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April 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Fastest-Growing Segment of Diving?

freediving “is to divers what snowboarders were to skiers”

from the April, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Kirk Krack, who calls himself a "reformed Trimix instructor," says he is a total convert to freediving. For him, scuba -- and the tanks that come with it -- are a thing of the past. "Freediving has a yogaesque meditational aspect to it. It's a much richer, rewarding way to experience ocean and its inhabitants. You come out feeling like you've done some work, but you're on a mental high, like a runner's high, whereas in scuba, you feel tired, primarily because of decompression stress. Scuba is like getting in a Hummer and driving through the forest, while freediving is like putting on a backpack and boots to hike through the forest." He is one of a growing number of divers seeking to test the limits of human endurance by doing freediving. It's growing in popularity and attention -- both by the press and by the scuba industry. But while scuba diving fatalities have leveled off in recent years, freediving deaths are just starting to be officially tracked, and more than half of those fatalities are most likely going unrecorded.

Freediving fans like Krack love the adrenaline rush stemming from plunging, tank-free, to staggering depths, relying on weights or just gravity, and seeing how long they can remain underwater before what can be the hardest part: coming back up. Competitive freedivers have set records, such as diving to 597 feet on a single breath, and remaining static underwater for nearly 12 minutes.

And freediving is the fastest growing segment of the diving industry. That's according to the presidents of three freediving organizations that hold competitions for experienced freedivers and training sessions for novices. Robert King, a Fort Lauderdale-based professional freediver who is vice president of AIDA International, says that while it's still hard to get exact data for the fledgling sport, he estimates an annual growth rate of 20 percent. "It's significantly higher than the entry rate for scuba, which is fairly flat."

Krack, founder of Performance Freediving International, which offers freediving training, says more schools and instructors are popping up all over the place. We're to divers what snowboarders were to skiers -- we're going to revive their industry."

Who's Signing up for Classes?

Krack, who says he has trained 8,000 people in the past five years, including Navy divers and even Tiger Woods, breaks students down into three groups. "One third say they're not divers, another third alternates between freediving and scuba but tends to do more of the former, and the other third are scuba divers who are tired of carrying gear but still love the water and travel. Typically, our students are younger than the average scuba diver, more outdoorsy, more into physical fitness, and more into the adventure of diving."

But King sees a broad group of all ages, from age 18 to middle-age and older. He says age is not a detriment to freediving; in fact, it's a benefit. "As divers get older, their heart rate slows down over time, and that's advantageous for freediving. In fact, one female freediving champ named Natalia Molchanova is over 50 and beating 20- and 30-year olds. You can become very good at freediving in middle age and older. But it's more athletic than scuba, and thus good for people who want to push themselves physically."

And don't forget the low cost. "Freediving is much less expensive, making it a double draw for younger candidates, says Neal Pollock, research director for Divers Alert Network (DAN), and a freediver himself.

Where the Classroom Are

Most freediving training (and even freedive-specific liveaboard trips) takes place far overseas -- top sites include Indonesia, the Philippines and the Red Sea. Finding a freediving course and/ or instructor is getting easier in the U.S. (see our sidebar on page 18 about finding them online). Grant Graves, president of the U.S. Apnea Association, which oversees freediving competitions nationally, says there's an active training scene along the coasts -- Florida and New York on the East, and Los Angeles and San Francisco on the West. SSI offers freediving courses, and both Krack and Graves say PADI is close to announcing a specialty certification in it. In the Caribbean, Bonaire is a hot spot, as is Roatan, which hosts a Caribbean Cup competition each summer. William Trubridge, a record-holding world champion freediver, runs a freediving school named Vertical Blue and often leads courses at Dean's Blue Hole at Long Island in the Bahamas; his next one is September 15-19. ( Here's how Grotto Bay Bahamas describes diving at Dean's Blue Hole -- ).

Krack holds freediving courses at Jack's Diving Locker in Kona. "I see many independent freedive instructors working with dive shops, renting their classrooms and pools, to offer courses," Krack says. But take a course with a certified freediving instructor, not just a scuba-only instructor. "You need the person to understand the specifics of freediving," says Krack. "The physiology, application of physics, and rescue and safety protocols are different."

