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So You Think You Wanna Freedive?

Basically, Free-diving is breath holding. Type the term into Google and you receive a relatively broad spectrum of searches – “The Zen of Free-diving”, “Getting Started” and free-diving associations from around the world. Most of which discuss the same sorts of things pertaining to the

They key to free-diving is a word in the name itself – free. True champions of the discipline and lovers of the sport all claim the same, when you are beneath the sea with nothing but the suit on your back and the simple anatomic reactions enacted by the act of ignoring your breath the encompassing ease and resulting relaxation is akin to a meditative state, and one of the most marvelous feelings in the world.

However for some, breath holding won’t be your game, of course it is an ability one can practice and improve but due to the intricacies of individual physiology it may not be the optimal sport for your system so please take care should you want to try free-diving for yourself.


Before you begin, cause all good things have a few rules:

  1. Do not begin free-diving by yourself. Take a buddy into the pool or shallow spot in the ocean and do not leave each-other alone during your practice sessions. Some of the worlds best free-divers have succumbed to fatal accidents in no more than 3 metres of water because no one was watching out for them. Anyway, it’s more fun if you have support.
  2. You are not a fish. Nor will you suddenly be a fantastic free-diver after your first attempt at a prolonged period beneath the surface. Altering your body’s natural impulses to breath take practice, and improve with time and training.
  3. Don’t free-dive drunk, hungover or on any illicit drugs. Your body will react differently after use of these chemical alterations and it is possible that your natural limits will change without your awareness.
  4. Enjoy it. Free-diving is about being free, not about being the big man (or woman) in the ocean. Relax and enjoy the sport, the only person you have to compete with, and indeed the only one you can control is you.

How is it possible?

Mammalian Diving Reflex. We’re animals right? Despite the fact we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking our species is super evolved (seriously, go out clubbing on a Saturday night then tell me we’re this planet’s superior species..!) we still operate on basic instincts. One of which is called the “Mammalian Diving Reflex”. This reaction occurs the moment our faces are placed in tepid water – the heart-rate slows down (also known as bradycardia) and blood vessels constrict in less essential parts of the body in order to reroute its energy to the vital organs, namely the brain, and the heart. We actually weren’t aware that humans were capable of the MDR until trials in the 1950’s however scientists began to understand and document it in animals in the early 1900’s.

*Interesting fact. If you hold a baby (of up to 9 months) under water it will naturally hold its breath for up to 40 seconds while flailing around in swimming motions. For unknown reasons we cease this instinctive reaction once we start walking.

Apnea. Apnea is defined as the temporary cessation or absence of breathing. When you hold your breath AND stick your head into the water the MDR kicks into overdrive, when you remove your face from the water and breath again, the reflex stops.

Free-diving uses both the Mammalian Diving Reflex and apnea as well as special finning techniques, unique weighting and mental discipline to achieve ever increasing depth in the water without utilizing breathing equipment.

The path and progression of free-diving as a sport

Free-diving has been around for a very long time, early civilizations would surely have held their breath to fish for supper or explore the underwater world as much as possible. Long thought to be mere legend the first known free-diver was Chatzistathis, a 35 year old Greek sailor who managed to retrieve an anchor from a sunken ship grounded at 88 metres below sea-level with only the air in his lungs. The dive is said to have lasted 3 minutes and occurred in 1913.^

Free-diving officially became a sport in 1949 when Hungarian fighter pilot and spear-fisher accepted a 50.000 lire bet that he could reach a depth of 30 metres below the surface without an oxygen supply off of Naples. Ironically the instigator of the bet, Ennio Falco beat his record just a few years later.

Over the next few decades the sub-surface sport gained popularity throughout the world, Enzio Maiorca blasted past 50 metres in 1962 to the amazement of scientists who were convinced the pressure exerted by that much water would collapse the human lungs. Jacques Mayol took the sport in a new direction using relaxation yoga techniques and meditation to calm his body rather than the previously practiced hyperventilation and plunged to 100 metres deep.

We can thank Robert “Bob” Croft for his scientific trials and discovery of the Mammalian Diving Reflex in the 1960’s along with the Glossopharyngeal Breathing Technique.

One of the most interesting aspects of free-diving is that it seems to be a sport that choses its players. Some people are born with the ability and free-diving makes no distinction or segregation by age, gender, or nationality. In fact Italian Angela Bandini astounded the aquatic community by being the first person (not just woman, the first PERSON) to reach 107 metres in 1989.

