You have most likely seen pictures and videos of people freediving under the ocean. For many people, free diving is only for those brave enough to dive down the depths of the oceans using only the air in their lungs. They are those who rely on the power of their bodies and the will of their minds to keep them alive and bring them back.
But do you know that every time you slip into the water to hold your breath, you are actually freediving? It’s likely that you have tried how long you can be underwater in the bathtub or have picked up a coin from the bottom of a swimming pool. If that’s the case, you have already tried freediving!
But you will need skills and practice if you want to try freediving as a sport. Don’t forget, those amazing freedivers you see on awesome diving videos were once beginners too. Here’s a guide to help you start freediving.
What is Freediving?
Freediving is a form of underwater diving where individuals explore the depths of the ocean, lakes, or other bodies of water without the use of breathing apparatus such as scuba gear. Instead, freedivers rely on their breath-holding ability to descend and navigate underwater.
The sport of freediving requires proper training and technique to explore underwater environments and reach significant depths safely. It encompasses various disciplines, including depth diving, dynamic apnea (horizontal distance swimming), static apnea (breath-holding time), and underwater hunting.
Freedivers undergo specific training to improve their lung capacity, breath control, and relaxation techniques, which are essential for prolonged breath-holding. They also learn how to equalize the pressure in their ears and sinuses as they descend deeper underwater.
Competitive freediving involves different disciplines, such as Constant Weight (CWT), where divers descend and ascend using their own power and with the use of fins, and Free Immersion (FIM), where divers use a vertical rope to pull themselves down and up. There are also disciplines like Variable Weight (VWT) and No Limits (NLT), where divers use weighted sleds or other means to descend and ascend at greater speeds. We’ll discuss more of these below.
Besides being a sport, freediving is also a way to explore the marine world and connect with nature in a unique and immersive way. It requires proper training, knowledge of safety protocols, and a deep understanding of one’s body’s limitations to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
History of Freediving
Freediving has a long and rich history that dates back thousands of years. Humans have been diving underwater without the aid of breathing apparatus for various purposes, such as gathering food, retrieving objects, exploring the depths, and even for religious and spiritual practices.
Freediving can be traced back to ancient civilizations that lived near water bodies. The earliest records of freediving come from ancient cultures like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. These civilizations relied on freediving for activities such as pearl diving, sponge harvesting, and retrieving sunken treasures. It first began in Greece in the 5th century BC.
The Greeks played a significant role in the development of freediving. They used freediving techniques for military purposes, underwater reconnaissance, and to clear obstructions from ships. Greek philosopher and historian Aristotle extensively studied freediving and wrote about it in his works.
In the Middle East and parts of Asia, pearl diving became a prominent practice. Divers in regions such as the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea would free-dive to great depths to harvest pearls from oyster beds. This tradition continued for centuries and played a vital economic role in those regions.
Meanwhile in Japan, Ama divers in Japan have a long history of freediving for shellfish, seaweed, and pearls. Ama means “sea woman,” and these female divers have been practicing freediving for thousands of years. They used traditional techniques and specialized equipment like goggles, weights, and baskets to collect marine resources.
The modern sport of freediving emerged in the 19th century when divers started competing to see who could dive deepest in one breath. This sport was popular in Italy, where it became known as “apnea,” the Greek word for breath-holding. By the 20th century, freedivers competed internationally in various disciplines, such as deep diving and fin swimming.
In the 20th century, the development of modern diving equipment, such as scuba gear, led to a decline in the practice of freediving for utilitarian purposes. However, freediving persisted as a sport and gained popularity with individuals seeking underwater exploration and personal challenges.
In 1992, the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) was established and became the first worldwide organization to promote freediving as a sport. AIDA established competition rules and standards, developed safety protocols, and provided training and certification for freedivers.
In recent decades, the sport of competitive freediving gained significant attention. Athletes continuously pushed the boundaries of human capability, achieving remarkable depths and breath-holding records. Organizations like AIDA and the International Freediving Federation (IFF) organize international competitions and maintain world records in various disciplines.
