For many, it’s the ultimate nightmare: sinking ever deeper into the abyss, ’til you’re so far below the surface that no penetrating daylight can illuminate the way. It’s just you, unprotected, in a watery, alien world. For others, it’s the ultimate test of physical stamina, an opportunity to conquer a realm normally reserved for finned creatures.
Freediving is many things to many people. Whatever its ultimate goal, the sport has the power to transform its participants and connect them with some of the human body’s most astonishing capabilities.
Activating the Master Switch of Life
Freedivers slip into the water unencumbered by oxygen tanks or other gear and kick until they begin to sink with apparent ease, an eerie sight documented in the video below of diver Guillaume Nery in the Bahamas.
How do they do it? Human beings don’t seem built for holding their breath upwards of 10 minutes. But with training, divers have indeed accomplished this feat. Our physiology takes care of us in the water if only we learn how to marshal it.
When the human body is submerged in water, a process called peripheral vasoconstriction triggers blood to begin flowing from the limbs to the vital organs, giving the brain and heart an oxygen boost that makes possible the wild stunt of submerging yourself to the depths.
Swedish-born researcher Per Scholander termed the phenomenon the “Master Switch of Life”. Freedivers flip that switch and become one with the water.
There are three main events in the sport of freediving:
- Constant weight (CWT): the diver uses a monofin and their own physical power to reach a certain depth and back to surface
- Constant Weight No Fins (CNF): the diver uses only arms and legs, unassisted by fins
- Free Immersion (FIM): the diver pulls herself down on a weighted line then back up to the surface
Many divers consider CNF the purest variety. The current record for CNF—over 331 feet— is held by William Trubridge of New Zealand.
While the sport gives athletes an unmatched opportunity to become one with the ocean, it’s also dangerous. Passing out cold or surfacing with blood bubbling from your mouth and a glazed, unresponsive expression are very real possibilities in this sport.
Freediving for the Sake of Science
Freediving gives scientists and conservationists a unique opportunity to interact with the marine world. Scientists decked out in diving gear, masks and tanks can disrupt the natural behaviors of the animals they study. A human wearing nothing more invasive than a fin can get a lot closer and more personal in pursuit of research.
Former competitive diver Hanli Prinsloo holds several freediving records in South Africa. But Prinsloo chose to focus on teaching diving as a way to immerse himself in and appreciate the ocean environment.
Meanwhile, divers with Project DAREWIN are using their skills to study marine mammal communication.
Placing Ourselves in Our Environment
Whether for pride of competition or for the opportunity to participate in the life and rhythm of the ocean, freediving is an experience unlike any other. Turning your body over to the force of the ocean might be the ultimate act of trust, but it’s also the ultimate act of connection: connection to the world around us and connection to the capabilities of our own miraculous physiology.
Note: For an awesome primer on Freediving, check out Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, by James Nestor.