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How Do Competitive Freedivers Stay Safe?
Breath-hold diving as a whole, particularly spearfishing, does not have a good safety record due to the large percentage of breath-hold divers who are untrained, but that’s simply not the case with competitive freediving, which has come a long way in developing robust safety protocols. Here former GUE tekkie turned freediver Dean Laffan explains how official competitions keep their athletes safe.
by Dean Laffan. Header image courtesy of Justin Bruhn Pure Underwater Imaging
If it gets to the point in recreational or technical diving where you must hold your breath to reach the surface, something has gone very wrong. But there is one form of diving where not only is this accepted, but indeed mandatory. That is, of course, freediving.
The Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) system was fundamentally designed as a way for divers to conduct their dives in the safest possible manner—all while having fun! As said often by George Irvine, Director of the Woodville Karst Plains Project (WKPP) during their record breaking explorations in Wakulla Springs in Florida, “DIR is an attitude about diving that starts with safety. There is no reason for anyone to get killed diving.”
The term DIR itself—an acronym for “Doing it Right”—was an evolution of the Hogarthian approach to cave diving, and both contained many of the tenets of the modern GUE system. As we all know, those principles are just as applicable to recreational single tank diving as they are to more advanced diving such as mixed gas, rebreathers, and cave diving.
This attitude that Irvine mentions is based on, above all else, safety. As the old adage says, “Going down is optional; coming up is mandatory.” This is even more true when diving on a single breath.
It turns out there are some obvious parallels between the way safety is handled in freediving and GUE protocols. In cave diving, Sheck’s original Golden Rules as codified in his “Little Blue Book,” published in 1979, are still a wonderfully effective framework for safe cave diving.
1. ALWAYS USE A SINGLE, CONTINUOUS GUIDELINE FROM THE ENTRANCE OF THE CAVE THROUGHOUT THE DIVE.
2. ALWAYS USE THE “THIRD RULE” IN PLANNING YOUR AIR SUPPLY. ie., reserve at least two-thirds of your beginning gas supply for the exit.
3. AVOID DEEP DIVING IN CAVES [Ed. note: On air!] and;
5. AWAYS USE AT LEAST THREE LIGHTS PER DIVER.
But, there’s an unstated rule in Sheck’s book clearly recognized by the training agencies since the early days: Be trained in cavern or cave diving and dive within the limits of your training.
These days, of course, it is hard to imagine scenarios without a final rule: “NEVER CAVE DIVE ALONE,” at least from the GUE perspective. Mr. Irvine was also fond of saying that “Diving is a sport to be enjoyed with friends. There is never a reason to solo dive. Diving solo removes any ‘second chance’ you will ever have.”
So, what does all this have to do with freediving?
Ted Harty’s Freediving Summit
In early February of 2022, well known US freediving coach—who is widely accepted as the ‘World’s Greatest Evangelist’ for freediving safety—Ted Harty unveiled a virtual freediving summit with a stunning array of guests. The roster included legendary world champions such as Alexey Molchanov and William Truebridge, James Nestor (the author of the books Deep and Breath), author/podcaster Ben Greenfield, representatives from all of the major freediving training agencies, and many more freediving notables. There are over 30 hours of interviews, and you can check it out here.
Harty’s interviews and his focus on safety got me thinking about how the two fields of scuba and freediving approach the broad topic of safety. I’m also thinking about the specifics of safe diving practices in freediving, some of which may seem counterintuitive to scuba divers, but once understood, make a lot of sense.
Ted Harty is so passionate about and obsessed with safety for breath-hold diving that he created an entire free, online course to learn about those hazards! As his own site highlights, this is NOT a replacement for a real freediving course, but it’s a good primer and, in my opinion, has without a doubt saved lives and encouraged people to take proper freedive training courses.
