[Grace: This is a guest post by my friend and book editor, Zhengping. When he told me about his freediving hobby, I was, like, HUH? What is freediving? I know scuba diving but I've never heard of freediving before. Hence, I asked if he would be so kind as to share with us right here. Read all the way to the end, where you will be rewarded with a STUNNING video and perhaps, finally come to realize what the phrase "take your breath away" really means!]
Try this: take a deep breath, and hold it for as long as you can. Most people would give in to the burning urge to breathe again after one or two minutes.
What if I told you there was a way you could double that or more? What if you could train yourself to bring that single breath of air underwater for longer than you thought possible, and lose yourself as you fly through the sea?
Here’s a secret – that burn you feel is not because you are running out of oxygen. Rather, your body is telling you the carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in your blood are rising. Even when it’s very uncomfortable, you still have plenty of air.
Now, the good news: with training, it’s indeed within many people’s reach to hold their breath for three or even four minutes, or longer – and dive to 30 or 40 metres down, way deeper than most recreational scuba dives!
That’s especially good to those who’ve told me that as kids, they tried holding their breath in swimming pools. The more adventurous ones have emptied their lungs and sunk to the bottom. I’m no exception, and I guess I’ve never outgrown that.
I can hold my breath for four and a half minutes, and swim more than the length of an Olympic pool underwater. I also hold the National Record for the deepest freedive by a Singaporean in competition, down to 38 metres. That’s very far from the best – they can do it for 12 minutes, and dive more than 100 metres deep.
It’s my pleasure to accept Grace’s invitation to share this incredible sport with you. I’ve never found a better mix of power and relaxation, action and peace, and adventure and calm as freediving – and I doubt I ever will.
Before we begin, a safety note and the most important thing I can say: freediving, or any breath-hold training in water, should only be done under the eye of a trained buddy, and never alone.
Without further ado, here are 5 Things You Need to Know About Freediving:
1. It’s way different from scuba.
“Why not just stay down longer by scuba diving?” I’ve been asked.
I scuba dived before I started freediving, and I can tell you that even before you enter the water it’s very different. All that gear is heavy, and you need time to rig up and jump overboard from a crowded, rocking dive boat. Once underwater you can stay down longer, but the bubbles pouring from your regulator scares the fish and the straps you’re in lock you out of the freedom that should come from your newfound ability to fly over, under and through everything.
Last year I freedived at the wreck of the USAT Liberty off the Bali coast, and loved the freedom of going right into the guts of the ship – swimming around the hull, winding through the spars and almost effortlessly gliding through passages too narrow and winding for scuba divers to enter safely.
And the feeling you get diving a wreck 20 metres down is an incredible one that I’ve never been able to forget. Freediving isn’t better or worse – I’ll definitely revisit scuba one day. It’s just different.
2. Our bodies are adapted for it.
Marine mammals like seals and dolphins can’t breathe underwater. Like us, they must hold their breath. When they dive, their bodies adapt to the pressure by lowering their heart rate (to conserve oxygen) and sending blood to the vessels near their lungs to protect them from being crushed.
These adaptations help them stay underwater longer – and we have them too! The diving reflex in humans is not as well-developed, but like a muscle, it can be trained, and will definitely get better with use.
This ‘gift’ is good news, but it gets better, because …
3. It’s far more easily trained than other sports.
Freediving is primarily based on relaxation – in that, it has far more in common with yoga than, say, swimming for fitness. While you do have to be reasonably fit to dive deep and well, the more fundamental skill is simply relaxing and letting as much go slack as possible. In the discipline known as ‘static’ apnea, it’s simply that – floating on the surface, face submerged, and staying calm through the bliss and the burn that follows.
Unlike other sports where you need to sweat your way to success, freediving needs you to stay calm; strain and adrenaline will only wear you out and force you back to the surface. This combination of peace, freedom and thrill is what freedivers speak of when they tell you they ‘blend’ or ‘become one’ with the water.
Anyone can relax. Anyone can develop the mental strength and physical adaptation to overcome the burn, and as you train it will come later and later, or become more manageable.
4. It’s not dangerous if you manage the risk well.
When I tell my friends about what I do for fun, the response is usually an incredulous stare. “Aren’t you afraid of drowning?” they ask.
The way I see it, everything we do has some measure of risk. You can swallow a fish bone, get injured by a faulty machine at the gym, or run into bad luck on the road. That’s why you manage the risk by (for instance) carefully checking for bones, or using your rear-view mirrors and sending your car for tune-ups.
Freediving is no different. There is some danger, like ear and lung injuries from the depth. That’s why we progress slowly and learn new techniques, giving our bodies time to adapt and figuring out what’s best for us. What works for one person may not for another.
We also dive in buddy pairs, and a critical part of training is how to rescue another freediver in difficulty, be it in a pool or open water. We learn how to return someone who’s lost consciousness to the surface, keep his or her airways clear of the water, and get the diver awake again. The whole process takes only a few seconds and leaves no ill-effects… provided the buddy is trained and there to begin with!
So if you try holding your breath underwater, stay safe, get instruction and always do it with a trained buddy. When freediving makes the news in Singapore, I’d prefer it be as a great adventure sport anyone can enjoy, not a dumb stunt someone got harmed or killed trying.
5. It’s not just a sport, but a way of life.
I don’t agree with the characterisation of freediving as an ‘extreme sport’. That implies only a few select athletes can enjoy it. As I said before, it’s a source of fun and adventure, and when the freedive bug bites, it changes everything you do. And because freediving is so personal, your fiercest competitor and best encourager will be yourself. Every dive is special, because it is the culmination of all the training you’ve done and the techniques you’ve learned, and no one can ever take that away.
I was never a traveler or much of a social animal before. Now I make time for overseas freediving trips, keep up with fellow freedivers and regularly train with them to hone my technique and CO2 tolerance.
I’ve been freediving since 2010, and every time I train or dive deep I find myself more and more at home in the water, and it’s now my life mission to learn everything I need to go further, relax deeper and stay down longer.
My five-year goal is to reach 100 metres on a freedive – more than twice the depth limit of recreational scuba diving and the domain of some of the best freedivers in the world. If I’m the first Singaporean to reach that depth, so much the better.
Wish me luck! And the water’s great – come on in. The instructors in Singapore whom I’ve trained with are great people, and they’re just a Google search for ‘freediving Singapore’ away.
I’ll leave you with a short film by one of my heroes, the French world champion freediver Guillaume Nery. In the video he does a thrilling jump into an underwater crevice in the Bahamas, which goes down for hundreds of feet.
It’s definitely inspired me to reach greater depths, and I’ve found it a great introduction to what freedivers are capable of. Enjoy!
[Thanks, Zhengping! Amazing stuff! I watched the video and I was thinking "Ok... he jumps... and we should cue some subs which say 'That's the last we see of him', right?" Well, apparently not. He lives to tell the tale.
If you are interested in the underwater world and what it holds for you, beyond scuba-diving, well, here you have it: Freediving! Write to me if you try it (with expert supervision, of course)! ]