Today, freediving has evolved into a recognized sport, recreational activity, and a means to explore the beauty of the underwater world. It continues to captivate people’s interest, combining physical skill, mental discipline, and a deep connection with the marine environment.
Benefits of Freediving
Why should you try freediving? The fact that we all tried instinctively to hold our breath and submerge ourselves in water shows our natural interest in the depths. Learning how to freedive gives us tools to extend these skills. Plus, it offers a range of physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Here are some key advantages of practicing freediving:
Provides an opportunity for exploration
Freediving offers a unique opportunity to intimately explore the ocean. Unlike scuba divers with vertical movement limitations, freedivers can freely follow the graceful movements of a sea turtle, regardless of its depth. Unlike scuba divers, who must be mindful of excess nitrogen from compressed gas, freedivers are unrestricted and can swim as they please, guided solely by their breath-holding abilities. Plus, the absence of heavy tanks and equipment gives freedivers a sense of weightlessness, as if they’re floating in zero gravity.
Promotes self-awareness and mind-body connection
Freediving encourages a deeper connection with one’s body, breath, and sensations. Beyond exploring the depths of the ocean, freediving is an activity that allows individuals to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Self-awareness plays a significant role in the sport, and freedivers continuously challenge themselves mentally. Each dive becomes a voyage into their own minds, fostering personal growth and introspection. In essence, freediving unlocks the wonders of the underwater world and the depths of one’s own being.
Improves cardiovascular fitness and lung capacity
Since freediving involves breath-holding and swimming – which naturally increases heart rate and expand the lungs – it can help improve blood circulation, enhance cardiovascular endurance, and improve the lungs’ efficiency. Regular freediving sessions can lead to a stronger heart and improved overall fitness.
Enhances mental focus and relaxation
Freediving requires concentration, mental discipline, and relaxation techniques to achieve optimal breath-hold times and dive depths. Through mindfulness and focused attention, freediving promotes a sense of calmness, mental clarity, and relaxation.
Promotes lifestyle changes
Once a person gets enamored with freediving and wants to make it their lifestyle, they make some lifestyle changes. For instance, if they are smokers, they may choose to smoke less or even quit altogether. They may also opt to reduce their alcohol intake, revamp their nutrition, and explore practices like meditation, yoga, or other forms of cross-training.
The path of freediving often leads to heightened environmental awareness. As divers delve into the ocean’s depths, they realize the vital importance of our oceans to the world. This newfound understanding often sparks a passion for ocean conservation, driving them to engage in preserving and protecting our marine ecosystems actively.
Enhances water skills
Individuals develop essential water skills through freediving, such as swimming techniques, buoyancy control, and underwater orientation. These skills can be transferable to other water activities like swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving.
Also, freediving courses maintain a focus on safety training. It makes you more aware of your behavior in the water, how to spot signs of trouble, and how to behave in rescue situations. Having more confidence in the water is beneficial for everyone, and you will also be able to help someone in trouble.
Fosters social connection and community
Freediving fosters a sense of camaraderie and community among fellow divers. It provides opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals, share experiences, and participate in group activities or competitions.
Brings personal growth and develops resilience
Freediving challenges individuals to face their fears, develop discipline, and build resilience. It promotes personal growth, self-discovery, and overcoming mental and physical barriers.
It’s important to note that while freediving offers numerous benefits, it should always be practiced with proper training, safety measures, and respect for personal limits. Seeking guidance from qualified instructors and gradually progressing in the sport is crucial for a safe and enjoyable experience.
Types of Freediving
Freediving can be categorized into various types based on the purpose, environment, or activity involved. Here are some common types of freediving:
1. Recreational Freediving
Recreational freediving refers to diving for leisure and personal enjoyment – usually done by many on vacation. It includes activities such as exploring coral reefs, swimming with marine life, and experiencing the underwater world. Recreational freediving often takes place in clear, warm waters and is accessible to individuals with basic freediving skills.
