Meet a Real-Life Lara Croft: Magali Cote, Under-Ice Explorer, Free Diver
RCL adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps chats with an underwater explorer of the frigid deep.
The term “ice queen” has a negative connotation that most certainly does not represent the warm exchanges I’ve shared with Magali Cote. “Queen of the Ice” feels like a more appropriate, and accurate, moniker to describe her passions and vocations. One’s she has woven together in a poetic way that reminds us all to seek that which sets our souls on fire.
Magali has run the gauntlet of maritime-oriented careers. She has been a commercial diver, rope access technician (one who descends, ascends, and traverses on ropes for access to work sites while suspended in the air), welder, millwright (one who repairs, moves, assembles and disassembles heavy machinery) and a commercial fisherwoman. Even in her spare time, Magali gravitates back towards the water. One time she rode her Ducati motorcycle from Canada all the way down to the beaches of San Diego just for fun and a little sightseeing. She has also been a muse for those photographers brave enough to follow her to her happy place…diving under the ice. Etherial, haunting images of a fragile human form suspended beneath sheets of solid blue are what drew me to this arctic mermaid. What’s most impressive about Magali is that she has found her balance, her magic, or, as she calls it, her ikigai (a Japanese word that translates as “reason for being.”)
Cote says she listens to the quiet voice in her heart that guides her toward the next life moment, so that precious flame of passion is never extinguished by the rot of the mundane. An adventurer, free diver and spearfisher woman, Magali embraces the aquatic world on all fronts. Water might just be baptism to her more so even than to the scaled and fur-coated creatures that share her Canadian waters. “I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist,” Jack London once wrote. It’s my favorite quote. I suddenly feel like I should relinquish it to Magali.
RCL: One of the first things that caught my eye on your website was the Japanese word: “ikigai.” Define its meaning in your own words.
MC: Everyone once wondered what the heck they should do for a living. With pressure from today’s modern society, it’s easy to get distracted. We often have a hard time differentiating our passions from what we want to do for work…what we earn money doing, versus what we want to do on our time off. When you find your ikigai, is when you find balance in your life. When you pursue a rewarding career that is fueled with passion and love, you feel rewarded and you get paid to do it. The kind of job you would to for free. This is your ikigai.
RCL: Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold you into who you are and what you do?
MC: As a teenager, I was bullied. So much so that I had to quit high school at age 14. I have never been a regular type who would fit in a mold and follow what I was being told. It was a really hard time trying to be successful in a conventional schooling system. Thankfully, I later discovered an adult school where I continued my schooling and graduated in my early twenties. Back to my early days…the wild child in me always wanted to discover the unknown. I wanted to climb the highest pine tree in the forest behind our house, and do all those things girls wouldn’t generally do. I was playing in the creek looking for frog eggs and building tree houses with salvaged materials on my own. I couldn’t care less; I wanted to do these things and I never let anyone put a figurative stick in my wheels. If an obstacle came in front of me, I would walk past it and carry on. I knew those kids were just haters. In reality, their negativity fueled my passions. Their comments made me want to go beyond what they thought of me. Later, I did it for myself. I had set standards for myself to go beyond my own limits and to become better then I was before, always raising those standards every time I accomplished a new goal. It became my motto and what my life now gravitates around.
RCL: Of all your pretty incredible careers ….you’ve been a commercial diver, rope access technician, welder, millwright, commercial fisherwoman…which has been the most challenging and rewarding?
MC: I will always look back at my favorite job with a grin…commercial diving. I loved this profession so much. I’ve enjoyed every contract I have done, even though some were extremely physically and mentally demanding. Wrapping up after every hard job I realized I made it and it wasn’t as hard, so really, where was the limit? There was none, in reality. The only limits I had were the ones I was setting up for myself along the way. One day, I woke up thinking I would not want to dive anymore if people didn’t pay me to do it. Like a lot of commercial divers say “No cash, no splash.”
That day, I understood my ikigai was dead and I had to change something in my life to bring it back. So, I quit that job to bring my passion for the ocean back into my life. It was kind of like leaving a partner you are deeply in love with, because you just know it will never work. [It was] one of the hardest decisions of my life.
RCL: Do you remember your first dive…or your first challenging dive? What was that accomplishment like?
