I’m scared. My face is planted face down into a pool, and I’m supposed to hold my breath to the near point of blacking out. I feel lumps in my throat with the urge to continually swallow, and I’m fighting against every natural instinct to lift my head and gasp for air.
I keep getting these white flashes behind my eyelids because they’re closed; I don’t want to stare at the ground floor of the pool. I’m trying my hardest to meditate and imagine me being in a deep dark blue hole with everything around me silent. I feel my heart rate slow down. The convulsions have slowed. I hear my instructor in the faint distance telling me I still have plenty of air. The convulsions come back. I can’t take it, and I stand on my own two feet gasping for air taking several deep breaths. In and out. In and out. In and out.
It feels good to breathe again. Almost euphoric, and there’s a burning, tingling sensation running through my stomach. My head feels heavy and lightheaded at the same time.
Welcome to the world of freediving. Freediving is THE most mentally and physically challenging sport I have ever tried. I’m disappointed in myself. I thought that if I were to follow all the rules that I could get through my SSI Level 1 Freediving Course in Byron Bay with no problems, but that’s not what happened even with the support of my friends and family.
Let’s back up a second, though and talk about the requirements.
I signed up for a three-day SSI Level 1 Freediving course with Dive Byron Bay for A$550. It’s another strong aquatic investment that I thought would compliment the recent Divemaster certification I completed in Indonesia.
Before starting our classroom theory training, we were required to complete 4 online modules through the SSI Level 1 Freediving Course. It takes several hours to complete the online course work. Easy enough.
Day 1: Classroom and Pool
Skills to complete: Theory and Confined Water
Objectives: (I’ll highlight only a couple to keep your attention span)
- Be able to state what triggers the Urge to Breathe
- Be prepared to explain how O2 enters the body
- Be prepared to indicate the 4 responses of the Mammalian Dive Reflex
- Be able to tell how pressure affects Freedivers
- Be able to describe proper equalization techniques
- Be able to describe appropriate breathing for Freedivin
It began in a classroom setting at Byron Bay Dive with two other girls about my age and one younger guy who also happened to be interning at the dive shop. Andrew, our Freediving Instructor, begins with brief introductions. I learn we are all scuba divers trying to take our skills to the next level. Two of the girls, who also happen to be friends, grew up spearfishing but wanted to learn the proper way to go about it moving forward. Andrew comments on this and shares his perspective about how he sees a huge opportunity for spearfishers to practice safer techniques than what they’re infamously known for, and that’s going into hyperventilation with rapid breaths before taking one deep breath and then holding your breath for as long as possible. This is not Freediving, as many people misconceive.
Now that we’re all acquainted, Andrew puts on an inspirational Freediving video for us to watch.
(Time: 20-minutes, if you have it!)
We have an idea of what our potential can be now, so Andrew starts us with our first breath hold exercise and asks everyone to hold their breath from our seats for as long as we can. Easy enough. I hold my breath and then let out one large exhale at one minute and eleven seconds (1:11).
“Now I want you to splash some water on your face and do this again.” Andrew continues.
I splash some water on my face, take another giant breath and then again let out one large exhale.
“2:46. More than double your first attempt. Great job!” Andrew encourages me.
I’m pretty stoked at this point. I don’t know if I have ever held my breath this long, and it’s because of something as simple as splashing water on my face?
This is because of something we call “Mammalian Dive Reflex.”
According to SSI, it’s explained like this:
The Mammalian Dive Reflex allows mammals to stay underwater for extended periods. Although manifesting itself strongly in aquatic mammals like seals, otters, dolphins, and whales, the reflex is much weaker in other mammals, including humans. Every animal’s diving reflex is specifically triggered by cold water coming into contact with the face. Submersion of body parts other than the face will not trigger the reflex. It is always exhibited more dramatically in young people and animals, thus granting them longer survival times in cold water.
Pretty cool, right?
The more Freediving we do, the quicker and stronger our reflex gets resulting in longer and deeper dives. It’s like we’re slowing turning ourselves into a real mermaid. I don’t know about you, but I think this is one of the most brilliant discoveries of humanity. Our bodies are so adaptable.
I also learn in our theory lecture that that urge to breathe because you’re out of oxygen is not actually what’s happening at all. I’ll break it down in the simplest terms I can with the basic knowledge I have.
The air that we breathe is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. So when you are holding your breath and feel the urge to breathe, your body still has plenty of oxygen stored in your lungs. It’s the nitrogen that causes that urge. If you pass that desire to breathe, your body goes through all sorts of crazy things, and, in my case, I had a warm tingling sensation, convulsions, and flashes when my eyes were closed. But if you hang on just a little longer, longer than what your body instinctually tells you, you get past the convulsions, and you feel your heart rate slow down, and then everything starts to get calm again (besides your mind that may be freaking the f*ck out).
(By the way, please don’t try this at home on your own. I’m explaining this while I was in under care of a professional with supervision and only encouraged you to do the same.)