People freedive for different reasons: to explore the underwater world, to improve their fitness or mental health, to try something new – the reasons are endless. But most freedivers will say that they feel peace and calm when they dive, and they use it as a form of meditation.
2. Competitive Freediving
Competitive freediving involves organized events and competitions where divers aim to achieve specific goals or break records. These competitions follow established rules and disciplines, such as depth diving, dynamic apnea, and static apnea. Athletes compete against each other based on their performance in these disciplines. We will talk about the different disciplines below.
Competitive freedivers employ advanced techniques and undergo rigorous training both in and out of the water. They live and breathe the life of a freediving athlete, dedicating themselves to continuous improvement. In addition to physical training in the water, they engage in cross-training exercises and mental conditioning, follow specific diets, and prioritize ample rest.
3. Applied Freediving
Applied freediving takes the art of diving to new depths and serves a specific purpose. Whether it’s hunting for seafood, engaging in underwater sports, or conducting scientific research, freediving becomes a vital part of these activities. For some, freediving is intertwined with their daily lives, like the female “Ama” divers in Japan who collect pearls and seafood or the Bajau tribes of Southeast Asia who rely on the sea for their sustenance through spearfishing. Freediving becomes more than just a sport; it becomes a way of life.
4. Line Diving
Line diving is a form of freediving focused on the internal journey rather than exploration or hunting. Line diving serves as a training ground, enabling divers to dive deeper and enhance their freediving skills. In this form of free diving, divers use a descent and ascent lines to train and improve their freediving skills. The descent line is a weighted line that is attached to a surface buoy or anchor and descends vertically into the water. The diver follows this line during the descent, using it as a reference point and a guide for their depth.
Freediving encompasses several disciplines, each with its own unique challenges and objectives. Here are some of the main disciplines in freediving:
1. Constant Weight (CWT or CNF)
Constant Weight is a depth discipline where the diver descends and ascends using their own power without changing their ballast or equipment. It can be done with fins (CWT) or without fins (CNF) and is often completed by diving off a freediving buoy. Fins are typically used for propulsion. The diver aims to reach the greatest depth possible while safely returning to the surface.
When it comes to competitive freediving, Constant Weight with fins (CWT) and static apnea were the original disciplines. But soon, Dynamic with Fins (DYN) made its way onto the scene. In the early days of international competitions, bi-fins were the go-to choice for most divers, while only a few daring souls opted for the monofin. However, the monofin took little time to prove its superiority, becoming the preferred choice for deep diving competitors.
Constant Weight without fins (CNF) has been gaining popularity in recent years. Some competitions now have CNF as a dedicated category, pushing the limits of what was once considered impossible, even for No-Limits diving. CNF presents its own unique set of challenges. Divers must overcome positive buoyancy at the start of the dive and then deal with negative buoyancy as they ascend from the depths.
To make things even more interesting, CNF divers utilize one of their pulling arms for equalization, which adds an extra layer of complexity. Many CNF divers opt for a nose clip and fluid goggles (or no mask) to free up both arms for efficient strokes and tackle the equalization challenge head-on.
2. Constant Weight Bifins (CWT BF or CWTV)
Regarding Constant Weight with Bifins (CWTB), the open water becomes the playground. Equipped with a minimal amount of weight that remains constant throughout the entire dive, freedivers embark on a remarkable challenge: to reach a specific depth by propelling themselves with their fins in a single breath.
In CWT, divers use a monofin, a single large fin, to power through the water and reach their target depth. But in CWTB, they rely on bins, which are two separate fins, for their finning technique. Each stroke takes them closer to their destination, showcasing their remarkable ability to explore the depths in a single breath. Monofins are not permitted, and the diver is prohibited from using a dolphin kick for their propulsion.
3. Free Immersion (FIM)
Free Immersion involves pulling oneself down and up a vertical rope without the use of fins. The diver pulls on the rope to descend and ascends by using arm strength. The goal is to achieve maximum depth while maintaining proper technique and safety.
