I am a scuba diver, a tec and cave diver to be more precise; and I like breathing.
The number one rule in scuba diving is never hold your breath. In all the emergency scenarios I have practised throughout my tec diving courses and for all the situations I have been in underwater the most important thing to remember is that if you are still breathing you are still alive and still have a chance.
If you have zero vis in a cave and your buddy is on your long hose and you are navigating your way along the line by touch to get to the surface, as long as you are still breathing you can make it. If you are buddy breathing from the one regulator, in zero vis, while trying to deploy an SMB so you can ascend, you are still breathing and you still have a chance. If your dry suit starts leaking in 4 degree water at the same time your rebreather canister develops a leak while you are penetrating a mine in Finland, if you are still breathing you have a chance to make it back to the surface safely.
So you can understand why the thought of freediving, of voluntarily diving under the water while holding your breath, has never actually crossed my mind. This is the story of how I, a tec diver, learned to freedive and how it may help me to be a better scuba diver.
It was a quiet night at First Buddy Tablas. It was about 7pm and I was considering closing up the shop to spend a few hours reading before bed when my good friend Deo, of Deo’s Islands Ad’ventures (best tour guide on Tablas, by the way) unexpectedly rolled to a stop in front of my door. His van expelled 3 guys around my age, with big smiles all round and carrying dinner for us all and that’s how I met my first freedivers.
Dinner was accompanied by a drink or 3 (ish) and introductions were made. I asked the usual questions that the guys get every time they introduce themselves as freedivers: how deep can you go, how long can you stay down for, etc. And I was intrigued that they can reach depths that take at least 2 or 3 scuba courses and some experience to safely reach on scuba.
The following words from the guys will give you some idea about why freedivers love doing what they do and explain better than I can the allure of going deep under the water on just one breath.
Jan is from the Czech Republic, a freediving instructor and the most experienced freediver of the group. He would be the one to eventually turn this dedicated scuba diver into something resembling an adequate freediver. Jan is what I feel, in my limited experience of freedivers, is the epitome of a freediver; always calm, cheerful and capable of completely enjoying every moment in life. Entirely sassy but modest about his abilities as a diver, he has exceptional knowledge and skill in freediving and a great ability to impart his knowledge to his students.
Petr, also from the Czech Republic and a childhood friend of Jan, is just in the beginning stages of freediving and is continually pushing the boundaries of what he is capable of underwater. From someone who could not swim well, I was lucky enough to witness Petr reach 30m for the first time during his stay on Tablas Island. One of the nicest guys you could hope to meet, just don’t challenge him to a game of pool/billiards.
Wil is a self-confessed master student and is working on his instructor levels in freediving at the moment. A true citizen of the world Wil is one of the most unique people I have ever met in my 30+ years on this planet. I'm trying to find a more specific way to describe Wil, but all I can come up with is that he is a beautiful soul.
These 3 guys had a huge impact on me in both a diving and personal sense during their time on Tablas and I count myself lucky that I had the opportunity to meet them and dive with them. So while they may not all get much of a mention throughout the rest of this story they are all integral to the whole experiance.
They were visiting Tablas for a couple of weeks and wanted to do some free diving here so I offered to take them out to some of the sites here in Binucot Bay, and it turns out that all of our scuba sites here would also be great for freediving.
So we went diving. We all jumped in the rib boat and headed to Padawan’s Pinnacle, the guys in nothing but a wet suit, mask and fins and me in my Sidemount rig with 2 tanks, 2 regulators, 2 masks, 2 knives, an SMB, 2 dive computers, a compass and my camera set up. It made me feel kind of overdressed but each of us were comfortable in our respective gear.
Solo sidemount diving gear vs. freediving gear... there are a few notable differences
Once we were in the water I left the boys on the surface to complete their preparations and I descended to the top of the pinnacle at around 10 m. Vis was not the best but I could still see the guys floating on the surface. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder, somewhat surprising as I was diving alone at the time, and I turned to find Wil behind me with a grin on his face, completely comfortable and at ease 10m deep on just one breath.
