Freediving: Diving Au Naturel
What Is Freediving?
Freediving is the act of diving down under the surface of water with no air source, ie holding you breath. Freediving is at once the logical evolution of snorkelling, the predecessor of scuba and its own separate entity. It’s not correct to see freediving as just another term for snorkelling because, as we’ll discuss later, freediving is a different way to enjoy water, with its own goals, techniques and community. Freediving is a sport, hobby, competition, keep fit regime and cheap way to enjoy the coral – it can be all of these things and more but it does tend towards the sport side of things because freedivers are, for lack of a better term, competitive. A freediver will compare and brag about the depths that they have achieved, along with their breath hold times and the booty they’ve collected. They are going down deep with nothing more than a mask, a pair of fins and a lung full of air, yet they achieve some awesome depths and shocking bottom times. It would be wrong to say that freediving is just a breath-holding competition (though it sometimes works like that) because many freedivers are simply after the same things as a scuba diver, they just want to enjoy it their way.
The question we must next ask is” “what is their way”? Freediving is a rapidly expanding and evolving sport that has captured the imaginations of the extreme sport crowd. This has meant that a very large body of young, healthy men and, to a slightly lesser extent, women are grabbing masks and going deep. This new influx of thrill-seekers has brought with it a new set of priorities and techniques to help these sportsmen and women achieve their personal goals. Some of those goals are listed below:
- Challenging – This is the main reason why freediving is considered a sport rather than a pastime. Freedivers are constantly striving to beat others on a whole new set of measurable objectives. On top of this battle with others they aim to beat their own personal bests – freedivers are their own toughest competition! They prepare themselves to push their bodies to the limit so that they can take on and surmount a challenge which gives them a rush and rewards them with great satisfaction.
- Risk – This follows on from the point above because the only thing that can make a challenge really exciting is if there is some risk that you will fail. If the act of failing is dangerous then it adds yet another element of thrill to the pursuit. A large portion of freedivers are adrenaline junkies which propels them on to take more risk so they can get a more intense buzz. This can be a dangerous cycle to be stuck in, but we’ll look at the dangers later.
- Requires Little Training – This is a double edged sword in that freediving is amazingly easy to pick up – just hold your breath and swim down…viola, you’re a freediver! However, this is only safe when you are just playing at shallow depths, if you plan on getting into the sport properly then it would be wise to look into the procedures to freedive effectively and safely – it’s not as simple as you might think.
- Free – I’m not sure how many people have complained to me that they’d love to learn to dive but their budgets don’t stretch to the expensive courses and the prohibitive price of dive gear. For those people who desperately want to explore the sea then freediving offers a different (inexpensive) path to the aquatic adventures they desire.
- Hunting/Foraging – This is an interesting development in the sport; clearly the freedivers were not content to simply pit their bodies against the sea, they had to also challenge the fauna that resides there too. Freedivers have made an entire subdivision of their activity devoted to either catching game fish or collecting molluscs. This added challenge and skill to learn (not to mention the machismo involved in using spear guns and knifes to hunt things) has made the sport even more attractive to the young male group.
- Adventure – This is probably a universal aspect of underwater based pursuits, from snorkelling to tec diving – everyone wants to experience an environment they aren’t familiar with. This is no different with freedivers, they want to immerse themselves in the surroundings and appreciate what the sea has to offer.
Freediving Vs Snorkelling
You might be sitting there thinking: “yes, ok so it’s not scuba diving, but it looks a lot like snorkelling to me!”. And you’d be right but for a couple of minor differences. First off, snorkelling is usually a passive engagement with the underwater domain which means that a snorkeler simply peers into the world of coral and fish from the surface (almost like a voyeur). Whereas a freediver will actively seek out the things he wishes to see, hunt or challenge. The freediver will feel a tangible sense of pride in his activities of the day (beating his best depth, hauling up a big fish or spotting a big ray) but a snorkeler simply enjoys the view – they will certainly enjoy it but they probably won’t feel proud of their achievements.
Freediving, at first glance, would appear like the kind of sport that shunned equipment. The very essence of freediving is the challenge of using what you were born with to beat the trials of the sea. Yet, there is a very quickly growing market of equipment to fill the gear bags of freedivers (so much for being cheap!):
- Freedive Fins – As with any young specialised sport the first freedivers used normal dive fins to get them where they wanted to go, but fin manufacturers saw that there was a market developing and created fins that were specially designed for freediving. These fins are usually full-foot pocket fins (wear them like slippers over a bare foot) with very long flexible blades. These comically long blades give fantastic speed and acceleration but would be almost useless to a scuba diver because they’d constantly bang them off coral and wrecks etc. The other avenue to go down when selecting freedive fins is to pick a mono-fin, which is basically a short wide blade with two foot pockets. It turns the wearer into something of a mermaid!