Topics Covered

In many ways, freediving courses are very similar to scuba training. Topics covered include safety, risks of hypoxic blackouts, understanding your equipment, and physics (pressure changes). What's different is the physiology and training skills covered -- you'll be breathing different underwater, after all, which affects ascents and descents. You will cover safety and problem management (what hypoxia is, how to recognize and handle blackouts at surface and at depth), freedive-specific equipment , and breathing (muscles used, types and at-home exercise) and physiology. "In freediving, equalizing is a lot harder, so we spend a lot of time discussing that," Krack says.

King notes that you can't freedive after scuba, because of decompression. "Rapid ascents in freediving are not safe after you've been doing a lot of dives with compressed air."

You won't see many dive shops promoting freediving, but Krack says it's slowly coming around. "I started my training company in 2000 and back then, when I went to dive shops in Florida, I was seen as a cowboy. Freediving was associated with spearfishing. It was similar to getting Nitrox, a 'witches' brew,' in the early '90s. Now dive shops are finally starting to understand it, because they see the trends, and they see their bottom lines."

Dive shops are seeing that younger people entering freediving means continued growth for them. "The scuba industry sees us as competition," Graves says. "But because we're bringing more people into the sport, they should embrace us as family."

Health Scares and Death Risks

Still, the dangers of freediving are clear. According to DAN, some 70 freediving deaths were recorded worldwide in 2012, up from more than 50 in 2011, and DAN believes many other deaths went unreported. Neal Pollock said the number of recorded deaths is likely only a quarter of all freediving deaths that actually occur (DAN's last official tally of annual U.S. scuba fatalities, in 2008, came in at just under 120.) DAN has maintained a breath-hold incident database from 2004 onward and it sees between 50 and 60 fatalities annually, with roughly half of them happening in the U.S. We are probably only capturing a fraction of the cases," Pollock says. "The lack of physical evidence associated with many breath-hold incidents makes it easy for miscategorization and, very likely, incomplete reporting."

High-profile freediving casualties include California surfer Jay Moriarity, who was the basis for the movie Chasing Mavericks, and French record-setter Audrey Mestre, who died in the Dominican Republic in 2002 while trying to emerge from a 561 foot-dive when a balloon she was going to use to propel her to the surface apparently failed.

At formal freediving competitions, only one death has been recorded in the last 20 years, according to AIDA. New York-based freediver Nicholas Mevoli was that casualty. He surfaced with breathing problems and lost consciousness during a competition at Dean's Blue Hole on November 17 and apparently drowned. AIDA officials said they believe Mevoli, 32, suffered a depth-related injury to his lungs. Freediving record holder Alexey Molchanov told the Associated Press that AIDA should also perform medical tests on athletes before and after diving. "(Mevoli) was pushing himself, and he had injuries from previous diving. Now we know that there are people who can push so much that they don't pay attention to lung injuries."

Pollock says the largest hazard in freediving is excessive hyperventilation. "While a small amount can substantially increase breath-hold time, it does so by reducing the margin of safety that exists between the normal urge to breathe (driven by carbon dioxide accumulation) and the level of oxygen in the body below which loss of consciousness can quickly develop. It does not take much hyperventilation to retain the crucial (irreplaceable) warning mechanism.

He says the freediving community tends to underplay hyperventilation as a hazard, and not identify it as such. "That possibly [increases] the risk in less-experienced divers who do not appreciate the fine line between reasonable and hazardous practices."

"The public perception right now, unfortunately, is 'How crazy is this sport?'" says Krack. "They don't understand we've spent years in training. As freediving is more understood and more people participate, they'll see it's not as crazy, there's a whole science behind it. When it's done properly, it's very safe. As soon as you equalize two or three times and go down 15 feet to see some reef fishes, you can call yourself a freediver. That's why scuba divers are primed for this market."

-- Vanessa Richardson

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