Aaron: Hey man, I heard you’re going to Bali. That true?
Me: I was thinking about it. What ya got?
Aaron: So I was thinking about Canggu, next to a great surf beach, and then find a freediving and spearfishing course. You in?
Me: **consults bucket list, flips coin** Yup. I’m in.
…and that’s how it started. I bought a ticket to Bali that night, to make it my next stop after Egypt, the last place on my Middle East tour.
The aim on Bali was three fold
- Take some time off in the digital nomad hub of Canggu to catch up on writing and projects
- Attend Carlitos’ Bootleg Bali surf camp and learn to surf
- Learn to free dive and
spearfish, a gateway to living a truly simple island lifestyle when I finally grew the cajones to move to the Caribbean and become a pirate
…Fast forward one month from Croatia and 2 weeks after Arriving on Bali…
Aaron and I sat on the stoop of our hostel waiting for our instructor to arrive
“You think he’ll show?” Aaron said doubtfully.
“I don’t even know,” I said with a shrug.
At that point, a shaggy haired Brit sauntered up with the gangly physique of an aquatic hippie, and the tanned exterior of someone who’d been on Bali a long time. Maybe too long. He couldn’t have been more than 30.
“Aaron and Carlos?” Sam said as we looked down at his bare feet.
Aaron I instinctively traded glances, wondering if this guy was for real.
We had been trading emails with this Sam about our reservation and costs with a good bit of miscommunication. That already had us questioning whether risking shallow water blackouts with him was a good idea, but we only had so many days on the island and he was one of two schools that taught freediving Amed – how to swim to 60 feet below the surface of the ocean on a single breath.
He was finally here. The travel gods were calling our bluff.
With that, our journey to becoming “aquamen” began.
What is freediving anyways?
My only familiarity with freediving came from 4 years before…when I was reviewing the course brochure for my SCUBA diving Open Water Course certification. I vaguely remember seeing freediving as an option, but I immediately dismissed it.
However, I clearly remember my logic for dismissing freediving: there’s no way that the human body alone, swimming, could be as awesome as having an entire tank of air. SCUBA diving must be better. Right?
With that, I completely dismissed the idea of freediving, until Aaron mentioned it 4 years later.
Aaron’s pitch on taking the course was simply so that we could take the last day of spearfishing, aka aquatic hunting. That was an easy sell. Being the control freak that I am (when my life hangs in the balance due to an aquatic adventure) I started researching the hell out of freediving. What I found, was much more interesting than I expected.
Come to find out, there is this thing called the “Mammalian Dive Reflex” or the “Mammalian Response” for short. Have you ever wondered how whales, dolphins, otters and the like, all oxygen-breathing mammals, can go for so long underwater without air? In addition to thousands of years of evolution and natural selection, a highly developed mammalian dive reflex is a huge part of their abilities.
So what is the mammalian dive reflex? I’m glad you asked…and if you didn’t, just play along.
Whenever mammals are submerged in water while holding their breath, specifically when cool water touches their nostrils and face, a series of physiological responses occur that override how the body normally runs.
The first reaction is the heart rate slowing, causing the body to use less oxygen than it normally would.
The rest of the reactions get complex, such as your body releasing more blood cells and only sending blood to your vital organs among other things, but the end state is still the same. By being exposed to water, mammals can survive longer underwater.
To me this is amazing.
This can’t be all of freediving…can it?
Nope. It’s not.
The second part of freediving is something we came into the world knowing but seem to have forgotten…
Essentially, by relaxing and breathing (not hyperventilating) your oxygen levels reach healthy levels or higher but also, more importantly, you relax. This in turn allows you to use the oxygen in your body more slowly, more efficiently and ultimately allows you to stay underwater longer. That’s the last piece.
Freediving is simply breathing and relaxing, dunking your facing in the water, and letting your body do what nature designed to do. As simple as this is, most of us (I’m including myself in this “us”) are so far removed from nature that relaxing, breathing, and not freaking out underwater take an entire course to understand. Hence…Aaron and I were now perched on the porch of Sam, our PADI Freediving instructor.
This was going to be interesting.
Even more interesting than the mechanics of freediving was the application. Let’s review the numbers…
Freediving vs. SCUBADiving…which is better?
In SCUBA diving, with a basic Open Water Course certification, you’re certified to SCUBA down to 18 meters or about 54 feet for the yankees out there. With a “deep dive” course, a SCUBA diver can go down to 40 meters (120 meters), but anything beyond 40 meters requires a special air mixture (NITROX), special care in ascending, and ensuring you don’t fly in any planes for a while after the dive.
With freediving however, after a two-day course, it is common to be able to free dive down to 20 meters (60 feet), 3 meters/6 feet lower than most basic SCUBA divers. After an Advanced Freediving course (“Level 2”) freediving down to a depth of 30 meters (90 feet) deep in the ocean on a single breath is standard, and given its within ones abilities, freediving to 40 meters (120 feet) is very much within reason.
So with the same amount of training (one course) a freediver can actually dive deeper than a basic SCUBA diver.
After that second course a freediver could reasonably have the same dive limits (in terms of depth) as an advanced SCUBA diver (40 meters). Granted, for shorter periods, but without the risk of the bends (nitrogen bubbles forming in the bloodstream) afterwards from flying.
