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Don’t Hold Your Breath: The Movement to Ban Breath-holding in Pools

There’s a movement afoot to ban breath-holding in pools in an effort to prevent hypoxic fatalities—Sorry, no freediving or scuba training for you! Unfortunately, as dive educator Tec Clark reports, they’re throwing the breath-holder out with the pool water. Wouldn’t the water tribe be better served if aquatic directors followed the education model of scuba and swimming and properly trained and educated people to manage the risks versus banning the activity outright? Tec’s got the deets.



By Tec Clark

Timing a static apnea.
Timing a static apnea. Photo courtesy of Tec Clark

I became the National Director of the YMCA Scuba Program in the summer of 1998, where, while at the USA YMCA headquarters in Chicago, my attendance was requested at an urgent meeting with the top legal counsel of the Y. Once there, I was asked, “Can you tell us what freediving is?” 

With enthusiasm, I described the sport in detail since I was a freediving judge and co-founder of the U.S. Freediving Team. After my passionate pitch the attorney said, “Well, we just had a fatality at a Y. A member told the lifeguard to ‘leave him alone’ while he practiced freediving. The guards pulled him up after a long time underwater and could not resuscitate him.” I interjected and told our legal counsel that the deceased had violated some major safety rules of freediving and that is why we were going to promote a nationwide safety campaign for freediving in YMCA pools, she immediately said, “No. I want to ensure freediving does not take place in any YMCA. We need to condemn and disallow this activity.”

Similar conversations have taken place by aquatic directors, attorneys, and insurance managers in dozens of municipal, not-for-profit and private aquatic facilities nationwide. And, instead of fixing the problem with education and proper safety protocols, a much simpler approach has taken place, and that is to ban breath hold diving in aquatic facilities.

“No breath holding” policies are now seen in almost every aquatic facility and on pool rules signs throughout the U.S., which means that many aquatic facilities are completely shutting down freediving training. There are numerous reports of freediving instructors being turned away by aquatic directors who disallow freediving in their pools—even under supervision and with instruction by qualified instructors.

Meanwhile, freediving is becoming more popular, and more and more dive centers are offering freediver training. When a dive center that teaches scuba classes at a pool now wants to teach freediving classes, they are being told they cannot. When questioned, most aquatic directors point to their pool rules of “no extended underwater swimming” or “no breath holding allowed”. Interestingly, it is true that during an Open Water Diver course there is a skin diving component in which people hold their breath and swim underwater. And some scuba training agencies require an underwater swim during the prerequisite swim test. Also happening are underwater breath hold swims for American Red Cross Lifeguard tests. In addition to these activities, would synchronized swimmers also fall into the breath holding activity category?

In fact, as Tom Griffiths with the Aquatic Safety Group says, “Whatever we do in aquatics requires breath holding at some point.” He’s right, for even when we go swimming we are breathing in between strokes. That means we are breath holding at varying intervals. And, don’t get me started on swim lessons.

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If there are such strict rules against breath holding, then why are the American Red Cross and YMCA swim lesson programs teaching kids how to hold their breath? Of course, we answer this rhetorical question with, “because it is how we get along in the water—sometimes we breathe and sometimes we hold our breath.”

Photo by Laura M. Hamel / U.S. Masters Swimming.
Photo by Laura M. Hamel / U.S. Masters Swimming.

The Incident Data

Some will argue that I’m taking it to the extreme and that what is really being prevented with these policies are “prolonged” or “extended” times of breath holding underwater. This could be in the form of distance underwater, time underwater, or both. This is because of the shocking number of fatalities that have taken place in pools with people engaged in pushing those two limits while holding their breath underwater. Dozens of drownings and non-fatal drownings take place each year with these actions either individually, as a person tries to break their own records, or in a group setting, as individuals compete with others to see who can hold their breath longer and/or go farther on one breath of air.

