*Hey everyone. This article was very much a passion piece for me. As a result, it’s lengthier than our usual posts. I hope you all enjoy reading it, as it was a pleasure for me to revisit these memories.
Free Diving is a water sport that requires a person to dive underwater as deep or for as long as possible on a single breath. I have been fascinated with this sport for as long as I can remember. I watched videos of Free Divers holding their breath and swimming effortlessly underwater for ridiculously long periods of time. I have seen a man walk to the edge of an underwater drop-off, jump into the abyss and free fall to the bottom, only to climb back up the rock wall. The idea that this feeling of freedom is possible gives me immeasurable excitement. I am at home in the water. When I dip my head below the surface, and the sounds around me are muffled into obscurity, I feel cleansed of all my worries and anxieties. It’s the only time that I feel that I can truly live in the moment, and only for that moment. We had planned a two week trip to Koh Tao, an island well known for it’s beautiful reefs and superb diving. We had researched the different Freediving courses available and had chosen to do an introductory course with Apnea Total. For Jo, Koh Tao was a chance to re-enter the world of scuba diving after a year long absence. For me, it was an opportunity to become part of a world that I have always dreamt of.
Day One – Theory and Breathing:
The first day of our course with Apnea Total started with theory. Our instructor, Camila, took us through all of the disciplines of the sport. We were only going to attempt two disciplines, “Constant Weight” and “Free Immersion”. Constant Weight involves finning (swimming using fins/flippers) down a “guide line” until you have achieved your desired depth, and then finning up the guide line again. The only point that you touch the guide line is when you turn around to go back to the surface. The other discipline we used, Free Immersion, requires the use of the guide line to pull yourself down and up again. This method is much easier as it requires less energy to pull yourself through the water. Camila explained the physiological aspects of Free Diving, and how the pressure of the water effects your body. She outlined the different methods of equalization and also how to efficiently swim with minimal oxygen usage.
After learning about the changes that the body experiences during a dive, we moved onto a topic that has always fascinated me, the breathing. We were told that the average person breathes using only about 67% of their complete lung capacity. Using the Free Diving breathing techniques, we could breathe using upwards of 90% of our lung space. I listened with bated breath (ironically enough) as Camilla described the importance of the utilization of the diaphragm in drawing air into the lower lungs, and the expansion of your chest to flood the rest of the available spaces with precious oxygen. I learnt that it’s not about taking a big, gasping breath as quickly as possible. Its about filling all of the available spaces with air in a relaxed, controlled manner.
Further to the breathing technique, we learnt about how a Free Diver will “breathe up” before a dive. The breathe up is a method of breathing that saturates the blood with oxygen, expands the lungs, and most importantly, relaxes you in preparation for the dive. It allows you sufficient time to quiet your mind and focus purely on the feelings and emotions of the dive. Nothing is more important in a dive than confidence in your preparation, and because most breathe ups involve at least 10 cycles of slow, focused inhalations and exhalations, when it is time to dive, there is little more physically that can be done to prepare yourself aside from stretching.
Day One – the Dive:
After we completed our theory, we made our way to the equipment shed behind the Apnea Total classroom and put on some wetsuits. We then walked to a small long tail which ferried us out to the dive boat. A short 10 minute trip later we arrived at the dive site. It was in open water, and we could not see the ocean floor. The instructors let out a long rope. Along the rope were 5 or 6 floating rings, all equally spaced. Beneath each of the rings was a guide line measured to 12 meters. This was to be the maximum depth of our dives today. I had only ever been to the bottom of a 6 meter diving pool, so this seemed like a monumental task. Jo and I were paired up with an instructor by the name of Rick. Small in stature, but big in personality and enthusiasm, we immediately warmed to him.
