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This month we take a plunge into the wild world of freediving. You are holding your breath, aren’t you? In our view, the diving community writ large can arguably learn a lot from freedivers…

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Text by Michael Menduno. Header image by Lorenzo Mittiga, who provided photos used through out the FREE story bundle.

Diving into the wild! photo by Lorenzo Mittiga

This month we take a plunge into the wild world of freediving. You are holding your breath, aren’t you? In our view, the diving community writ large can arguably learn a lot from freedivers who have essentially operationalized their knowledge and their ability to manipulate mammalian physiology to significant effect. Today’s top athletes are all pushing beyond 100 meters, even intermediate freedivers are reaching into tech diving depths of 50 m/164 ft and beyond, and five-and-six minute static breath-holds are not uncommon—the men’s record is 11:35 (11 minutes, 35 seconds) and women’s record 9:02, breathing up on air. Nitrox pre-breathing is still in its infancy.

As a result, like the old recommendation for early tech divers: Take a cave diving course whether or not you intend to cave dive!—every tech diver should strongly consider taking a freediving course! Without a doubt, it will increase your depth of knowledge and give you a visceral experience you won’t soon forget—a two and a half to three-minute static apnea breath-hold (three minutes qualifies you for intermediate level) will give you an entirely new appreciation for the power of CO2 and your urge to breathe. I guarantee it!

You may find it surprising that freedivers are every bit as geeky as their tech diving counterparts. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to cover and report on Performance Freediving International’s (PFI) Deja Blue Competition in the Cayman Islands for an Alert Diver freediving story. There I was housed in a condo with the rebreather safety diving team. They were a small team of Canadian tech divers led by Bill Coltart who were tasked with being deep safeties for the event. During the competition, the safeties took turns being stationed at 50-80 m/165-261 ft, depending on the event, armed with a lanyard and lift bag to rescue a freediver in the event of an incident at depth. 

One night, we were sitting around the kitchen table strewn with rebreather equipment, and I took notes as the divers engaged in animated discussions about hyperbaric sensor calibration, the efficacy of hypoxic training, comparative work of breathing, whether cartridges offered advantages over hand-packed scrubbers, and the accuracy of temp sticks. After a time, I was curious to know how the freedivers were faring, so I walked next door to the athlete’s condo.

So many fish, so little time.. Photo by Lorenzo Mittiga

To my delight, a half dozen competitors were sitting around the kitchen, watching videos from the day’s dives and geeking out on their equipment as well, in this case their bodies. Their discussion ranged from sharing Frenzel equalization secrets, the optimal depth for moving a mouthful of gas from their lungs to their mouth on that 80 m/262 ft dive in order to equalize, their preferred Mucinex regiment, the agony and ecstasy of doing negative statics, their last samba i.e., LMC (loss of motor control), and their plan to break their PB (personal best) on tomorrow’s dive. It was clear—they were every bit as geeky as their tekkie counterparts.

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In this issue of InDepth, we offer you a curated selection of freediving stories that we thought might be of interest to tech divers, beginning with a Wim Hof-inspired story by Sabrina Figliomeni titled, “Freezedivers: What Doesn’t Freeze You Makes you Stronger.” Beware: it will potentially make your blood run cold, even if you’re wearing your RF1!

Next science writer Reilly Fogarty tackles the issue, “Do Freedivers Get Bent?” and explores what we know and we don’t know about breath-hold DCS. The answer is yes btw! French adventure writer Florine Quirion introduces the next innovation in freediving biometrics in, “Listen Up: Freediving Is About to Enter a New Era if Oxama has a Say!” Then we dive into Ted Harty’s Freediving Summit, with a pair of reports, “How Do Competitive Freedivers Stay Safe?” by tekkie turned freediver Dean Laffan, and Handling The Pressures of Competitive Freediving by freediving freelancer Charly Stringer. 

We conclude with some resources on Technical Freediving i.e, breath-hold dives conducted with nitrox pre-breathing, and a The Diver Medic’s new DAN Europe-approved Freediving Emergency Medical Responder course.