The root malady causing harm is termed shallow water blackout, but it is more accurately named hypoxic blackout. This is when unconsciousness results from hypoxia (low oxygen) to the brain. Our bodies’ cue to breathe comes primarily from rising CO2 levels. As CO2 levels increase, so does the urge to breathe. However, if an individual pushes through the urge to breathe and/or hyperventilates prior to a breath hold dive, then hypoxic blackout can occur easily. Once a blackout takes place and the respiratory tracts are submerged, the chances are high that water will enter the lungs at some point and the person will drown. If the victim survives, then the condition is non-fatal drowning—the old term for this was near drowning.

Scuba training. Photo by Steve Millington
Scuba training. Photo by Steve Millington

Since 2004, Divers Alert Network, DAN, has collected and analyzed breath-hold incidents. Between 2004 and 2017, 995 incidents were reported with 73% being fatal. However, the DAN reports often do not capture swimming related blackout events such as with swim teams. The swimming community is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of shallow water blackout (hypoxic blackout). Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps recently recorded a PSA with his coach Bob Bowman to warn swimmers and athletes about the dangers of shallow water blackouts. This video is located on SHALLOWWATERBLACKOUTPREVENTION.ORG—a website dedicated to hypoxic blackout prevention.

Preventing hypoxic blackouts is precisely the reason for aquatic facilities’ restrictions of breath holding, which is also the proverbial throwing away the baby with the bathwater. In scuba diving we have risks. and we use technology and techniques to mitigate those risks. Technology is our gear to stay underwater safely and our techniques are our skills and standards brought about through education. But there is still risk. The only way to eliminate all risk is to not scuba dive. Since that is not an option, we educate.

The same holds true in aquatics. Swimming has risks, and there are plenty of programs to teach people how to swim. Yet, even when people have their skills and education, there is still risk. The only way to completely eliminate the risks of drowning or non-fatal drowning is to not swim at all. That, too, is not an option.

Photo by Laura M. Hamel / U.S. Masters Swimming.
Photo by Laura M. Hamel / U.S. Masters Swimming.

But here with freediving, the risk is being eliminated by shutting down the activity completely. Wait a minute, what happened to the education model as seen in scuba diving and swimming lessons? Wouldn’t it be better to properly train and educate people on the risks than to completely prevent the activity? The answer is a resounding yes!

“What happened to the education model as seen in scuba diving and swimming lessons? Wouldn’t it be better to properly train and educate people on the risks than to completely prevent the activity? The answer is a resounding yes!”

College-aged males are the number one demographic of fatalities due to extended breath holding events. This includes trying to push their own limits in a pool or freediving in an open body of water. And the overwhelming majority of these men were never trained in proper breath-holding methods and protocols as offered in a formal freediving course.

Could the aquatics industry be exacerbating this phenomenon by shutting down the ability to teach proper breath-hold-diving safety techniques as taught in supervised freediving courses vetted by diving training agencies? I believe so.

Photo by Ted Harty, Immersion Freediving
Blow, tap, talk to revive an unconscious diver. Photo by Ted Harty, Immersion Freediving

What’s To be Done?

If you look at SHALLOW WATER BLACKOUT PREVENTION.ORG, one of their stated goals is, “To ban prolonged breath-holding in pools for the general public.*” However, note the asterisk. Here is the associated footnote that accompanies this statement: “We believe qualified breath-hold freedive training agencies need access to public pools during non-general public usage with lifeguards on duty. Using the buddy system, proper supervision, and training protocols with continuous monitoring, along with waivers by participants to protect the facility and staff, freediving may be practiced safely.”

As a Performance Freediving International (PFI) Freediver Instructor, I teach people how to breath-hold dive responsibly. Not only are there multiple courses for multiple levels of proficiency but, in these courses, about 70% of the education and skills developed are dedicated to safety principles. These safety principles are practiced over and over, drilled into the minds and motor memory so that individuals who walk away from the course with their freediving certification would be extremely unlikely to break the safety protocols taught in the course.

Photo by Ted Harty, Immersion Freediving

Scuba training agencies are reporting that freediving is the fastest rising certifications in the industry. Just over twenty years ago freediving was such a specialty niche that only one agency, PFI, was in place. Today, most scuba training agencies have freediving courses and issue freediving certifications.

