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March 2007 Vol. 22, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Joy of Freediving

for scuba veterans seeking a new thrill

from the March, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Although freediving was in vogue decades ago, it nearly disappeared when scuba gear became widely available. But it has rebounded since, especially now that some big fish trips no longer allow scuba gear. Two examples: seeing the whale sharks of Holbox and even Utila, where you must enter water with snorkels only; and the humpbacks of the Silverbanks near the Dominican Republic. Today, more freediving courses are being offered to divers, even in tropical locations like the Cayman Islands.

With scuba, I’m generally looking at the bottom or focusing on a specific subject. But while freediving, my focus is much broader, taking in the entire visible environment. I’m exploring the entire water column, moving through its length. I spend more time looking into blue water, and that’s where I see more mammals and pelagic fish. And, unlike scuba, where I’m often on a leisurely underwater stroll, my body is working and my mind is fully alert.

When I dived with a tank in Northern California, I didn’t see harbor seals. My bubbles were a constant disturbance—sea lions blow bubbles as an aggressive, territorial display; and some whales use bubbles while hunting. So while bubbles can frighten many sea creatures, the undersea world is friendlier to a freediver (or a rebreather diver). During many freediving trips to collect abalone, harbor seals seemed to seek me out. I was living like a harbor seal— breathing, submerging and then returning to the surface for air. (I wonder if this leads other sea mammals to an affinity toward the divers.) I have spent many hours with harbor seals at my side, and often I’m chased or led to the surface by a seal. I have found myself in a pod of spinner dolphins, feeling their clicks deep in my chest. World-class photographers like Al Giddings and Amos Nachoum have told me that freediving is the only way to interact effectively with orcas, as well as blue, humpback and sperm whales.

Freediving is a combination of yoga and meditation in a weightless medium. Practiced breathing, relaxation, slowing heart rate, followed by a dive among 100 or more yellowtail jacks, a school of barracuda or playful sea lions borders on the spiritual. Bottom times of well over a minute are common and some spear fishermen can stay under for up to four minutes. However, even while snorkeling quietly on the surface, I’ve watched massive amounts of baitfish mill around, some using me like a floating patch of seaweed to seek protection, food or shade. I’ve seen their frantic reactions when a predator entered the area, the mass of life darting back into the protection of the reef, only to return later to peaceful feeding.

Once underwater, a physiological response—in all mammals, including humans—shifts us into oxygen-saving mode. Our heart rate slows. Blood flow to our extremities is restricted and thus shifts to our chest, saving oxygen for vital organs and our brain. Freediving becomes an extreme sport as we leave the surface. The deeper we go and the longer we stay under, the more extreme it becomes.

One danger faced by free divers is shallow water blackout, the sudden loss of consciousness when the brain is starved of oxygen. This is typically associated with hyperventilating, which purges the body of carbon dioxide, but it does not significantly affect the amount of oxygen in one’s system. A buildup of carbon dioxide triggers the breathing reflex. If the carbon dioxide is purged by hyperventilation and the urge to breathe is suppressed, freedivers can draw down the oxygen in their blood to a point that they pass out with no warning, usually in the last few feet before reaching the surface.

However, divers practicing dynamic apnea (underwater swimming) in pools have also passed out and drowned after prolonged immersions. Ironically, more experienced divers, who tend to make longer and deeper dives, are most susceptible to blackouts. Though they are trained to avoid hyperventilation, they learn other tricks that allow them to override the desire to breathe. In a study published in the journal Undersea & Hyperbaric Medicine, researchers reported greater risk of blackouts in dives exceeding 30 feet or dive times greater than 1 minute 32 seconds.

For anyone who wants to go beyond snorkeling, formal training will enhance both the safety and the experience. A few SSI and PADI training centers offer freediving specialty courses. The International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (www.iantd.com) has both advanced and master freediver classes, and the International Association for Development of Apnea presents introductory and competitive classes in exotic locations around the world (www. aida-international.org).

I had dived for years thinking thirty feet was a rare dive that occurred only on my best days. With techniques taught during a few evenings in a pool, I was diving to forty feet easily and repeatedly, spending well over a minute down there. Forty feet was achieved by everyone in the class, including divers who had only done dives of fifteen feet at their best.

If you’re one who cares to test the limits of possibility, there are a variety of competitive freediving disciplines that can lead to diving depths of 610 feet for men, 600 feet for women, and breath hold times of almost nine minutes. One website that tracks such competitions is www.deeperblue. net.

-- John Kushwara

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