InDepth chief Michael Menduno suggested I write this article since a lot of technical divers, who are a bunch of giant nerds, might dig on how the freediving family safely completes thousands of breath-hold dives, many to depths of over 100 m/328 ft, in such reliably safe fashion. It should be noted that there have only been two fatalities in competitive freediving over the last 30 years. By way of comparison, on average there have been about 20 rebreather fatalities annually over the last ten years, not including open circuit tech fatalities.
By way of background, I was originally, like many of us, a wide eyed, single tank, air diving ocean diver. I did some years of that, and then took a break from diving for a while as I found new obsessions: skydiving, skiing, and flying. But, I returned to my first love to pursue tech diving and mixed gas, but really fell in love with caves. After some more years doing that I finally semi-retired as family and my own business took precedence.
However, in 2018, I treated myself to a long overdue intro course to freediving (See InDepth: Deep into DEEP Week) and oh, man, I became instantly obsessed. So, I thought I might try and translate some freediving safety geekitude into something that might tweak the interest of you, the readers of InDepth, whom we freedivers fondly call ‘bubble blowers.’ Oh, sit down, rebreather divers, we get it. So away we go.
Everything You Wanted To Know About Safety In Freediving But Were Too Busy Breathing Up To Ask
Unlike Sheck’s Golden Rules for safe cave diving, there is no one Bible of safety in freediving, but there is a handful of generally agreed upon principles taught by the handful of major certifying freediving bodies, which could be summarised as:
1. Never dive or train alone.
2. Always practice ‘one up one down.’
3. Only dive with a buddy who can actually rescue you if required.
So, is freediving safe? It depends.
According to Harty’s research, at least 50-60 people die each year in the United States as a result of drowning while breath-hold diving. But wait, before you say “That’s a huge number,” let me point out that an estimated 90 percent of those deaths are by untrained divers, and the vast majority of them are spearfishers who have never taken a course. This is tragic because on Day 1 of the most basic freediving course, you learn all the counterintuitive ways in which you can die freediving and how to avoid them.
Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly how cave diving was viewed in the 70s and 80s? Untrained divers, sadly ignorant of a few simple rules, blundered into an seemingly benign environment that quickly overwhelmed them, and they perished. At the time, the public and the authorities considered cave diving akin to playing Russian Roulette. In Australia in the 1970s, the government was on the verge of banning cave diving outright.
Responsible training agencies quickly sprang up, such as the National Speleology Society-Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) in the USA and the Cave Diving Association of Australia (CDAA). By providing cave specific training for divers, they codified practices, procedures, and standards that took cave diving off the front pages. But far more importantly, the training agencies provided a safe path for divers to take knowledge from ocean diving and apply it to cave diving. Today, cave diving is a relatively safe activity. And, so is freediving.
The result of death in breath-hold diving is always drowning. But the precipitating factor is typically a hypoxic incident (AKA blackout) underwater, where absent a buddy, the result is almost always death by drowning. It is this hypoxic blackout which all of our safety procedures are geared to mitigate. Let’s look at how we do that. Unlike scuba, a large component of freediving happens in both the pool as well the ocean. Grab your towel, flip flops, and bathers, because we are going to start off our discussion of freediving safety in the pool.
Pool Training and Competition
Compared to open ocean diving to depth, training and competitions in pools are relatively straightforward. In a club or social setting, divers take turns actively diving/training in the pool while being observed by a fellow diver acting as a topside safety. This level of safety overview is easily achieved in 25 m/82 ft of a gin-clear indoor pool. However, other environments or larger pools may change the protocol. For instance, as the number of divers in the pool lanes increases, more safety/observers may be added as is appropriate. For some specific training exercises where a diver is pushing their hypoxic limits, their buddy may provide an active, one-to-one direct observation, swimming overhead on snorkel, just a meter above the diver, ready to assist in a second.
For this reason, Rule #1 in freediving is never dive or train alone. You are just as drowned alone in your backyard pool as you are on the open ocean where, in both cases, you passed out from hypoxia without a buddy there to perform the simple act of lifting your face out of the water.