With this rise in popularity of freediving, there is a problem. If aquatic facilities shut freediving down entirely, these interested parties are going to do it somewhere—untrained, unsupervised, and by violating numerous safety protocols. They are in danger of becoming an unfortunate and preventable statistic. Primarily because they were not allowed to learn correctly in the first place. It is extremely important for aquatic directors to embrace freediving training at their facilities with as much care as they would swimming lessons so that freedive training is a public safety initiative rather than a “dangerous program.”

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As diving professionals, we have the ability to help educate aquatic directors and managers as to why they should allow proper freediving training and proper freediving practices to take place at their facilities. It all boils down to supervision and standards. First, as noted by SHALLOW WATER BLACKOUT PREVENTION.ORG qualified freediving instructors need access to public pools. Freediving training teaches the proper supervision, safety and training protocols of breath hold diving. This can help save lives.

Breath Hold Safety

Freediving or breath holding in an aquatic facility can take place properly under specific guidelines. For an aquatic facility to open up breath holding to its patrons, here are some sample guidelines to put in place with patrons:
  1. Participation is limited to individuals who are either students in a freediving class or those with valid freediving certifications.
  2. A certified and insured freediving supervisor (Safety Freediver, Freediver Supervisor or Freediver Instructor) must be present during training.
  3. Weight yourself correctly (positively buoyant at surface) even after exhalation.
  4. Do not hyperventilate to excess.
  5. One up/ One down—diving with constant visual contact.
  6. Maintain close, direct supervision of any freediver for no less than 30 seconds after they surface.
  7. Make your minimum surface interval twice the duration of your dive time.
  8. Do not take every dive to its limit. Maintain a reserve.
  9. Review, practice and discuss how to recognize and handle blackouts and near blackouts.

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Tec Clark is a diving industry expert who has held elite positions in the dive industry including Managing Director of the University of Florida’s Academic Diving Program and National Director of the YMCA Scuba Program. He holds over 40 professional certifications with over 15 diving agencies. Tec has also been a police officer, dive rescue team member, and forensic dive accident investigator. He also appeared as a diving expert on A&E, The Learning Channel, and Outdoor Life Network. Tec was Captain of the US Freediving Team, founder of Reef Ministries, and curates and ScubaGuru Academy. He is also the host of two podcasts: The League of Extraordinary Divers and The Dive Locker. Tec is the Associate Director for Aquatics and Scuba Diving at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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Why I Became a GUE Instructor

Jon Kieren had been an experienced tech diver and instructor for years when, curious, he took a Global Underwater Explorers’ Fundamentals class, a prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training. Soon, he didn’t just want to be a GUE diver. He wanted to be a GUE instructor. Kieren writes about the draw of GUE and why he started over with a new agency.




by Jon Kieren. Photos courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in pretty much every aspect of the diving industry over the past 15 years or so. I’ve been an instructor and boat captain in the Caribbean, worked in the training department of a large training agency, served as a consultant for equipment manufacturers, and traveled all over the world teaching as a full-time cave and technical instructor trainer. Many would have said I’d reached the highest levels in the diving industry. 

So when I decided to start all over from scratch to become a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) instructor, many of my friends, peers, and students scratched their head a bit and wondered why I would want to invest so much time, energy, and money to teach things I had been capable of teaching for years with other agencies. The answer was I wanted to commit to excellence. “Can’t you do that by teaching for other agencies?” they would ask. Not really.

Over the years, I had become quite frustrated with almost every aspect of the dive industry. Low-quality instruction, lack of accountability from agencies in accidents and quality assurance, manufacturers releasing equipment that created more problems than it solved, and dive shops and instructors at all levels racing to the bottom in terms of quality — all of it was making my blood boil. When I “saw the light,” it was refreshing, inspirational, and a huge relief. I finally found an answer to many of the issues I had been banging my head against the wall trying to solve for years. Here’s how it went down.

In 2016, I left my job in the training department of a large agency after five years of frustration. I realized I could make a larger impact on the industry working with one or two students or instructor candidates at a time. I moved from south Florida to north Florida’s “cave country” to teach full-time as an independent instructor. It was a bit scary to not have a guaranteed paycheck, but I was determined to make it work. I was hungry to improve as an instructor and knew I could do better. The problem was, after working at the highest levels with some of the biggest names in the industry, I didn’t really know where to turn. 

