Kirk Krack, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and the couple's daughter, Kaila.

The Depth of Freedom

Freediving B.C. couple risk it all for Oscar-winning documentary

It’s the middle of the night, as the half-dozen crew members creep away from their hotel rooms to the van waiting in the parking lot. The passenger in the front seat shoots nervous glances over his shoulder as the van pulls way, checking to see if the group is being followed. They arrive at their destination and begin their descent on foot down a rugged path they’ve never walked.

It’s pitch black, and their only source of vision is a military-grade thermal camera, held by the leader of the pack.

At the end of the path is a sheer rock face. Two of the team members make their way down and slip into the cold saltwater below,  disappearing underneath the surface.

After a few moments of silence, the camera picks up the image of two mysterious figures approaching from the distance.

Flashlights shine down the path and the group leader urgently calls to the others that it’s time to go. The two emerge from the black water and reunite with the group, with barely enough time to escape before the unexpected visitors arrive.

If this sounds like a scene from a movie, it is. But these aren’t actors, and their danger is all too real.

The 2009 documentary, The Cove, directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos – now executive director of the U.S.-based Oceanic Preservation Society – highlights the mass killings of dolphins in a remote area of Taiji, Japan.

The divers who were recruited to help with exposing the shocking and violent practice were Coquitlam residents Kirk Krack and his wife, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank.

It was the couple’s expertise in freediving – a sport similar to scuba diving, but with much less equipment, most notably an air tank – that caught the attention of the movie’s expedition leader.

In 2007, Cruickshank set the women’s world record for deepest dive, when she reached a depth of 88 metres (289 feet) on one breath – one of several records she set when competing under the coaching of Krack, who coached six divers to 20 world records in his career.

Though no longer competitive divers, the couple now teaches the sport to people with advanced scuba diving or basic freediving training, through their internationally known company, Performance Freediving.

“Scuba diving is like jumping in your Hummer, rolling up the windows, turning on the air conditioning with music blasting, and driving through the forest to see all the wildlife,” Krack explains. “Whereas freediving is like throwing on your hiking boots and backpack and going on a real hike in the forest. You’re entering the water on its own terms.”

Using a combination of relaxation and equalizing techniques – as well as the ability to hold your breath for great lengths (Krack’s longest-held breath is 6:47, while Cruickshank’s is 6:25) – provides an experience in the water the couple describes as “natural, sleek and fluid.”

Their involvement with The Cove, however, wasn’t the typical peaceful and serene dive, and it presented challenges the experienced divers hadn’t encountered during any previous excursions.

In early production days, the film was meant to be a half-hour TV special on the pressure the world’s oceans were under, but it quickly evolved into a full-length documentary with the discovery of a top-secret dolphin slaughter that was taking place in a hidden cove on the coast of Japan.

“I remembered back to a 1970-something National Geographic with a full page picture of just blood-red water and all these dolphins lined up, and I remember thinking ‘hadn’t we stopped this?’” Krack recalls, when the film’s director first showed the two rough footage of what was taking place.

With fears of being followed by the Japanese mafia, and threats of arrest or even violence against the film’s team, Psihoyos gave the couple the option of backing out.

“Basically, Louie said, ‘We understand if you can’t go any further with us, this is something we’re still going to do, but if you can’t join us on this part of it, we completely understand.’ And we said, ‘let’s go.’”

Armed with underwater audio and video gear, Krack, Cruickshank and the rest of the film’s ‘black-ops’ team twice snuck into the heavily guarded cove in the dead of the night. In complete darkness and unfamiliar territory, the divers entered the frigid water – where dozens of dolphins were already trapped and destined to be killed the next day.

The couple was tasked with placing the film and audio gear deep underwater, to capture the sounds and images of what was to take place the following morning.

Cruickshank describes the dives as unlike any other she’s taken part in before.

“You’ve got so many mixed feelings about what’s going on. You’re going in and not releasing the dolphins that are there, knowing what their fate is going to be.

“Plus you’re in water that’s completely black and that you’ve never dove in before, and you kind of have to assume that there’s going to be predators around, because of the kill that happens there. And in our sport, you try to relax and slow everything down, but you can’t slow your heart rate down when people are coming down the path searching for you and you have all these thoughts going through your head.”

The film’s crew managed to complete the movie, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2009. The movie has not only raised awareness around the globe about the horrors of where captive dolphins come from, it has also opened doors for Krack and Cruickshank, who are currently working with the creators of The Cove on a new movie about human-caused extinction, called Singing Planet.

And for a couple whose lives revolve so closely around the ocean – their one-year-old daughter is named Kaila, meaning ‘ocean’ in Hawaiian – their involvement in these films has also made them more aware of the fragility of the planet.

“Our success in The Cove has opened a lot of doors for us to meet a lot of knowledgeable, influential people who are in the know,” Krack says. “They’re trying to get the word out and we’re able to learn from them and get the word out, too. Ignorance isn’t bliss anymore.”

Issues such as unsustainable and harmful fishing practices, pollution and a general disrespect for the ocean are at the forefront of the problems for the couple, who recall an incident while filming The Cove that hit home.

“We came across this dolphin that wanted to play with us, and it had found a plastic bag,” Krack describes. “Eventually, it came up to Mandy with this plastic bag and she grabbed it and it was having a tug of war, like you would with a dog and a sock. Yet here it is, playing with garbage.”

The couple encourages people to take simple steps – recycling, avoiding plastic bags and being careful where their fish and other meat comes from – to start to reduce the negative impacts on the delicate environment.

“Every day, you have a choice to do something that’s better for you and the environment, or not,” Krack says.

They also encourage people who aren’t in touch with the wonders of the ocean to spend more time in the water and learn to appreciate both its allure and fragility.

“We’re the type of creature that, if we don’t know something, we don’t respect it,” Cruickshank says.  “A lot of people don’t see the water on a daily basis or have anything to do with it, so they just don’t respect it. We’ve got to start doing that, or it’s game over.”

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