People often look at me with disbelief when I tell them that I like to hold my breath and subject my body to high pressure, while diving underwater. Mainly because there is a lot of misinterpretation when it comes to freediving, even from me. So let me break it down for you… the way I see it.
Lets start with the basics or as I like to see it, the boring explanation. Freediving is essentially, with the use of fins, a mask, and a snorkel, diving up and down a water column while holding a single breath of air. This can be done in seawater as well as freshwater. The deeper you go, the higher the pressure, so you need to know how to equalize your air spaces. Once you reach a certain point, you begin something that is called a free fall, where you are no longer buoyant and therefore start to sink. When you are ready or have reached your target depth, you turn around and make your way up to the surface.
That is the basics, but what is Freediving really? This is my experience of it.
We all know the saying “do as the locals do”. Well that largely applies to freediving as well. When I dive, I get to experience the ocean like the animals do. Be it twisting and turning like the seals of Partridge point in Cape Town or darting into caves and swim-throughs of the Yellow Wall in the Maldives. When I dive I can hear the crackling of the reef and the sound of the sand moving in the surge. There are no gear restrictions or noise to interfere with my underwater experience. I feel weightless and free, and part of my environment not just viewing it. Most people use the excuse that they can just go scuba diving. Now I am both a scuba diver and a freediver, and the most apparent difference to me is the following. During Scuba diving we are merely guests of the underwater world with gear that allows us to remain there until our air is up. However with freediving you actively embrace what years of evolution has hidden deep within our physiology. Our bodies were once designed to hold our breath while being underwater.
I now move away from the external view to the internal one. Let me take you through a deep freedive as I experience it from start to finish. It all starts with the breath-up. I lie there on the surface, motionless, counting down my two minutes. During this time, I visualize every aspect of my dive and what to expect. I am personally a very technical diver so I know that I need sixteen kicks to get to twelve meters where I become neutrally buoyant. From there on I know I should free fall at about one meter per second. I know that at nineteen meters, I should hit my first thermocline (temperature drop), which often makes my diaphragm contract. I think about all of this before my dive because it helps me deal with any pre-dive anxiety and helps me relax while I dive. At my 30-second mark I am breathing to full capacity, making sure that I can get a full breath of air. My brain is 100 percent focused on the task in front of me.
I start the dive with a simple Duck-dive, stretching my body out and reaching out to the sea bottom. Once vertical, I equalize making sure my technique and counting is perfect until I get to twelve meters. This is the moment when freediving becomes the stuff of dreams. I become negatively buoyant, so I no longer have to kick. When you start your fall into the abyss, is when you feel most connected with yourself and your surroundings. Sometimes I struggle to stay focused and this can give me a bit of stress when I dive. I don’t believe that this makes me a bad diver because you shouldn’t try to be perfect. What I like to do is actually sing in my head. I know it sounds crazy but it is what works for me to keep me calm and in control. If I’m feeling confident and relaxed, I close my eyes and let my body turn off. Pressure causes my wetsuit to hug me tighter and my lungs feel small, but I feel free, I feel alive and I feel a huge sense of achievement.
After what seems like seconds, I hear the familiar sound of my lanyard touching the bottom plate and prepare myself for the swim up to air. I am careful to turn slowly and take that little piece of material off the bottom plate. I often want to just stay at the bottom plate to observe the world around me, but never do. One must never stay at depth under the false sense of security that deep diving gives you. This is the part where my mind switches to a hundred percent focus again. Careful not to expend too much energy, I now fin my way back to the light, careful not to look up. My Instructor always taught me that if you look up and see how far away you are from the surface, you would panic and cause all kinds of trouble for yourself. As my buoyancy increases, I find the familiar smile of my dive buddy at ten meters as I glide up the last few meters. I surface, I make my surface protocol to perfection by taking three hook breaths, removing my mask, and signaling that I’m ok. We smile, laugh and discuss the success of the dive.