Enter Mark Messersmith. He’s a GUE board director, instructor evaluator, chief operating officer of dive equipment manufacturer Halcyon, and one of the nicest guys around. I had gotten to know Mark a little bit over the years, and always appreciated his laidback and super supportive demeanor. When I approached him about GUE training, he asked, “Why?” Knowing my background, of course he knew the answer, but I think he wanted to hear it from me. 

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Fundamentals: Where the Fog First Lifted

I first started down the technical diving path when I was working in the Caribbean as an open water instructor and boat captain, and I came across GUE in my research. I was immediately put off by the standardization and team-diving philosophy, and decided other agencies would be a better fit for me. Of course I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my thought was, “There can’t be just one way to do EVERYTHING.” Plus, I really enjoyed solo diving at the time. After moving through the ranks over the years and working with hundreds of technical, rebreather, and cave students, I had the opportunity to work with several GUE-trained divers. Most of them had only taken Fundamentals, the prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training courses, but two things were consistent with all of those students: The classes were easier to teach, and they were way more fun. We would be able to start cave or tech diving straight out of the gate and not need to spend three or four days on basic skills. I wanted to know what GUE’s secret was to create such solid and consistent divers, and that’s when I approached Mark.

To answer his question, I was honest and told him I wanted to steal as much as I could from the Fundamentals course to incorporate into my classes. He just smiled through his mustache and said, “OK.” We scheduled a class, and I got to work watching all of the skills videos and practicing on my own in order to prepare. To say that I was nervous when class started was an understatement. I think I hid it pretty well, but what if I didn’t meet the highest standard for Fundamentals and get GUE’s coveted tech pass? What would that say about me as an instructor? Mark’s casual style put me at ease as we began, and I was able to focus. When Mark got to the third slide of the first lecture, it was like the fog had lifted and I could see everything clearly for the first time. I knew the trajectory of my career had just shifted and I’d be starting all over. “This is going to be expensive,” I thought.

So what’s on that slide? A simple statement that was the answer to all of my struggles: “End the disconnect between training and passion.” As Mark explained the issues in the dive industry, of which I was all too aware, he also explained how GUE addresses those issues. From the top down, GUE’s board of directors members and instructors are passionate divers and explorers, no exceptions. This changed everything for me. One of my biggest frustrations was recognizing that at the very top of the industry (senior managers of the agencies), almost nobody was an active diver. Presidents and VPs were diving once a year for social media posts to create an illusion they were still active and passionate—many of them with very limited teaching experience and making decisions on standards at the highest levels of technical, cave, and rebreather training when they had only been in a cave once or dove a semi-closed rebreather a couple of times back in the 90s. 

This lack of passion filters down through the industry. It’s amazing how many instructors (technical, cave and rebreather included) refuse to get in the water if they aren’t being paid. Even with my limited experience at the time, when I went to work for the agency, I would have my head in my hands thinking, “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” when sitting in on big meetings as industry heads for all of the agencies were in my opinion focused more on how to keep standards low and profits high rather than on safety and quality. 

A Commitment to Excellence

But now, staring at this slide, we discussed the ways GUE is focused on keeping quality at the highest level and inspiring divers to be passionate, competent, and capable of incredible conservation and exploration efforts. We discussed the global GUE community and all of the remarkable things they accomplish. It was so clearly the answer to everything.

I didn’t just want to be a Fundamentals diver. I wanted to be a GUE instructor. As I started on the path, I started to really realize why “Commit to Excellence” is printed on the back of our t-shirts. I was pushed harder than I had ever been in the past, with support and encouragement. The goal was always to improve, no matter what we were doing: from parking our cars at the dive sites to be courteous and leave room for others, to maintaining perfect stability in extremely task-loading situations, and developing the best instructional and evaluation techniques. There was never a time in any of my classes where I was told, “Good job.” It was always, “Good job, but here’s how we can make it better.”

