In My Element: Discovering My Inner Freediver
MICHAEL MENDUNO – OUR MAN BENEATH THE SURFACE REPORTS…
“When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche
I became fascinated with freediving last year while reporting on Deja Blue, the international freediving competition held in Grand Cayman each year by Performance Freediving International (PFI), the oldest freediving training agency in North America. While breath-hold is the oldest known form of diving, the sport of freediving is still very much in its infancy, though growing rapidly. It reminds me of the emergence of technical diving in the late 1980s/early 1990s and is equally compelling.
Like early tech diving, freediving is all about exploring one’s limits. It’s edgy, requires ongoing training and practice, is still evolving based on limited scientific data, and it is every bit as geeky as tech diving in terms of the knowledge and focus required. But while tech diving is all about integrating human and machine to go where no one has before, freediving focuses on developing our considerable innate diving abilities. In that, freediving may be more like swimming than diving.
Research by Erika Schagatay, Ph.D. and others has shown that in addition to the multifaceted mammalian diving reflex, humans share most if not all the physiological adaptions found in aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals. It’s just a matter of discovering and activating them. In fact, Schagatay’s further studies demonstrated that as little as a week of daily training can significantly improve breath-hold times, diving response and haemoglobin concentration (read more O2 carrying capacity) in the blood. Even so, I have found awakening one’s inner marine mammal to be both exhilarating and intimidating.
Barriers to Entry
When I ask tekkies if they have considered freediving, most confess that they can’t hold their breath long: who needs to when you’re packing hours of gas in an electronic rebreather and carrying two bailout bottles? Ironically however, the first barrier many would-be freedivers encounter is equalization as I discovered during my intermediate freediving class, and there’s no getting around it. Equalization is also a common limiting factor on competitive deep dives—you can only dive as deep as you can equalization, without causing injury.
The Valsalva manoeuvre, which uses the lungs to force gas into the sinus and ears, works fine with SCUBA where divers are typically descending in a horizontal or heads up position and have a pressurized lung full of gas i.e. the gas easily flows to the head. However, it’s a non-starter for freedivers who descend vertically head down [Takes getting used to!], and their lungs, which are now hydrostatically positioned above the sinuses and ears, are collapsing in response to the increasing pressure. The result: breath-hold divers who rely on Valsalva are unable to equalize upside down beyond about 5-10 meters, as I rudely discovered on our first ocean dive. Argh.
Instead, freedivers must master the Frenzel Maneuver, which was developed for dive bomber pilots in 1938 by German physician turned Luftwaffe commander Hermann Frenzel, and later resurrected and applied to freediving by former world record holder and inventor Eric Fattah in 2001. The manoeuvre, which takes time and practice to learn, uses the tongue to drive a mouthful of air into the middle ear and sinuses. A good Frenzel will enable a freediver to equalize to 20-30 m. Beyond that additional techniques like grouper call, mouth-fill, and general air management are needed. It all seems pretty tekkie to me.
At the end of class, having sworn off coffee and dairy for the prior week and popped Mucinex twice a day to keep sinuses clear, PFI’s lead staff instructor Chris Bustad recommended that we start equalizing our ears at least 50-100 a day. As I subsequently learned, he wasn’t being facetious.
Awakening Your Inner Marine Mammal
Extending one’s breath-hold is a matter of training and practice. Newbies, like me, are often surprised how quickly their breath-holds can be lengthened even over the course of a class. “It’s all technique. Every one of us has the innate physiological ability to hold our breath for way longer than we do, but the average Joe doesn’t know how to access it,” PFI instructor and former captain of the U.S. Freediving Team Ted Harty explained to me. Harty who owns Immersion Freediving, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. He says it’s a matter of learning how to breathe properly and awaken our genomic inheritance.
“As an instructor I know how to reach into the body and adjust the dials to make that mammalian dive reflex turn on, which is why we get these huge improvements in such a short period of time. It works because its genetically encoded in all of us. Of course, some people’s reflex is much stronger than others,” Harty said. The current world record for a static breath-hold is 11:35 minutes held by Stéphane Mifsud of France.
The good news? In addition to doing daily diaphragm stretches; practicing holding one’s breath using static O2 and CO2 tables designed to accustom the body to lack of oxygen and excess carbon dioxide, and conducting “apneic walking” drills—think Thich Nat Hahn meets William Trubridge, the best way to improve one’s breath-hold times is to go freediving. But be forewarned! Conditioning your mind to ignore increasing compelling urges to breath and intensifying bodily contractions—aka the “lying bastards” in freediving parlance—requires a certain mental grit, ok—a LOT of mental grit, some serious craziness, or both. Of course, that’s what people used to say about tekkies.
No Training Required?