We dove off the boat and swam out to our ring. Once there, Rick told us that we would be practicing Constant Weight first. Even though we were only to grab the rope at the bottom of our dive, Rick instructed us to keep our head level and our eyes facing forward. This technique stopped us from diving with a goal in mind and made the experience more relaxing. He also coached us on how to perform an efficient and effective “duck dive”. The duck dive is a technique used by divers that transfers the momentum gained on the surface into the vertical dive.
After we practiced this a few times, it was time for us start diving. The instructors had continually ensured us that we did not have to reach 12 meters, and that it was perfectly normal for us to not dive that deep on the first day. I am competitive by nature, mostly with myself, so I had no doubt in my mind that I was going to make it to 12 meters, and I did. I shot down after my breathe up and raced to the bottom of the guide line. When I saw the weight on the line that signified 12 meters, I grabbed it, turned around and then sped to the surface again. After I’d recovered sufficiently, Rick congratulated me and then asked if I’d seen him at all on the dive (the instructors dove with us, matching our depth at all times). I said that I’d seem him at the bottom when I turned around, but no other time, to which he replied “That’s because you were looking straight down, instead of at the guide line. I knew that you wanted to get to 12 meters because you rushed down,”. He let me know that I just needed to relax and take my time, that it was all about enjoying the dive, not diving deep.
I was a little bit disappointed that I’d been so competitive with myself. I also realized that the dive had indeed felt rushed, and that I didn’t really enjoy it. After Jo’s dive, it was my turn again. I started my breathe up and as I was doing it, I focused on relaxing. I told myself that I didn’t want to go deep, I just wanted to enjoy it. I inhaled my last breath, and ducked below the surface again, this time finning slowly and purposefully. I looked straight at the guideline and could see Rick the entire way down. I was staring to really enjoy the feeling of the dive when the weight on the end of the guideline bobbed up in front of me. I was stunned because I really wasn’t thinking about depth. I clung to the weight and slowly turned my body around. I started swimming slowly to the surface, my eyes on the guide line and Rick the entire way up. As I got close to the surface, I stopped kicking entirely and allowed myself to float upwards. I breached the surface and began my recovery breaths feeling so much better than the first dive.
Next up was Free Immersion. We learnt the proper technique for pulling ourselves down the line and up again. We were taught that our body should be completely motionless, with only our arms pulling us down the length of the rope. Kicking during Free Immersion dives is not really necessary. For that reason, I found it much more relaxing. Also, It was easier to distract myself from the feeling of breath hold because I was focusing on pulling myself along the rope with one hand while equalizing with the other. I made it to the bottom of the line feeling relaxed, despite it taking longer than when I was finning. Coming up the rope again is something else though. We were told to glide to the surface using purposeful and strong pulls. This gives the sensation of flying, which feels incredible. I found that my favourite way of ascending the guide line was to build momentum at the bottom and stop pulling on the rope once the surface was in sight. I would float upwards while remaining completely still. The feeling of gliding through the water and feeling it surge past me was surreal.
Day Two – Theory and Breathing Exercises
We started off the morning with a recap of the previous days dive. Almost everyone had made it down to 12 meters. Camila elaborated on the use of the diaphragm in the breathe up by teaching us sectional breathing. We also learnt about a new breathing technique, called a “Flush”. Divers use flushes to relax themselves before their last breath. Further to the extra theory, Camilla also took us through a few “dry” exercises to help us train our bodies for oxygen inhalation and use. The techniques focus on strengthening the diaphragm and expanding the lung cavities, as well as clearing nasal passages. After attempting a few cycles of the breath up with the inclusion of flushes, we left the classroom for the boat.