Sometimes freediving isn’t about touching that bottom plate, but really about experiencing the underwater world. One of the best dives I have done is that of Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives. This area is a UNESCO site nestled in the Baa atoll that for a few months of the year is known to have Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. The surface is always littered with large groups of snorkelers that create a chaotic and annoying experience by scaring the travelling groups of mantas. Alas, all is not lost if you simply know how to drop beneath the surface. The depth is about sixteen to eighteen meters, where at the bottom there is a cleaning station. Hanifaru Bay is known for having the largest groups of mantas in the world. It is an easy dive, with no current, so I breathe up and relax my mind. I follow my ingrained technique and touch down gently on the sandy bottom. What I find is the most life-changing experience in the world. As I rest on the floor, fifty or so manta rays are circling above me, and others take turns resting on the cleaning station meters away from me. Along with the mantas are small groups of plankton-feeding fish that are also there to capitalize on the heavy influx of food. The cleaning station has a few local residents as well. Each hole is owned by a Moray Eel, each anemone by a family of clown fish, and each coral has a group of Damselfish. It is hard to notice this on your first time, because of the overwhelming amount of Rays around you. As a marine Biologist, I like to appreciate all ‘walks’ of life. If I am lucky, I will see a great shadow moving in the distance. I wait patiently for the the juvenile whale shark to make its way over to where I am. These large sharks are harmless and are merely passing by to pick up a snack. They never stay long because they don’t really like crowds of people on the surface. The mantas aren’t afraid of me and glide centimeters above my head. Sometimes I even get a little bump from a passing wing. These animals are so graceful in the water that it is hard not to envy them for their finesse. What is also incredible about these mantas is that through evolution, they have lost their stingers. Because of this, their only defense against danger is speed. I’ve tried many times to keep up with a travelling manta and I would say it is quite impossible. It is hard to fight the urge to reach out and touch one, but I respect them and their personal space.
Being stationary, I know I use less oxygen. However, the familiar feeling of a soft contraction is nearing so I become aware of how much time I have left to enjoy down on the sand. As always, to be safe I make my ascent well within my limits. My buddy meets me at ten meters and we make our way up to the surface together. There is no reason to stay down pushing myself when I can come up, rest, breathe up, and go straight back down again. Sometimes my buddy and I go done together to a shallower depth to experience the thrill of the Manta whirlwind together. When you are doing this the hours pass like minutes and my heart sinks when the captain calls us in to make our way home.
There are so many different ways to do freediving. Some people want the thrill of the competitive side where they can push themselves to new limits. Some people seek to leave the noise and distraction of the world we live in to find peace in the underwater world. I like both aspects, along with seeing the incredible life underwater.
Freediving teaches you about yourself and what you are capable. The other thing is to educate yourself about the how the body responds under pressure. I can’t talk about this enough. Many people go out there thinking all is well and good, and I am sure most of the time it is. But, would you get in an areoplane and fly it if you didn’t know how? Freediving is incredibly easy and fun, but it has its risks. Here is a brief example of just one. Your nervous system takes up to eighty percent of your oxygen on a dive. A nervous system is in controls muscular and circulatory systems. This isn’t a fact but I’m telling you that this is how it works. Your brain it the center of you nervous system, but where does your brain sit? The truth of it is all over your body, because the two are intrinsically linked. This is where I link back to imagining everything as a part of my dive, because if something happens and I am not prepared for it, my oxygen levels are then wasted. When I dive I also need to keep my emotions in check and be sure to not engage anything at depth with emotion. I need to stay in my box and not give energy to anything that could put my in a situation where I am in danger. There are no two dives that are the same! How you engage those dives should therefore differ. The body does not go where the mind does not push it. My instructor always told me to have courage, which by his definition is grace under pressure.
Learn to know yourself and your mind as I have. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and use them to your advantage. Despite what you may think, freediving is for everyone from all walks of life. Freediving gave me something that nothing else could give me. It gave me the ability to control my emotions and have confidence in the decisions that I make. That doesn’t just mean in the water. It transcends into every single part of your life. That is what freediving is for me, and that is what freediving can be for you.
Author: Talya Davidoff, freediving champion.