In 2011, highly accomplished Belgian freediver Patrick Musimu was found drowned in his own pool following his practice of solo training. Patrick had previously achieved a No Limits dive to 209 m/686 ft, so he was far from a beginner.
Without a doubt, the most shocking accident was in 2015 when the legendary Natalia Molchanova disappeared during a private lesson in Spain. At the time, she was the absolute rockstar of all freediving. How good was she? At the time of her disappearance, she held 41 world records and 23 Gold Medals. In fact, her Static (STA) World Record of 9m:02s set in 2013 still stands today in 2022, and she holds the next four World Records under that.
The next closest woman in history to Natalia is Ericson Lotta with a breath-hold of 6:31. So Natalia was roughly 50% better than any other woman in history and was the first woman to cross 100 m/328 ft depth in Constant Weight (CWT). You may be familiar with this discipline, wherein a diver swims down the line on fins, and then back up wearing a monofin. Oh, by the way, Natalia did not even take up freediving until the age of 40! However, none of that superhuman ability was enough to save her on a solo dive that fateful day as she dove to the inconsequential depth of only 40 m/131 ft. Sadly, despite a lengthy search, her body was never recovered.
If solo diving and training can claim the likes of those elite athletes, it can certainly happen to anyone. If you have been cave and tech diving long enough, you know of (if not know personally) famous and not-so-famous divers who have perished on solo dives. To invert one of the most famous marketing slogans of all time, “Just (Don’t) do it!”
Tap. Talk. Blow
Recovery of a blacked-out diver might sound extreme at first glance, but in most cases is relatively straightforward. The diver is positioned face up out of the water. The buddy taps their cheek gently, says, “Breathe, Dean … breathe, Dean” and blows gently sideways across the face. Why blow across the face? We humans have receptors around the eyes, nose, and lips that are sensitive to air and water. When we submerge, these same receptors are what tells our lizard brain that we are underwater and contributes to our urge not to breathe.
These receptors are also what triggers the mammalian diving reflex that helps us freedive. The stimulation of both touch and talk combined with the air running over those facial receptors tell the lizard brain, “Hey you are no longer submerged; you can breathe now.” Breathing usually recommences with little trouble or ill effect. On rare occasions, the diver may need a rescue breath or two. The rescuer seals over the nose and mouth and gently blows. Occasionally, positive pressure O2 may be administered via a standard O2 mask. In spite of instant recovery, protocol insists that immediately following any blackout, the diver exits the water and is finished diving until the next day. This applies to competition diving as well as club and social diving.
Ocean Training and Competition
In depths shallower than 20 m/65 ft with good visibility, it is generally accepted that reasonably experienced freedivers can safely dive without a line and buoy. Deeper than that, experts recommend using a line. This is a simple system of buoy, 10 mm line, and a bottom plate to terminate the line at depth.
The top of the line is fixed to a float about the size of a car tire inner tube wrapped in PVC fabric or something similar. The diver wears a lanyard which is composed of a steel wire about 1 m/33 in long. One end of the lanyard has a Velcro wrap which affixes to the diver’s wrist, and the other end has a wide gated aluminium shark clip that snaps onto the line. The large gate size of the clip means it is free to run up and down the line with virtually no friction This lanyard ensures that no matter what happens to the diver, any safety diver going down the line MUST run into the diver at some point.
No Need for Speed
It is a curiosity that regardless of a diver’s gender, size, experience, or skill, thanks to the hydrodynamics of a human moving through water, we all make about the same speed of ~1 m/sec both up and down. This holds true for beginners to world champions. For example, during his world record dive to 130 m/427 ft on a monofin, Alelexy Molchanov took exactly 130 seconds to reach 130 m and 140 seconds to make the return journey to the surface. I travel at the same speed in the water column; although, sad to say, to barely one-third of that depth! The cool part about this is that we can therefore easily calculate on-the-fly when we, as safety diving buddies, need to leave the surface to meet our diver.
