Dada Li takes us through her tips for underwater modelling:

Freediving, it changed my life; I have been falling in love with this sport from the moment I first dived into the sea. Today, I am both a freediving instructor and freediving competition judge, but I’ve also got two other surprising titles: “underwater model” and “mermaid”. I never would have thought that I could actually make a job out of these last two. My friend took the first picture of my first dive. It certainly wasn’t a professional picture, taken by a camera wrapped in a plastic waterproof bag. It is not clear at all, but it was the first time I had seen myself in the water, and I loved the way I looked in it. I seemed taller and more slender, fully relaxed, flowing in space, surrounded by a school of fish.

The dive reminded me of feelings I could only recall having had in dreams… To pursue this wonderful feeling, I started to take freediving courses, diving more and more, getting addicted to this fascinating sport.

Underwater photographers started to approach me, wanting me to be their underwater model. I was very flattered, and I started working with some of them, creating a lot of stunning freediving images, and that is how my “modelling” career started.

40Dada’s tips for underwater modelling

To become an underwater model isn’t that easy; modelling in the sea is hard. Firstly, you have to be a good freediver; all the techniques you learn in freediving courses will help you a lot with staying comfortable underwater. Relaxation and confidence are the key things for underwater modelling.

It is also important to find a good balance between your dive time and breathe up time. You shouldn’t dive to your time limits, as it takes longer to recover. In some cases, your photographer is on scuba and so the shoot normally lasts for just under an hour. So, 30 second to one-minute dive times are enough to get several movements and postures into one dive without feeling out of breath, and then, after a 30 second to one-minute surface time for recovery, you will be ready for the next dive.

Breathe up slowly, deeply, adequately before holding your breath. You should never hyperventilate as it accelerates the heart rate and increases the risk of losing consciousness underwater. Carbon dioxide tolerance training is also very useful for repeated dives and extends your underwater comfort.

Improve the control of your body in the water and do away with all unnecessary movement. This might require practice in a swimming pool or open water, to learn to adjust your body position so that you are able to present yourself properly in front of the camera as soon as you dive into the water.

If you are wearing long freediving fins, proper finning will always result in nice postures. You should also try to turn your side towards the camera so that you will be captured in beautiful streamline. While you’re wearing a monofin or mermaid tail, the photographer will normally prefer to capture the shape of the whole fin, so you should try to show more of the front or back side of your “tail” by turning to the right angle towards the camera.

Good communication with your photographer will make the shoot much easier. You need to know the conditions of the dive site (depth, temperature, visibility, underwater environment, etc.), your photographer’s vision, how he is planning to shoot, and the focal length of the camera lens. You need to try not to get too close to the camera if the focal length is long, and not to go too far when the photographer is using a fisheye lens. Know where the photographer is and make sure he is ready to shoot before you dive, otherwise you might waste a dive. Dive to a suitable depth without going too deep. The ideal range in terms of making the best use of sunlight is normally above 15 metres. If you wish to go deeper, your photographer will need good strobe lighting to illuminate your body properly.

For me the most difficult part is diving without a mask: Water goes up the nose, stings the eyes and blurs the vision – none of which is enjoyable! But wearing nose clips or goggles doesn’t make you look like a real mermaid, so the only thing you can really do is get used to it. But there is a trick to prevent too much water going into the nose and sinuses: by controlling the muscle of the soft palate, you can “close” the nasopharynx so that air can’t go in or out. This closes off a small air space that stops water flushing into the nose. But it is still hard, and you mustn’t forget to have a relaxed facial expression at the same time!

One last important thing to be emphasised is there must always be a qualified freediving buddy to ensure your safety, especially when you are wearing a heavy mermaid costume and diving without a mask. Your buddy should be with you while you are surfacing. The shooting process will be a lot smoother with a good buddy.

So, all in all, being a mermaid is easier said than done. A wonderful underwater portrait is the result of the skills of both the photographer and the model, and the more you practise and prepare, the better shoot you’ll have.


Dada Li, from China, is an AIDA freediving instructor and competition judge. She also works as an underwater model.

This article originally featured in Asian Diver (Issue 1/2016)