Performed in the open water, this depth discipline is often used as a warm-up for constant weight dive to save the legs while still prepping the body for depth and assessing how smoothly the ears are equalizing.
4. Variable Weight (VWT):
Performed in open waters, Variable Weight involves using a weighted sled or other means to descend and return to the surface. Freedivers don’t wear any additional weight and aim to reach a target depth on a vertical line. They achieve this by using a heavy weight to descend and leaving it behind at depth. Then, they ascend using either finning or pulling on the line. The diver can use fins during descent but must return to the surface without assistance. This discipline allows divers to reach greater depths more efficiently.
5. No Limits (NLT)
As it implies in the name, the No Limits discipline is the most dangerous and daring. In this discipline, divers use a weight to take you as deep as possible and rely on mechanical means (like a buoyancy device, inflatable lift bag, or diving bell) to return to the surface.
During the 1960s, divers at the bottom of their dives used tanks to fill lift bags, which would then carry them back to the surface. However, as dives became deeper, this method became less effective. Sometimes, the hose meant to fill the bag would even come loose.
Moreover, the risks of nitrogen narcosis and the need for reliable safety measures led deep divers to seek an alternative. They opted for buoyancy devices without air or the diver at the bottom to execute complex tasks. This way, they could ensure a safer ascent to the surface.
1. Static Apnea (STA)
Static Apnea involves holding your breath while floating face-down in a pool or confined water. The goal is to hold your breath for as long as possible without moving. It requires relaxation, efficient oxygen usage, and mental focus. It’s a challenging discipline because nothing distracts you from the breath hold. It’s also easier to give up easily because the surface is close, rather than being meters away.
Static Apnea, together with Constant Weight with Fins, is one of the disciplines included in the original competitions and is always the last to be performed. It’s the decider discipline, in which competitors use tactics to ensure they have to do the minimum so they can win – unless they want to break a record.
Since it’s performed in confined water, it can be practiced all year round. It’s beneficial for those divers who live far from the open waters or in colder climates where it’s impossible to train diving all year. It’s excellent training for apnea ability, confidence, and mental toughness.
2. Dynamic Apnea (DYN or DNF)
Dynamic apnea involves swimming horizontally in a pool or confined water with a single breath. The diver aims to cover the longest distance possible. This discipline tests the ability to manage energy, technique, and breath-holding while swimming.
Dynamic Apnea offers two variations: with fins (DYN) and without fins (DNF). This thrilling discipline challenges divers to cover the maximum horizontal distance underwater. While both are competition disciplines, dynamic with fins takes center stage in international team competitions.
Dynamic disciplines serve as fantastic training grounds for refining style and constant weight diving skills. They are particularly valuable in colder regions where access to open-water diving is limited to the summer months. For divers who struggle with equalization or prefer to avoid depth-related issues, dynamics with and without fins provide a way to enjoy freediving without those concerns.
While records can be set in any discipline, when freediving for pure enjoyment, constant weight with fins is the most popular choice, it allows divers to venture into and appreciate the wonders of the underwater world with the aid of fins.
Free immersion is often used in equalization practice and enables divers to reach suitable depths for buddy diving, all while conserving leg energy for potential rescues. Many freedivers prefer to take one disciple (such as dynamic without fins) over another because they enjoy the sensation and have limited access to depth due to weather or location.
Equipment Used in Freediving
Freediving requires specific equipment to ensure comfort, safety, and optimal performance in the water. Here are the key pieces of equipment used in freediving:
Freediving opens up a new world for you to explore, but you will need to see to do this. Instead of using swimming goggles (which can get into your eyes as you dive deeper), a low-volume mask can help, as it can equalize the pressure as you descend. A low-volume mask can provide clear vision underwater while minimizing the amount of air space inside. It should have a comfortable fit, a good seal, and a wide field of view.
A snorkel allows the freediver to breathe at the surface without lifting their head out of the water. When freediving, you’ll need to catch your breath after a dive and prepare for the next one, and a snorkel allows you to do this in a relaxed way. A snorkel should be streamlined, flexible, and have a comfortable mouthpiece.