We get through the rest of our theory, break for lunch, and are told to meet at the shop’s on-site pool afterward.
The pool water is only about waist high and where we spend the rest of our afternoon. Andrew has us lie floating face down in our wetsuit and mask one at a time. We go into another breath-hold (also called static apnea) and try doing the same thing we did in the classroom only with our face submerged in the water now.
I felt a lot more fear doing it this way. I knew I was safe, but I am afraid of accidentally swallowing water. My time was 1:58. I’m disappointed I didn’t hold it for 2:46 like I did in the classroom. I know I can do better.
Everyone goes for their third round, and this time the young guy is really pushing his limits. I’m watching his body convulse from the surface and him fighting the urge to get up. Andrew is telling him he still has plenty of air and the guy patting his hands on the edge of the pool still holding his breath. The guy can’t take it anymore and stands on his two feet, but I notice his face is pale and looks sunken in. Andrew tells him to breathe and the guy blacks out.
Andrew catches him holding him in his arms, lightly taps his cheeks on both sides and face and keeps calling for his attention, telling him to breathe…then breathe again in a calm voice…while still lightly tapping his face. The guy snaps out of it, color comes back to his face, and he smiles.
“You all right there, buddy?” Andrew asks.
“Yeah. I feel good.” guy responds.
This is that state of euphoria I mentioned earlier. You learn a little about this mental state also in scuba diving with nitrogen narcosis, also explained as feeling drunk.
It’s my turn to go. After that episode, I’m a little relieved to see what a shallow water blackout looks like. The guy was smiling and said that he didn’t feel scared when it was all happening. Instead, he felt a state of euphoria.
In scientific terms, the human body goes through some amazing-ass shit, and I desperately want to be able to fly underwater. I go again feeling motivated by the blackout and how easy it was to bring the guy back that this time I got my time up to 2:34.
Day 2: Confined Water and Ocean Dive
Skills to complete: Dynamic Freediving
Objective: Swim 50 meters in lap pool on a single breath
- Duck Dive
- Finning Style
- The Dolphin Kick
We start the morning at Byron Bay Pool, an Olympic sized pool where we spend our morning going over different techniques and skills. Andrew told us not to drink anything caffeinated or eat anything before class so that we could begin our morning with some thoracic exercises.
For those of you new to Freediving or even yoga, thoracic exercises are diaphragmatic breathing and without going into too much detail, will mainly help you gain the most out of a breath-hold. The average human lungs measure 4-6L where some competitive Freedivers have tripled that. I’ll spare you most of the yoga-Sanskrit jargon and try to break it down for you in laymen terms.
I watch Andrew demonstrate his first exercise, teaching us how to take a proper yogic using 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7, then exhale slowly for 8 seconds.
We move into another exercise and this time compartmentalizing our breath and learning how to breathe separately from our stomach and then our chest. It usually works like this: inhale from your stomach solely for 4 seconds, and without exhaling, continue inhaling through your chest for another 3 seconds. Hold your breath completely now. Then reverse and slowly breathe out from chest to stomach.
Our third thoracic exercise is short, powerful exhales and passive inhales from a seated position.
The pranayama session goes on for about 30 minutes with a few additional demonstrations helping us stretch the thoracic area that prepares us for the rest of our day.
I didn’t have any yogic breathing practice before this, so if you’re new to yoga, I wouldn’t feel alarmed or nervous about it. But if you are getting into Freediving over the long haul, learning proper breathing techniques (pranayama) is essential.
Great! We are feeling zen and ready to gear up for the pool for some dynamic apnea. Something to note is Freediving wetsuits are different from scuba diving wetsuits. First, they are two pieces. Second, they’re made to be mostly at the surface meaning the neoprene is thinner (low-density neoprene) than a scuba diving wetsuit (high-density neoprene) meant to sustain colder temperatures longer. Wetsuits can be stubborn little fuckers, so if you’re having trouble putting either on, baby soap always helps.
Okay, so we’re zen and all suited up. Let’s get into skills.
One of the sets of skills we had to complete was to swim 50 meters in a lap pool on a single breath. This is harder than it seems because you have your fracked up mind playing games with you the whole time telling you, “Breath. Get up. This is good enough. You’re going to pass out. You’re going to drown. Get the f*ck up and breathe, damn it! ” Nobody in my class got it the first round, and for some, it took several attempts, and that was a real struggle for them.
I played sports growing up, and I remember coaches telling me, “It’s all in your head. This is the most mental sport you’ll ever play.”
Bullshit. Freediving is the most mental sport you’ll ever play. I remember when I was caught 22 meters deep diving in a rapid current change in Indonesia and having to escape into a cave until it settled down a bit. I thought I might die at that moment, and so I’d say this sport mentally compares the same to me feeling like I might almost die but instead of that one-off dive incident, this happened each time my head submerged the water. Fear is a bitch, and I can’t wait to get past this stage.
Andrew went over a few other techniques as listed in my objectives above like finning style, dolphin kick (useful for monofins), and streaming. And, at around noon, we all successfully completed our pool exercise.