Let’s say Charly and Dean are medium-level experienced freedivers. Charly is planning a dive to 50 m/164 ft. The divers have agreed that Dean will meet Charly at 15 m/49 ft on her way back up. So, it takes very simple math to work out what we do. Charly will take 50 seconds to reach 50 m and another 35 seconds to reach 15 m on ascent. So, she will be at 15 on ascent 85 seconds after she leaves the surface. It will take Dean 15 seconds to dive down to 15 m from the surface, so if Dean leaves the surface at 85 seconds – 15 seconds (70 seconds after Charly commences her dive) they will both arrive at 15 m together, Charly from below, Dean from above. To ensure they meet as agreed, Dean simply pushes Go on the stopwatch function of his freedive computer as Charly submerges.
Shallow Water Blackout
It doesn’t really matter to what absolute depth you can dive; the point about risk is that if you can usually dive to 50 m and back, then the bottom at 50 m is only the halfway point of your dive. You are very unlikely to need rescuing here. It is the final part of the dive, where your PO2 levels are lowest due to consumption and decreasing ambient pressure, that the risk of blackout is greatest. The shallower the water, the greater the risk, for reasons many tech divers would understand intrinsically. But, newbie freedivers will not fully grasp the physics of the mechanism of this insidious danger—the one that claims all those lives of spearos I mentioned earlier—which is Shallow Water Blackout (SWB). This article by Harty on Deeper Blue has some great commentary but also check the short video of two actual spearfishing blackouts. Very sobering to see.
Even anyone completely untrained in any form of diving can appreciate that if you hold your breath long enough, and deny the urge to breathe long enough, you may pass out from hypoxia. This is your classic pool tragedy of teenage kids playing in their own backyard pool, or a swimmer at the local pool observed to be doing laps underwater and minutes later is found in that crowded pool to be drowned on the bottom. This is not SWB, it is simply hypoxia. You can also cause yourself to do that by just lying on your bed or sitting on your couch holding your breath. The critical difference is that you are not underwater. So, on the couch, after a few brief seconds, you gasp back to consciousness perhaps not even aware that you blacked out.
SWB is the sudden onset hypoxia caused by falling arterial PO2 due to rapidly declining surrounding hydrostatic pressure, which drives down the partial pressure of O2 available to the cells. The diver leaves the surface with a single breath of air—and, therefore, a finite and limited amount of O2 in their bloodstream to drive physical activity and brain function. Even if they have depleted their O2 levels significantly at, say, 30 m, they are still under the hydrostatic pressure of 4 ATA so their PPO2 is elevated by that fact. The problem occurs when, as they ascend, not only do they continue to consume their O2 by exertion, but the rapidly decreasing hydrostatic pressure means their PO2 is dropping from that as well. So, it’s a double whammy. And, as we all know, it is in the last 10 m/30 ft that the percentage reduction of partial pressure is greatest, when 2 ATA at 10 m/33 ft becomes 1 ATA on the surface. That last 10 m creates a huge 50% reduction in partial pressure. So, you may not be surprised to learn that many blackouts happen even after the diver surfaces. They may even indicate they are OK before losing consciousness seconds later.
For this reason, I do not not ever take my eyes off my diver, at least for a minimum of 30 seconds after they surface. I’m talking to them, gauging their lucidity, assessing their verbal responses, watching their face and coordination of hand movements and looking for facial tics or other abnormal behaviour.
I also insist that my buddies and I perform the exact same surface protocol as competition divers.
1. Remove any facial equipment (mask or goggles and possibly nose clip)
2. Make eye contact with me
3. Give me the classic OK sign with circled thumb and finger
4. Say out loud “I’m OK”
Why do I do this? Well, if you do plan to take part in even club competitions, this is the protocol you must follow, and is the same for the world championships, so why not establish that habit from the get go? But, way more importantly, it gives me a benchmark of how you behave upon surfacing when you are not hypoxic.
