Crossing the Scuba/Freedive Divide

Ever wonder what’s it like to be an avid scuba diver who dips his/her fin into the freediving pool?  Here’s what Sze Wei thought!

But I’m a Scuba Diver!  Why Freedive?

I was a scuba diver with several hundred dives logged when I started getting interested in freediving.  I’d always loved the ocean, and getting into the water to make friends with the fish and ooh and aah over pretty coral was my favourite thing in the world.  I heard that freediving was another way to do that – and to get even closer to the underwater world. No gear, no bubbles – just you and marine animals on their terms.  

It sounded amazing!  But… I was also apprehensive.  I was used to having a tank, and a BCD and knowing that I could take my time and stay down for an hour with little thought.  Ditching my gear, and doing everything in one single breath, kinda freaked me out. Can I even do it? Would it be worth it when I’m already so invested in scuba? 

Freediving with dolphins
freediving with Mobula Rays in Baja California Sur, Mexico

No Home Advantage

I decided to be a big girl, challenge myself to learn a new skill, and find out what it’s all about.  I signed up with a local freediving club, and was really fortunate to have an amazing teacher, a British freediving champion no less!  He taught me a lot about freediving – and helped me really appreciate it as a separate and independent discipline from scuba. However, when I first introduced myself, I mentioned I already had a wetsuit, mask and fins as I was a scuba diver, and his response was “Oh, you’re one of those?  Scuba divers are the hard ones to teach.”

Ooops, what did I get myself into?

He did explain what he meant – scuba divers often come in with preconceived ideas of techniques or ways of doing things based on their scuba experience, which just don’t work for freediving.  Scuba and freediving are very different disciplines, and he asked me to listen, ask questions, and not to assume skills were transferable.

It’s All About You

The difference between the two disciplines became obvious from the very first teaching session.  In scuba, we go pretty much straight to the gear, learning how things fit together and how they work.  In my first freediving teaching session, we worked instead on being in the right mindset, relaxation techniques, and being aware of yourself.  In freediving, it is all about you, and only you. I learnt that the mental side is more important that any physical training.  

To get into the water as a freediver, on a single breath, you need to be fully relaxed and prepared for it.  You need to be mentally ready to resist the urge to breathe when it comes, and stay calm when the contractions start.  You need to believe in yourself. This is so totally different from scuba, where all newbies are pretty much expected to be overexcited and hyperventilate.  In fact, as I got to know more “serious” freedivers, I found that many of them pursue this discipline as a way to develop self awareness and mental strength.  As someone put it to me – “The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.”

Freediving in Cabo San Lucas
diving with Mobula Rays in Baja California Sur, Mexico

Just One Breath

And then we got to what I felt was the scariest part of freediving – the breath hold.  Am I really expected to get down to 20m and back up on a single breath? Really? In scuba I would go down and back up slowly, inhaling and exhaling the whole time.  Is it possible to do it without a tank? Would I enjoy it?

It turns out that the mammalian dive reflex is real.  The what reflex, you might ask? Well, if you immerse yourself in water while breath holding, your body responds by optimising respiration and distributing oxygen stores to your heart and brain, allowing you to stay submerged for an extended time.  This is called the mammalian dive reflex, a gift from evolution. This reflex exists in all air breathing vertebrates, and is used by aquatic mammals to live in the open oceans.  

The dive reflex allows us to freedive – holding our breaths far longer in water than on land.  In my first static session in the pool (this is basically when you just submerge your face in the pool and don’t move – no swimming), I was surprised to find that I could comfortably hold my breath for a minute right from the get go.  As I learnt to relax and feel more comfortable, my static breath holds grew longer and longer. This helped build my confidence to start working on my dynamic sessions (where you swim while breath holding).

Equalise

In scuba, I learnt to equalise quite easily, and never had problems during the dives.  I naturally assumed that it would be the same freediving… man was I wrong!

The difference is that in scuba, with a tank, you can take your time going down, equalising as you go.  With freediving, limited by a single breath, I learnt that it was crucial to optimise the time that I had – which usually meant going down calmly, but quickly.  It’s surprising how quickly pressure builds up in your ears when you’re kicking straight down. And how difficult it is to react quickly enough so that it doesn’t hurt.  Equalising fast enough turned out to be a real issue. I aborted many many dives because my ears just didn’t like it and I couldn’t fix it fast enough. I eventually learnt to start equalising from the beginning, and to do it continuously while going down.  Basically I freedive with one hand glued to my nose!

My experience wasn’t unusual. I always thought that scuba divers were obsessed by the condition of their ears and sinuses, but freedivers are even more so!  They can spend hours talking about different equalisation techniques and problems, the state of their ears, the right speed of descend. It made for interesting (if different) pub conversations!

freediving with Mobula Rays in Baja California Sur, Mexico
free diving with wild dolphins

Training, Training, Training

In scuba, while it is important to master skills and techniques, and practise to get them right, I still felt very comfortable doing a dive after a couple of months out of the water.  For freediving though, it’s very different, with a lot more focus on continuous training. My instructor explained that freediving is like a muscle – you need to continuously train not just to develop it, but even to maintain its condition.  Use it or lose