Four “ocean women” share their birth stories in a stunning new film being released here next week. Japanese actor and freediver Sachiko Fukumoto talks to Joanna Wane about how her own journey led to New Zealand
When actor and freediver Sachiko Fukumoto was deciding where she wanted to give birth, discovering she couldn’t wear nail polish in the delivery room if she stayed in Japan was one of the last straws. Being able to feel good about herself mattered as she made the transition to motherhood; so did not surrendering her sense of identity in a medical setting where women’s voices are often sidelined.
She’d already had to rule out having her baby in the ocean, because finding warm, clean water that was close to a back-up medical facility hadn’t been possible. In her first trimester, Fukumoto had done an underwater film shoot with sharks and fleetingly thought about giving birth among them to show the world how harmless they are. Her Kiwi husband, world champion freediver William Trubridge, is just at home in the sea as she is but even he didn’t think that was a great idea.
The couple have a base in the Bahamas, where Trubridge runs the famous Vertical Blue freediving competition, but live in Japan on the island of Okinawa, where Fukumoto was raised. When she told a doctor she wanted to have a water birth at home, he looked at her as if she was crazy. At 36, she was considered old to be having her first baby.
“I was so shocked that we couldn’t plan the birth we wanted,” she says in a new documentary Pacific Mother, which features extraordinarily beautiful underwater footage of a visibly pregnant Fukumoto, suspended in a shaft of sunlight deep below the surface. “Why did we have to fight so hard to get the birth that feels so right?”
It was a midwife in Japan who advised Fukumoto that if she was clear about the kind of labour she wanted, the place to go to was New Zealand. By the time she found midwife Julie Kinloch to take over her care, she was already seven months pregnant. Water Baby, a short film released in 2019 on Loading Docs, shows her daughter Mila emerging from the water and taking her first breaths in a birth pool at the Trubridges’ family home in Hawke’s Bay. Since then, it’s had eight million views.
Fukumotu says she was taken aback by the flood of stories women shared with her from around the world after Water Baby came out. Among them was former US spearfishing champion Kimi Werner, who lives in Hawaii. Pregnant with her first child, she wanted a more natural birth, too, but had found little support within the highly medicalised American health system. “Until then, I thought Japan was the only place where there was a lack of choice,” says Fukumotu. “I realised the problem wasn’t that Japan was like that, it was New Zealand that was special.”
In Pacific Mother, a full-length documentary that opens in cinemas next Thursday, Werner is among four “water women” who share their journey from pregnancy to birth — reclaiming indigenous cultural practices that have been lost through colonisation. Also featured are Tahitian artist and freediver Rava Ray, Cook Islands film-maker and competitive vaka paddler Ioana Turia, and Fukumoto herself, who gives birth to son Kai with Trubridge and their 2-year-old daughter Mila (who cuts the baby’s umbilical cord) at her side.
Fukumoto had no pain relief during her 13-hour labour with Mila, although she admits that at one stage she was so exhausted the pain seemed overwhelming and she begged Kinloch to send her to hospital for a Caesarean section. “I thought I couldn’t do it anymore but Julie told me, ‘You’ve got this,’ and that was such a huge empowerment,” she says.
“From the second that I knew I was pregnant [with Kai], I wanted exactly the same thing as before, because that was perfect. I wanted the same midwife, I wanted to be in New Zealand, I wanted to be in the water, and this time I wanted my daughter to be there. We didn’t want the birth to be scary or special, just a natural thing.”
Indeed, the documentary shows Mila looking entirely unperturbed as her mother labours in the birth pool, and there’s a lovely moment where she kisses her newborn brother and gently strokes his wet forehead. “Baby, you are here,” says Fukumoto, holding her son close to her chest.
Of course, childbirth can also be a dangerous time for women and labour doesn’t always go according to plan. Werner, who’d planned a home birth, was diagnosed with a potentially fatal complication, pre-eclampsia, at 38 weeks. After talking with her midwife, she chose to have a planned Caesarean.