Let’s say Charly has been diving with Dean for a year, and EVERY time Charly surfaces in either the pool or the ocean, she performs the above protocol in that exact order every single time. Then one day she performs the hand signal OK and the verbal OK in reverse order, or gives the hand signal and does not verbalise at all—maybe she just nods instead. That is a klaxon warning sign that Charly may well be on the verge of a hypoxic incident.
Why would she not do the very thing she has done hundreds of times in a row? Now, I’m going to watch Charly even more closely than usual and not leave her for at least 60 seconds. I might hand her a water bottle and suggest she take a drink just to observe her hand-eye coordination. With that, I’m gauging her speech and general responsiveness. Only when I’m happy will I go about preparing for my dive as she gets ready to safety me. Surface protocols are an excellent field tool for alerting a buddy when to pay particular attention to a possibly hypoxic diver.
We also weight ourselves to be neutral not on the surface, but at 10 m/33 ft. This means you have to work a little harder to get off the surface, but it also means that if you blackout at or around 10 m it is highly probable that your upward momentum will take you through 10 m where you will rise to the surface. This does not negate the need of a buddy, but it does make sure that if you blackout on the surface or even close to it, you will stay on the surface and will not sink out of sight into deep water and drown.
This is another risk factor for those ocean spearfishermen I mentioned earlier, who are notoriously overweighted, as their prevailing mindset is to get down to the fish as fast as possible. So, when they blackout out at 5 m/15 ft holding their prized fish, and the “same ocean” buddy is not there, they sink back to the ocean floor and are lost.
It is a fortunate wrinkle in human biology that when you blackout underwater, you do not immediately drown. When you hold your breath and submerge, you close your epiglottis so you are not containing the pressure of all that air in your lungs with your cheeks. Try it now. Take a deep breath and hold it. You can open your mouth and air does not come rushing out because you have sealed it in with your throat, not your mouth. When freedivers blackout, the glottis remains closed, and no water enters the lungs (almost always). So, when recovery is achieved, there is no coughing up of water or other near drowning complications—just a few deep breaths, a rapid clearing of the mind—usually followed by the words, “What just happened?” Most freedivers have no warning of the blackout and no memory of it afterwards.
World Class Competitions
Let’s finish off by reviewing what happens at high profile events such as Vertical Blue run by the legendary Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) multiple world champion William Truebridge. William has run his event in Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas since 2008. It is the Wimbledon of freediving.
In the 90s and into the early 2000s, there was a period where it was not uncommon for freediving organizers to have closed circuit rebreather (CCR) divers stationed at various points in the water column to act as safeties in case something went wrong on very deep dives. Over time, it became apparent that this was a limited safety concept. Getting a deep CCR diver into position in time for the athlete to begin their dive meant that the CCR diver had already incurred a significant decompression obligation for their entire dive. Plus, in practical terms, they were limited in how far up and down they could move in the water column before endangering themselves. As Mr. Mackey from South Park might say “Yo-Yoing at 80m is bad, M’kay?”
When you also understand that the danger is in the top of the water column, you don’t often see deep CCR or open circuit support divers in freediving anymore. All safeties are highly capable freedivers who are able to arrive ‘on station’ on time at predetermined depths and provide any help required to get the diver to the surface.
In fact, the major global certifying agency for freediving, AIDA—Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA), in English, the International Association for the Development of Apnea—has specifically disallowed the use deep CCR or scuba safety divers. However this is one notable—and completely understandable—exception to this practice, and that is Kirk Krack.
Krack is the founder of Performance Freediving International (PFI). Apart from being an early leader in freedive training in general and the man who (literally) wrote the book on freediving safety, he is also the pioneer in the field of what he has coined as “technical freediving.” Krack’s interest in using nitrox as a pre-breathe in freediving came as a result of his decades of experience as a leading technical diving instructor trainer and diver.
