If you are looking for adventure, and you love the water, then free diving might be the extreme sport for you.
Freediving can be extremely exhilarating and almost spiritual in its effect on people.
However, in order to free dive safely, you need to be well prepared and informed before going into deep water.
In this guide, we will go over the extreme sport of freediving, what exactly it is, how you should prepare, what types of training you should get, the equipment you will need, and other tips on this amazing underwater sport.
What is Free?
Freediving, also known as breath-hold diving, is a method of deep water diving that does not use oxygen tanks like SCUBA diving does. Another word for free diving is “apnea.” Yes, that’s the same “apnea” you know of from the medical term “sleep apnea.” This is because when you free dive, you stop breathing.
Various forms of freediving have been around since time immemorial. Diverse people in cultures around the world have used free diving as a way to explore the ocean, especially before the advent of modern SCUBA diving equipment.
The word SCUBA, by the way, stands for “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.” Bet you didn’t know that, huh?
Evidence of Early Free Diving
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We have evidence of free diving from as early as 6,000 BC. We have learned this through studying the bones in mummified remains. The Chinchorian people, who lived in what is now known as Chile, had a condition called exostosis in their ears. This is where the ear bones lengthen to help protect the ear drum from the shock of cold water. Today, this condition is called “surfer’s ear.”
Before the modern era, people primarily free dived to gain access to food and supplies, such as lobsters, pearls, and sponges. Sometimes freedivers would be used to help release ships from anchor. In the case of the siege of Tyre of 332 BC, Alexander the Great used free divers to remove underwater blockades that kept his ships out of the harbor.
Modern Free Diving is Born
Early efforts at free diving were hampered, however, by the cold of the ocean deep. It was not until modern wetsuit technology came along that people thought to freedive for fun.
1949 marks the starting point of the modern free diving movement, and it was all because of a bet. Raimondo Bucher was a Hungarian-born Italian air force captain. He earned 50,000 lire on a bet that he could not dive down 30 meters in the sea near Naples. Well, he did, and breath-hold diving became a “thing.”
Some of the advances in free diving were actually due to research done by the United States Navy in the 1960s. Navy personnel who were being trained to escape from a sinking submarine needed to learn how to hold their breath for long periods of time.
A US Navy diving instructor, Bob Croft, started to practice breath holding and reached a maximum breath-hold time of six minutes. This led to scientific research into whether human beings could “blood shift” like certain mammals could underwater.
It was thanks to Croft that modern free divers have the technique of packing up lungs with extra air prior to diving into deep water.
Freediving started to gain more popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then the big breakthrough happened with the 1988 release of the film The Big Blue, directed by Luc Besson. This film was a fictionalized account of a competitive rivalry between two real-life free divers, Enzo Majorca and Jacques Mayol.
Thanks to this film, freediving entered into mainstream consciousness. And, since the 1990s, free diving has become a competitive sport. The main organization for competitive freediving is AIDA, which stands for the International Association for the Development of Apnea.
The Dangers of Free Diving
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We would be remiss, in an article on freediving, in pretending that the extreme underwater sport is risk-free.
In fact, free diving can be quite dangerous. You should be aware of this before you take up the sport. Do not let romanticized visions of tropical pearl divers tempt you into thinking this is a gracious and easy swimming sport.
Diving Death Statistics
Many people have tragically died from free diving. Even though the extreme sport is not a common past time, a low statistic estimates an approximate 50 deaths per year from freediving accidents. Some free diver statistics estimate 100 deaths per year from the underwater sport. This is a lot, considering that the number of freedivers is approximately only 5,000 worldwide.
While 90 percent of free diving deaths occur in the ocean, you can still have an accident in other bodies of water. One survey found that swimming pools account for 3.6 percent of freediving deaths, lakes and quarries 3.3 percent, rivers or springs 1.8 percent, and other locations accounts for 1.3 percent.
Now, let us compare the mortality statistics of free diving and SCUBA diving, the more technically advanced cousin. While finding exact comparison statistics is difficult, free diving is most certainly the more dangerous underwater sport.
One estimate for SCUBA diving deaths found 11 and 18 deaths per 100,000 SCUBA divers. Let us be overly cautious and say that you had 20 deaths per 100,000 in SCUBA diving, and overly generous and only count 50 deaths per 5,000 free divers.
This would mean that your chance of dying from SCUBA diving would be .02 percent, while your chance of dying as a free diver is 1 percent. If we consider the higher estimate of 100 deaths per 5,000 freedivers (which would be 2,000 per 100,000), the percentage chance goes up to 2 percent.
That means you have a 100 times greater chance of dying in free diving than in SCUBA diving.
Famous Free Diving Deaths
Free diving was not very well known in 2001, but hit the news with the death of a young pro surfer. Jay Moriarity, then just 22, died while freediving without a mask or fins in 80-feet water.
He used free diving as a way to train for the rigors of surfing big waves such as Mavericks, because of the long hold-downs you might experience in a massive wipeout.
Ten years later, his widow was set to free dive in the spot where he died. In her interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel News, she still did not feel that his free diving was “reckless,” but was an important part of his training as a big wave surfer.
Jay Moriarity is still remembered fondly in the surfing world, and his fans spread the slogan “Live Like Jay” on and off the internet.
Audrey Mestre was a world-renowned free diver who died at the age of 28 in 2002. She and her husband Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras had gotten a reputation for being a top couple in freediving.
Her husband had set a diving record of 531.5 feet that she was trying to break. Unfortunately, during her deep dive, Audrey Mestre blacked out and her rescue balloon failed. She was brought to the surface by a safety diver, but they could not ascend fast enough.
