Finding new freedom in and out of the water

Why freedive when you can scuba dive?" "Doesn't it cause brain damage?" "How deep/long can a person really dive on a single breath?" "Isn't it dangerous?" "Those people are crazy!" These were some of my first thoughts in January 2000, when my coach (and now husband), Kirk Krack, first started telling me about the sport of freediving. But my next two thoughts were, "Can I do this?" and "Yes, I think I can."

I was an instructor trainer in recreational scuba and was taking technical courses because I wanted to go deeper, stay longer and learn more. Kirk was an old friend and had just finished training a guy from New Mexico to dive to 262 feet, a new world record in the sport.
Why freedive?
How can you reach 262 feet on a single breath? I was captivated and ready to hear more. I wanted to see if I could do dives that deep, but I wasn't convinced to ditch my tanks just yet. I still wasn't completely sure why anyone would want to freedive. I loved my tanks, and since my air consumption was very good I didn't think I would need freediving to add to my underwater explorations. But I began to realize freediving could offer me freedom, a new challenge and increased comfort in the water.

After receiving some initial training I found I could do on a single breath everything I once did with scuba. True, a single breath-hold dive is shorter than a scuba dive, but a freediving session allowed me to be in the water for several hours, and I could cover a lot more ground. I also discovered the reefs were alive with sounds I'd never heard when diving on scuba. Aquatic creatures weren't scared off by the noise of my bubbles and seemed more curious than they had been before, which made for great underwater pictures. Plus, the freedom you feel without all the extra gear, relying solely on your lungs for air, is unbeatable. You suddenly feel like you belong underwater with the fish. You are not just a visitor anymore, you are at home.

But I wondered what effect freediving would have on my scuba diving, and I was happy to discover my good air consumption got even better when I put tanks back on. My comfort level in the water soared to new heights; once you know you can comfortably dive to 100 feet on a single breath, that same dive on scuba gear doesn't seem quite so deep anymore.

As for the concern about crazy people, I quickly learned freedivers are not the lunatics I once thought they were. Some of them freedive to push their limits and see what humans are capable of, but most people do it for fun. Many freedive to explore the underwater world, take pictures and even get their dinner. Notably, most of the freediving accidents on record happen in the latter group.
Safety first
Recreational freedivers must never make the mistake of thinking accidents won't happen to them. Competitive freedivers tend to pay careful attention to the safety precautions as they generally are very aware of the potential for blackout. Freediving isn't about taking risks; it's about minimizing risks to make successful dives. Whether you freedive for recreation or competition, the number one safety rule is always to dive under the direct supervision of a buddy. Freediving has a very real risk of blackout since holding your breath causes your oxygen levels to decrease. It is just part of the sport. If you freedive long enough you may well experience a blackout or a near-blackout. But if your buddy is close enough to protect your airway when that happens, he or she will be able to keep your head above water until you resume breathing. Thus, a blackout becomes a learning experience instead of a tragedy.

When attempting world records, athletes take safety to the next level. At Performance Freediving International we put at least four different safety systems in place whenever we attempt records or host competitions. Safety is the top priority, and we've developed many of the safety protocols and systems in place today.
Quality instruction

Freedivers rely heavily on the buddy system for training and, of course, safety.

Anyone can grab a mask, fins and snorkel and jump in the water, but obtaining professional training ahead of time will not only teach you to dive with the proper safety measures in place, it will also improve your technique and minimize your learning curve. I have had freediving students tell me they wish courses were available 20 years ago when they first started because they learned more in a four-day training program than they had in two decades of diving.

Freedive training differs from scuba training because freediving skills require physical adaptation, whereas scuba skills are learned motor skills. In fact, freediving, like mountain climbing, has the unusual distinction of requiring physiological adaptation to an external environment. Divers lower their heart rates, shunt blood to their cores and promote other physiological responses. The more you freedive, the stronger these adaptations become.

There are many freediving courses available, and content varies quite a bit. When looking for a course to fit your needs, look for one that is comprehensive. You should be learning a lot more than just how to hold your breath and go underwater. Perhaps the most important element is the safety training. There are courses being offered around the world that have little to no emphasis on safety, which is pretty frightening. Professional courses prioritize the safety component. The better courses also teach you about the physics and physiology of freediving. A good instructor is able to explain complicated topics in simple ways that teach you to associate feelings and sensations with the underlying adaptations and processes. Rather than just rattling off numbers and facts, a good instructor helps you understand what your body is going through and how to make it and the environment do more for you. Class sessions can be just as engaging as pool and ocean sessions if you find the right instructor.
Gear up
Although there is less gear involved in freediving, the gear used is quite specific to divers' needs. You can make do with the gear you currently use as a scuba diver, minus the tanks, BCD and regulators, of course, but as with many sports there are some gear choices designed to improve performance and make your diving much more comfortable. Long-blade fins, a low-volume mask and a freediving wetsuit are the main pieces of equipment that affect performance.

Long-blade fins are probably the most iconic piece of freediving gear. The fins are about 3 feet long and get you moving like no other fin can. Because they push more water with each kick than shorter scuba fins, you can kick less and go farther, conserving energy. This is important as freedivers are always trying to minimize oxygen consumption to allow for longer dives.

Low-volume masks are important because they permit divers to keep more precious air in their lungs rather than having to spend it all to equalize the mask. This increased reserve is useful for equalizing the ears and sinuses in addition to prolonging dive time.

Wetsuits can also directly affect freediving performance. Even the slightest chill when freediving can cause your oxygen consumption to skyrocket. Furthermore, being cold may make your muscles tighten up and precipitate shivering, which can make equalizing harder. Proper wetsuits are also important for safety reasons. A freediver should always be positively buoyant in case of a near-blackout or blackout.

I love freediving for many reasons, but principal among them is it changed my outlook on life. I have heard from many past students that it changed theirs, too. Freediving offers a challenge that teaches you what you are capable of doing, and it's often a lot more than you think. For example, during the first day of our classes we tell students they'll probably be doing around four-minute breath-holds and diving to depths of 100 feet by the end of the class. We often see people rolling their eyes and can almost hear them saying, "that might be one of your other students, but it won't be me." They probably came to the class hoping to do a two-minute breath hold and maybe a 50-foot dive. After four days that same student often leaves having met or exceeded those times and depths, sometimes doubling them. Their excitement is visible as they begin to wonder how much more they can do.

When that happens to you, you start to believe you can reach many more goals you used to think were out of reach. I fell in love with the way freediving urged me on. Each time I completed a personal best dive I left wanting more. For some the experience can be profound. Even if you have never thought about trying freediving before, it's a sport worth exploring. It's an activity for all ages and a great complement to scuba diving; it can be a challenging sport or just a new way to experience the underwater world. So give it a try. All you have to lose is some gear.

© Alert Diver — Spring 2012
Watch the video

Although a single breath-hold dive is shorter than a scuba dive, a freediving session can last several hours, allowing extensive exploration of a site.