It is Krack’s unparalleled expert knowledge of mixed gas diving that makes his Deja Blue freediving competition the only one in the world where deep CCR and scuba support divers are sanctioned to operate. Aside from all that, he is also the ‘go-to guy’ in Hollywood for working with actors on breath-hold. He has trained the likes of Tom Cruise and Margot Robbie, and has just come off a marathon three year job of directing all the breath-hold work for James Cameron on his upcoming Avatar 2 film, a large portion of which is set underwater. All the actors had to perform on breath-hold. More on that in a future article. If you ever get the chance to meet Krack, don’t pass it up!
Bring on the Scooters
As cave divers discovered 20 years ago, scooters are a silver bullet when it comes to moving through the water efficiently. These days, when you watch a diver coming up the line from a deep dive, often the first support diver to haul into view of the Dive Eye camera is on a scooter. The advantages are obvious to us who have used them—speeds of up 60-100 m/min with zero exertion to the diver, reduced O2 consumption by the safety diver, and increased capacity to either hang for a diver arriving late to the pre-agreed spot or better provide physical assistance if required.
Safeties appear in a staggered fashion. On, say, a 100 m dive, the first deep safety may arrive at 40 m, then another at 30 m, and one more at 20m. The lead safety diver is right in front of the diver, face-to-face only 1 m away. They are highly experienced and looking for tell-tale signs that a diver is struggling. They watch them like a hawk all the way to the surface and stay right beside the diver until they complete their surface protocol and get a white card.
If you watch the videos on the surface you will see that the safeties all have their hands up in the air above the water. This indicates to the judges that no one is supporting the diver under the water. If a safety even touches a diver, the diver is DQ’d. So they maintain a watch but from a safe distance.
Worst Case Scenario
So, no matter how unlikely it is that a diver may be rendered unable to swim at, say, 90 m/294 ft, what if it happens? When you watch the likes of Alessia Zecchini, Alexy, and Thibault Gignes dive to 100 m/326 ft plus and back on YouTube,who is taking the video? Well, in the last five years, an underwater camera system has been perfected called Diveye, which looks like a torpedo on a tail-mounted cable. The cable provides both raising and lowering of the device, sends video up, and allows control by the remote operators. This camera means the judges and safety team have a real-time view of the diver even in the dark of 130 m/424 ft out of sight of the surface.
When you look at a deep freedive on YouTube, you will see that white dive line disappearing down into the deepening blue. But this is just part of a simple, yet very effective diver safety system called a counter-ballast. You may have noticed that the bottom of the line terminates in a large round plate of between 200-300 mm/1 ft in diameter. This plate sits horizontally in the water on the end of the line which means the shark clip connecting the athlete to the line cannot jump off that line at the bottom. When that dive line exits the water at the surface, it runs up vertically a few feet then into a pulley mounted on an arm. It exits the pulley horizontally, travels a few meters to another pulley where it goes vertically back down into the water. A heavy weight is attached to this end of the rope, and friction brakes lock the rope into place.
In the extreme scenario—if a diver needed rescuing from depth—the topside safety director would call for the counter ballast to be dropped. When the order is given to release the brakes, the weight falls down at the non-diver end of the counter-ballast and, in doing so, rapidly pulls the other end of the rope up. No matter where the diver is in the water column, at some point the plate will collect his shark clip, and the diver— along with the plate—will be hauled to the surface. Recovery speed is about 1.2 m/sec. Smaller versions of these counter-ballasts are also available for sport divers.
Even in a club diving environment, the scenario is similar. We use the same sized bottom plate and shark clips to attach to the line. The top of the line attaches to a buoy via a very simple pulley with a one way friction lock. If a diver needs rescuing, the topside buddy simply puts one foot on the buoy near the pulley and hauls in the rope, hand over hand. Again, this is deceptively easy and quick. We are not pulling up the actual weight of the diver, but his submerged weight—about 10 kg/22 lbs at most. If one diver gets tired from hauling, another takes over. Recovery is approximately 1m/3 ft per sec.
