Into The Deep Blue With SurfEars Ambassador, Helena Bourdillon
Helena Bourdillon, a freediver whose journey from the depths of -76m to triumph over mental illness is nothing short of inspiring. In this interview, Helena shares her earliest memories of water, the magic of freediving, and the profound impact of breathwork on mental health. Through her films, she aims to start genuine conversations about mental health and inspire others to seek help. Helena’s underwater stories range from surreal encounters with humpback whales to the company of sea lion pups. Learn about the role SurfEars played in her freediving journey, and discover her plans for 2024, where she turns 50 and continues to break age barriers!
DREAM DIVE SPOT: Dean’s Blue Hole Bahamas for depth, Baja California for wildlife and Antartica (Done 1 out of 3 so far!)
FAVORITE UNDERWATER CREATURE: Sea Lion Pups
UNDERWATER SUPERPOWER: I do a sport that makes you look a bit like a superhero already but I wish I was more approachable for the wildlife so I could hang out with them a bit longer (perhaps not the ones that might want to eat me though…)
FAVORITE DIVING MOVIE: The Big Blue
POST-DIVE RITUAL: Coffee and Gluten & Dairy Free cake if available!
Could you tell us about your earliest memory involving water, and how that has shaped your relationship with it over the years?
I don’t have an earliest memory involving water because I spent as much time as possible in it! But I do have a recollection that I always felt very happy when in the water, be it a swimming pool or in the sea and I was able to entertain myself for hours totally absorbed in my own play.
Your achievements in freediving are truly amazing. Do you have a specific dive or moment that stands out as your favorite or most memorable?
Thank you and I would say my most memorable dives are the ones where I fall in love with being in the water again. It is very easy when training for depth to get caught up in the process and forget just how much I love being in the water and playing: the freedom, the peace, the childlike curiosity it brings along with the desire to just play are absolutely magical for me and when I experience those moments, I am filled with gratitude and powerful emotions. That said, depth dives where I know I have been in “flow state” are also extremely rewarding and when I have had the opportunity to dive with marine life, well I get a rather emotional about that too!
Having reached depths of -76m in freediving, how has breath work been crucial in both your mental health journey and freediving pursuits and how do you think it can benefit individuals in their pursuit of well-being?
The way we breathe affects every moment of how we live. If we practice a healthy breathing exercise we can feel and improvement in less than 60 seconds (physically, mentally and/or emotionally). If we practice healthy breathing habits every day, not only do we get those immediate benefits but we also get additional health benefits that will ripple through to improve the rest of our life. Good breathing is a Magic Bullet for our health, that is accessible to everyone without costing a fortune. For starters, if good breathing habits were taught in schools to young children and teenagers, I think we would see a significant improvement in mental health and better physical health further down the line as a result. And good breathing habits can improve your health at any age, so it really is worth it.
For my personal journey, I didn’t know anything about breath work until I started freediving by which stage I had been actively working on improving my mental health for 13 years. The lessons and skills I learnt on my first free diving course definitely sparked something in me and I began to realise how tense I was the whole time and that how I was breathing had a profound effect on how relaxed I could be. From there I started to play with my breathing to see what effects different exercises had both physically and mentally and then I started educating myself and went on to do instructor courses in both the Buteyko and Oxygen Advantage methods.
I use awareness of my breathing and healthy breathing habits to help my health both physically and mentally on a daily basis as well as improving my focus and performance in everyday life. From the freediving point of view, the calmer and more relaxed I am, the deeper I can potentially go so even more reason for me to practice what I preach!
With your extensive experience in the water, why do you believe water holds a healing quality for individuals?
Water can offer us the opportunity to feel supported, to be calm, at peace and in the moment. Subconsciously, I think it takes us back to being in the womb and being supported by the amniotic fluid which can be very soothing. It also offers us the opportunity to challenge ourselves, to gently push the boundaries of what we think we are capable of and often find we can do so much more.
How do you think sharing your story through films helps convey a positive message, and what effect do you hope it has on the audience?
I speak very openly about my mental health journey as I know it can help others by showing where I have come from 24 years ago to where I am now. I have been incredibly fortunate to meet a couple of amazing story tellers who have made my story into very moving and beautiful short films – Helena’s Story – Survival & Triumph Over Mental Illness 2018 and Light Beams for Helena 2023, which you can find both on Vimeo.com. While these films are about my journey (and how I have further progressed since the first film was made), I do this work to help people realise that mental illness is not unusual in today’s society, however we are not alone when we find ourselves struggling and also to encourage the continuation of genuine conversations where people feel connected and heard and so, are more likely to reach out and get help when they need it.
Inspiration often plays a crucial role in our pursuits. Is there someone, perhaps another freediver or mentor, who has inspired you along your journey?
That is easy for me to answer and impossible to distill to just one person! It is my closest friends and family. Every day one or more of them inspires me or blows me away with their strength, grace, compassion, intelligence and humor. I feel unbelievably fortunate and grateful to have them all in my life.
Could you share with us the craziest or most surreal thing you’ve encountered underwater?
I was on a freediving seafari in Baja, California in 2022 and whilst watching the White Sided Pacific Dolphins play about in the water, 3 Humpback Whales appeared from nowhere (visibility wasn’t good) and ended up diving down right in front of me, to avoid me. It was mind blowing to be so close to such majestic, enormous creatures however I was also upset that I had disturbed their pathway and caused them to have to make such an abrupt and chaotic change of course, even if it was unintentional on my part.
We’d love to know about your favorite companions in the water. Who is your go-to dive buddy?
I have been so lucky with all my dive buddies over the years as they have been such great friends and we get to share the magic of it all. But I have to say my favorite companions are Sea Lion pups because they are just like underwater puppies who just want to play, which makes my heart melt!
Could you share how SurfEars came into your freediving journey, and in what way do you use it? Has it changed your experience in any significant way?
I had a history of ear infections and burst eardrums as a child which as far as infections were concerned, continued when I started freediving. I was using antibiotic drops 3 or 4 days a week which isn’t healthy plus I really don’t enjoy the sensation of water flooding into my ear canal. I started doing some investigations and found SurfEars which came with the added bonus of not only keeping the water from flushing in and out of my ears and causing infections, but also made it easier for me to hear people speaking during a freediving session (my wetsuit has a hood) which is especially useful for the countdown to the start of a competition dive! After trying them out and realising how well they worked for me, I contacted SurfEars and asked if they would be interested in sponsoring me and I am very proud to have been a SurfEars Ambassador ever since.
Reflecting on your remarkable journey, we’re curious about your future adventures. What’s next on your horizon and what can we look forward to from Helena Bourdillon in the near future?
2024 is a big year for me as I turn 50 in a few months and as well as spreading my mental health message, I am all about encouraging people to not use age as an excuse not to try things… I started freediving aged 39! I have also spent the last 4 years doing a lot of very necessary work in therapy. I was doing this for my general mental health but it has helped my freediving because freediving is a sport that requires your physical and mental strength to be well balanced. I feel ready to start going deeper again and am excited to see where I get to this coming year and the future.
Thank you so much, Helena, for being part of our team and for sharing your inspiring journey with the SurfEars community!
Susanne Berglund & Team SurfEars