Fins provide propulsion and efficiency in the water. Freediving fins are longer and more flexible than snorkeling or scuba diving fins because scuba divers are generally not in a hurry as they have aired on their backs. On the other hand, free divers need to be more efficient, so they have longer and more powerful fins. Fins designed for freediving offer a balance of power, responsiveness, and comfort.
4. Wetsuit or freediving suit
A wetsuit or freediving suit helps maintain body temperature in the water and offers protection against the elements. The thickness of the suit depends on the water temperature or preference.
Diving in the open water is often cold, so divers often wear a wetsuit so they can spend more time in the water. If you need more warmth, get a thicker wetsuit. However, the disadvantage of getting a thicker wetsuit is that it limits movement and the more buoyant you become. Hence, you will need more weight to compensate.
5. Weight system
A weight system, such as a weight belt or weight harness, is used to counteract buoyancy and achieve neutral buoyancy while diving. As mentioned earlier, adding weight can help compensate for the extra buoyancy of a thick wetsuit. Weights allow the freediver to descend and ascend smoothly in the water.
6. Freediving buoys and lines
When diving in open water, freedivers often use buoys and lines for safety and convenience. A surface buoy signals the presence of divers on boats and helps mark the dive location. A descent line or rope provides a reference point for the diver during descent and ascent.
7. Dive watch or timer
A dive watch or timer is essential for tracking dive times and intervals during training and competitions. It helps freedivers monitor their breath-hold duration and recovery times accurately.
8. Nose clip
Some freedivers use a nose clip to prevent water from entering the nasal cavity, making equalization easier and more efficient. It can be especially helpful during deep dives.
9. Weight gloves and socks
Weight gloves and socks provide additional thermal insulation and protection for the hands and feet, allowing better dexterity and reducing the risk of cuts or scrapes.
10. Safety equipment
For safety, freedivers should always have a dive buddy and carry a safety lanyard or leash that attaches them to a dive line or buoy. These devices aid in communication and facilitate assistance in case of emergency.
Choosing equipment that fits properly, is suited for your diving conditions, and is of good quality is important. It is recommended to consult with experienced freedivers or instructors to ensure you select the right equipment for your needs. Regular maintenance and proper care of your gear are essential to ensure its longevity and performance.
Skills to Develop for Safe Freediving
Freediving is dangerous once done recklessly and without proper training. There are skills and knowledge you need to develop, such as:
1. Breathing technique
Breathing plays a vital role in freediving, where breath-holding is key. In a freediving course, you’ll learn the importance of taking deep breaths, maximizing lung capacity, using the breath to calm the mind and lower the heart rate, and effectively re-oxygenating the body after a breath hold. It includes diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation techniques, and various breathing exercises to improve lung capacity and breath control. Learn proper breathing techniques that maximize oxygen intake and enhance breath-hold capacity in freediving lessons.
Have you ever felt pressure or pain in your ears when diving to the bottom of a pool? That’s the weight of the water above you, compressing the air in your ears and stretching your eardrum. It can make diving deeper seem impossible or very painful.
Luckily, our bodies have a way to “equalize” this pressure. We have a small passageway called the Eustachian tube that connects to the middle ear. This tube allows air to enter or leave the middle ear, protecting the eardrum. Sometimes this happens naturally, like when you feel pressure in your ears while driving on a mountain road, only for it to release soon after.
In freediving and scuba diving, a diver needs to equalize the pressure in their ears actively. They create pressure in their nasal cavity, which then travels through the eustachian tube into the middle ear. You can try it yourself by pinching your nose and gently exhaling through your nose. You should feel a pop, similar to what happens during airplane flights. When descending, you need to do this every three feet (one meter).
By equalizing at this rate, we can avoid any discomfort in our ears while freediving. Equalizing regularly may feel unfamiliar at first, but with practice and guidance from a good instructor, it will become second nature.
