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October 2001 Vol. 27, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Alternative to Scuba

freediving rises in stature

from the October, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Freediving is going mainstream. From SlimFast commercials featuring U.S. Women’s Champion Mehgan Heaney-Grier to a feature article in The Wall Street Journal, the original form of diving is making a comeback.

The International Association of Free Divers in North Miami, Fla., claims that their sport has grown by 25 percent in the last three years. A growing number of dive shops, resorts, and vessels are offering free diving courses to get people into the sport without becoming statistics (see sidebar). These courses vary widely in content and cost, and there is no standardization. You can pay anywhere from $100 for a halfday course with Dive Tech on Grand Cayman to $480 for freediving legend Jacques Mayol’s four-day Apnea- Skin Diver course, which includes boat dives.

And, there are even freediving live-aboard trips, like Peter Hughes’ journey from the Turks and Caicos to the Silverbanks to dive with humpback whales.

Freediving offers some unique advantages over scuba. Unencumbered by a tank, gauges, BC or weight belt, freediving is as close as we’ll ever come to soaring like Peter Pan. It’s silent, and therefore the best way to approach critters like dolphins, mantas and whale sharks, who might be spooked by bubbles and noise. A freediver’s explorations are also concentrated in the optimal sunlight zone, where colors are most vivid. It’s as close to nature underw ater as you’re going to get.

And there’s the challenge. Apart from marching through the surf or swimming against currents, scuba diving for most of us is without physical demands. About the only thing a scuba diver can brag about is how much air he came up with compared to everyone else. Freedivers can set real goals for the depth or duration of their dives, and then train to achieve those goals. That’s what differentiates free diving, a true sport, from scuba diving, a form of recreation.

About the only thing a scuba diver can brag about is how much air he came up with compared to everyone else. Freed i vers can set real goals for themselves.

Furthermore, people who only freedive to spearfish, equate it to bowhunting, and look askance at those who shoot fish on scuba.

Some of the sport’s current popularity is due to the publicity given to several record-setting competitive dives. Pipin Ferreras, the current world champion in the no limits cate gory, has ridden a sled down a drop line to 531.5 FSW, deeper than the downed Kursk submarine when it met its doom. Ferreras and his wife, Audrey Mestre-Ferreras, set a mixed tandem breath-hold record in May by descending together to a depth of 381 feet (116m) on the same sled off Florida. That was just a tune-up for Audrey, who broke her own female no-limits record the next day. In the nolimits category, divers are pulled down by a weighted sled, leave it at the bottom, and use a lift bag to return to the surf ace .

Another female champ, Tanya Streeter, set her sixth world record the same month off the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, when she finned down to 230 FSW, grabbed a tag and returned to the surface in 2 minutes and 36 seconds. Tanya’s record is in the constant weight categ ory, in which the diver can wear weights but cannot ditch them before ascending.

On June 30, Brazilian Karoline Dal Toe, 32, set a women’s world record of 6:13. In July, 24-year- old Martin Stepanek of Wilton Manors, Fla., set the record for simple breathholding — static apnea — by holding his breath and lying on the bottom of a pool in Fort Lauderdale for 8 minutes and 6 seconds. And in early September, a New Zealand man testing his breathholding endurance, drowned in a swimming pool in Fiji — the day before, he stayed underwater for 4 minutes.

Freediving is also known as breath-hold or apnea diving (apnea is the act of voluntarily holding one’s breath). But by any name, the sport comes with its own risks, such as ear problems, shallow-water blackout, embolism, and, in extreme cases, even the bends.

While holding your breath, your lungs and the air in them are compressed to match. The human body can withstand enormous pressures, but compressed air in the lungs creates a whole set of potential problems.

Here’s what it’s like to dive to great depths, according to Helen Phillips, writing in New Scientist Magazine:

“ It’s deathly dark, wet, and you’re chilled right through. You haven’t drawn a breath for a couple of minutes now, and your heart is barely beating. Your lungs have been crushed until they take up little more space than a Coke can, and although your spleen has splurged out a mass of extra blood cells, your veins have collapsed and the blood is forced out of your limbs into the space where your lungs should be. What little oxygen you have left is devoted only to keeping your heart and brain ticking, and there’s an intolerable pain as your eardrums feel about to burst.”

Freedivers need to get up and down as rapidly as possible. They usually can’t pause to clear their ears on descent, or to let built-up pressure escape slowly while surfacing. So some pain is to be expected, and the Eustachian tubes must be cleared gently and often to avoid ear drum damage.

Shallow-water blackout occurs when the diver ascends and the compressed lungs expand again, doubling in volume in the final 30 FSW. The pressure drops within the lungs, so less oxygen passes into the blood, leading to the risk of fainting which has resulted in injuries and death. Divers may “come up, look a little dazed, and pass out,” explains Glennon Gingo, coach of a Hawaii freediving team. There’s little or no warning, and even champions like Ferreras have experienced blackouts.

Pulmonary embolisms are caused when pressurized air is trapped in a closed-off portion of the lungs. Freedivers generally ascend faster than scuba divers, without “off-gassing.” So as ambient pressure decreases, trapped air can expand to the point of rupturing delicate lung tissue.

Although freediving is billed as safer than scuba, scientists have determined that enough nitrogen can be taken into the bloodstream to cause the bends during deep repetitive dives with short surf ace intervals. “People will tell you there’s no danger,” Ivan Montoya, a physician at the Diving Center in Miami’s Mercy Hospital, told The Wall Street Journal, “but there is.” DCS-like symptoms have been found among Japanese breathhold divers. And freediving after compressed air diving has led to more than one sudden death.

So far, PADI and NAUI are slow to jump on the freediving bandwagon. NAUI offers only an introductory snorkeling certification. PADI sponsors a one-of-a-kind specialty certification taught by Jacques Mayol and his son Jean-Jacques in Key Largo, the Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Sweden. To fill the void, the International Association of Free Divers has sprung up offering certifications in North Miami, Florida and a few European locations. Four levels of training can take you from snorkeler to master freediver with the ability to go 30 meters deep. IAFD also offers specialty certifications in underwater hunting, video, and scooter diving.

Freediving is hardly for every one, but if you’re tiring of the same old reefs, visiting them on a breath-hold dive will give you an entire new perspective, as well as time and depth challenges you won’t find with a tank strapped on your back.

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