- Watertight Mask – The inclusion of the word “watertight” might seem a little odd here being as all masks are meant to be watertight. The reason I mention it here is because a freediver doesn’t have an air source which means that when they exhale they don’t have very long before they require a breath. This prohibits the clearing of masks underwater, which is unlike a scuba diver because he can clear his mask as much as necessary. A freediver must find the perfect mask to ensure they don’t end up blind halfway through a descent.
- Snorkel – This is not a vital piece of gear but it makes the experience more fun in two ways; it lets the diver keep him head in the water constantly which is useful for tracking a buddy’s progress, swimming to and from the shore or boat, scoping out new dive sites and hunting fish from the surface. The second use for a snorkel is when the sea gets choppy, sometimes it’s tough to keep your mouth from being sprayed with salt water – a snorkel with a splash guard will help in this situation enormously.
- Torch – A torch is really useful to a freediver who is hunting shelled creatures as they often hide in holes and other inconvenient places. Especially when there might be a Moray eel in that hole, you can check before you start putting your hand in! A torch can also help in poor viz, though I strongly recommend you don’t freedive in water that you can’t see the bottom and surface at the same time (if you want to go ten meters deep – make sure the viz is ten meters plus).
- Knife – I have always been a promoter of dive knifes as safety tools – I’m doubly passionate about freedivers wearing easy to access knives. If you get caught in kelp in scuba, you can take your time and free yourself. If you get stuck in kelp or rope on the ascent of a deep freedive then you my only have seconds to free yourself. A large portion of freedivers have a knife anyway to use as a prying tool for shelled prey.
- Spear Gun – This is obviously only for our testosterone-filled hunters but it’s an interesting piece of gear. A spear gun can be spring-loaded or gas propelled, and usually has a tether from the spear to the gun (lightweight line on a free-spinning spool). This makes finding a wayward spear much more likely and allows you to reel in your catch. They are real killing weapons and so should be given the same reverence as a gun on the surface. Never joke around with it, and be absolutely sure that there’s not a diver/snorkeler/coral reef behind what you’re shooting at. If the viz is not great, then don’t go shooting – you wouldn’t shoot a shotgun in a park in the fog!
- Buoy Float – As a freediver you probably won’t have any form of buoyancy compensator like a scuba diver has. Often you will be neutrally weighted with a weight belt. This means that if you have just been on a scarily deep dive in which you almost didn’t make it to the surface, when you reach the surface you will have to tread water to stay afloat. If you compound this with a long swim from the shore, an hour of freediving and fighting a current then you will realise that you will need something to collapse on after the dive. Ideally you’d have a boat to get onto, but freedivers usually stray from the beaten path where no dive tours operate. In which case a prudent freediver tows a surface buoy with him, he can use the buoy to warn boats that he is in the area (he surfaces a lot more than a scuba diver – making him at more risk of getting the hull of a boat in the face). It also gives him a rest between dives, gives him a place to store gear and his catch. He can also anchor it and use the line as a reference.
- Weights – If you are like me and are very positively buoyant on the surface, or wear a thick exposure suit, then you will require either loads of effort to swim down or you will use a weight belt to get yourself neutrally buoyant. Remembering that you might wish to perform an intricate task on the bottom means that you have no option but to ensure neutral buoyancy prior to the dive as it gives you much more control over your position in the water. Don’t overweight yourself either because this could lead to a difficulty in staying afloat on the surface.
Tips and Tricks
These are a few of the freediving techniques and dangers that you may not be aware of, or are only partially informed about. This list is not exhaustive and if you wish to undertake freediving as a serious sport then I suggest that you do further research and seek out professional tuition.
Hyperventilation is the act of “over breathing” (rapidly breathing three or four very deep breaths before descending) in order to purge the body of carbon dioxide. This process works to extend a diver’s breath hold time because the body stimulates the breathing process when it detects that there is too much carbon dioxide in the blood. It is not because the body thinks there is not enough oxygen, this is a misconception.
This process must be used in moderation, a diver must not take more than four breaths before the dive because if he exceeds this number then he runs the risk of “shallow water blackout” (SWB). SWB occurs when a diver has hyperventilated excessively and then descended deep. Once the diver is down at his maximum depth his body is able to access plentiful oxygen (because the oxygen gets pressurised) from the lung of air. The diver’s body, because of the extra hyperventilation, doesn’t stimulate the breathing reflex, so the diver thinks he’s got plenty of time left. The problem arises as he ascends because the oxygen becomes harder to access (it reduces in pressure) which means there is a shortage in oxygen. The diver is not aware of this (because the body monitors carbon dioxide, not oxygen) and so he is prone to spontaneous and immediate blackouts as he reaches shallow water. This is obviously very dangerous because he is underwater and will quickly drown. It is even worse when he is weighted because he may not float to the surface.