You can watch the video of her last and fatal dive on YouTube.
As is typical with the internet, strange theories abound that her husband Pipin was trying to kill her with her last dive. However, as some female free divers have pointed out, it is up to the diver to take responsibility for the equipment – not the husband. Such cynical speculations are probably upsetting to her loving family, who still maintain her website after all these years.
Free diving is not just dangerous for the divers themselves, but also for the safety divers supervising the dives. In 2017, Stephen Keenan, who was 39 and from Dublin, was helping world record holder Alessia Zecchini. She became disoriented during her dive and while he was saving her, Keenan blacked out and drowned.
Keenan was one of the best safety divers around. However, the location where he perished, the Blue Hole, is one of the most dangerous places to free dive. In fact, it is dangerous for SCUBA divers as well.
The Blue Hole is a sinkhole that is 120 meters deep at the edge of the Red Sea. Its nickname? The divers’ cemetery.
An American free diving champion, Nicholas Mevoli had continued to push boundaries in the water, even though his lungs were scarred from previous freediving attempts. His death is the subject of Adam Skolnick’s book on free diving, One Breath.
In 2013, Mevoli went to Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas to set a new American record of 236 feet down with no fins. He did make it down and back, but once back up top, he lost consciousness and never regained it.
Don’t Be the Next Tragic Free Diving Death
As you can see, even the most experienced freedivers have lost their lives in the depths. Therefore, don’t be one of those impatient people who think they know it all after one dive. If you push yourself too hard too quickly, you could put your life in some serious danger.
Unfortunately, in this world of self-made Instagram stars, constantly looking for new likes for their selfies, it is likely that more amateurs will be involved in free diving, and not for the better. What with photographers actively putting out calls for freediving models for underwater shoots, you can guess that more accidents are likely to happen.
While it was not a free diving accident, recently, a young wannabe model was bitten by a nurse shark during a quest for the ultimate Instagram snapshot. She survived with a bite mark that tore into her arm, but was otherwise unharmed.
Use this as a warning: Just because you see pretty pictures of people doing it on Instagram, it does not mean it is safe or easy.
Freediving may be the most dangerous, difficult thing you will ever undertake in your entire life. Treat it with the respect it deserves.
Preparing for Free Diving
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In order to be a good free diver, you will need to be healthy physically and have the ability to swim as well as control your breath.
Why Strong Swimming Skills Are Important
It should go without saying, but you should be a good swimmer before starting to learn freediving as a hobby.
In fact, your swimming needs to be more than adequate. You should be a strong swimmer if you want to free dive.
It may sound a bit funny, but a lot of people who surf aren’t actually that great at swimming. They assume, perhaps wrongly, that the surfboard will save them.
What happens, though, if you lose your surfboard after a big wipe out?
Thus, you may be under the false assumption that since you are wearing flippers when you free dive, you do not need to be a great swimmer. There is this idea that somehow the flippers will do all the work for you.
And it may be true that, while under the water, you will be helped immensely by the flippers giving you more speed and power with every kick.
However, what if you lose your flippers? Or what if they get caught in something? And what will you do once you are on the surface of the water?
The thing is, many people could probably do OK with some light SCUBA diving even if they are not the strongest swimmers around.
However, SCUBA diving is a very different animal. You have a lot of equipment helping you and keeping you safer, which you do not have in free diving. And, even with the added equipment, SCUBA diving can still be extremely risky. People do die in SCUBA diving accidents, and, as we have already lain out, freedivers are at a much higher risk of injury and death.
The bottom line: You really have no business free diving if you aren’t a strong swimmer. Stick to snorkeling for now.
Tips on Improving Your Swimming
You may think that swim lessons are just for kids, but don’t let pride get in the way here. You can find many places to take swim lessons, especially in the summer. Your local YMCA or municipal pool will likely have adult swim classes.
Swimming is a sport that requires a lot of stamina and lung capacity. The more you swim, the better you will get at it, obviously, and the more your body will become stronger in the water. Plan on swimming regularly as part of your “cross-training” for free diving.
You should practice swimming underwater, of course, but do not neglect your swim strokes. Being able to swim on top of the water could potentially help you if you are out in the water and need to swim a distance for whatever the reason.
Why Lung Capacity is Important for Free Divers
Having good lung capacity is vital for free diving. It is not also called “breath-hold diving” for nothing! You will not be using an oxygen tank for air when you freedive. Whatever air is in your lungs when you start is what you will have for the duration of your free dive.
When you are out of the water, you can practice deep breathing using techniques from yoga. Pranayama is the yogic practice of controlling the breath.
There are many different types of pranayama, and practicing them can help you learn how to control your breathing.
Learning How to Be Relaxed
Many free diving experts say that it is more important to be relaxed instead of being a super athlete when freediving. Panic underwater can kill you. So, take some time to work on general relaxation techniques so you can be safer in the water.
Training for Free Diving
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Free diving is not something you want to literally “dive into” without proper training. The challenge is finding someone qualified to train with. Unlike SCUBA diving, which has been an established watersport for a long time, freediving for recreation is not as easily accessible.
However, getting proper training can literally be the difference between life and death. Fortunately, more and more places are available for free divining training, though you may have to travel to get there. You can easily find places with an online search.
Just be careful of training companies that downplay the dangers of free diving, or claim that somehow freediving is a “natural” thing for humans to do, as if we were built like dolphins.
Free Diving: Risky, But Challenging
If you want a challenge in the water, then you might want to become a free diver. Yes, this extreme watersport is very risky. However, overcoming the challenges of breath-hold diving may be that one thing that really excites you in life.