The 1980’s and 90’s saw the growth and development of an international free-diving community and on the 2nd of November, 1992 the Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (or AIDA) was born.

Since the creation of AIDA and the explosion of easy long distance communication there is a tight, talented global network of free-divers including those interested in competition, instruction and scientific exploration.

Unlike other sports however free-diving is not solely governed by AIDA, it is the sport of the individual and due to the various techniques involved, in addition to the intrinsic fact that free-diving is unique each and every diver those involved are mostly intelligent, exciting people with a lust for self improvement and personal achievement.

To quote Sébastien Murat, one of the worlds leading free-divers, a scientist and innovator, “free-diving is different for everyone, if you are the one who needs to be the best and push the limits to prove that you are, go home. It is about training your mind and your body, putting together pieces of the puzzle to aquatic achievement.”


Types of competitive free-diving (as defined by AIDA Disciplines)^


The diver follows an anchored rope aiming to achieve the greatest depth possible and return to the surface with no propulsion equipment and without touching the rope.


The diver follows an anchored rope aiming to achieve the greatest depth possible and return with the use of fins or a mono-fin. The diver may hold onto the rope once to stop descending and turn around.


The diver aims to achieve the longest horizontal distance possible without the use of fins or other propulsion equipment.


The diver aims to achieve the longest horizontal distance possible with the use of fins or a mono-fin.


The diver attempts to hold their breath for the longest possible time either on or beneath the surface of the water with both their mouth and nose submerged at a minimum.


The diver follows an anchored rope aiming to achieve the greatest depth possible and return to the surface with no propulsion equipment. The diver may use the rope to assist their descent and ascent.


The diver follows an anchored rope using a weight or sled device to the greatest depth possible and ascends using only their own strength either by swimming or by pulling themselves up with the rope.


The diver descends using weights to the greatest depth possible and ascends using whatever method they choose including balloons, inflatable vests and the like.


Gear to get you started.

Did all of that wet your whistle? Great! So what do you need to give it a try?

  • free-diving mask. Visit your local dive shop to find a mask that fits you properly. Without stretching the strap around your head place the mask on your face and breathe in. If it stays in place by suction alone, you’re in good shape.
  • snorkel. Most masks do not come with a snorkel. Choose one that fits comfortably in your mouth without feeling the need to clench your jaw or stretching your lips.
  • wetsuit. Depending on your location you may need a neoprene wetsuit (for colder water) or a full body rash guard (for warmer water). If you live in the tropics you can probably get away with Speedo’s and a lack of body hair but what you are trying to achieve is the path of least resistance in the water so you can move quickly and efficiently through the sea. Although you may not be submerged for an extended amount of time like SCUBA divers you do not want to get cold as shivering makes it much more difficult to relax and control your body underwater.
  • fins. Free-diving fins are lightweight and long, different to SCUBA fins. Select a pair that comfortably fit your feet and do not slip – they need to feel like part of your anatomy.
  • weights. Humans are naturally buoyant (most humans) so you will need weights to pull you downward or to control your rate of ascent/decent. Visit your local dive shop or sign up to a diving forum like DeeperBlue.com for more beginner information


I’m all geared up and ready to rock – now what?

According to Fabrizio Serra, Italian free-diving instructor at www.waterinstinct.it, start training yourself to slow your breath in a safe place where you feel relaxed, like lying in your bed. Take long, deep breaths and then, when you feel your entire body is calm and no part of you is tense, take a breath in and hold it as you click the timer on your chronograph. When you feel the first need-to-breath contraction, suppress it by splitting your focus, conjugate verbs, think of that cute girl in your English lecture class, trace shapes on the wall with your eyes. Eventually the need to breath will get the better of you and that’s ok, stop the timer and give yourself a pat on the back, you’re on your way to becoming a free-diver.

Once you feel ready, grab your kit and your companion and hit the pool. Train yourself to hold your breath while floating face down at the surface first, then gradually build up to doing the same while weighted at the bottom of the pool. After you’re getting good at that try doing the first half of your dive (until you feel the breathing reflex contracting halfway to your limit – you’ve been practicing and timing yourself so you know where that will be!) and swim gently for the second half.

Keep it up, train your body and your mind, enjoy the experience with your buddy and share it with free-diving devotees around the world online.




^AIDA International www.aidainternational.org/freediving/history

Diving InDepth.com http://divingindepth.com/mammalian-diving-reflex/

Freedive.net http://www.freedive.net/freediving/freedving.htm

Water Instinct http://www.waterinstinct.it/

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