Day Two – the Final Dive:
The night before our last day of diving, I started having the same reoccurring nightmare, which I still remember vividly. I had been diving… deep. I was so deep underwater that I was in complete darkness. I lost sight of the guideline and could not see the surface. Everywhere I looked around me was pitch black. I reached around me, trying to find the guide line in the dark. I was weighted and negatively buoyant, so I could not float to the surface. I felt my lungs begin to sting, and I knew I was running out of air. I stopped looking for the line and tried unbuckling the weights around my waist so I could see where they dropped, but I could not unfasten them. My lungs burned as I was running out of air, and I started swimming frantically, not knowing where I was going. It felt like my lungs were on fire as I just kept swimming and swimming through the darkness, hoping for a hint of light. I found nothing, and just as it felt like my lungs were going to explode, I woke up, sweating and gasping for breath.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep, and after the lucid imagery of my dreams the night before, I had resigned myself to the belief that I was not going to attempt a 20 meter dive. It seemed too deep, too difficult, too dangerous. Instead, I grasped to the philosophy that Rick had instilled in me the day before. Today was a dive for experience, for feeling. There was no competition in today for me. I had forfeited before even getting on the boat.
When we got in the water, Rick told us that we would do a few practice dives to warm up. Due to my early resignation, I felt no pressure to reach the end of the guide line, and was devoid of my usual competitive urge. I felt comfortable in the water, and as a result, was looking forward to some easy and relaxed diving. We started off with constant weight dives. I dove first, and continued reminding myself that depth was not important. I took it easy on the way down, focusing mostly on my technique. I turned around before the end of the guide line and just hung there motionless, enjoying my weightlessness before continuing on to the surface.
Once I’d finished my recovery breathing, Rick asked me how deep I thought I’d dived, to which I replied “about 12 meters”. I was astonished when Rick told me that I had dived to 17 meters. We did a few more practice dives before Rick asked us which discipline we wanted to dive with. Jo and I both wanted to try Free Immersion because it was easier and more relaxing. I went first again and continued my tactic of focusing on technique instead of depth. Once again, I turned around before the end of the rope and ascended. On the surface, Rick congratulated me on making it to 20 meters. Confused, I asked if I’d made to the end of the line. He replied that I had and that I must not have seen the weight because I was focusing on the guide line. According to Rick, I’d placed my hand on the rope about half a meter above the weight, and he had wondered at the time why I hadn’t grabbed it. I was ecstatic! I’d made it to 20 meters deep without even realizing it!
Jo also managed to get down to 20 meters, and once she did, the rest of our time was spent enjoying ourselves as much as possible. Rick asked me if I wanted to try Constant Weight. I was filled with confidence from my earlier successful dives, so I gave it a go, and once again, made it to the weight (albeit a bit hurriedly). Diving to 20 meters so consistently felt amazing.
On my last dive, I felt so disconnected. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how it felt to be gliding through the water. As I reached the weight, I was deep enough that the light was fading, and I couldn’t make out the surface. There was nothing around me except for the other guide lines which were only just visible. Even at 20 meters, I could not make out the ocean floor. For all I knew, I was suspended above an bottomless abyss. I couldn’t see Rick, so I felt completely alone, and strangely at ease. At this depth, my lungs had been compressed to a quarter of their normal size. As I started to ascend, I did so slowly, only kicking lightly and every few seconds. My lungs started expanding, giving me the feeling that I had more air. I raised my arms side and felt the water force it’s way in between my fingers. The light above me became brighter and brighter until the waves above me came into view. When I took my first breath of air, I did not feel rushed, I did not need to gasp. I felt completely relaxed and euphoric…
There aren’t many things that I’ve done in my life that I can be truly proud of. Nothing that I’ve earned through hard work or sheer determination. But on that day, at that moment, I was so proud, and I’ve never felt such a level of accomplishment in my life. I was finally a part of the Freediving world.
*This is a video of me diving to 20 meters. Thanks go to Rick for filming the dive.
*After we completed the Freediving course, Jo and I hit up a few reefs around Koh Tao and did some filming. I edited together a few dives that I did into this video. Feel free to have a look 🙂
Have you ever been Freediving? Did you have a similar experience? What would stop you from wanting to Freedive? Feel free to leave a comment or email us at Dirtypawsblog@gmail.com