She swims with sharks, jumps into ice-cold water and can dive over 100 feet down on any given day. Ashleigh Baird discovered her love for the underwater world a as child — and now, she's become an extraordinary freediver. Here, learn more about her journey to becoming a bad-ass water woman — one who aims to be the next world champion.
How did you become an ambassador for Issa De Mar?
They reached out to me on Instagram after I did a dive in Tiger Beach when I wore one of their suits. My friend was taking photos — he was trying to build up his Instagram, he shared the images, and I shared the images, and they took notice. They thought we were a great fit for each other.
Tell me about how you got into freediving.
I grew up a water baby. I was always interested in free diving. I was passionate about it, but I didn’t know what it was or that it was an actual sport until I was 24. The way I found out about it was through a Google search. I tried to find a course in Florida that I could take, and so I signed up for one. I always thought if I could get to 100 feet that would be amazing and that’s all I ever wanted.
Did you say 100 feet?
Now 100 feet is a warm-up dive for me. I hang there between 20-30 meters, and I do that for warm-ups. Once you get there, you understand the depths, and I’ve just been growing from there. I started competing because I wanted to get deeper. It's hard because they didn’t have dive buddies in my area. I wanted to get deeper in a safe way, and so I would sign up for competitions. I really loved the competitions, so I started to stick with them. I think the first one I took was in 2011.
Can you explain the freediving experience?
First of all, what we see is blue — we’re usually in open water, especially if we’re diving in 500, 600, even 1000 feet of water. There’s nothing there — just big blue. For a dive, there are a lot of things going on. You start by breathing properly, and once you enter, you're equalizing on the way down. The deeper you go, there's greater and greater pressure, so your airways, your lungs and sinuses — they lack air, so you decompress, decompress and decompress — sometimes your lungs get down to the size of an orange. But as a free diver, you gradually make your way down to depth over time. So maybe you’re adding 5, 10 meters a year as you condition yourself to it — you don’t even notice the pressure. Of course, if you were new at this, even at 30 meters you could have an injury, without the proper techniques. But after a few training session, a lot of new divers do get to 100 feet within a two- or three-day period. So it's all about being relaxed and learning the techniques you learn in a freediving course —and then taking that from there and gradually building on it.
How can you keep calm when you spot a shark?
It’s difficult. Even with the shark diving that I've done, I’m still nervous around the tigers.
Even though I’m only diving in 40 feet in the Bahamas with tiger sharks, I’m already having stress reactions — my body is telling me to breathe because my heart rate is so high. It's not a normal dive because I’m excited, and I'm nervous, and I’m turning around all the time watching where the sharks are. Instead of being able to dive 250 feet and feel nothing, I dive 40 feet, and I feel like I have to breathe.
What is it even like seeing a shark? Is it looking at fear in the eye and going for it?
It's different for everybody — some people see completely through it. For me, I blame it on the water and the reaction my body has in the water, but it's a good thing. As soon as you’re in the water, your body tells you to snap into relaxation time. As soon as your face hits the water, you have different stress reactions than you do on land. It's OK to have a fight-or-flight response on land, but in freediving, you have to train yourself to work through it without having a stress reaction. With diving with sharks like that, you turn around, there's a shark right behind you, and you weren’t expecting it. Instead of having a high-stress reaction, you have an initial moment of uh-oh — and then you calm down and move away from the shark — or it will do its things and just move away from you.
It seems like they don’t bother humans much. Is that how you feel?
It's different with every species. The tigers sharks are like crocodiles — they’re very opportunistic, so you have to be watching front, back, above you, side-to-side, and below you. You have to be looking around you at all times because if they see an opening they will go for it. For example, scuba divers in this region I’ve been told aren’t very vigilant, and after a while, the tiger sharks start to take notice, and they will swim outside of the visibility of the diver and do a sneak attack to see if they can get away with it. And sometimes they do end up head-butting the diver — or even go for the diver's head or shoulder and attempt to bite them. You really have to watch out for tiger sharks. It’s funny, though — there’s never a really aggressive thing; they are just being opportunistic. For example, the same thing would happen and you happen to turn around at the last second, as the tiger shark is approaching, and it'll see that you saw it and just turn and leave.
