As a surfer and a scuba diver I’m pretty at home in the ocean – both above and below it – but it’s still an odd situation to be in. Whether you’re breathing from a tank or trying to ride out a 2 wave hold down there’s always room to improve your confidence in the water, a confidence that can really help push your skills to the next level.
There’s been one travel bucket list item that has sat high on my to do list for a long time now but I haven’t got around to completing until recently, an item that could really boost my confidence in the water…
Surfers have long used freediving techniques to prepare for being held under in the surf. Boosting how long you can hold your breath for and how relaxed you can be underwater is the name of the game and it’s something that has intrigued me for a long while.
So when I headed back to Koh Tao in Thailand I decided to finally bite the bullet and get enrolled on a course and see how it could help me – and Flavia and Pepe from Big Blug Freediving were more than happy to help answer my questions and show me the world of freediving.
And with national titles to their names, both being able to hold there breathes for over 7 minutes each and comfortably being able to freedive nearly 80m I knew I was in safe hands!
SSI Level 1
I opted to jump straight into the deep end (so to speak!) and bypass the intro option and head straight for a freediving qualification – the SSI level 1 – a course which lasted 2 days and mixed theory and practice to get you stuck into the world of breath hold diving, teasing me with up to 20m of depth and 2 minute breathe holds as the goal!
Given the fact I had only been able to hold my breath for a max of 1 minute 20 before I was pretty dubious – but adding anything to that time would more than help me in the waves!
The course itself was broken into 4 main sections – relaxation exercises, breathing techniques, pool training and the open water sessions – all of which come together to provide a better understanding of the sport and allow you to take the first step into freediving.
Mind Over Matter
The first day of the course started with some of the science behind the sport – an introduction into things such as the mammalian reflex, diaphragm contractions, equalization techniques…there was a lot to take in.
It was actually pretty comforting to gain all this knowledge and know it wasn’t simply a case of holding your breathe and hoping for the best!
Armed with that info a beach session testing our breath hold limits and learning an array of relaxation techniques, something that quickly made us realise the whole experience was very much a mind over matter situation.
Laying next to the sea with the ocean breeze blowing over us the ever mellow Flavia guided us through the “breathe up” techniques we’d use throughout, which essentially prepare your mind, lungs and body for the dive.
Safe on land she encouraged us to push our limits and fight the urge to breathe once our diaphragm contractions kicked in.
A sum up after revealed we were all comfortably able to hold our breathes for over 2 minutes, one dude even managed over 4!
That’s something I thought would never I’d be able to achieve.
One of the most key elements we needed to remember was that the urge to breathe wasn’t through lack of oxygen, it’s actually onset by rising CO2 levels in the lungs – but most importantly when that urge happens and the diaphragm contracts you have pretty much only hit the halfway mark on your breath hold capacity.
Armed with a new found confidence we spent the afternoon in the pool putting our knowledge into practice and getting used to the posture and equipment we’d be using – which differed from it’s scuba cousin, preferring long length fins and low profile masks for ease of equalization and maximum power to effort ratio.
With just over an hours practice I was easily able to cover over 36m underwater in the pool and although I was pretty shattered I was stoked to be able to hit to open water the following day.
…although a lesson on shallow water blackouts and rescue techniques was in order first – better safe than sorry!
Into The Ocean
I’ll admit straight off the thought of diving up to 20m below the surface was a pretty terrifying prospect, even with knowing I could hold my breathe for over 2 minutes, so I knew I was in for a pretty solid mental challenge during our open ocean training.
The first step was making sure we could all equalise and to get used to the changing pressure and depths, both using rope pulls and duck diving techniques.
For me equalising and being shallow underwater was no worries, but I had a huge mental barrier which slowed my progress on the depth front – which was incredibly frustrating!
Thankfully Pepe is super chilled out and supportive – he has a strange and rather worrying way of being able to make you feel comfortable whilst still pushing your limits and soon I found myself on the bottom plate, 10 metres under the surface, giving him a big high 5 before heading back up.
That feeling was incredible and I wanted more!
More practice dives followed and with each one I felt more and more at home under the water and most importantly comfortable with holding my breath for longer periods.
After a few more in underwater skills – including mask removal ascent and depth rescue training it was time to put everything to the test and spend some time freediving around the reef we were moored at.
Freediving is a whole new way to explore the ocean and something I was instantly hooked on.
Unlike scuba diving your bottom time is considerably limited, however maneuverability is heaps easier and because you lack the noise and presence of bubbles marine life simply treat you as a large fish – so getting up close and personal to the inhabitants of the reef is no worries at all!
The real thrill for me though is the pure challenge of it. Knowing that my body is more than capable presents an interesting mental battle, one where I need to learn to relax, focus and trust myself and the signs my body presents.
Surely those have to be some pretty awesome things to master both for freediving and in everyday life?
Since successfully completing my Level 1 I also joined Pepe and Flavia on some additional training sessions (I didn’t have time
to get started on the Level 2!) in which I’ve upped my personal best to nearly 14m and my increased breath holds have allowed me to comfortably clock up some good ‘hang time’ at that depth, which I’m stoked for.
Not only that but the art of free diving is a beautiful sport to watch and photograph – watching someone like the level 3 students disappear into the blue abyss at 40m with a mermaid like presence is nothing short of magical to watch!
If you have any kind of fear of the ocean, want to improve your breathe holds or simply super size your scuba dive times freediving is something I’d highly recommend.
For me I’ve found the advanced confidence and breathe hold I wanted – but I’ve also discovered an entirely new sport to enjoy along the way!