Mermaid in the ice

Somero, Finland -- The first time I saw her under the ice, I thought to myself, “That’s the first mermaid I’ve ever seen.” She was exactly what you think a mermaid would be. Graceful. Deliberate in her movements. It was mesmerizing. Of course she didn’t notice. She pushed her tail and glided between the ice and the darkness. She was in a world of her own.

Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver swims under ice during a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in a green lake in Somero (southwest Finland). (AFP / Olivier Morin)

Most freedivers are. I know several of them and they are a breed apart. They are zen. They’re not the kind of people who easily lose their temper. They don’t react right away when you talk to them. There’s always a delay. You get a feeling nothing would make them react hotly or spontaneously. They think for a bit, before saying “oh, ok.”

This zen-like state is essential for what they do. When you’re freediving, panic cannot be part of the equation. If you panic, you can die. So they never panic. When they’re in the water, they’re in a world of their own. Very concentrated. Very deliberate. And with time I suppose this attitude just seeps into the world beyond the water.

For Johanna Nordblad, the zen-ness is doubled, because not only does she freedive, she does so under ice.

ohanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver looks through a piece of ice on a frozen lake during a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in Somero (southwest Finland). (AFP / Olivier Morin)
Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver poses with her monofin on a frozen lake in order to train Ice-freediving training session on February 27, 2017, in Somero (southwest Finland). (AFP / Olivier Morin)

 

The 42-year-old resident of Helsinki is quite a character. Her day job is as a graphic designer. In her free time, she rides motocross, mountain bikes, snowboards and goes on the water in a boat. She has been freediving for a long time. She was very good. At the age of 29 she set a world record, diving 158 meters underwater with flippers. She was capable of holding her breath for over six minutes in warm water.

But a horrific mountain bike accident seven years ago left her lower leg basically shattered. As part of the recovery process, she would get cold water treatments, where the leg would be submerged in freezing water to help ease the pain. Eventually, she began to like the feeling. She began to put her other leg in the freezing cold as well. From there it was only logical that she would marry her hobby of freediving with this new sensation.

Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver swims up from under ice during a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in a green lake in Somero (southwest Finland).The ice is about 45cm thick, water temperature  1°C. Johanna Nordblad holds the wo (AFP / Olivier Morin)

Being who she is, she quickly excelled in her new passion, diving and holding her breath under ice in frozen lakes. In 2015, she set a world record, freediving 50 meters under ice wearing only a swimsuit, a feat she will attempt to best later this year.

Johanna and her sister Elina remove ice ahead of Johanna's training session. (AFP / Olivier Morin)

For our shoot, Johanna, her sister Elina Manninen and I got to the lake early. We had to drill two holes in the ice, which was about 45 centimeters thick. One was a triangle, one meter by one meter. A triangle because it’s the easiest to drill. Then we made a rectangular one, so I could fit in with my scuba diving equipment. We first drilled holes, then sawed them, with a hand saw and with an electric one, then hauled the pieces out. Those two holes took us six hours.

And then we got to work.

When training, Johanna has a special routine. She does three sessions. Twenty minutes in the water. Then to the sauna to warm up for 20 minutes. Then another session. She starts off with a wetsuit and the last session is with a bathing suit. She only stays for six to seven minutes in the water with a bathing suit.

Because she didn’t have a safety diver, we made the distance between the air holes fairly small -- 10 meters.

One thing you have to realize about the water in a frozen lake is how dark it is. You have a thick layer of ice and on top of that is snow. So one meter below the ice it’s complete darkness. And that can get dangerous, because you can get lost.

Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver swims under ice during a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in Somero (southwest Finland). A world of darkness. (AFP / Olivier Morin)

Once you’re under, everything looks the same. The air bubbles in the ice look the same as the cut-out holes. The only way to see where the holes are is to dive deep and then to look up. There’ll be more light coming through the holes.

It’s very easy to get lost in there. I did. For me, it wasn’t too much of a problem. I had oxygen tanks and they weren’t close to being depleted. So I just dove and looked up and saw the light and came back up. But I had unlimited air. When you’re freediving, you have only your breath. Johanna can hold her breath easily for more than three minutes in cold water. Now you can see why freedivers like her have to be zen. If you only have a few minutes to find our way out, you can’t waste any of it on panic.

Panic is not part of their fabric. There is no fear. They are zen, almost sleepy. They think coldly.

Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver poses on a frozen lake before a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in Somero (southwest Finland). Johanna Nordblad. (AFP / Olivier Morin)
Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver looks up from the water during a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in Somero (southwest Finland)Johanna Nordblad. (AFP / Olivier Morin)

 

 

With Johanna, the transformation begins before she slides into the water. Moments before, she is already in her world. It’s as if she is in a trance. When she sits on the edge of the ice and glides in, she is not even aware of the water. There isn’t even a split second when she feels the chill.

And when she dives, you see right away that she is part of the element. She lives there. The ease, the effortlessness. She is just part of that world. Like a seal. It was like she was a sea mammal. I don’t mean that in an insulting manner at all. It’s just that she was so much part of the element.

Johanna Nordblad, 42, Finnish freediver swims under ice during a Ice-freediving training session on February 28, 2017, in Somero (southwest Finland). (AFP / Olivier Morin)

And then of course there is the mermaid factor. She prefers the monofin. One push propels her for seven to eight meters in the water.

So when she has that fin on and with the zen just radiating around her, she gently moves through the water. With grace. And poise. Just like a mermaid would.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Olivier Morin