Unfortunately, like the early days of tech diving, freediving suffers from a breathtaking number of fatalities. According to the 2017 DAN Annual Diving Report, there were at least 763 breath-hold diving incidents between 2004-2015 with 80% fatal outcomes, or an average of at least 51 fatalities per year. The editors pointed out that it’s “highly unlikely” that the data reflects the true totals, for example, it misses numerous ‘breath-hold’ pool fatalities.
In 2015, there were at least 46 freediving fatalities reported from 12 different countries; just over half reported in the U.S. By contrast, technical divers currently account for an average of about 20 fatalities a year worldwide—the majority involve rebreather diving, while annual scuba diving fatalities total roughly five times more.
Ironically, most people associate breath-hold diving with competitive freediving or “comps” and mistakenly believe that is where the risk lies. However, according to industry insiders, there have only been two fatalities in competitive freediving over the last three decades. Another misconception: competitive freediving only represents about 1-2% of all freedivers. The majority of freedivers—no one knows how many that are— are hunters aka “spearos.” More surprising, an estimated 90% or more of breath-hold divers have never taken a course.
In freediving, as in life, no certification card is required.
“That’s exactly the problem with our sport; we don’t require formal training. The majority learn from their buddy and their buddy doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. That’s why we have the fatality rate that we have,” Harty stressed. The good news is that, just like in tech diving, proper training can save lives. “I don’t care what free diving class you take. As long as it’s through a recognized agency you are going to learn the tools of how to NOT kill yourself freediving.”
Blackouts? Not Me
Though they’re rare, blackouts resulting from hypoxia are the primary safety concern in freediving. According to PFI’s 99% rule of thumb: 90% of blackouts happen on the surface, 9% happen between 5m and the surface, and the remainder occur below 5 m. The danger is not the blackout itself, but subsequent aspiration of water and possible drowning. To make things worse, they generally occur without no warning.
For that reason, the primary rule of freediving is to protect the airway in the event of a blackout. The corollary: always dive under the direct supervision of a buddy, who can affect a rescue. In a two-person team this takes the form of One buddy up, One buddy down. The buddy needs to be within arm’s length of the surfacing diver and watch them for at least 30 seconds to ensure they don’t blackout. Like gas switching errors in tech diving, drowning is a preventable condition.
As an additional safety measure, freedivers weight themselves to be neutral at 10 m, so they will float to the surface, or remain there, should a blackout occur. It also makes the last part of the ascent when your PO2s are dropping easier. Let buoyancy provide an assist!
I witnessed two blackouts and a couple of near misses at the surface at Deja Blue in May. The first occurred as Brazilian freediving champion Carol Schrappe ascended from an attempted three-and-a-half-minute variable weight dive to 110 m (She rode a weighted sled down and kicked up). As she ascended to 20 m, her kick suddenly faltered and head slumped, releasing a stream of bubbles. Fortunately, the safety scooter diver who was an arm’s length away, immediately closed her mouth and nose to protect her airways and quickly brought her to the surface where she regained consciousness after the safety conducted a Blow, Tap, Talk protocol: blow across the eyes, tap the face and talk, “Breathe Carol, breathe.” She did.
“That was the first time I’ve blacked out in training in my eighteen-year career,” Schrappe said. After 24 hours out of the water, she returned and by the end of the week successfully completed a 105 m dive followed by a 114 m dive, setting a new South American record. “I trust the people at Deja Blue 100%. I knew I was safe so I could push a little bit more.” A Caymanian record holder also blacked out in the pool during dynamics after passing the 130-yard mark on an underwater breath-hold swim. The safeties did their job and the athlete returned to successfully surpass the distance a few days later.
Improving Diver Safety
Insiders say that major safety issues in the spearo community and among untrained breath-hold divers is that they usually dive alone and or practice “same-ocean” buddy. Typically, they’re also over-weighted, making it easy to drop to the bottom, but work to ascend when you need a breath. As a result, if they blackout underwater or at the surface, they will likely sink and drown.
“People falsely think that as long as they don’t push themselves they’re not going to black out. They think they’re immune to blackouts. But they’re not,” said Harty who recently received the Dimitris Kollias award for his work promoting freediving safety. “Unfortunately, the fatality rate is growing because more people are getting involved in the sport and they don’t have training,” he said.
And if reducing the risk of blacking out and drowning is insufficient motivation in itself, consider this: additional training will likely also increase your operating depth and bottom-time.
In fact, it reminds me of something retired Master Diver Sam Huss told me while I was on assignment at the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) in Panama City, FL, “We make our divers safer, so they can dive deeper and stay longer.”
Isn’t that what diving is all about?
Our “Man Beneath the Surface”, journalist Michael Menduno (M2) is widely respected and renowned throughout the diving world. He has been happily writing about technical diving, a term that he coined, for more than 25 years.