Let me conclude this article by answering my original question: Is competitive freediving a safe sport?
In all the various competitions conducted throughout the world in the last 30 years, there have only been two deaths. In 2002, French freediver Audrey Mestre tried to break a No Limits world record set by Tanya Streeter, a British-Caymanian-American world champion. When Audrey reached the bottom at 171 m/558 ft, the lift bag, which was to transport her back to surface, would not inflate. It appears that the gas cylinder wasn’t appropriately checked before the performance—it was empty—an oversight that was the subject of speculation, but was never shown to be more than horrific human error. The mistake cost the diver her life. It was the first, but unfortunately not the last, real death in competitive freediving.
In 2013, leading American freediver Nick Mevoli died while competing at Vertical Blue in the Bahamas. Two days prior to his fatal dive, he had attempted a dive to 96 m/315 ft but had to turn back at 80 m/260 ft after suffering an upper respiratory squeeze. Two days later, he attempted a CNF (Constant Weight No Fins) dive to 72 m/236 ft. He began to turn back at 68 meters, but appeared to change his mind and dived downward again, he then did turn the dive and regained the surface under his own power. However, he was immediately visibly distressed and within seconds passed out. Safety divers immediately grabbed him and recovered him to the platform, but he instantly lost pulse and respiration. Resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful, and he died of pulmonary edema. Subsequently, it became known he had experienced prior squeezes which may have predisposed him to the fatal injury on that day.
I don’t personally know of any club level/sport freedivers who have died while diving with friends. Like tech and cave diving, the freediving tribe is a fairly close family, so deaths among trained sport freedivers are, in practical terms, unheard of and as rare as that in competition.
So, as you can see, we freedivers have a wide range of very effective safety protocols which we use to conduct our dives safely. However, sadly, humans do not possess gills, so every time—whether we submerge ourselves via single tank ocean, twin tank cave, rebreathers at 100 m, or freediving—we never forget our training. We do not take chances, and we do not break hard won rules. The underwater realm is a beautiful place to be, but we are visitors, only afforded that journey by our training and discipline. It’s important to respect that at all times.
InDepth: Is Freediving Safe? by Ted Harty
InDepth: Deep Into DEEP WEEK by Dean laffan
Thanks to Ted Harty for the inspiration and advice for this article
Big thanks to Kirk Krack for providing me with some ‘inside baseball’ on the safety procedures at major freediving events and his own Deja Blue competition in the Bahamas.
I am very grateful to all of those who gave permission for me to use their awesome photography.
Deeper Blue Deeper Blue
To explore additional stories, videos and webinars on freediving click: FREE
Dean Laffan: Fuelled by a boyhood fascination with the books and TV shows of Australian diving pioneers like Ron and Valerie Taylor, Neville Coleman, and Ben Cropp, Dean took a scuba course as soon as he left school and has never left the water since. After discovering GUE in 2001, he was instantly sure he had found his ‘tribe.’ He was one of the organisers of the very first GUE class in Australia run by Jarrod Jablonski.
After many technical and cave dives, including some ground-breaking cave diving expeditions to the Nullabor, it was only in 2018 that he finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to take up freediving, which has now become an obsession.Dean is also the co-host of the OZDive Show Podcast, with Sue Crowe and Michael Menduno, which features great one hour presentations by outstanding experts in technical diving, cave diving and freediving. Find the OZDive Show Podcast here.
Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA
By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor
Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey.
Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever.
Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.
Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor.
Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.
Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor.
Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage.
The Founding of Ghost Diving
Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations.
Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net.
Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible.
Launching Ghost Diving USA
Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net.
Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality.
The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that.
For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers.
Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at email@example.com.
You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.
|Ghost Diving International:||https://ghostdiving.org|
|Alert Diver:||Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).|
Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends.