Our Friendly Abyss: An Introduction To The Sport of Freediving

We imagine those of you who’ve bought tickets for our upcoming Durdle Door Event will be looking forward to sinking your fins into free-diving, perhaps for the first time. It’s something we’ve never attempted ourselves. So, I thought I’d write a wee introductory blog looking at what we should all expect, from an outsider’s perspective.

The deep water has become the freedivers temple, wherein they descend to depths that would have most scuba divers pawing at their pressure gauges.

In competitive freediving the diver ducks underwater on a single breath and dives directly towards the seabed, using their hands to pull themselves down an anchor line. After a set period of time the diver then turns and heads back up towards the dim roof of sunlight, using the same line to reach the surface. No oxygen tanks. No breathing apparatus. Just you and that last gulp of air you took in.

This might sound a little ominous, but a lot of professional freedivers actually describe it as a peaceful, relaxing experience. The deep water has become their temple, wherein they descend to depths that would have most scuba divers pawing at their pressure gauges. This is a type of diving that's distinctly recognisable for the freedom of movement it affords, utilising the absence of any big, weighted scuba kit. Liberated from these encumbrances, freedivers can descend more quickly and easily, often double-kicking elegantly with wide monofins, like neoprene-clad manatees disappearing out of sight.

Unlike some recreational sports, freediving has evolved from ancient practical activities, namely fishing. Way back before the days of strapping oxygen tanks to your back, there was little kit to use for diving besides the occasional leather breathing bladder. Funnily enough, there are other recorded instances of various breathing devices being used throughout history. Supposedly, several Greek soldiers turned hollow plant stems into snorkels during war, in the 4th century, diving bells were also described by the famous philosopher Aristotle - this was a cauldron let directly down into the deep water, which would retain air, allowing divers to swim into them to refill their lungs - and Leonardo da Vinci even referred to Italian air tanks in his Atlantic Codex during the 15th century. For the most part, however, ancient divers (or inadvertent freedivers) had to practice their sport using nothing but that last gulp of oxygen.

Thousands of years ago, before the appearance of any mechanical kit, these freedivers would use their ability as a means of gathering food and other resources from the deep. They plucked sponges from the seabed for bathing, collected seawater pearls for trading and adornment, caught tasty crustaceans, hunted fish and even salvaged treasure from shipwrecks (this was particularly common in the Mediterranean, where lots of maritime trade was concentrated).

So, you see? Freediving goes way back into the fathomless depths of history. Today, the sport has enjoyed a recent resurgence, often appearing as a means of obtaining underwater film and photography. For example, in the recent Netflix documentary, Racing Extinction, we saw freedivers using a variety of motorised sea scooters and swimming down alongside a shy blue whale as it surfaced for a brief, awe-inspiring moment.

For those of you who're looking to try this sport for the first time, there are plenty of great sources that provide a little insight into what you should expect. In this Red Bull Video a group of different sponsored athletes, more commonly found in the surf or on snow or dirt tracks, travel to Hawaii to take part in a freediving course, after which they'll be able to hold their breath for up to 5-minutes underwater. This video also serves as an introduction to competitive freediving, which requires intense discipline, mental tranquillity and physical prowess, pitching divers against each other in an attempt to descend to the greatest depth on a single breath.

After that, if you're still in need of some freediving inspiration, check out this insane video, filmed on September 3rd, 2013, when Canadian freediver William Winram channelled months of preparation into a world record dive (ratified by the International Freediving Federation AIDA International) to a mind-bending depth of 145m.

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Jack Hudson