Johanna under the ice

One of the most striking videos shown as part of the exhibition Catch your breath currently running at the RCP is the film ‘Johanna Under The Ice’ by Ian Derry. It's part of the collection of videos on the big screen at the start of the gallery and features record-breaking freediver Johanna Nordblad.

Life of Breath project manager Sarah McLusky writes about finding the film and the extraordinary woman it depicts.

The film is simultaneously a stunningly beautiful and terrifyingly heart-stopping piece of film-making which I first discovered back in 2017 the film when I was preparing for a freediving film night organised by Life of Breath.


Johanna from Ian Derry on Vimeo.

Opening in a stark Finnish forest we see Johanna trudging across a pristine, but desolate frozen lake, before cutting out and plunging through a ice hole barely big enough to accommodate her mermaid-like fins. Even though I have now watched the film countless times, immediately, instinctively, I hold my breath as my mind races through what could go wrong, how cold it must be, the fact that she is apparently all alone. Johanna by contrast, is perfectly calm, her serene voice-over telling us that under the ice there is no place for fear, no place for panic.

The camera follows Johanna as she swims sedately through her exquisite and peaceful, but potentially deadly underwater world. She pauses to exhale a precious lungful of air, and the bubbles dance across the underside of the ice seemingly searching, like me, for an escape route. Just as my anxiety begins to get unbearable she emerges, gasping, back into the air.

Johanna Nordblad has been freediving since 2000, but discovered ice water therapy in 2013 whilst recovering from a bike accident. In 2015 she went on to swim 50 metres under the ice in 2°C cold water to break the female Guinness World Record. Soon after this Johanna’s sister got in touch with filmmaker Ian Derry. In this film, you can hear Ian talking about the making of the film, which included drones, heated diving suits and struggling with sub zero temperatures and frozen equipment.

The making of Johanna, under the ice. from Ian Derry on Vimeo.


Ian wanted the film to be about hope, about triumph over adversity. For me the film invokes a deep sense of gratitude, for fresh air, for reasonably healthy lungs, for the freedom to breathe, and is a reminder not to take these things for granted.

Sarah McLusky, Life of Breath Project Manager

  • The exhibition Catch your breath ran until 20 September 2019.
  • Thethe final 'Catch your breath' Museum Late on Thursday 5 September, featured a 'The Book of Jo', a new theatre show  created and performed by Viv Gordon and commissioned by the Life of Breath project.
Katie Birkwood ,
Rare books and special collections librarian

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