Photo: La Casa Surya

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Freediving, Including Where to Get Started

Outdoor Diving
by Neil Armstrong Feb 18, 2022

it’s as simple as taking a breath, being able to swim, and believing in yourself. If you can do that, you’re ready for freediving – the sport of diving underwater on a single breath (and without any air tanks). The silent, underwater world is yours to experience when you freedive, and you only need to go as deep as you’re comfortable with (though the world record for freediving is 702 feet below the surface).

There’s no splashing or crashing of waves; as soon as you slip beneath the surface, you’re greeted by aquatic serenity. The feeling of being weightless and moving in any direction without the pesky laws of gravity feels akin to flying underwater. That’s a big part of the appeal for many freedivers (and beginner freedivers).

What is freediving? How does it work?

With the rise of wellness retreats, life-improvement courses, and meditation phone apps in recent years, it’d be easy to regard freediving as just another fad or marketing gimmick to sell everything from mindfulness to fitness. While freediving ticks these boxes, its roots were planted well before the age of telephones and life coaches, both historically and – believe it or not – genetically.

Bajau Laut people are some of the most skilled freedivers in the world

Photo: Nokuro/Shutterstuck

In Malaysia, some Bajau Laut people, part of a group of people who have embraced the term “sea nomads,” can stay underwater to hunt fish for up to five minutes. And it’s not just young, strong men staying under for minutes at a time. It’s also freediving grandmas who collect sponges and shells off Jeju Island in Korea, along with the Moken, an indigenous group living on Thailand’s west coast, among others.

The bodies of these people who can spend minutes underwater have evolved over centuries due to the amount of time they spend in the water — around five hours per day, regularly diving as deep as 65 feet. Studies show that their spleens are around 50 percent larger than an average human’s. When a human dives underwater, their spleen contracts, releasing red blood cells into the bloodstream. A larger spleen means a greater supply of red blood cells, which means more oxygen, creating the ability to stay underwater longer.

Freediving schools teach breath-hold techniques and how to minimize your muscle use to preserve oxygen in the bloodstream.

What are the benefits of freediving?

Some freedivers live for the zen-like levels of relaxation they feel underwater

Freediving can be one of the most peaceful experiences you’ll have on vacation // Photo: Kona Freedive

Benefits are subjective, but there are two significant benefits: freediving will increase your fitness and help you manage stress.

On the physical side, freediving is a gateway to a healthier lifestyle. It’s easier on your joints as there’s less pressure underwater, and since it’s no-impact activity (unlike running or team sports), it helps develop muscles. It also increases your endurance and helps build energy and stamina with fewer unexpected injuries.

Freediving helps strengthen your lungs and you can do specific exercises to increase your oxygen capacity. That’s useful even out of the water, since some studies have suggested more oxygen leads to a boost in brain activity.

And what is freediving in terms of mental gain? Well, it’s a lot. Compared to the physical exertion of swimming laps, freediving is akin to mental chess. It helps you hone and understand various relaxation and concentration techniques you can use in daily life. You’ll likely be more composed in stressful situations and worry less about everyday problems. You’ll also have to face your fears, be it from simply being underwater or managing your oxygen levels. But you can ease into that at your own pace.

Training your mind to be calm and your body to adapt takes time, and you can do it in small stages. You’ll start by taking one breath and diving down into the water. The first task will be just getting your heartbeat to slow while your body learns to trust the experience. It’s similar to the benefits of meditation.

What is freediving scoring like? How is success measured?

Group of freedivers underwater

Freediving is about enjoying yourself and finding peace underwater, not setting records // Photo: Florida Freedivers

As world champion freediver Umberto Pelizzari puts it, “The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.”

Unlike almost every sport on the planet, where the goal is to get your heart racing and increase adrenaline levels, the purpose of freediving is the complete opposite. To be the best you can be, your body needs to relax both mentally and physically. Some freedivers explain the feeling as being one with the water. A more relaxed body consumes far less oxygen than a tense one. And equalizing (trying to get the pressure inside your body roughly equal with the pressure of the water), which is essential for safely freediving, is much harder to do when you’re tense.

Sure, you can record your depth or time how long you’re able to stay underwater, but the real goal is the mental ability to relax, pace your body, and slow your oxygen consumption enough to enjoy the underwater world.

How to practice breathing

What is freediving? A chance to practice breathing with buddies

Always, always, always have a buddy with you when you practice breathing techniques // Photo: Kona Freedive

The greatest obstacle most freedivers face is their mind and body wanting to breathe – you have to fight the urge. The longer you hold your breath, the more carbon dioxide will build up in your blood cells. That can lead to various minor-to-moderately dangerous symptoms for freedivers, like headaches and muscle soreness. But mentally accepting that and practicing breath-holding techniques before you dive in will help you lower your heart rate and relax your brain and body, helping you excel underwater.

