My first foray into freediving started off with a surprise. It began with me attempting to swim down towards the ocean floor which was at a depth of 17 meters whilst holding my breath. I did not manage to go past 5 meters before as I was stopped by a strong pressure and alarming discomfort in the chest and throat. Previously I had gone down to 32 meters whilst scuba diving without a problem, so I was shocked that after less than 6 meters I had to stop and turn back.
I was not put off by this first experience, I was determined to become a freediver and later a freediving instructor. It did put on the breaks though. In my mind, I had made the calculation that going down to 32 meters in scuba gear was a piece of cake, so I should be able to hit 40 meters freediving in no time! This naive calculation did not take into account that in freediving you need to adapt to depth and pressure as well as to higher levels of CO2 and lower levels O2.
When you scuba dive you carry with you compressed air, the fact that the air is compressed means that as you dive down your lungs keep filling and emptying with larger and larger quantities of compressed gas, but when you freedive your lungs and the gasses in them just keep shrinking!. As a freediver your lungs are already half their size when you reach 10 meters of depth and they keep shrinking as you go deeper until you reach residual volume and they can shrink no more. At that point, your body kicks into gear an ancient survival mechanism that has been dormant in us for eons. This is has been termed the mammalian dive reflex, this is where the lungs get filled with blood among other things, this reflex is also referred called the blood shift.
Not even seventy years ago the theoretical depth for freediving was calculated to be around 50 meters by the world’s leading physiologists. It was thought that if you went beyond that depth the lungs would get crushed resulting in certain death, at the time it was not considered possible that the mammalian dive reflex could be present in humans. It is thanks to pioneers like Bob Croft, Enzo Maiorca and Jaques Mayol that depths going well beyond 100 meters have been achieved. They were warned not to attempt going deeper and stay within “safe” depths, but they kept going and pushed the physiological limits. Jaques Mayol was convinced that we still retained in us the capabilities from our marine ancestry and he was right. It is thanks to their spirit of adventure and love of science that we know today so much more about the effects of depth, and apnea on the human body.
There were records of people going to depths deeper than 50 meters, but they were discounted as improbable and exaggerated. But Jaques Mayol in his book Homo Delphinus narrates a story of a Greek sponge diver named Haggi Statti who dove down to 80 meters to retrieve the anchor of an Italian military ship the Regina Margherita, the Regina Margherita was paying a courtesy visit to Greece and managed to lose its anchor in the bay of Pigadia in the island of Karpathos. It was there that the services of the sponge diver Haggi Statti were retained to dive down to improbable depths to retrieve it, and retrieve it he did!
Even to this day, there are populations around the world that dive down deep every day as a means of survival. One such group are known in Japan as the ama. This group of divers consists only of women that have been traditionally diving since more than 2000 years according to Japanese tradition. Jaques Mayol was fascinated by the ama and went to Japan to spend time with them and learn from them. Another group of individuals are known generically as the sea gypsies. They exist in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand and are known as the Sama-Bajau, but also are known under different names. There is a documentary on Netflix called Jago: A life underwater that depicts the life of Indonesia’s Bajau. There have been several studies conducted on the Bajau and it has been found that their eyesight has adapted to seeing underwater. They also have a 50% larger spleen which acts a reservoir of fresh red blood cells to allow them to stay longer underwater.
Indians have also been freediving for centuries for pearls in the Palk Bay on the east coast of India. To this day there are still some fishing villages in Tamil Nadu that have freedivers that go out and freedive in the Palk Bay for valuable shells as pearls are no longer found since decades.
It is only now that people all over the world are discovering freediving and freediving schools and centers are opening up to teach this in a safe and controlled way. Freediving is no longer reserved for isolated populations or elite athletes such as Jaques Mayol and his peers. You can now search online for a freediving course and if you are lucky you will not have to travel far to be able to start off your journey freediving.
I kept freediving to allow my body to get adapted to depths more than 5 meters and over time with the help of flexibility exercises, CO2 tables to increase my tolerance to CO2 and Dynamic tables in a pool to also increase my CO2 tolerance as well as low levels of O2, I managed to dive well past 20 meters comfortably. This is to say that you need to allow the body time to adapt so that you can safely and comfortably dive. This will make your future dives comfortable and enjoyable and allow you to enjoy the ocean and other water bodies all with a single breath! I took all the courses that I could take and finally did a freediver instructor training course with PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). This was with the goal of opening India’s first freediving school, which is now India’s first PADI freediver center.
Freediving as a sport is very misunderstood and thought to be very dangerous. This is because many people practice freediving without knowing that it can be fatal to do so without the knowledge that you should never dive alone, and always follow the correct procedures and take all the safety precautions needed. These unsafe practices of freediving have led to fatalities, but if you follow ass the procedures and safety guidelines you will dive safely and avoid getting yourself into a life-threatening situation. Nevertheless we as freedivers enter an environment where we cannot survive beyond a few minutes, and there will always be some risk involved with entering the aquatic world that we have left millions of years ago and are now momentarily re-entering for a few seconds or minutes to experience something that we cannot on the safety of land.
For me, that risk has been worth it and I really enjoy freediving and teaching people to freedive. The ocean where I live is rough and shallow and one needs to go out very far with a boat to freedive at a decent depth, so instead I freedive in an abandoned flooded granite quarry. I consider myself fortunate to have access to such a water body. If you want to learn freediving you can start out with a PADI basic freediver course or a PADI freediver course which will give you all the information you need to start out freediving safely. If you do decide to learn freediving I hope that you have access to freediving buddies, a pool and a water body to freedive in. I hope that you enjoyed reading this blog post which is an introduction to my passion, Freediving!