To many, freediving is an esoteric sport. It is deemed both physically and mentally inaccessible. This judgement is usually made quickly and resolutely. Oftentimes, I’d be explaining the sport midway only to be interrupted with “man, freediving isn’t for me. I’m so bad at holding my breath and the ocean is deep and scary!” I completely understand because I once felt the same way, back when I also didn’t know any better. The thing is, these are just excuses we tell ourselves when faced with the unfamiliar.
Here’s the reality: freediving is for everyone. We’re amphibious mammals. While we’re not as great in the water as dolphins or whales, we possess similar reflexes and instincts that help us when we go under. Unfortunately, we spend most of our lives on land and so those instincts become dull with disuse. Freediving helps awaken us to our aquatic side. It makes us more comfortable in the water and equips us to enjoy the other 70% of the earth.
Having said that, I know I can’t convince everyone to give freediving a go. But what I can do, is share my experience of it in order to present a better picture of the sport and assist in more informed judgements.
One of my favourite parts about freediving is going into a freefall during a dive. Freefalling is when the body no longer needs to move but is sinking at the same pace as it was when it was pulling or kicking. This happens when water pressure compresses air in the lungs enough that the body becomes negatively buoyant, causing it to sink.
Unfortunately, this explanation is fairly dry and does little to convey what freefalling actually feels like. To do that, let me put you in my shoes (trying hard to avoid a fins joke here) and talk you through a dive.
The dive you’re about to do uses a simple technique called free immersion. It uses a rope that is attached to a buoy floating on the surface and held taut by weights tied to the bottom. Basically, this diving technique involves pulling down and back up that rope. Easy.
Freediving is all about relaxation and and the dive starts with something called the breathe up that does just that. Long, slow, deliberate breaths that slow the heart rate and relax the mind and body. As you breath, you think about anything or nothing. Letting the thoughts rise up and fall away, in tune with each breath. Everything starts to fade and you’re relaxed but focused.
In this calm state, you take your big breath. It’s just as deliberate as the breathe up and you suck in lots of air while staying loose and tension-free.
Entering head first into the water, you immediately feel the cool rush of water over the face and ears. The water envelopes all the senses and, for that split second, you are completely and totally in the moment. Your eyes close as your fingers wrap around the rope. With the rope as a guide, sight becomes unnecessary and your eyes remain closed for most of the dive. You collect your thoughts and remember to equalise as you start pulling down. Throughout the dive, the ears must be equalised often in order to prevent water pressure from building up and hurting the ear drums.
Buoyancy causes more resistence at the beginning of the dive. It’s almost as if the water is denser, more viscous at the top. Nevertheless, the dive is just beginning and there is strength in each pull, which easily overcomes the buoyancy.
Then, the resistance wanes and pulling begins to feel easier. You glide smoothly through the water with little effort. The feeling is one of weightlessness, like being freely suspended in the water. In no time, pulling becomes unnecessary. You stop pulling, but don’t slow down.
The freefall begins.
Since the beginning of the dive, your eyes have remained closed. In the absence of motion and sight, thoughts are amplified and every sensation is heightened. At this depth, it feels like you’re flying alone through space and the quiet solitude is peaceful and relaxing. The faintest hint of a smile appears on your lips.
As you sink deeper, the pressure gradually builds. This intensifies the dive and you become more focused and single-minded. Sometimes, the brain interrupts this focus and fills itself with doubt and panic. Thankfully, training and discipline help keep those thoughts at bay.
The freefall continues. The pace is never too fast as to feel out of control. You gauge your speed with index finger and thumb, both of which are loosely closed around the rope. The feel of the rope as it passes easily through the fingers is familiar and reassuring.
As the bottom looms near, the dive remains enjoyable, but closer attention is paid to what mind and body are saying.
The water pressure on the body reaches its height as the end of the line arrives. One hand feels the knot and closes around it. Both eyes open and your reverie is broken. This is the end of the freefall, but not the end of the dive.
It is time for the journey back up. The first few pulls are the hardest as the tables are now turned. The negative buoyancy that was, seconds ago, responsible for the freefall has become something to fight against.
You keep pulling. Positivity and self-encouragement are necessary at this point. The simplest platitude, repeated over and over, makes a big difference. Each pull is long and strong as the ascent continues. Then, your safety diver kicks languorously into sight. He is there for the rest of the dive and his presence is a comfort.
There is a beauty to the abyss and you take a moment to appreciate it. It’s blue, as far as the eye can see. But not a foreboding blue that’s vast, solid and unwelcoming. Instead, this blue is alive. It swirls playfully with the current, merrily taking on green hues while growing darker or lighter on a whim. Sunrays cut through the blue, forming a brilliant shaft of golden white light that usher you to the surface.
Before long, the pressure abates. It gets easier and each pull requires almost no effort at all. In the last couple of metres, it becomes unnecessary to pull. Instead, you float easily to the top. Triumphantly, you break the surface of the water and, flushed with exhilaration, gulp big strong breaths of air to recover from the dive. An unbidden smile appears, mouth wide, teeth showing. You’ve just done a fifty metre dive — the length of a swimming pool — and can’t wait to do it again.