MC: On one of my first jobs coming out of diving school I was sent down to inspect a water intake in a pump house on a big industrial foundry. They couldn’t stop all the pumps, so there was quite a bit of current down there. Quite a bit…so much so, my body was flapping like a flag in the wind trying to hold onto the ladder rungs getting in the water. It scared the living hell out of me, but my supervisor seemed sure it was alright to go down there, so I put my entire trust in him and let go of the last rung. I automatically got sucked onto the debris grill and managed my way down to the bottom of the concrete slab. The visibility was null and I could feel things moving around me. With the feel of my hands I discovered I was not alone down there. Dozens of very big sturgeon had found their way in and were now stuck in the tight room. I could feel their dinosaur skin and bony bodies. It was quite the job.
RCL: You have a passion for cold, fresh water. What are the major differences between free diving freshwater versus saltwater?
MC: One of the big differences is your buoyancy. Human body density is about 63.1 pounds per cubic foot. On the other hand, a cubic foot of fresh water weighs approximately 62.4 lbs, while a cubic foot of salt water weighs approximately 64 lbs. This means you don’t fight to descend in fresh water as much as you do in salt water. Diving feels more natural in fresh water. I have accomplished my best and most enjoyable dives in fresh water thus far. The feeling of weightlessness is more pronounced and the fact that your lips are not salty feels amazing. The whole experience is very refreshing and relaxing for me.
RCL: What is the magic, and also the challenges, of ice diving? It certainly requires special precautions, gear and probably even a specific mindset.
MC: Any individual wanting to venture under a frozen ceiling not only has to be in complete control of their emotions, but they also need to know exactly what the limits of their bodies are in this sport.
RCL: How do you prep for a dive? It’s certainly second nature to you at this point, but are there any special things you do? A little prayer? A moment of gratitude? A blessing? I feel like most people connected to the natural world have little traditions they incorporate into their lifestyle.
MC: As a professional ADHD kid, I have to say it’s pretty darn hard to make the hamster quit spinning the wheel and go to bed. And this is why I love free diving so much. It made me learn how to embrace the noise, and how to eliminate it. I use a breathing technique similar to yoga to slow things down around and inside me. And when I feel relaxed and all my thoughts have calmed down, I dive.
RCL: What are some of the stats on places you have been free diving/spear fishing? Most interesting? Deepest? Most technical/challenging?
MC: I have had the privilege to dive so many beautiful places on this planet. Every time, I get to discover new habitats, species, and underwater landscapes. I practice two different types of diving: Fun diving, like spearfishing and exploration, and depth training. Both have different aspects and I believe they complement one another perfectly. With my depth training dives, I am able to look within and find a way to pass my previous limits. Then I go back to having fun and realize each time it feels easier to glide in the water because of my training.
My most technical dive was probably going straight down 75 feet into a tight crack in a Florida spring to resurface in a bigger opening.
My deepest dive was about 50 meters in Hawaii, training with friends.
RCL: What’s the process of evaluation like for a new dive location?
MC: Of course it all depends on the equipment you have to carry and the goal of the dive. I would look at the landscape and the accessibility first. I often look at the underwater charts to see what’s down there. Then I go to explore.
RCL: Your competitions and photos show a preference for pole spears over guns. Why do you gravitate towards poles?
MC: If you’ve tried spearfishing, you understand that anyone can shoot a speargun. Even if you don’t have the strength, someone can load it for you. You can then go down and harvest a fish if you have somewhat of a straight shot. The spearguns have a longer range. They are more forgiving.
Pole spears, on the other hand, can be tricky. You have to hold the band in place with your hand, which requires a certain amount of strength. Then come the difficulties related to the shorter range. The fish usually like to keep a safe distance from divers, especially beginners who move a lot. So, to use a pole spear and to be successful at it requires more down time, strength, precision, and patience in general. I like this method of harvest because it is challenging and it makes my dives more difficult. I like to learn from my mistakes and to become better at what I do. A lot of people say that if you master the pole, you will be better with the gun. I guess I would have to drop the pole to find out! [laughs]
RCL: Can you discuss the value of being able to provide natural, healthy food and taking from nature only what you can eat?