Additionally, if you research the best dive sites in the world, far more than half of them, in the Red Sea, in the Philippines, and in countless other places, occur at less than 30 meters.
The bottom line is that though technology is awesome, mastering the human body can provide the same end state and experiences.
I was completely sold on freediving.
Freediving Day 1 Part 1: First by land…
The first half of our day was spent going over a lot of sciencey stuff (all of the info above in crucial detail – Bill Nye would have been prod), followed by a more practical exercise. Learning to breathe.
“Learning to breathe?” you might think. “That’s BS, I know how to breathe.”
That’s what I thought, so we had a learning session and a brief test after to prove the untapped potential of the human body.
Learning how to inhale deeply and healthily, yet unintentionally, the way babies breathe when sleeping, is something that most people don’t do naturally. Sam had a great test to prove this and the difference achieved by using the skills we learned.
To start, we held our breath.
We started the clock, laid down, held our breath and stopped the lock. 1 minute, 4 seconds. Not bad. Not good either.
We then discussed the idea of “chest breathing” vs. deep breathing and taking a sufficient period of relaxed breaths and deep breaths to oxygenate the blood, relax, and prepare before going under.
Then we started the clock again, laid down, held our breath and stopped the clock. 3 minutes, 4 seconds.
Damn. That was kind of awesome. But would it work in the water?
Freediving Day 1 Part 2: …then by sea.
We had tripled our breath hold, so was it possible to learn anything else that would move us towards being aquamen so quickly? Absolutely.
We were fully kitted out with a freediving mask, snorkel, wetsuit, and weights and headed straight for the ocean that afternoon.
Now that we understood how to fill our bodies (and lungs) with oxygen and hold it, it was time to learn how to move in a way that conserved energy and oxygen allowing us to move more efficiently, move faster, and stay under longer. How to kick. How to dive.
The water was murky as hell. If you read my experience of learning how to surf you know that I’ve never been comfortable in the ocean, and I was much less comfortable with water I couldn’t see through. With this water, I couldn’t see anything beyond a few meters, and we were trying to swim down to 20. Not so
We learned how to “duck dive” properly, which is essentially kicking forward and then shooting our arms down, gaining momentum that propelled us toward the bottom of the ocean, kicking lightly but swiftly along the way. This was the last piece of our basic freediving puzzle.
I was very surprised by the physics and mechanics of freediving. Though I was able to float with little effort on the surface, once I started kicking and sinking down, the pressure of the ocean compressed my body and lungs. What did this mean? Every time I kicked towards the ocean floor and stopped kicking…my body didn’t stop. I actually continued picking up speed after I stopped kicking, and if I want to stop I had to jut my arms and legs out like a starfish. Which made me wonder…how far down could I go?
On day 1, we didn’t go far…15 meters. 45 feet below the ocean’s surface.
Day 2 was more of the same. But…we pushed the limit. My limit anyways…
At 15 meters below the surface, 45 feet, less light penetrated and the ocean was murkier. Colors began disappearing as the ocean looked more greenish blue.
At 20 meters down, the crappy visibility combined with low visibility made it tough to see the guide rope from two arm’s lengths away. I wanted to get the most out of this course, but considering how crappy the visibility was, I wasn’t feeling too comfortable with this.
“We’re getting towards the end of the day,” Sam said. “I dropped the weight a bit, go down as far as you can and feel comfortable with. No pressure.”
No pressure. Ha. Just 60 feet of murky seawater water between me and fresh oxygen. However, this was the last dive. It was now, or never (until next time).
Screw it. It was now.
“Always swim with Bull Sharks”, right?
I put my face in the water, closed my eyes, and just breathed. The sound of the ocean lulling me into a trance like calm.
The alarm on my G-Shock went off. The 2 minutes of prep were up. Time to go down.
I took my last deep breaths…4….3…2…1…dive…I kicked forward, and then down into the ocean.
My eyes locked on the guide rope as I swam head first for the seafloor watching for the black marks on the guideline that indicated my depth sliding past me.
Marker 1…5 meters…
My record. But there was more rope…could I go further? I could.
I stopped kicking and let my momentum carry me down…
Marker 5. 25 meters below the ocean’s surface. I grabbed the weight at the end of my guide rope to stop myself and spun upright.
Then, I just sat there floating in the greenish blue abyss.
There was no sound. I couldn’t see beyond two meters in front of me. It was dark. Above, the light barely passed through and I couldn’t make out any silhouettes on the water’s surface. Below, there was nothing but blue fading to black. I sat there, feeling my lungs burning…suspended in the darkness. A place that I wasn’t supposed to be.
Beyond the anxiety and the discomfort all I could think was that the human body is amazing. The world was amazing, and most people experience so little of it, above the surface and below. Not me though. Not anymore.
As I floated there, counting the seconds in my mind until I went up as my lungs burned. I knew it was time to leave this place. Time to leave this new world. I had just arrived.
The last thought that went through my mind before I kicked furiously through the 75 feet of water above me…
…this is going to be a very interesting adventure.
With that, my adventure of freediving began.
Now to spear some fish…