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In the Zone—Escape the World With Freediving

Dive into the captivating world of freedivers as they plunge into the deep blue in search of clarity, tranquillity or pushing their limits – on just one breath.

January 21, 2022

Imagine exploring the underwater world on a single breath, diving deep into the abyss and embracing the serene environment, immune to noise and stress, with no distractions in your way. Some say it’s the closest thing to peace they’ve ever found.  

Why do so many of us love water? For many, it’s a return to the source. For millennia, immersion in water has helped human beings restore their bodies and minds. Some are drawn to its infinite calm, while others thrive on its relentless energy. On land, dealing with the pressures of modern life may seem like a Sisyphean task, but in the presence of water it seems easier to escape our hyper-connected and overstimulated brains. 

 

Photo: Kenze Leung

It’s also the curiosity of the unknown, the magnetic pull of what lies beneath, our own version of “the upside down” – where we can encounter mammals so large in scale, microorganisms so minuscule and coral reefs so vibrant that it seems inconceivable that Mother Nature could create such an impressive living-and-breathing ecosystem. Of all the ways humanity has found to explore the deep blue, freediving is the most natural way to move about freely with minimal impact on the environment. 

TALES AS OLD AS TIME  

Freediving has been around for at least 8,000 years. Perforated eardrums found in the mummified remains of the Chinchorian population that inhabited modern-day Peru and Chile showed that man has been plunging into the depths to hunt for fish and collect seashells since around 6,000 BCE in order to survive. Eventually, the quest for food brought the discovery of valuable items such as sponges and pearls, which could be used for trading. In ancient Greece, divers used big stones to help themselves sink in order to collect sponges, which were in huge demand as a tool for bathing. 

In Japan, the Ama (“sea women”) have been diving for pearls, seaweed and seashells to sell at the market for some 2,000 years, and continue to do so to this day, though their numbers are dwindling. In Southeast Asia, the Sama-Bajau people have been living on the water on houseboats and diving for more than 1,000 years. Masters of spearfishing, they collect food as well as little treasures that can be used as crafts to be sold on the market. Freediving is such a part of their DNA that the Sama-Bajau people have genetically adapted to life in the water; evolution has given the indigenous group a larger spleen (about 50 percent bigger) than their neighbours, which acts as a scuba tank and enables them to hold their breath for an average of 13 minutes at depths up to 70 metres. 

Freediving moved into the 20th century with the tale of Haggi Statti, a Greek sponge diver who was given the task of retrieving the anchor of the Italian warship Regina Margherita in 1913. After numerous attempts, the sponge diver managed to find the anchor at 76 metres and tied a rope to it. His freedive became the first one formally recorded.  

Photo: Kenze Leung

The birth of modern freediving came in 1949 when an Italian Air Force lieutenant, Raimondo Bucher, took a life-threatening bet. He was to sail out to the middle of Lake Capri and dive down to 33 metres, where he would receive a parcel from a scuba diver, proving that he had indeed reached the mark. Not only did winning this bet make Bucher 50,000 lire richer, but he also set the first official record in freediving, introducing the extreme sport to the world and opening up the discussion of the correlation between freediving, physiology and psychology.  

We’ve made great progress in the world of freediving since then. This past September, Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov achieved his 24th world record by plunging to 131 metres in four minutes and 33 seconds.  

Long Island, Bahamas Dean's Blue Hole Diving Hole

LETTING GO  

Still a relatively niche sport, freediving has fostered close communities around the world and has especially grown in Asia. Chris Cheung of the Hong Kong Freediving Association claims that the number of freedivers in the region doubles every year. “Since 2015, more freediving competitions have been organised in Asia, which gives us the opportunity to gather the freedivers and share our passion,” he says, adding that it still remains a very individual sport. “Freedivers need to perform on their own during the dive. They need to be very focused, and listen to their mind and body.” Unlike scuba diving, which is more about seeing outwards, freediving is about looking within.  

For many, freediving is done purely for leisure. Diving without any breathing equipment allows us to swim without disturbing the environment around us, allowing us to get close enough to hear the echolocation clicks of dolphins and whales, as well as letting the equally curious fish swim towards us instead of away. Instead of being merely an observer, we become a part of this underwater world.  

Famous diving site - Blue Hole in Egypt | Photo: Shutterstock

However, many have fallen in love with the challenge of seeing how deep they can go and for how long they can hold their breath – the latter is also known as apnoea. Freedivers have set records in multiple disciplines, from constant weight with fins (swimming up and down with bi-fins or a monofin) and free immersion (pulling yourself up and down a rope) to variable weight (being pulled down by a weight and swimming back up) and no-limits (being pulled down by a weight and then pulled up by a bag of compressed air). There are also pool disciplines such as dynamic apnoea, which focuses on going the farthest distance possible while holding your breath, and static apnoea, which focuses on holding your breath underwater for as long as possible without any swimming required. 

