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This article is a beginner’s guide to free diving. We will look at what free diving is, what distinguishes it from other forms of diving, and how you can begin your adventure with this fun and exciting underwater activity.
One of the things we will learn is the great diversity of interesting and competitive activities that come under the broad heading of free diving. For example, have you ever heard of “competitive apnea”? Probably not. But in free diving, holding your breath (“apnea”) is usually a good thing.
What Is Free Diving?
Free diving is a form of underwater swimming or diving where the person holds their breath through the duration of a single dive. Generally, the idea is to prolong holding the breath to enable the diver to go many meters below the surface of the water to experience and explore undersea life-forms and marine bottom-scapes.
In addition, these diving techniques can be used to enable many different forms of underwater activity, from spear-fishing to competitive diving, and even competitive apnea. All these activities share the need for the participant to hold their breath, usually for as long as safely possible.
Some of the benefits of free diving compared to scuba diving, which requires the use of an underwater breathing apparatus (diving tanks, etc.) are:
- Much lower equipment cost—free diving does not require any equipment at all
- Free divers don’t have as many safety concerns as scuba divers
- Free divers are “free” of heavy equipment—so can move about more naturally
- No excess bubbles—the sea life doesn’t get so startled
We should clarify a couple of points here.
While it is true you do not need any equipment at all to begin free diving, many free divers do use equipment, which we will discuss in more detail below. But basically, mask, fins and sometimes snorkels can be used by all divers, including beginners.
While it is true free divers do not face as many risks (few decompression concerns for example) as scuba divers, this does not mean that free diving is risk-free. Obviously, that is not likely to be the case with an activity where the main idea is to hold your breath. Learning how to properly breathebefore and during a dive is an important safety concern. Again, we will look at this in more detail below.
Free Diving Is Ancient
It should not surprise us that an activity as natural, and essentially low-tech, as free diving has been around for thousands of years. And this is especially the case since global coastlines offer such an abundance of food, much of it accessible to free divers.
Not only have free divers explored for food, but their special skills, which can be honed to enable very deep and very prolonged dives, have been employed by those with other goals entirely. For example, we know that in 332 BC, Alexander the Great employed breath-holding divers (free divers) to help dismantle the defenses of Tyre, an ancient Phoenician coastal stronghold.
And free-diving techniques, especially long breath-holding abilities, have been key in the development of survival skill-sets for US Navy personnel, especially submariners.
However, for most people drawn to this kind of diving, their goals are much more personal—learning how to free dive better and more safely in order to have a great time!
Is Free Diving Safe?
It may seem a little strange to consider this as a safe activity when you intentionally hold your breath for as long as possible and then plunge as deeply as possible underwater.
But, the breath-holding is usually a means to an end—the enjoyment of the considerable rewards of exploring a part of our world that most people will never see up close and personal. That amazing experience can most certainly be achieved safely.
Sure, there are risks involved in any kind of diving. And, the key to managing those risks is to know what they are and to take them into account in your preparation and performance of each and every dive you do. So, let’s take a look at what that means with this most natural kind of diving.
Remember, unlike in scuba diving, and even in snorkeling, which enables you to breathe just under the surface of the water, free diving is based on the idea you will be holding your breath through the dive. For beginners, this is something that may seem a little scary at first. How long is safe? How deep should you go?
Before we answer particulars about safe beginning dives, we need to talk about the most important thing—breathing, and not breathing. And the main thing we need to look at is how your body breathes, and how and when it makes you breathe—especially when you are trying not to.
How We Breathe and Don’t Breathe
Each breath we take is in two parts:
1. Inhalation—the lungs draw air in and retrieve oxygen2. Exhalation—the lungs expel air and eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2)
Oxygen Is required to perform energy production in our cells, including in the cells of our brain. Without oxygen, our cells are quickly starved of a key fuel component, and if the oxygen deprivation is in the brain, we lose consciousness and soon die.
Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is a byproduct or a waste gas of our cells’ energy production process. This gas must be removed by the lungs through exhalation because too much carbon dioxide is toxic to us.
So, as you may notice here, the whole breathing process is based on a balance between these two gases—oxygen and carbon dioxide. Our body has sensors inside it that monitor the amount of both of these chemicals in our bloodstream.
Interestingly, the main sensor, the one that basically makes us breathe, is the one for carbon dioxide. When CO2 levels get too high, the urge to breathe will eventually force us to take a breath, even if we are trying not to.
This helps to explain why many free divers practice loading up on oxygen and eliminating carbon dioxide, for example by hyperventilating, before a dive. And, that can be a big safety problem.
What Is Shallow Water Blackout?
The reason why it is bad to lower carbon dioxide to very low levels prior to a dive is that the moment you begin holding your breath, your oxygen levels begin dropping. Normally, before the oxygen level in your body reaches a critically low level, the carbon dioxide sensor in your body will go off, forcing you to take a breath.
But, because free divers are trying to hold their breath as long as possible, preventing the carbon dioxide sensor from forcing the diver to breathe has been, in the past, considered a good thing. The danger in this is, because the body’s oxygen level continues to drop throughout the dive, and because the much-lowered carbon dioxide levels are not urging the diver to breathe, the oxygen level can drop to a critical point—including the point of losing consciousness entirely, without the diver even realizing they are in trouble.
This is called “shallow water blackout”, and it is the number one killer of competent swimmers and divers. The problem is that because the oxygen level is so low at the point of experiencing this kind of blackout, the diver only has a short time to be rescued before brain damage and death can occur.