The way to avoid this is by limiting yourself to only three to four breaths before the dive, don’t overdo it in the pursuit of the motherload of abalone!
Look Where You’re Going!
This is might seem a little patronising at first, but it is with good cause that I implore every freediver to pay good attention to where they are going. The reason for this is that a freediver is on a running clock when he dives. This time limit causes some careless freedivers to bolt down to the bottom, with their massive fins and weight belt, in poor viz and crack their skull on a rock or piece of coral. The same is true for the guys who cut their dive a little close and have to rush to the surface for air, they rarely think about boats, or swimmers that might be above them – and head butting a boat is not enjoyable. A scuba diver can take their time when they move underwater, which means they are less likely to bump into a jellyfish’s tentacles, piece of coral or rock but a freediver needs to be more focused because of the speed of their movements.
Pressure Related Injuries
Despite freediving not requiring any formal training to enjoy, there are a few very important risks that apply equally for a scuba diver and a freediver:
- Ear Barotrauma – Despite a freediver having less worries than a scuba diver with regards the possible ailments that could affect him – he still has the physics of nature to deal with. Namely the way in which an airspace underwater is forced to compress and to expand as it is taken from the surface down, and then up to the surface again. This pressure can be felt in the ears and sinus of a freediver when he is changing depth. This pressure build-up can, if left unchecked, lead to ruptured ear drums and other nasty injures. The way we avoid this is by equalising our ears (usually by swallowing, moving your jaw or your tongue) which ensures the pressure on one side of the flexible drum is the same as on the other side. Some divers require time to equalise which can make freediving difficult, and others will have problems if they make many ascents and descents in quick succession (the ear drum begins to swell).
- Decompression Sickness – Before those of you in the know rush to write an email to complain that I’m talking nonsense – “freedivers don’t breathe compressed air so they don’t load up on any significant nitrogen levels, therefor won’t suffer DCS…” I agree with you! If you’d let me finish…jeez, a guy can’t get a word in edgeways with these imaginary readers complaining all the time! Anyway, if you imagine the situation where a scuba diver has been on a dive trip and gets back to the boat early after his second dive of the day and he decides to go for a snorkel while he waits for the other dive groups to surface. Then, when he’s out snorkelling, he sees a big turtle at twenty meters and decides to freedive after it. In this situation the diver still has all the nitrogen in his body from the last two dives, which when added to the extra nitrogen he picks up on his freedive, can lead to a problem when our diver bolts to the surface when he realises he’s not the young, healthy lad he was and that a twenty meter freedive was a bit ambitious at his age!
Dive With A Buddy
There are very few scuba divers out there who would ever think it smart to dive without a buddy. Especially when you consider that if you have a problem underwater, nobody will know unless they are within visual range. Shouting for help isn’t much use at fifteen meters deep.
So why should it be any different with freediving? The difference is that a freediving buddy team will work in a different manner to that of a scuba team. Whereas a scuba buddy will ensure they are close by their partner and try to maintain the same depth as them, a freediving buddy will stay on the surface, next to the float with a snorkel in their mouth and watch their counterpart make their dive. This way he is fully rested and has a full lung of air if he sees his friend get into trouble. If they dived together they might find that they are both at the edge of their limits and would be unable to assist their amigo. This can work in bigger groups than two, you could have a group of four with a two up, two down alternation which would provide double the cover should an issue arise.
Don’t Try To Break Records!
This is general advice that you can apply to almost any pursuit, but it is particularly relevant to freediving because of the element of competition involved. If you are new to the sport then it is obvious that you should take your time and gain experience in the techniques involved before you attempt any wild maneuverers.
It is also true for those for those who are comfortable with the practices of freediving, they should plan and prepare at least as much a scuba diver. This means preparing a first aid kit for the float or boat, having emergency oxygen available, suspending one or more tanks with regulators at various points of the freedive attempt. If the attempt you are doing is at the edge of your abilities (in training for instance) then it would be wise if you could get an experienced scuba diver or two to support you underwater so if a problem arrises they can provide you with their alternate air source. Freediving doesn’t have to be dangerous if you take the appropriate precautions.
I hope this article has gone someway to unveiling this exciting and flourishing sport for those who were curious but uninformed. There is still a whole lot more to learn about freediving than was covered in this article, and most importantly you need to get into the sea and start experimenting – just take it slow at first! Get a friend, fins, mask and float and enjoy a Saturday exploring Earth’s final frontier.
Are you a freediver? Is it a sport you want to get into? Why do you freedive; do you hunt, take pictures, compete or just explore? Please share your experiences by leaving a comment in the section below.
By Jamie Campbell