My Tech 1 (and later Tech 2) instructor, Guy Shockey, made a statement that I remember every day. He explained that he chooses to be a GUE instructor because when he wakes up in the morning and gets ready to teach a class, he knows without a doubt that he has the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. So when I’m on my way to the shop or dive site to meet my students in the morning, I keep that in the back of my mind. I have the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. It not only gives me confidence, but keeps me honest. There are no excuses and no room for shortcuts. Commit to excellence. 

We are held to that standard of excellence through several mechanisms. We have strict annual renewal requirements to ensure we are actively diving and exploring so that students are learning from someone still passionate about what they are teaching. These requirements go far beyond what is typical in the industry, and we are actually monitored for meeting them.

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Staying Current (And Competent)

Most agencies have some form of “currency” recommendation, meaning you’re supposed to teach or assist a class every few years. However, there’s no oversight to ensure instructors are meeting this requirement. There’s loads of instructors out there (tech instructors and instructor trainers included) who haven’t taught a class in five-plus years. There’s nothing stopping these instructors from going out and teaching a class at their highest level. Sure, if something terrible happens, the agency and insurance company will likely drop the instructor, showing that they violated a standard by not remaining current. But at that point, it’s already too late. Students pay the price. Even if there isn’t an accident in training, it’s very likely that students will not have received adequate training and will be more at risk in their post-training diving activities.

GUE instructors need to show dive logs verifying we have conducted at least 25 non-training dives each year, half of which need to be at or above their highest teaching level. This ensures that when you sign up for a GUE class, you can be sure the instructor in front of you is still active, current, and passionate about what they are teaching you. 

All GUE instructors, instructor trainers, and instructor examiners are required to be re-evaluated at their highest teaching level every four years. Nobody is exempt from this rule, as it means that we are consistently ensuring everyone is teaching the same things, to the same standards, without drift. 

Scuba diving is a physically taxing activity, and the more aggressive the dive, the more physically fit the diver should be. Even on fairly benign dives, you never know when the current or seas might pick up, or when a failure could result in extended decompression times. We believe that having physical fitness requirements that are consistent with diving goals is extremely important. No smoking allowed for any GUE diver or instructor, and we require swim tests at every level of training. 

Instructors have to meet pretty stringent fitness requirements each year. We have to be medically evaluated for fitness to dive, maintain a low Body Mass Index (BMI), conduct timed swims and diver tows, stair climbs and equipment carries over long distances, all of which verify our ability to assist our students in emergencies. This is surprisingly absent from other agency’s renewal requirements. There are lines in the renewal agreement about being fit to dive, but there’s no oversight, and they don’t even require a medical exam.

We also have a 100% quality assurance process, meaning every student completes a quality control form. This is not only so our QC director can identify any drift from the standards or issues with our conduct in class, but also to help provide feedback on how we can improve the training we offer. We encourage our students not to just tell us what we did well, but treat us how we treat them in the debriefings and include areas we can better support their growth, because there’s always some room for improvement.

I don’t mention all of the renewal requirements as a flex, but rather to show that it takes a significant investment for GUE instructors to remain in current teaching status. Someone who isn’t committed simply won’t remain current. It was a huge draw for me, as I had seen how the minimal standards typical in the dive industry contribute to the disconnect.

For me, as an instructor, the benefits of GUE go beyond the high-quality training, standardization, and community. The opportunity to work toward ending the disconnect between training and passion as well as the continuous commitment to excellence are what keep me motivated. Not a year has gone by since my Fundamentals course that I haven’t seen significant growth as an instructor, and I don’t see that changing until I hang up my fins.


InDEPTH: The Economics of Being a Tech Diving Instructor by Darcy Kieran

Other stories by Jon Kieren:

InDEPTH: I Trained “Doc Deep” by Jon Kieren

InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren

InDEPTH: Grokking The FATHOM CCR: My Dive into the Nuts & Bolts with the Inventor by Jon Kieren

Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his 13-year career to improving dive training. As an active TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS, and GUE Instructor and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep, extended range cave dives, as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favorite places to share with the world. 

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