MC: It has been an awesome learning experience to learn how to free dive and to harvest my own fish while diving. I learned so much about sport and commercial fishing in the past few years. It really opened my eyes to the seafood industry. When I dive and bring the pole out, it is always with the goal to only take one or two fish, for many reasons. Our regulations in Canada do not allow us to do “sport fishing” harvests, or take that many anyway, and it’s fine with me. I like to see a healthy population every time I go back to my spots. The lack of fish at home will make me want to go out diving. Often I end up going in with my camera rather then the pole and I find it just as fun.
One of the big problem with the seafood industry is the mislabeling. Sellers trying to make you buy halibut, but in reality it’s tilapia. Farmed salmon sold as wild. When you harvest your own fish, you know exactly where it came from. You picked the size, gender and specie. There is no by-catch. It is just the most simple and pure way of fish harvesting in my opinion.
RCL: Do you remember the first fish you speared and got to eat?
MC: Yes! I was in Hawaii. I just finished a free diving training camp and one of the instructors suggested an introduction to spearfishing. I jumped in and shot a fish on my first try. It was a roi (also known as a peacock grouper)—an invasive species that commonly has high levels of the ciguatera toxin. So, I didn’t get to eat my first speared fish, but I did help the reef that day!
RCL: Describe the feeling of free diving (or spear fishing if you prefer) using the five senses.
MC: Taste: diving in saltwater often reminds me of margaritas, because or the salty lips.
The sight, interesting how the water can have so many different colours. Blue, aqua, green, teal. Depending on where you are and the time of the day it will offer a spectacular range of sapphire colours. I find it fascinating.
To touch, or to be touched? I like the fact that I can now distinguish the difference between salt and fresh water. Salt water supports my body weight better. And fresh water lets me sink in.
Smell. Shore dive or boat dive? Always shore for this girl. When I resurface from a dive and inhale, I love to smell flowers, rain and nearby trees.
Sound. I will always remember that day I lay at the bottom, and stayed there for quite some time. I was getting rocked with the swell, holding on to a rock, and my feet balancing with the movement of the water. I closed my eyes. I could hear the fish feeding on coral and the pebbles rolling, the waves breaking from a distance. I don’t think I have ever been as alert about the surrounding sounds as I was that day, at that moment.
RCL: Most people would be terrified to do what you do. So what terrifies you….if anything?
MC: I am terrified of being bored!
RCL: What other hobbies do you have that people might not expect?
MC: I love sewing. I actually did a costume designer course when I was 17! I enjoy photography and modeling, but I also like to be behind the lens and do video and photo editing in my time off. I contributed to a few magazines as a collaborator and writer, and it is always so much fun to share knowledge and information about my passions!
RCL: What’s it like to be a woman in a relatively male dominated space in terms of the majority your career and hobby choices?
MC: I don’t feel like it should be separated like it is. I’ve run across so many talented women that made me question why it was even still a subject. Women are capable of the same things as men. In both genders, there are weak and strong, short and tall…you name it. We are all different and in working together as a team we are always more successful. I’ve heard some guys say things that were hurtful…comments I didn’t necessarily need to hear…but you can find the same in a different work environment with only females around. Like they say, bitches gonna bitch! [laughs]
RCL: What future life goals do you have for the next five years? Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals etc.?
MC: I actually have too many to even put them down in writing. As the good ADHD person that I am, my goals keep changing everyday. Also, I’ve never made a long-term plan… it is too stressful. Let’s say I was to go back to university. I would just tell myself I am doing some “upgrading.” With small action, big change happens.
RCL: What do you feel like are your biggest professional and personal accomplishments to date?
MC: To always listen to my heart. I’ve never gotten stuck in a boring routine and never will.
RCL: Advice for anyone looking to get into something like free diving and spear fishing?
MC: Be patient. Very patient.
RCL: Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?
MC: We always go too far for those who have never been anywhere. People will judge you, talk about you, in a positive and negative way. It is your responsibility to turn it into a learning, positive experience or to chew on it and make it negative. I chose to go forward.
Never one to sit still, Kinga Philipps has tested herself for the past decade by traveling the globe, rappelling, caving, scuba diving, jumping out of airplanes and diving with the sharks as a writer, producer and on-camera host. In her rare bits of free time, Kinga explores her singular fascination with sharks followed by a love for the beach, surfing, motorcycles, cars, charity work, travel, food and action sports.
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