Appealing to those who want to feel more connected to their surroundings while underwater, the sport of freediving includes similar techniques to snorkeling and scuba diving without the assistance of a breathing apparatus. While most people have engaged in freediving at some point in their lives, the name represents something more extreme than a basic swim.
“As well as the perfect way to relax at the weekend, freediving is an international competitive sport,” stated the International Association for Development of Apnea (AIDA) on its website, which is the worldwide federation for breath-hold diving. “Professional freedivers exploit [their] bodies’ diving adaptations to go to depths of over 200 [meters] on a single breath. These diving reflexes help conserve oxygen by restricting the blood flow to your extremities, conserving it for your vital organs.”
Competitive freediving is governed by AIDA and CMAS (World Underwater Federation), both of which include nine disciplines that are further divided into the categories of pool and depth disciplines.
What is arguably the most interesting feature of freediving is the adaptation the human body goes through to engage the mammalian diving reflex–optimizing respiration to allow mammals to hold their breath while underwater for prolonged periods of time. This reflex includes four components, the first of which is bradycardia, describing the decrease in heart rate. The next is vasoconstriction, explaining the narrowing of blood vessels that enables blood to be directed to the torso rather than the limbs. Splenic contraction is the releasing of red blood cells that are carrying oxygen. The last component, blood shift, is when the capillaries in the lungs widen.
“Anyone who has held their breath underwater has freedived,” AIDA stated on its website. “However, freediving is not simply about seeing how long you can hold your breath or how deep you can go on a single breath. You have to create the right attitude and pay attention to the limits of your body and mind. The true appeal of freediving is in the silence and calm it brings to people’s hectic lives.”
Freediver Christina Saenz de Santamaria currently holds the national women’s freediving record, which she earned in her home of Australia at a depth of 60 meters (197 feet).
“The experience is meditative and very zen-like,” Saenz de Santamaria told The Guardian.
Herbert Nitsch is known as one of the world’s greatest free divers, but the competitive nature of the sport along with Nitsch’s attempting to break his own record is what led to him suffering several strokes while still underwater. Unlike freediving through swimming, he was competing in “No Limits” diving, where the diver uses a powered sled to descend and ascend quickly. In 2006, Nitsch set the record at 600 feet, which he broke in 2007 at 702 feet. When he attempted to break his record again in 2012 at 800 feet, disaster hit. When he was coming to the surface, he blacked out at 328 feet.
“To cut a long story short, air is 20 percent oxygen and 80 percent nitrogen,” he told The Red Bulletin. “During the dive, the oxygen in the blood gets used up and the nitrogen is compressed. If you resurface too quickly, the nitrogen re-expands, almost explosively, and what happens to champagne when you pop the cork is what happens to the blood, which is no good for you at all. The small bubbles of nitrogen that formed when I resurfaced set off a series of strokes.”
While this type of reaction is mainly evident in competitive freediving, it shows how prepared people must be before participating in the sport. To learn to freedive, visit AIDA’s website.