2000-09 Getting Back to Your Roots—Freediving

By Terry Mass

Freedivers have done some amazing things. Recently, one swam roundtrip to 250 feet, while yet another speared and landed a 760-pound Marlin. Others play underwater hockey or photograph elusive wildlife. Trained freedivers can spend up to 40 minutes of each hour underwater. For the rest of us, freediving

provides an economical and fitness-oriented approach to the aquatic world.

If you can hold your breath to 15 feet, clear your ears and have a few seconds left for sightseeing, you’re a freediver. While others may dive deeper and longer, a 45-second dive to 30 feet places you in the action. Since most of the ocean’s color and animal life resides within 30 feet of the surface, there’s little reason to go deeper. Forty-five seconds buys you enough time to gather game, take a photo or simply mingle as one with the fish. Best of all, the average person can master these dives in just two weeks without spending valuable travel dollars on gear. Your essentials—mask, snorkel, fins, wetsuit and weightbelt—pack easily and are inexpensive.

Some Evil Knevils of the sport have ridden weights into 500 feet of water. While most have no interest in duplicating these daredevils, their feats attest to the resilience of the human form.

Humans share special diving adaptations with marine mammals. The most dramatic is the “mammalian diving reflex.” Simply immersing your face in cold water causes a reflexive slowing of your heart rate. This, as well as other oxygen-sparing adaptations, helps to prolong your dives.

Getting Started: Freedivers use special fins and masks. With small-sized lenses placed closely to the eyes, freediver masks offer wide peripheral vision, which is important to the breathhold diver who must use valuable air to counter the effects of mask squeeze. Freediver fins are three feet long, and their long stroke and resilient counter-snap provide a very efficient yet graceful propulsive force. When you use these fins, make sure you use short kicks and not deep leg kicks that bend the blade more than 30 degrees. When the blade bends excessively, water spills off the side and wastes energy.

Two essentials for freediving are developing the ability to relax—something that comes with experience and training—and mastering the surface dive. An important training exercise is the “relaxed fetal position.” The feelings and sensations you derive from this exercise provide your psychological base. It’s the state of mind you need to recall and maintain throughout your freediving career. Breathing on the surface, simply float on your stomach, curl up into the fetal position and totally relax. Some divers come close to sleep.

The surface dive is a complex yet easily mastered maneuver. Once you’ve learned it, you’re free to concentrate on the finer parts of freediving, like breath control and streamlined swimming. In one fluid motion, take a deep breath, bend at the waist, raise a leg, clear your ears and slip vertically below the surface. Like the “perfect 10” in springboard diving, only the smallest ripple should evidence your descent.

To get an idea of how the surface dive works, lie on your bed, belly down. Scoot over the edge until you’re balanced at the waist. Now, lower one arm and raise the opposite leg. The weight shift sends you down immediately.

In the water, initiate the dive by kicking forward to gain momentum. Fold your shoulders together to help you exhale deeply and spread them for a maximal inhalation-breath from your diaphragm. Bend at the waist, raise your leg and let one arm glide streamlined at your side while the other seals the nose pocket for ear clearing. Practice so that the entry results in a perfectly vertical descent. Most beginners have a tendency to shallow the angle of their dives by leading with their chests, not their fingertips. To understand the importance of streamlining, try this test. Take a ruler and plunge it into the water at an angle with the surface. Note the resistance. Now, place the ruler on its edge and feel how easily it slips into the water.

You needn’t be an athlete to enjoy freediving because the sport is more about mind-set, technique and correct weighting than strength. Your goal is to join the water, rolling with the gentle sea surface, never fighting it. When you learn the basic surface dive, you’ll find that it takes very little energy to slip below the surface. Relaxed and confident, you choose the depth and duration of each dive. You’ll be amazed how quickly your first 15-second dives become 30 seconds and so on, certainly enough to dive to 30 feet.

Dr. Terry Maas is a four time national skin diving champion. For more information about Dr. Maas and his achievements, visit www.freedive.net.