The main way to avoid this happening, along with developing proper, safe, breathing and breath-holding skills, is to always use a diving partner or buddy. Or, as free divers say—never dive alone!
What Are the Essentials of Safe Free Diving?
Let’s be very clear. The vast majority of people who hyperventilate and then dive are not going to lose consciousness and die. But, what they are doing is dangerous, and they are increasing the chances that they may get into serious trouble.
That is what safe free diving is all about—decreasing the chances you will get into trouble, and increasing the chances you will enjoy, and not fret through your diving experience.
The key safe diving tips you will want to learn and use are:
- Do not dive alone!—the #1 safety tip
- Never ignore or try to prevent the urge to breathe (e.g. by hyperventilating)
- No long or repetitive underwater activity
- Avoid pushing yourself to your limits
Diving partners or buddies are essential to safe free diving or any sort of underwater activity.
Here are the main points a good diving buddy must learn:
- Dive with a buddy whose skills/limits are the same as your own
- Only dive according to the skills of the least capable diver
- Keep your buddy constantly in sight
- Dive with one person up and one person down
- Be watchful of your buddy for at least 30 seconds after surfacing
- Discuss how to handle blackouts if they should occur
The last point is essential because, in spite of practicing safe diving guidelines, blackouts may occur. If they do, both diving buddies need to know what to do.
Here are the key tips if a blackout occurs:
- Get your buddy to the surface immediately
- Remove their mask, lightly blow on and tap their face, encourage breathing
- If unresponsive open their airway and begin rescue breathing
- Get the victim to land or a boat ASAP
- Seek help from EMS, 911, or hail the Coast Guard
Essential Gear You Need
The good news is that there is no essential gear to begin having fun with free diving. As we have noted above, the only tools you require to do this ancient activity are your body and the ability to hold your breath while underwater.
However, as you develop your skills, and as your objectives and goals motivate you to go deeper with your dives, you will likely want to investigate the gear that can dramatically improve your diving experience and performance.
And, the truth is, that even beginning divers can benefit from this gear, so “essential” is determined greatly by the diver.
Tools of the Dive
So, let’s say you want to start off your diving experience with the right gear. What is that?
There are basic elements of diving/swimming gear that pretty much all divers will want to have.
- Mask—should be watertight, fit your face, and give a clear field of vision
- Fins—these fit on your feet and magnify the power of your leg-strokes
- Snorkel—not essential but this tool gives you more options
The mask covers your face and nose, giving you as clear a view of what is around you as you can get. You will want the mask to fit tightly enough to prevent leakage, but not so tight that it leaves marks on your skin. You should try out masks at a dive shop because the fit is impossible to determine online.
As for fins, the idea is to magnify the power of your stroke or kick through the water. Generally, the longer and more responsive the fin, the more power you will get for each stroke. This will move you faster and deeper through the water while not burning as much of your precious oxygen. Plastic fins are cheaper, but generally, won’t have as much water-moving power as more expensive fiberglass and carbon-fiber fins.
Finally, snorkels do not have to be expensive or have special features to do the job. The idea of the snorkel is to give you the ability to breathe, through the tube sticking in the air, while your face is just immersed in the water, enabling you to have a shallow-water view of what is below you. If and when you decide to dive beneath the water’s surface, you are then using breath-holding techniques just like any free diver.
Your Free Diving Guide
Here, in addition to the information we have already provided you, is a basic guide to getting started with free diving.
How to Prepare for Your First Dive
Assuming this dive will be happening someplace more challenging than the deep end of the swimming pool, where the basic safety rules still apply, there are a few things you will want to make sure you have done before beginning your dive.
For one thing, the more fit you are, the easier it will be to perform the physical functions of the dive. If you are seriously out of shape, you may want to improve your physical fitness a bit before beginning diving.
Some other basics to learn:
- Learn how to breathe
- Learn how to equalize
- Learn how to dive
Breathe Right—Then Dive
So, what does it mean to learn how to breathe?
Remember, we talked about the dangers of the wrong kind of breathing and how that can lead to shallow water blackout. But, at the same time, you want to prepare your body so you can safely maintain your breath for as long as possible underwater. The basic guideline to follow is to saturate your blood with oxygen, but do not try to drastically reduce your carbon dioxide level; so, no hyperventilating.
Instead, take long, relaxed breaths combined with even longer exhales—that will prevent you from exhausting the carbon dioxide in your body. When you are ready to dive, completely empty your lungs and then take one, deep breath, completely filling your lungs.
Then take your dive. After the dive, remember to spend time on the surface recovering. Your breathing should return to normal before you try to dive again.
What Is Equalizing?
As we descend below the surface of the water, the pressure of the air inside the mask and in our sinuses increases. This will cause pain and potential injury if the pressure is not equalized.
To accomplish this, you must force air into the mask and into your sinuses. There are a number of methods to equalize air pressure in your sinuses, but you will need to release a small bit of air from your lungs to equalize the pressure in the mask. Since you are starting out with a limited air supply, you want to practice this technique to release only the minimum amount of air required to equalize the mask.
How to Dive
Again, this may seem strange to you. Doesn’t everybody know how to dive into the water? But, there are way more efficient ways to do it that you can learn and practice. For example, you can learn something called a “duck dive”, which mimics a duck’s highly efficient dive motion. You can learn to use diving fins to magnify the power of your stroke so you get to the depth you desire with as little energy and oxygen expenditure as possible.
In this article, we have covered some of the basics of learning what free diving is and what you will need to learn to do it. Always remember that in free diving, there are right, safe, ways to do things, and you should learn those ways and practice them. You’ll have a lot more fun that way.