve been Kahalu‘u, where she lived in a house next to a farm and had chickens and calves as next-door neighbors.
Feeling like a fish out of water at times, Gallardo took any chance she could get to be in the ocean. Whether it was sneaking away to surf during free periods in high school, fishing with her dad or spending summer breaks knee boarding on Kaua‘i’s Wailua River with her cousins, that was sure to be her happy place.
Always content on the water’s surface, Gallardo didn’t have a desire or even curiosity to venture beneath it. But that all changed when she followed a man — who turned out to be the father of her two boys, Santiago and Kymani — to Puerto Rico after college (she earned a degree in business marketing and finance from Chapman University) and began dipping her toe into the metaphorical — and literal — waters of deep-sea activities.
“I did a scuba diving course in Indonesia when I was on a surf trip and I wanted to do something different,” Gallardo recalls. “That’s how I really discovered the underwater world, the ecosystem, the marine life — it was quite amazing, and I really wanted to keep going with that.
“Along the way, I had a friend in Puerto Rico who I was doing a rescue diver course with and he had taken a free-diving course,” she says. “He would take us to the pier and drop down to about 40 feet on a line. I thought it was really fun and cool to challenge yourself.”
Homesick and yearning for her ‘ohana, Gallardo and her keiki moved back to the islands in 2017. On the hunt for a job (she was a certified scuba dive master at the time), she pivoted when a local dive shop said they were actually looking for free-diving instructors instead.
“So, I took my first free-diving course and fell in love with it,” says Gallardo. “I liked scuba diving, but I feel like free diving is less disruptive to the environment and it also takes a certain level of skill. Scuba diving is very external, you’re observing the outside world, but I think free diving is something very internal, and although you’re able to observe outward, you’re analyzing all these different feelings and connections with yourself.
“When you’re on scuba and have the tanks, you’re breathing underwater and it’s creating all these bubbles and animals can sense that especially because sounds and everything travel much faster than it does in the air.
“But if you’re free diving, you don’t have all this gear. It sounds kind of cheesy — but it’s free. Often, it kind of feels like you’re a speck floating in the universe and you can defy gravity. You’re just there, floating.”
According to Gallardo, being present is one of the most important requirements, along with being in top physical shape. In order to safely and successfully dive, you need to learn how to ease your mind and lower your heart rate. That in itself is as gift.
“It feels like being on another planet or a dream world,” she says. “In a way, it’s a nice escape from reality and the stresses of daily life. It’s kind of like therapy.
“If you look at a small patch of coral reef, it doesn’t look like much, but if you take a good look at it, it’s like this crazy complex ecosystem. You have small fish and you can find little slugs. Sometimes you see an octopus. Looking for different marine life and watching how they interact is quite fascinating because it also seems like these little fish have these personalities. Sometimes they get really curious and sometimes they just might dash off at the first sight of a human.”
In 2018, while getting her instructor certification, Gallardo heard of a local competition called Kona Depth Challenge, which was established by Hawai‘i Island’s Kurt Chambers. (See story on this page.)
“My instructor said that I should enter just to see what it’s like to compete and feel that type of pressure and see if it was something I might be interested in doing again in the future,” recalls Gallardo. “I was like, ‘OK, why not?’ I thought it was a good opportunity to take and I’m always open to having these experiences. I think how you grow as a person is by trying different things.”
Gallardo ended up coming in second place, which set the trajectory for the next couple of years of competitions that only got bigger, farther and deeper.
“As I kept free diving and furthering in my progress … I felt like I was becoming closer to myself,” says the 34-year-old. “I feel like a lot of times people are disconnected to the one thing they should be connected to, which is themselves. We’re not always aware of different sensations or feelings that come up and I think free diving can often enhance that.
“I wanted to learn more, so I decided to do a training camp in Dahab, Egypt, with some record holder divers and also because I wanted to see how people from other parts of the world were diving. I saw it as a good opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience — and also be able to travel. It was great. I learned a lot and met a lot of amazing people.”
In 2019, only two years after taking her first dive, Gallardo competed in her first international competition in Mexico, which is where she earned her first national title. Since then, diving has taken her around the world to places like Honduras, Dominica, Egypt and Turkey.
