Freediving is conceivably the ultimate connection between human and water. No tanks and other complicated gear. It’s just you and the silence beneath the waves.
While freediving is commonly believed to be an extreme sport, for most divers, it’s actually the complete opposite. This sport is open to anyone who wants to get in the water as you don’t need to have any experience in snorkeling or scuba to get started. Freedivers simply have to hold their breath. Some even enter a trance-like state of mind by relaxing the mind and focusing on their breathing, as they explore the underwater world.
If you want to learn more about this serene pursuit and prepare for your first freediving experience, read on.
What is Freediving?
Diving without an aqualung is often referred to as ‘skin diving’ or ‘snorkeling’. Both can use a mask, snorkel, and fins, but freediving will always involve a breath-hold, no matter how deep you go. Humans first started freediving through necessity, for food, trade-able items or items lost overboard, however in more recent times, freediving has evolved into a recreational pastime, a way to take photos, catch food, and as a sport.
Competitive freediving has different disciplines to reflect the various ways that you can be in the water and hold your breath. This came with the emergence of competitions involving teams, countries, and many individuals. Back in the early part of this century, there was a distinction between records done in salt and freshwater, although this has since been stopped.
In individual and team world championships, each diver will perform a constant weight dive with fins, a dynamic swim with fins, and a static breath hold with points awarded for each discipline to arrive at a final combined score. Free immersion, constant weight no-fins, and dynamic no-fins can also be a competition discipline; they are usually stand-alone events.
How free divers hold their breath
The current men’s world record holder is Stephane Mifsud of France with a time of 11 minutes and 35 seconds and the womens’ world record is held by Natalia Molchanova of Russia with a static breath hold of just over nine minutes.
When you hold your breath, carbon dioxide levels in your body start to rise. After that, in what free divers called ‘the struggle phase’, you get the urge to breathe. As more time goes on, the oxygen levels in your body begin to fall.
‘It’s really important to note that we have these amazing reflexes in our body that make sure that we still have high levels of oxygen in our brain and in our heart and all those vital organs that might be susceptible to oxygen damage,’ says Fisher.
‘As your heart-rate slows down, all your metabolic processes slow down and you get this movement of all the blood to your core and your vital organs. Your muscles stop working aerobically, so you get a lot of lactic acid, but they’re not actually using any of that vital oxygen that’s in your body. That’s why we don’t hurt ourselves by doing this sport.’
This is a sport where everyone is highly trained and we have extremely rigorous safety protocols, because there is always the risk that you hold your breath for too long. If you don’t have the right protocols, if you’re not there with a buddy, this is extremely dangerous, so please don’t just rush out and do this. Contact the relevant experts and get involved with it that way, and then you can do it safely.’
‘If you don’t manage the risks then it becomes dangerous. You have to know the signs of difficulty and how to rescue someone.’
Unsupported, breathing only air, you could just about climb Everest without any additional support other than your protective clothing. That’s 9km or so above sea level. But when you go into the ocean actually things change much more quickly because of the rapid pressure differences.
If you descend only 10m into the ocean, you are subjected to another additional atmosphere of pressure: that’s twice as much pressure as you’ve been used to at the surface. And for every 10m beyond you get another atmosphere of pressure. That starts to manipulate your body, your anatomy and your physiology in quite profound ways, which actually make the endeavour of diving into the deep ocean uniquely difficult. Not only does it compress you and shrink the air-containing spaces in your body, but also it alters your physiology, alters the way the gases act within your blood stream and how they act on everything, including your nervous system.
In the very early days of free-diving, physiologists were pretty convinced that people couldn’t go beyond about 30 or 40 metres. They’d drawn their graphs as scientists and they’d worked out what they saw. They worked out what they understood about the human body and the effects of pressure on it and they said: “Well, look, your lungs are going to be crushed and you’re going to be spitting blood by the time you’re at 30 or 40 metres. So there’s no way that you can do this on breath-hold diving. It just can’t be done.”
But of course, free divers decided to do it anyway – and they swam well past those theoretical limits. How? Martina Amati, the free diver and artist involved in a project to understand how freedivers defied science, tried to explain the mind set that goes with this extreme sport:
There is an element of physicality but it’s mainly mental. That’s what is incredible about free diving. It’s not about your physical ability, but about your mental skills and mental training basically. You need to let go of everything that you know and everything that makes you feel good or bad. And so it’s a very liberating process. But equally you need to stay completely aware of your body and where you are, entirely in the moment.
At a depth of 10m we need more oxygen in our bloodstream than at 100m, because the pressure of the water all around makes the oxygen more potent. So the most tricky part of a deep dive is the last stage of the ascent, when there is the risk of a shallow water black-out as the pressure fades and the oxygen levels in our tissues suddenly drop.
Getting started is hard too. You are buoyant at the surface and for the first few metres of the dive. As you start to descend, the pressure of the water pushes you back towards the surface, until around 13m to 20m deep when the dynamic is reversed. Here, according to Amati:
Your body begins to sink a little bit like a stone. We call this part the free-fall, the moment when freedivers stop moving completely, and the most beautiful part of the dive. When you eventually come back from a dive and you take your first breath, every time it feels like your first breath ever. So for me, it feels like being born again. I think of the water a little like the womb.