In freediving, just like in scuba diving, divers use weights to counteract the buoyancy created by our wetsuits. As they dive deeper, their buoyancy decreases, eventually causing them to sink. One common mistake and safety concern is wearing too much weight. While excessive weight may make descending easier, it makes returning to the surface and staying there more challenging.
In freediving, it’s ideal to float effortlessly on the surface and be positively buoyant for at least the dive’s first 30 feet (10 meters). This allows us to relax at the surface before starting our dive and makes things much smoother in case a rescue is needed, either for ourselves or others. Finding the right balance of weight is crucial for a safe, enjoyable, freediving experience.
4. Slow progression
A question often posed by non-freedivers to instructors is, “What if you feel the urge to breathe at the bottom?” It’s a valid question. The answer lies in the experience, and confidence gained through a slow and steady progression in freediving. As you become more skilled, you gradually increase your depth, always ensuring that you are comfortable and confident before going deeper.
Each time you dive, you add only a small increment, usually around six feet (less than two meters), and repeat the process. By following this approach, every dive becomes a familiar and predictable experience. There are no surprises, and you can embark on each dive with the assurance of safety and enjoyment. With practice and patience, you’ll develop the necessary skills and mindset to explore the depths of the underwater world.
Safety Tips for Freediving
Freediving is an exhilarating activity that allows you to explore the underwater world, but it’s crucial to prioritize safety at all times. Here are some essential tips to ensure a safe and enjoyable freediving experience:
1. Get proper training
Enroll in a reputable freediving course to learn essential techniques, safety protocols, and proper breath-holding methods. Training will equip you with the necessary knowledge to handle various situations.
2. Condition your body before your dive
Freediving must only be done if you’re physically fit. To train for a better and safer diving experience, engage in physical fitness training. Try to enhance your overall strength, endurance, and flexibility. Focus on cardiovascular exercises, core strength, and specific exercises targeting muscles used in freediving, such as the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
3. Stay calm and relaxed
Before freediving, develop relaxation techniques to stay calm and focused during dives. Freediving requires divers to be calm and collected to avoid blackouts. Mental preparation, visualization, and meditation exercises can help manage stress and anxiety and enhance concentration while underwater.
4. Never freedive alone
This is a cardinal rule in freediving. Always dive with a buddy or in the presence of a trained safety diver. Though it’s uncommon, blacking out can happen underwater, and it can be fatal when it happens when you’re alone. A diver can lose consciousness due to holding their breath for prolonged periods of time. Having a partner ensures someone is there to assist you if needed and provides an extra layer of safety.
5. Respect your limits
Know and understand your personal limits. Avoid pushing yourself beyond what you are comfortable with, and never dive deeper or stay underwater longer than your training and experience allow.
6. Equalize properly
Learn and practice effective equalization techniques to prevent ear injuries or discomfort. Equalize early and frequently during descent to ensure proper equalization.
7. Never hyperventilate
Avoid hyperventilating (rapid and deep breathing) before a dive. Hyperventilation can reduce carbon dioxide levels in the body, leading to shallow water blackouts and increasing the risk of blackouts without warning signs. If you’re feeling extremely anxious and stressed at the moment you’re about to go underwater, do not continue.
8. Listen to your body
Pay close attention to how your body feels. If you experience any discomfort, pain, or unusual sensations, surface immediately and seek medical attention if necessary.
9. Plan your dives
Before each dive, plan your descent, bottom time, and ascent. Monitor your dive time and depth to avoid pushing your limits unknowingly.
10. Check weather conditions
For your safety, freedive only when the weather and sea conditions are favorable. Avoid strong currents, rough seas, or hazardous underwater environments. Maintain situational awareness at all times.
11. Learn safety and rescue protocols
Learn safety protocols specific to freediving, including proper buddy systems, rescue techniques, recognizing signs of shallow-water blackout or other potential risks, and basic first aid skills. Safety should always be a top priority in freediving.
12. Have proper equipment
Use appropriate freediving gear, including a well-fitting mask, snorkel, fins, and a weight belt. Ensure all equipment is in good condition and regularly maintained.