Freediving: risks and rewards of a sport that stretches limits
Expert explains why divers do it and how it can be done safely
Enthusiasts call it the most natural and serene way to explore the ocean depths. They say it's more than just thrill seeking and pushing boundaries. But even they don't deny that freediving, an international competitive sport, stretches the body's physical limits.
Freedivers can plunge hundreds of feet underwater, lingering for minutes without the use of breathing equipment, and rely solely on their ability to hold their breath until resurfacing.
On Saturday, a 27-year-old Kelowna man blacked out while trying to hold his breath underwater and was later hospitalized.
It's been described as one of the world's most dangerous sports. Can you describe it for us?
It does have that reputation. It also has a reputation as one of the world's most relaxing sports. It sits on the fringe between those two notions in part because there's not enough information for people on how to dive safely. A lot of what happens that skews the statistics for the sport happen because people try it on their own without proper safety supervision and without going through the processes of learning how to do it properly.
What does it entail?
It entails diving underwater holding your breath. It entails relaxing yourself and being in touch with your physiology and the ecology of the water to swim through it in a way that you feel a part of it.
How deep can someone go?
I myself can go 200 feet. Comfortably, about 100 feet for about a minute and a half. The best in the world are diving over 350 feet and they're holding their breath for up to 13 minutes.
When you're doing that, when you're going down that deep into the water for that long, what are the risks to your body?
The real risks to your body involve the pressure of diving deep. If we're talking on a recreational level, from going say from 0 to 30 feet or 40 feet, it's not the pressure that's an issue; it is the idea of blacking out. It is a real risk. Part of that is because you become so relaxed that your autonomic nervous system, that fight or flight, that increased heart rate, that thing that tells you to get out of there—the whole elegance and the appeal of freediving is you learn to engage your parasympathetic nervous system and suppress those fight or flight reflexes. When that happens, it's a great sensation.
Blacking out is a great sensation?
No, it's not. Well, actually, it's not the worst, but the repercussions are very real and really serious. That's why we always say, getting into the sport, you have to do it with a buddy. If you do it by yourself, you won't know when you've reached your limit until you do, and it is too late then. That is what scares people about the sport and attracts people to the sport.
What is the draw for you?
To do it recklessly like that, there shouldn't be any appeal. It doesn't have to be done like that. It should be done with professional safety divers and with freedivers who know what they're doing.
A recent diving experience I had last year, we went down a cliff about 100 feet. There were a school of manta ray. When you're diving down, you're not making any sound. You're moving in the ocean. They're very curious. They come and interact with you. We moved off of that. We saw some sharks on the bottom of the ocean.
You do all of this sincerely. It's an authentic experience. We're not in a submarine. You go through processes to get to this. You can't just do it off a cruise ship on a weekend. You start to study the flora, and fauna, and the animals underwater and yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full audio, listen to the file labelled: Everything you ever wanted to know about freediving.