We have had a few questions about our freediving endeavours… First things first: Free diving – not free as no money, free as no scuba tank. One breath is all you get!
Some of you are curious about the nitty gritty, others wondering about our sanity. Despite being in our early sixties, we love trying new pursuits especially when these enable us to do more of what we really enjoy: snorkeling, spearfishing and underwater photography! Yes there are risks, but as always, we give things a go.
Imagine holding your breath for over two minutes. Now don a pair of very long fins and dive down to a depth of 20 meters and come back up on one breath. This is what the AIDA 2 Ocean Free Diver course trains you to do. The most critical thing is learning to be completely relaxed. If you are used to pushing through challenges with true grit, it won’t work in this instance. Your performance is entirely dependent on your ability to slow yourself right down. Freediving teaches you a lot about your body, breathing and how much you can achieve if you are calm. You can challenge your mental and physical abilities, surpassing what you thought would be impossible to achieve. There are benefits for both our life under and above the surface!
The course we are on is run by Freediving Gold Coast for groups of 6 trainees over 3 consecutive days, or spread over a longer period. You have up to a year to get your certification with the ability to come back and train more in that time. The program consists of three components. Here is a bit more information on what is involved and how we are faring. Note that all pool photos are screen shots from freediving training sites or videos.
The first component is about knowledge development in the classroom. The biggest lesson for us was understanding the physiology of breathing, the importance of relaxation, of clearing our mind, of focusing on the moment so as to conserve oxygen. Another revelation was hearing about the mammalian dive reflex, an automatic response activated when sensory receptors on our face touch water. It happens with humans and aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins. When wetness on the face is detected the trigeminal nerve sends information to the brain, which immediately triggers an oxygen and blood conservation mode, with the heart, brain and lungs as top priority receivers. Your heart rate is slowed down by 10 to 25 percent which leads to less oxygen consumption, allowing humans to stay underwater for an extended period.
The course emphasised safety and debunked myths, such as hyperventilating (DON’T). It made sense in theory. We took it all in and passed the multiple choice test the next day with flying colours. But knowing is not enough… we must apply!
The second component is pool based and this is where the mental and physical challenge really starts. You spend time relaxing and slowing your body and thoughts down, then practise the freediving skills of static apnea (breath holding face down in the water without movement), dynamic apnea (breath holding while finning underwater) and rescue training. You are in the pool for four hours.
Most people can hold their breath for 30 to 60 seconds. Beyond that you have the urge to inhale. Contrary to popular belief, this urge is primarily triggered by a build up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, not by a lack of oxygen in your system. For freedivers, the urge to breathe often manifests itself in the form of contractions of the diaphragm directly under the ribcage. Despite these feelings, there is no need to panic as these are only signs that the levels of CO2 in the bloodstream are increasing yet there is still plenty of usable oxygen remaining in your system. You might feel like you are about to suffocate but you won’t and you have to control your thoughts and keep telling yourself to stay calm and relaxed. You need to be able to do this for at least two minutes. It is very much a mental game.
Learning to manage through the contractions while holding your breath underwater was the toughest challenge for us. It is extremely unpleasant. It takes a lot of self-control to stay calm, not prematurely surface and take a great big gulp of air.
For the Static Apnea exercises you are in a shallow pool, face down with a snorkel while relaxing, then take a deep breath in, remove the snorkel from your mouth and hold your breath. At some stage, contractions begin.
The length of time you breath-hold varies with different people and your state of relaxation. For instance Wade over three attempts got better and managed to hold his breath for 2 minutes 30, whereas Chris progressed to 1 minute 40 after two goes, but went backwards from there! The more tense you are, the more oxygen you consume, the more carbon dioxide you produce, and the more contractions you get! Increasing breath-holding time is a matter of practice and ability to relax. You don’t achieve this by straining and toughing it out.
During Dynamic Apnea you are expending a lot more oxygen since your muscles are working as you fin. For this set of exercises you need to combine relaxation with good technique: finning from the hips not bending at the knees, keeping your body streamlined and your head tucked in, not looking ahead.
We started finning underwater for 25 meters, then 33 and finally the big push to 40 meters. Again the experience is different for different people. Wade did not have any contractions for the dynamic apnea exercises and easily made it, the benefit of years of surfing and pool training! In fact he could have kept going further… that is until he hit his head on the wall of the 50m pool… Oops! Chris on the other hand was getting spasms at the 25 meter mark and was not as efficient with her finning, so reaching the 40 meter target was hard yakka.
The 40m distance is significant as when you fin you move at about a meter a second. If you can’t do this, you have no hope of doing the 20m deep dive down and back up for the last part of the course.
We concluded the pool session with a practice at duck diving and equalising down to 5m – not very deep, but good to have a go and rescue training which we had fun with.
We were really tired by the end of the day, having spent 4 hours in the pool and were glad we did not have to go on the last component the next day.
The third and final component is the ocean session. You practise the freediving skills of free immersion (diving under water only by pulling on a rope during descent and ascent), constant weight (diving straight down a rope while finning), equalisation (which gets harder as you go deeper). More on this when we do it!
We have completed the first two days last weekend, and will tackle the third part in a week’s time. This is to enable us to pace ourselves and practise in between training sessions. We are currently anchored back at Wave Break Island, a handy place to run through what we have learnt to date and for Chris in particular to spend time doing deep relaxation sessions and breath-hold practice on board. Her aim is to gradually increase the time before contractions begin, because that is a hell of a lot more comfortable than putting up with a contraction every second! Once these start they get more and more overwhelming.
Stay tuned for more on the mental challenge of freediving.