As a diver, what you experience is the changing chemistry of your bloodstream as the increased pressure allows gases to dissolve more easily and exert their effects more readily. So the nitrogen, the larger amount of nitrogen that dissolves in your bloodstream, behaves as a narcotic and actually makes you feel quite drunk and at only 30 or 40 metres. If you dive at those limits, the additional nitrogen can make you feel quite euphoric.
As a free diver, going deeper, you’re just squeezing those last dregs of oxygen out of your bloodstream and trying to subsist on much lower levels than any human being normally ever does. And you go into this sort of strange balance between the pressures that exist at depth temporarily helping to support you while your breath-holding is threatening your life. It’s really a very, very precarious balance and it requires you to enact some very weird and very strange and not all that well understood physiological feats just to stay alive. The depth records for human freediving now are quite absurd: not ten’s but hundreds of metres.
How to Freedive
Divers normally start their training by finding out how long they can hold their breath underwater and then using this figure as the base number to work on.
The key to advancing and lasting longer underwater is to get used to taking slow, deep breaths. Breathe in for five seconds, and then breathe out for 10-15 seconds. Make sure that you breathe out for much longer than you breathe in to avoid hyperventilating.
When you have this breathing pattern down, record your pulse. You will need to have a pulse of 80 beats per minute or less while you are deep breathing in order to be ready to start freediving. If you keep at it, you will find that your pulse starts to slow down with your deep breathing exercises over time. You will gradually be able to descend further as your pulse adapts. You may not be able to hold your breath for longer than 11 minutes and descend to more than 200 meters below the surface like veteran freedivers, but you can certainly attain and best your own goals as you progress in the sport.
Keep practicing your dives, working on descending further with each attempt.
Make sure you learn how to freedive and earn the certifications required before you bring your free diving gear to the nearest open ocean diving spot. Do your research and look for a local diving school that offers serious practical and physical training specifically for diving without the use of scuba gear.
A basic freediving course will first get you comfortable in the water and demonstrate proper deep breathing techniques. You’ll learn how to clear your snorkel and how to equalize pressure under water. Like scuba diving, you will have both confined and open water levels to complete.
Fortunately, the only prerequisite in freedive training is that you can swim. You don’t have to be an athlete or Olympic level swimmer to plunge into freediving, but you should be in reasonable health.
Never Dive Alone
This is the number one and most important rule in freediving, or any time you’re in the water for that matter. The buddy system is very important and should never be disregarded. It’s essential to watch out for each other, learn to safety each other in every dive shallow or deep, and of course everything is always more fun to share with someone or a group of people!
Enjoy the beauty of what surrounds you in the water. It’s like nothing else in this world. You have the ability to stay underwater on one breath of air, so enjoy the silence, peacefulness, and beauty. Joining a school of fish, diving with a pod of dolphins, or simply taking underwater photos, every freediver will live in the moment and feel truly free.
A good way to prepare for your dives is with the use of visualization. Visualize happy things and peaceful surroundings and your mind will automatically relax your body and lower your heart rate. Visualization can be used pre dive as well as during your dive. For me, when I am competing, I will visualize step by step how I want my dive to go before I even get in the water. When I am in my dive, if I find myself getting tense, I say a little mantra or sing a song in my head, and that helps me relax again. Different things work for different people, but some type of visualization will help before and during your dives.
You don’t need to have the best freediving gear to be able to enjoy your underwater playground. Beginner freedivers will most likely have scuba fins or short fins and that will work fine as a beginner diver. I would however suggest a few items that will make your dives a lot more comfortable from the start. A low volume mask would be a great first purchase. Scuba masks are much bigger and are difficult to equalize when you are diving. With a low volume mask, it will be much easier to equalize as you go deeper and is also much more flexible and comfortable. As you fall in love with the sport, you will begin to invest in other freediving gear such as a two-piece wetsuit, long blade fins, a rubber weight belt and a dive computer. For now, use what you have to begin your freediving journey!
Relaxation is the key to freediving. Deep, slow, calm breaths help lower your heart rate so your body will conserve oxygen. Every tense muscle uses heaps of oxygen and energy. You will learn how to relax your body through different breathing and relaxation techniques in freediving courses and clinics. Some exercises are borrowed from yoga practices, so you may already recognize some of them.
Learn from everyone you can.
Watch other divers and ask questions. Soak up everything you can from certified instructors as well as other certified divers. As you freedive more, you will find that freedivers use different techniques to reach their goals. Start with the basics in a course, master these, then build on your knowledge and find what works best for you. (Disclaimer: Do not become an “internet” freediver. There is a lot of wrong information out there that could be potentially harmful to you, so please make sure you get your information from creditable sources and certified agencies.)
Remember, freediving is for everyone! You don’t need to be an athlete to enjoy freediving. The sport is more about relaxation, mind set and technique, than it is strength. Your goal is to connect with the water and enjoy all the feelings and sensations underwater in one breath is a great place to be, appreciate every second of it and enjoy the experience!