“When you meet different people and see how they’re doing it, they really help out and give you advice, and you take little pieces from each person and you try those out and utilize that to develop your own diving, or your own skills, and see what works best for you. I did that competition in Mexico and I ended up doing pretty well. I think ever since that happened, I just kept going.”
To train, Gallardo says she stays in good physical condition, tries to eat well, and practices yoga, meditation and visualization in order to keep not just her body healthy but her mind, too.
During the off-season, Gallardo, who can be found on Instagram (@enchantedfreedive), will be home spending time with her ‘ohana, surfing (“The best thing about surfing and free diving is you’re never disappointed because if there’s waves, you can surf, and if it’s flat, you can go free diving,” she says) and teaching the future free divers of Hawai‘i, all the while preparing for the next round of competitions.
“I want to share something I love with people,” she says. “I think the ocean is an amazing place and such a healing thing. I hope everyone gets to experience it the way that I do.
“Anyone is capable of doing whatever they put their heart and mind to. Before all of this, I felt a little lost in life and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I discovered free diving, I found something that I was passionate about and that allowed me to do what I love. I feel really lucky and fortunate to have been able to find that. I hope everyone else is able to do the same — and know that it is possible.”
CHAMBERS DIVES RIGHT IN
Kurt Chambers never had an interest to visit, let alone live in, Hawai‘i. But, in 2003, when he missed all of the deadlines for graduate school except for University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, he found himself on a plane with a one-way ticket to Honolulu.
A native of Galveston, Texas, Chambers grew up fishing on land with a rod and reel, so it was only natural that he “almost immediately” got into spearfishing. “Spearfishing is almost exclusively practiced free diving in Hawai‘i, almost not on scuba at all, so it necessitated teaching myself how to free dive pretty quickly,” says Chambers. “Because I have an expansive background and interest in sports, I wandered into what we think of as ‘pure’ free-diving training with no spearfishing involved, just how deep can you dive.”
This led him to his first free-diving competition in 2008, which, unbeknownst to him at the time, was the start of a nearly 15-year-and-counting career and quite a few national titles to boot.
“I had gone through all of the free-diving courses that had ever been offered within a few years,” Chambers remembers. “In 2009, one of the free diving agencies offered the very first instructor courses here so I quickly jumped into that. It’s been quite a while now that I’ve (taught) free diving and I expect to continue to, as I still really enjoy that.”
Noticing that courses were offered exclusively on the Big Island’s west coast, Chambers pioneered interisland free diving instruction in 2012, offering classes for everyone from Hanalei to Hilo. He says that classes typically happen over an immersive weekend and that students leave his care knowing how to hold their breath for three minutes and dive 60 feet.
Then, in 2015, Chambers established the Kona Depth Challenge, one of Hawai‘i’s only free-diving competitions.
“The main thing that sets it apart from other competitions is that it’s intended to be amateur friendly,” he says. “It’s just a way to make free diving more accessible in Hawai‘i instead of requiring everybody here to ˝ y very, very far abroad just to get to compete.”
Which is exactly what he does. On top of teaching, Chambers is a globetrotter, most often visiting Southeast Asia to participate in international competitions. At the end of June, he took part in the AIDA Panglao Depth Championship 2022 in the Philippines and came home as the No. 1 male free diver in North America, earning himself two new national titles (constant weight, 109 meters, and constant weight bi-fins, 100 meters).
“In Hawai‘i, we’re very isolated. We don’t get to see the European champion come through here and offer the highest level of instruction that they offer elsewhere,” he shares. “I feel like I have to figure out a lot of things on my own at the most advanced level, so I feel even more gratified and validated that my dedication succeeds on a national level.”
Next up, Chambers will be heading east once again to catch the last few competitions in the Philippines before the season is over, and come November, he plans to host the next Kona Depth Challenge.
Those interested can stay up to date by following his Instagram (@chambersbelow).
For someone who, nearly 20 years prior, didn’t have any interest in Hawai‘i, it seems that he’s doing just fine.