In the afternoon, Andrew arranged a boat for us to start our first oceanic Freedive. A red training buoy/float with a line dropped to about 10 meters is set up at Julian Rocks, a favorite dive spot in Byron Bay. The weather isn’t particularly beautiful, and it’s also a little choppy, but I’m excited to give line diving a first try finally.
We gather circled around training buoy and begin with our head submerged in the water and working on our slowing our heart rate and feeling really relaxed and calm.
It’s my turn to go, and I’m feeling like my breath ups were good and began with a duck dive. As I’m approaching a deeper depth, I keep my eyes only on the line in front of me and resisting the temptation to look at the above and below. At about 10 meters, I’m having trouble equalizing. I stop where I am on the line upside down and try to equalize from there, and it’s still not helping. Ugh, I need to go up. I turn my body around and slowly climb my way back to the surface.
I give the okay sign and verbally confirm, “I’m okay.” and take steady breaths in and out.
10 meters, I’m told.
My turn comes up again, and I’m finding myself leaning a bit on the conservative side and not pushing my limits. The equalization brought in an entirely different element into the game.
I remember when I first started diving and having equalization be an issue. Then when I tried to take a refresher course in Los Angeles, it was a huge issue. Finally, when I flew into Labuan Bajo, to dive in Komodo National Park for several months and work on my Advanced through Divemaster certification, I got past the equalization issues, and now I seldom have to equalize unless I’m sick.
I think the same is going to happen with Freediving for me. I don’t know if it’s that I grew up with a lot of ear infections as a child that makes this a hurdle for me or if it’s only science. Either way, I’m going to persevere. There’s still a tiny bit of fear of letting go, but I’ll get there. Progress not perfection, right?
DAY 3: Ocean Dive #2
Skills to Complete: Depth to 20 meters
- Free Immersion
- Constant Weight
It’s game day. This is where I get to apply my knowledge, and practical skills learned over the last two days.
My morning already started off a bit wonky. We pull up to the same dive site but are delayed because they spotted a shark in the area. Byron Bay is infamous for bull sharks and shark attacks, but after about 20 minutes, they confirm that they think it was a hammerhead and it went away. This makes me nervous. It’s not like diving where I can see anything and everything coming my way. I hate being on the surface and not knowing what’s below me. The weather is similar to yesterday, and the ocean is very choppy. There’s some wind bringing a slight chill to us.
Conditions are meh, and it’s game time. We do our breathe ups and go for my first try and, ugh, even worse than yesterday. I lost my weight belt sometime in the last 15 minutes and have to borrow one from one of the girls inconveniently.
I go in for my duck dive and get to about 10 meters, and I can’t equalize. Annoyed, I turn around for the surface and feel a sudden sting on my hand. Motherfucker. It’s a jellyfish sting. I tried to avoid them, and I’m protected in my wetsuit, but this one somehow found itself on my hand.
Shark. Jellyfish sting. Choppy water. Equalization issues. Lost my weight belt. Ugh. The Universe is not working with me!
It’s my turn again. I duck dive, focused on the line in front of me, equalizing as I go, and then I’m stuck still. I can’t equalize. I push myself a couple more meters, and the pressure is intense. I have to get to 20 meters to pass, and we only have time for best out of three. I’m going through the convulsions, but the pressure in my head is too intense and turn around back to the surface again. I failed.
I come up to the surface, signal OK, and follow up with I’m okay. After several minutes, I started getting a really nasty headache. The worse I’ve ever had and so when my turn came up, I told Andrew to go without me and I’ll go after the rest of the group was done. I’m lying with my hands on the buoy and face submerged in the water, and then I put my head to rest on the float over my crossed arms and start yogic breathing.
My turn comes up again, and my headache is still pounding. I regrettably tell Andrew I’m not going to be able to finish the exercise. The course pass rate ended up being 50% pass. Only 2 out of 4 of us passed the ocean skills but were told we could make it up another time for free.
I feel like such a failure. How could I not do this? I’m beating myself up, and I’m embarrassed to give the update to friends and family that I didn’t complete my ocean course. But this is life, and I’m more motivated than ever to jump back into the sport and succeed.
I feel like there are many misconceptions about what freediving is – including my own. Some consider breath-holding and diving into water (skin-diving) as freediving or spearfishing as freediving – which technically in a way are. But very few understand the underlying theory, physiology, skills, and safety protocols behind it. How does pressure affect your body underwater? Did you know many experiences a state of euphoria right before a shallow water blackout? Why are more and more people becoming intrigued with the sport? Taking my SSI Level 1 helped me become a better scuba diver. I know I have plenty of oxygen stored in my lungs than my body reflexes want me to think. I’m pretty stoked to have all this knowledge at my fingertips. Last I learned, you can’t pee on a jellyfish sting to make it better. 😉
***Sorry I don’t have more photos to share. It’s hard when you’re in a learning environment to take them and the ones offered to us weren’t that great.