Photo: Kenze Leung

ECHOES, SILENCE AND PATIENCE  

According to enthusiasts, freediving is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. The ability to quiet the voices in your head and focus on breathing is probably the biggest challenge. “Freediving is almost meditative,” says Theresa Wu, who holds third place in the Hong Kong National Freediving Record for Static Apnoea. “It’s categorised as an extreme sport, but at the same time, since we only dive down deep with one breath, freedivers need to keep absolutely calm to minimise the consumption of oxygen in our body. That calmness, both physical and mental, always brings freedivers to a very peaceful state. That’s what we often say is the real connection with the ocean."

Diving with just fins and masks, without any additional breathing equipment, is like entering another world. The unique sensations that freediving offers – the feeling of the water brushing against the skin, the weightlessness of the body, the deafening silence of the void – can really only be enjoyed once the mind is under control and in a state of relaxation. A great deal of training is needed to achieve that state, from special breathing exercises to pre-dive yoga and meditation. The mind can be a freediver’s greatest ally in the same way it can be its greatest enemy. When diving down, resisting the urge to breathe is a constant battle – one that can only be won by training the mind into entering a meditative state, staying in the present moment and figuring out the next step.  

Physically, we’re capable of swimming to unbelievable depths, although that isn’t without its challenges and stresses on the body. As a freediver starts swimming down, the first physical difficulty is overcoming natural buoyancy. As they go deeper, both the heart rate and metabolism slow down, which helps preserve blood-oxygen levels. The body becomes negatively buoyant and starts sinking, while the lungs start contracting after 20 metres. The rest is really all up to the mind.  

Photo: Kenze Leung

“Due to the pressure, the air spaces in our body shrink as we go deeper, so equalisation is needed when this happens,” explains Wu. “The method freedivers use to equalise is called Frenzel, in which we use the least amounts of strength and oxygen so that we can reserve slightly more oxygen for our dive.” 

Freediving really is a life-and-death situation, so it’s imperative to always have someone swimming nearby. The last stage of the ascent is crucial – it must be slow and the body must exhale the air that has been held to ensure the least amount of pressure on the lungs and the chest cavity. As many divers will agree, that very first breath taken at the surface feels like being reborn.  

Freediving provides an escape for many – and it’s addictive. The insatiable curiosity for discovery and drive for self-improvement keeps divers coming back to the water. Without any instant gratification, many see freediving as a work in progress, just as they see themselves. For Wu, freediving has pushed her physical limits as well as helped her slow down, relax and treasure the present. “It has also proven to me that nothing is impossible,” she says. “Never had I thought that I could hold my breath for four minutes and 24 seconds and dive down to 20 metres underwater. But if you keep believing in yourself and being brave when facing challenges, there’s nothing you can’t do.” 

Swimming over a sunken ship wreck in Coron, Philippines | Photo: Shutterstock

WHERE TO FREEDIVE 

Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, The Bahamas  

On every freediver’s bucket list, Dean’s Blue Hole is an inland sinkhole that’s the world’s second deepest blue hole at 202 metres and has been compared to an in-water hot yoga studio. Protected on three sides by a natural rock amphitheatre, and on the fourth side by a lagoon and beach, the sinkhole stays at a constant temperature year-round, and is immune to currents and waves. It’s also where the Vertical Blue freediving competition is held every year.  

Blue Hole, Dahab, Egypt  

This 120-metre sinkhole on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt is known to be one of the most dangerous places to freedive on Earth, but it still attracts experienced divers and thrillseekers from around the world. Its intriguing natural formation makes for an exciting challenge, with many freedivers attempting to plunge down into The Arch, a tunnel about 26 metres long at a depth of 55 metres that leads to the Red Sea. 

Photo: Hong Kong Freediving Association

Coron, Palawan, Philippines  

Once home to 12 Japanese warships during the Second World War, Coron Bay has now become a graveyard of shipwrecks, attracting freediving and scuba-diving aficionados from across the planet. The wrecks allow divers to navigate through coal rooms and prisons, and even find long-lost items such as wine bottles and shoes. One of the most accessible wrecks is Okikawa Maru, a sunken oil tanker measuring more than 160 metres, the largest of the fleet. The main deck is just below 10 metres, making it an excellent freediving spot. 

Sharp Island, Sai Kung, Hong Kong  

The west side of Sharp Island in Hong Kong is an excellent place for beginners, with depths up to 12 metres. According to the Hong Kong Freediving Association, the sheltered area is known for its extensive coverage of coral reefs, good visibility, lack of currents and easy accessibility via sampan. “There are actually a lot of fish and corals in Hong Kong,” explains Wu. “Clownfish, jellyfish, cuttlefish, sea urchin and so on are some of the wildlife we see the most. On very rare occasions, you may be lucky enough to see sea turtles or even dolphins.”

 

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