Living the Dream: An interview with freediving couple Daan Verhoeven and Georgina MillerNovember 29, 2022
Most people get to dive just once or twice a year on vacation. But for some, diving is their life year-round. Two of those people are SSI freedivers, Daan Verhoeven and Georgina Miller. A couple who love the ocean so much they have designed a life together that allows them to dive every single day. Based in Cornwall, UK, Daan and Georgina spend their time teaching SSI freediving and mermaid courses, taking part in competitions, and traveling the world to photograph freediving events. They love the ocean so much that they even start each morning with a dawn dip in the chilly Cornish sea!
We reached out to ask them more about their ocean-based lives, and to find out the secret to "living the dream" just like them.
Hi Daan and Georgina! Can you each briefly explain the many ways in which you are involved in the water?"
Georgina: "I feel like we are a good team and incredibly lucky to share such a passion. Daan and I are able to support each other to make both of our dream jobs into reality. My full-time job now is running Aquacity Freediving, and I still love to compete. I learned to dive in 2006 and started competing in 2007. I used to think that I wanted to just concentrate on my own training, but swiftly realized that community is really central to this sport, so started working as an instructor to share my passion. We moved to Cornwall seven years ago from London, to be closer to the things we love …the sea. Since then, we have, as a partnership, managed to build a freediving school and club. We are based at the wonderful Porthkerris dive center on the Lizard, and every time I am there I think about how lucky we are! It is beautiful, we have incredible facilities, we are in a marine conservation zone with good access to depth… It is the UK so the conditions are not always easy, but I feel like that is part of the charm. You are in a wilderness and you have to work with the conditions, it is very real."
Daan: "Freediving came into my life in 2004, during a scuba trip, and it quickly became my passion. In 2006 I did my first competition, in 2009 I became a safety diver, in 2011 an instructor, and I was even a judge (briefly). But then photography took over and I have been a professional freediving photographer since 2012. I still teach, occasionally, and I coach Georgina (I do little more than hold her noodle, she knows very well what she is doing), but other than that, my involvement with freediving is mainly as a cameraman."
Georgina, you are the only SSI freediving instructor trainer in the UK! What makes the diving in Cornwall unique for people thinking about taking a course with you?
Georgina: "We are one of the few places in the country where you can learn to freedive in the sea. When I learned to dive, all UK freediving took place in lakes. I just thought that UK sea diving was probably difficult and not very good… but I was so wrong! The UK has a bad reputation for its ocean diving, but it is incredible. It is like a garden down there and so rich in life. We have visitors who have learned in perfect tropical conditions and they are blown away by how lovely it is under the water in Cornwall. We are at a fantastic dive center which is set up like a resort. They have on site accommodation, camping, pool, cafe, classrooms, boats and a shop, and all on a sheltered private beach. We can find 20m of depth a short swim from shore, and 60+ a five minute boat ride away, so it is really ideal for freediving. Most people come to learn this sport, not so much to dive as deep as they can, but to get closer to marine life, and we are in the very lucky position to be able to share an incredible environment with them."
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Daan, your underwater photography is incredible, what got you started with it? Do you prefer taking competition shots or more artistic shots with divers off the line?
Daan: "Thank you! How it started is all a bit of a twisted story: I always wanted to be a photographer, but when I applied for photography college I got rejected, so for the longest time I did not pick up a camera. Then I started freediving and traveling, and I had to let my family know I was safe, so I got a phone, and on that phone was a camera, which rekindled my love for photography. In the beginning it was mostly stuff on land, but then the first rugged compact cameras came out, which were waterproof, so I started taking pics with those. But as soon as I tried a friend’s actual professional camera in a housing underwater, that shutter button clicked and so did something within me. I came up from that dive knowing I wanted to be an underwater photographer. As for my preference, artistic vs documentary, it is hard to say, both have their sweetness. Competition shots are very thrilling, in that it is often friends who are diving, and they might be going for records, and you are not in control of which direction they will face, so you have to improvise a lot and it keeps you on your toes/fintips. But with the artistic shots, the thrill is more in seeing something you came up with come to life. That can be very rewarding, especially when it is a tricky idea. Plus I love combining odd elements with freediving, like having a cup of tea underwater."
Here is Daan’s Instagram if you would like to check out his work: Daan Verhoeven (@daanverhoevenfreediver) • Instagram photos and videos
Daan, your photography has taken you all over the world... Where is your favorite place to take photos?
Daan: "My next photo is always my favorite, and my favorite place is always the next place I am going to. I was just in a quarry here in Cornwall, and it was lovely. I have got a very handy trait as a photographer, which is that I always get little crushes on things. I can easily find the beauty in things, so every place and every person has something I get fascinated by. That said, Dean’s Blue Hole blows my mind, and it is always such an honor to work there, that that might be my favorite. Or the Cenotes? Or everywhere. So yes, the next place is my favorite."
Georgina, you take part in freediving competitions. How much time do you take to train for upcoming comps?
Georgina: "I try to bookend my summer with competitions, as we are so busy in the summer season here it is hard to get away and even harder to make the time to train. I always think that we have very limited resources here in the UK, long pool access is tricky, winter time is windy and colder, so I guess training is snatched at any conceivable opportunity. I hoping to get a bit more structured about my training next year, I am starting with a coach, Dean Chaouche, another British athlete who is exceptional as he trains both pool and depth, and Gary McGrath, a great friend and an incredibly experienced deep diver himself, is helping me figure out equalization. It is amazing to be able to work with such knowledgeable people."
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Georgina, do you have any tips for budding competition freedivers hoping to compete one day? Is it hard work?
Georgina: "The advice I would give is the advice I received when I first got into it: Just give it a try. It does not matter how deep or how long you can hold your breath for. Going to competitions is such an incredible experience, it is challenging, but you learn so much and meet such amazing people. Do not wait to be at some arbitrary point that you set yourself, just get started, choose some smaller friendly competitions and get stuck in… it is great fun."
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You guys have created a life that allows you to enjoy the water both together and as individuals... Would you say you are living the dream? Do you hope to always work in freediving?
Georgina: "I feel so lucky and yep, corny, but I feel like we are living the dream! I want to be able to freedive for the rest of my life and hopefully everything that we do to stay fit and live well lets us keep going with it. I feel that unlike other sports we do not really have an upper age limit, you just have to keep healthy."
Daan: "My dreams are often about freediving, so in that sense, I do live the dream. But I feel it is much better, as it is real, and reality is better than anything I can think of or dream of. I could have never thought life would be this good when I was in my twenties. So yes, hopefully I get to do this for a very long time …it is the reason I do unpleasant things like working out and stretching every day."
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Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Are there any final tips you can give to someone who is hoping to start a career in freediving or underwater photography?
Georgina: "Starting a career in freediving or photography is probably a hard career path, start small and build on it, and never give up making your passions into a reality, whatever they may be."
Daan: "I think any passion is worth pursuing. Perhaps not necessarily as a career, but as a way of both growing and somehow forgetting all about yourself. I think that is a very healthy thing to do."