I was intrigued to see these guys playing underwater with nothing but one lung full of breath, so comfortable and relaxed and obviously enjoying being there, they were like any other marine animal you see underwater, completely at home in the blue of the ocean. Being curious by nature I wanted to learn more.
Over many dive sessions I watched how they prepared for their dives and I watched them underwater. We had many interesting discussions about both free and scuba diving; how they differ, how they are the same and what considerations must be taken into account in both disciplines. I found there are many parallels between the two types of diving and also some very distinct differences but I was interested to learn to freedive to see if any of the freediving skills could be useful in a scuba diving context.
Freediving training - day 1
Like any other dive training I have ever done the freediving training started with some theory and a power point presentation. Jan went through the history of free diving which began as far back as 4500 b.c. and through to the current record holders for freediving.
We covered the different disciplines within free diving, of which there are many, from Static Apnea (floating motionless, face down in a pool and holding your breath, the record for this stands at 11 minutes 35 seconds by Stéphane Mifsud) to No Limits Apnea where you can use any means at all to descend and ascend from a dive, ie. weights to pull you down to depth and a float to pull you back up to the surface (the current record is an almost unbelievable 214m deep held by Herbert Nitsch).
The physics of being underwater are obviously the same for both free and scuba diving and necessitate adequate equalisation of the ears and sinuses on descent but this becomes interesting while freediving and you only have one breath for said equalisation. The deeper you go on a freedive the more that one breath compresses giving you less volume of air to use for equalisation. You cannot equalise your lungs while free diving so that the one full breath that you take on the surface prior to a free dive continues to compress the deeper you dive.
Safety while freediving, as in scuba, is the most important consideration. The two main safety concerns in free diving are shallow water blackout (which is caused by the dropping PPO2 on ascent when the body has metabolised enough oxygen (O2) during the dive that the one held breath contains less than approx. 11% O2) and loss of motor control (LMC) after surfacing from a dive (which can be caused by a drop in PPO2 often due to improper recovery breathing after a freedive or by psychological or physiological issues).
Due to the short exposure time at depth and the absence of breathing gases with high partial pressure of inert gases decompression considerations do not generally apply in recreational freediving, provided standard surface intervals between dives are practiced. I found that to be an interesting change of mindset, to plan a dive with little to no though as to decompression.
And, similar to the majority of scuba diving, one should always free dive with a buddy, although in free diving one buddy stays on the surface to monitor and be ready to assist the one who is currently under the water.
Theory session completed we moved on to the practical applications of free diving. This, interestingly, started with a relaxation and breathing session on dry land. I found this interesting because it is not something that I have encountered in scuba diving courses and yet I believe it would be extremely beneficial to new scuba divers.
Jan and I made ourselves comfortable reclining in a couple of beach chairs next to the pool, surrounded by palm trees, the sound of the waves hitting the beach in the background, the perfect place to relax. The first exercise we did was abdominal breathing which should be familiar for any scuba diver as it is the preferred way to breath while on scuba (basically you breath from your stomach and you rib cage should remain still throughout the breath).
The key point here was to bring my breathing to such a rhythm that the exhale is longer than the inhale, as much as twice as long, which is even slower than I breathe when I’m scuba diving. This aids in lowering the heart rate, helpful when you are free diving as you only have that one breath of air so you want your body to be in such a state that it using as little O2 as possible.
As a tec diver I am familiar with the necessity of staying calm and relaxed underwater and I have the ability to maintain this calmness throughout a dive but this is one of the biggest things I find lacking in new divers. They tend to rush around underwater and struggle to find that relaxed mindset needed to be comfortable underwater. I believe that a session of relaxation and breathing on dry land prior to getting in the water may be beneficial to beginner divers and I’m keen to try this with my next open water students and see if it helps them.
Freedivers playing around on Tablas Island
Part 2 will be posted in the coming days and will conclude the story of this tec diver learning how to freedive.