On my first trip to Tiger Beach, that’s what happened to me. I was doing a dive and didn’t realize how on it the tiger sharks are. I noticed the tiger shark had temporarily left the area, but they actually hadn’t left — they'd only left my range of visibility. As soon as I got to the bottom, they realized I wasn’t swiveling my head all the time looking around, and the tiger shark came directly from behind me — I had to be warned by another diver. When I heard their [warning] and [saw them] point to the shark that was beelining toward me, I turned — and as soon as I did, it swam away.
What's a good area to be in so they don’t approach you?
If you’re on the surface, you’re looking everywhere, and it's somewhat easier because you don’t have to watch your back. Honestly, the tiger sharks are super opportunistic and will go for you whenever.
And a stare will keep them away?
Yeah, it will keep them at a distance because they don’t want to fight. It's just an instinct — if they see an opportunity, they will go try it and check if it's a food item. Different sharks are different. Some are like puppies — you can roll around in the water with them, and they won’t do anything. Like the nurse shark you see them in the Bahamas. Then you have reef sharks — they can be chill sometimes, or then can be really territorial. Every shark is different.
Do you dive to see the marine life? What is the purpose of your diving?
When I'm going to a place like Tiger Beach, I’m obviously diving to see the marine life because it's incredible. I’ve been to dive with humpback whales and manatees and so there's that side of it. And there's the competitive diving side, where it's about numbers and about getting deeper and deeper. So every year I'm mixing it between that mode and the recreational mode, where I'm looking at reefs and sharks.
Is it about achieving deeper dives when you're in competitive mode?
It's about a feeling and knowing you can push yourself and seeing how far you can go. Seeing if certain types of land training, after you’re dry in winter months, [have made for a] difference in your dive. That's what I'm doing now.
What kind of training do you need and where are you located? Do you dive year-round?
I'm in Florida. But I don’t do much diving here. I'm usually landlocked, so I do training at a gym. I’ll do interval training, I’ve noticed a difference in my freediving since I started that. Lung-hold exercises, where I hold my breath for a variation of times in a row. We call it tables — you can do it laying in bed, or walking or on a treadmill. You can hold your breath for 30 seconds at a time, and there are different things you can do that can build your tolerance for carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, or it will build your efficiency with oxygen.
What’s the normal breath hold for you?
Usually my dives are a minute fifty to two minutes.
Do you travel often for freediving?
Even though I live in Florida surrounded by water, to get the depth I like with other freediving personnel who know what they're doing, I have to travel. Every year is different. There are free divers all over the world. This year, I’m heading to the Philippines with one of my good friends, who is also working on depth. He’s a 100-meter-plus diver, which is crazy! I’m half that. There’s a freediving center in the Philippines, and we are going there for a month or two. From that, it will be about securing funding. Freediving is difficult. It's not like running, or basketball, where there’s all this funding coming in. You really really have to fight for sponsorships so you can afford your practice. If I can secure the funding, I’d like to do the world championships at the end of the year in Roatán.
Your pictures on social are incredible! How do you get such photos?
I’ve been wondering that myself. I think it's because my friends are either freedivers or they’re freediver photographers. And at every single competition, there’s at least one photographer. I don’t know if it's my art background, but we’re always drawn to each other. My inner circle right now is basically all freedivers or photographers. I guess I'm super lucky in that.
Your fave place to go freediving?
That's hard — I’ve been asking myself this lately, too. One of the most intriguing and unique places I’ve been to lately is in Switzerland. It was an ice-cold river, and it was just really, really, really cold. Just jumping into water numbs and hurts your skin, and you see underwater falls. It was very different! But even with all the traveling I did last year, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Spring in Florida. Theres something magical about them — they aren’t deep, but they’re just so beautiful. How you heard of the cenotes in Mexico? We have the same system in Florida, and not a lot of people know about it. We have a number of these under- and freshwater springs, underwater caves with white sand on the bottom. Some of them look like you’re in the middle of the Caribbean, when in reality you’re in the middle of the state of Florida. With natural spring-filtered water — you can even drink it.
Is there a mission you’re trying to accomplish with freediving?
I've grown more and more conscious about plastic in our oceans, and I'm getting more active in that arena. But my biggest drive right now is that I want people to look at the photos and see what I saw as a kid — that sucked me in. It’s spiritual, when you see what I and other divers have seen. I think everyone would just be obsessed, and if they are obsessed, they will protect it more. And want to connect to it. I want people to feel that feeling of passion when they see what I’m doing.