Online, there are a variety of breathing techniques anyone can access. Schools like Sydney, Australia’s Immersia Freediving and global diver organizations like Deeper Blue have classes, videos, and tutorials you can follow at home. But breath training should not be done alone, on land or in the water, in case you get dizzy or blackout. Always practice with a buddy (or better yet, an expert) whether you’re in or out of the water.

The easiest and first technique to practice is called belly breathing — inhaling air in such a way that it makes your stomach, rather than your chest, rise and fall. It’s easy to practice but will take some time to master.

What is the US freediving scene like?

A freediver in a kelp bed in San Diego

Photo: Dive California

The main freediving global bodies are the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), Scuba Schools International (SSI), the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), and the World Confederation of Underwater Activities (CMAS). All offer beginner courses, and there’s no shortage of beautiful places to learn.

As well as being home to monstrous surf, the Hawaiian islands have some of the deepest and most easily accessible blue-water (open ocean) dive locations, many of which are reliably calm. A popular operator is Kona Freedivers, which also offers open ocean safaris. A benefit of freediving in Hawaii is that you may be lucky enough to see whales, dolphins, whale sharks, big pelagic fish, sharks, and mantas during the boat ride out to your dive site.

Of course, you don’t need to cross the Pacific to learn freediving basics. With a long, curving coastline and stunning lakes, there are plenty of places to try freediving in California. In San Diego, try Dive California, which also practices marine conservation and eco-friendly diving. Most dives are around La Jolla, which is known for sea lions, small smarks, and great kelp beds, although the water can be a bit chilly. Also check out San Diego Freedivers, a club that holds ongoing events for freedivers.

As you may expect, freediving in Florida is fairly well-developed. Popular areas include Key Largo, Key West, Merritt Island, and the freshwater springs and caves around the town of High Springs.

Florida is heavy on marine life like angelfish, blacktip sharks, turtles, giant grouper, and blue tangs – which Pixar fans may recognize as Dory from Finding Nemo – so you’re not going to be bored underwater. Check out Florida Freedivers for highly rated beginner classes near North Palm Beach.

What is freediving like in other countries?

What is freediving if not a chance to check out awesome cenotes like this one?

Photo: La Casa Surya

The sport is international, and standards, techniques, and safety are similar worldwide.

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is remarkable for scuba divers and freedivers thanks to its expansive subterranean networks of caves and caverns, accessed via cenotes. Cenotes are akin to sinkholes filled with turquoise-blue, clear freshwater. They have a relatively reliable year-round temperature (around 77 degrees Fahrenheit) and are usually easy to access, with stairwells and diving platforms atop some of the more popular cenotes.

Local freediver operator La Casa Surya offers all levels of courses and freediver experience days where you can try the basics of freediving without committing to a complete certification program. It’s a great place to learn as the cenotes are inland and underground, so there’s little to worry about in terms of wind, currents, tides, or sharks.

If you want to head further afield, check out Apneista in Bali, covering everything from basic to instructor courses. While the island’s southern coast is no stranger to surges of tourists and solid waves, the north retains the small-town charm and quieter waters. With year-round water temperatures of 82 degrees Fahrenheit and visibility up to 100 feet, there’s plenty to keep a freediver happy.

Jemeluk Bay is the most protected deep bay on the north coast of Bali and you can reach depths of up to 160 feet by swimming from the shore. The bay has vibrant reefs, a coral wall, and is generally protected from the trade winds. Two unique offerings from Apneista are the options to freedive with giant manta rays or freedive on well-preserved shipwrecks.

A freediver between coral reefs in Bali

Photo: Apneista Bali/Bradshaw Kroll Photography

If you’re near southeast Asia, the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand is also a premier freediving location. It’s protected from seasonal typhoons and lacks strong currents. It’s tropical and warm year-round, creating a haven for marine life like reef sharks, stingrays, nudibranch (tiny, insanely colorful slug-looking creatures), barracuda, and even the occasional whale. Freedive Koh Tao is the premier school in the area, offering everything from two-hour courses to month-long “master” courses.

What was once a fringe activity is now being taken up by people from around the world. While freediving is very popular in the scuba diving community, it’s also popular for vacationers who only have a day to spare. The goal isn’t ultimately to set a world record — it’s to have fun, learn some new stress and meditation skills, and experience life undertaker. You just need a mask, fins, and a sense of adventure. Freedom is awaiting you in the big blue. .

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