At the birth of Turia’s first child, her paddling coach was among those in the delivery room, urging her on. When her second child was born, Covid restrictions meant only her husband was allowed to be with her. Ray, who had a home birth with her first child, delivered her second immersed in nature, in a riverbed on her family land, with three generations of extended whānau on the rocks and in the water around her.
What Fukumoto says she came to learn through the women’s stories is that the how and where of birthing isn’t so important, as long as the mother feels safe and empowered. “That’s probably the main thing we wanted to talk about in this film. It’s not that we’re pushing for natural birth. We’re not pushing for water birth or home birth. It’s just the choice, that women have the right to choose. That’s all we want.”
Fukumoto has just come back from the beach with Mila and Kai when she dials in from the Bahamas for our video call. A five-minute drive from their house is the legendary Dean’s Blue Hole, the second-deepest marine cavern in the world, plunging to 202m. The week before, a French freediver had set a new world record there at the 2023 Vertical Dive competition with a descent to 122m without oxygen.
From her own childhood growing up close to the water on Okinawa — a long narrow island in the north-west Atlantic Ocean — the sea has always played a central part in Fukumoto’s life. A model since the age of 13, she got into acting in her mid-20s and has often been filmed underwater. “Mermaid” is one of the ways she describes herself on her Instagram profile, @okinawajudy (Fukumoto’s mother is Taiwanese and Judy is her stage name in Chinese).
In Pacific Mother, she moves with the fluid grace of a slow, choreographed dance when she’s submerged in the ocean, often surrounded by other sea creatures, from curious stingrays to a mother humpback whale with her calf. Her freedive record is 60m and she can hold her breath underwater for six and a half minutes.
Fukumoto began exploring the darkest depths after taking on her first film project as a director and deciding to open with an underwater scene. “But when I looked at the footage, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I look terrible!’ It was so different to what I thought it would look like. So I took a freediving course and started to go deeper and deeper. I came to the Bahamas in 2016 for my first competition and that’s how I met William.”
The couple formed a strong bond through their connection to the water, although she jokes that she fell in love with his family before she took too much notice of him (his father, David Trubridge, is a world-renowned sustainable lighting designer and has a showroom studio in Hawke’s Bay).
Environmental activism runs in the family. A multiple world-record holder as a freediver, Trubridge became the first human to descend to 100m during an event in 2010 to raise awareness of New Zealand’s critically endangered Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins. Footage of his 2019 underwater swim across Cook Strait, which he completed in 934 breaths, features in Water Baby. The make-up of amniotic fluid, he says, is almost identical to the sea.
In the four years since that short film was released, says Fukumoto, the number of home births on Okinawa has tripled and there’s now a facility for water births. Elsewhere, progress has been more varied.
A footnote at the end of Pacific Mother reports that a separate birthing centre has been established in Tahiti and midwife-led antenatal classes are being held by a community group in Rarotonga, although home births are still not available. In Hawaii, traditional midwives are fighting legislation that threatens their right to practice, while in New Zealand, low wages and overwork have seen many midwives leaving the workforce.
“There’s some ancient wisdom in the way women have been giving birth for thousands of years,” a cultural practitioner in Hawaii tells Fukumoto. Birthing classes for native Hawaiian couples are bringing back some of those customs, supporting them to go through the process without fear.
Kai’s placenta is buried under a tree on the Trubridges’ land. It’s a Japanese maple. Feeling medically secure is different from feeling emotionally safe, says Fukumoto, who hasn’t ruled out having a third child. “It’s maybe the best day in my life. I’d love to keep popping babies out. Fantastic!”
- Pacific Mother, directed by Katherine McRae, won Best New Zealand Feature, Best New Zealand Director and two other awards at the 2023 Doc Edge Film Festival, qualifying it for entry into next year’s Academy Awards. It opens in cinemas nationwide on August 24.