Finally, a special thanks to Bonaire-based photographer extraordinaire Lorenzo Mittiga for supplying us with a bevy of freediving bella foto. Grazie Lorenzo! That said, I suggest that you do a good breathe up and dive right in.—M2 


Do Freedivers Get Bent?

by Reilly Fogarty


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Technical Freediving

Kirk Krack and John Hullverson about to conduct mixed gas freediving operations on the Nippo Maru, Truk Lagoon.

The freediving community is the latest community to begin applying mixed gas technology to improve their safety and performance. It’s fair to say that at this stage mixed gas freediving, specifically nitrox freediving, is still in its infancy, and only used by innovators like freediving pioneer Kirk Krack, who has used nitrox pre-breathes successfully in film work on James Cameron’s Avatar series, his colleague John Hulverson and others. However, this will likely change as freedivers learn about and are able to experience the benefits of nitrox pre-breathes. Watch this space.

Tech freediving articles:

DeeperBlue: Technical Freediving: Are Breathhold Divers Ready To Mix It Up? By Michael Menduno (2019)

DeeperBlue: Technical Freediving In Hollywood Revealed by Victoria Brown (2020)

Diver: Technical Freediving in Truk Lagoon By Kirk Krack and John Hullverson (2019)

JHPEE: Covington D, Lee, RH, Toffell S, Bursian A, Krack K, and Giordano C Technical Freediving: An Emerging Breath-Hold Diving Technique, Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments: Vol. 15: Iss. 1, Article 3 2019 DOI: 10.7771/2327-2937.1122

Alert Diver: The New Pointy End of Diving by Michael Menduno (2017)

Tech freediving videos and webinars:

The Diver Medic: Kirk Krack – Technical Freediving

Dirty Dozen: Episode #9: Kirk Krack; Technical Freediving in Hollywood with Aron Arngrimsson

OZTek: Video interview with Kirk at Oztek by Michael Menduno 

Freediving Emergency Medical Responder course (FEMR)

This agency-neutral course which was developed by The Diver Medic is endorsed by DAN Europe, many dive doctors and safety specialists, along with Italian freediving champion Andrea Zuccari.

Breath-hold diving is a rapidly growing sport around the world whether freediving for fun or competition freediving. There is also spearfishing, synchronised swimming, and of course, mermaids that freedive professionally for aquariums and events. There are hundreds of thousands of breath-hold divers in the world; many push themselves to their limit, either hunting for food or setting personal records for depth or time. 

However, breath-hold diving has a huge risk factor—possible death or serious injury! This form of diving suffers from an alarming number of fatalities. According to the 2019 DAN Annual Diving Report, there were at least 955 breath-hold diving incidents between 2004-2017, with 73% fatal outcomes—or an average of at least 51 fatalities per year. [Ed.note: This is not the case in freediving competitions] Of course, those are the recorded incidents, what about the unreported ones?

What are the other risks? Blackouts and hypoxic fits, dehydration, blood sugar levels, barotrauma to the eyes, ears, sinus, and lungs, nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness. Hood squeeze and mask squeeze. Cuts, abrasions to catastrophic injuries like marine life injuries or being accidentally shot with a speargun. Cardiac arrest, heart attack, anaphylaxis, hypothermia, hyperthermia, and shock to name a few. 

Yes, most sports have risks but would you know what to do in an emergency? This is why we want you to be prepared and continue to enjoy the sport you love so much. We encourage you to be safer with the knowledge that can change the outcome of life or death. 

Here are the links to the  courses:

Freediving Emergency Medical Responder

Spearfishing Emergency Medical Responder

Education

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.

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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.

3 responses to “Don’t Hold Your Breath: The Movement to Ban Breath-holding in Pools”

  1. Anthony

    If this is enforced, it’ll be the death of synchronized swimming as a competitive sport.

  2. Armando

    ““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”

    I would gently ask for the source of this statement, just to match the total number of aquatic facilities and pool in the US and that “almost every one” has no breath holding policies.

    Thanks for your answer!

  3. Oliver Christen-Drew

    Great article, very complete, and apparently very necessary!!

    Oli Christen-Drew
    AIDA IT
    Molchanovs ITD

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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 ScubaGuru.com 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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