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Freediving: Exploring the space between breaths

Above - Sarah Pierroz. Image courtesy of Elisabeth Lauwerys @oceans_below

This article was first published in Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience and doesn’t have ads. You can download it for free on iPhone and Android.

“Don’t drink the water.”

I grew up in an industrious steel-town in Canada which opens into a lake, so polluted no one would dare to swim in it.

Walking along it, I would hold my breath to avoid a wretched, sulphurous stench.

I didn’t venture into open water until my early twenties, when, ironically, I moved the arid, chaotic, heavily polluted, megalopolis of Cairo, Egypt.

Cairo is a terribly grimy city, where everything that should be green is covered in a film of black soot or sandy pollution.

I remember noticing how shallow my breath was growing each day. And the waters of the Nile river were equally decimated with industrial waste and spilling sewage.

Yet, from a slow-moving felucca, a traditional sailboat, along a dreamy sunset, I watched in dismay as locals held their breath and quickly jumped in and out of its waters. I didn’t dare.

Parched for pure nature, my friends and I would take long, desert road trips to a breezy seaside town, called Dahab, to explore the solace of the Red Sea.

Here, I learned how to scuba dive.

I was introduced to a fresh, vibrant, enthralling, deep underwater world, full of colour and life.

The discomfort of the heavy gear, weights, and dry suit was worth the experience, and I was certain that the air in the tanks was cleaner than anything I was breathing in the city.

I was careful to be slow with my inhalations and exhalations. The longer I could space out my breaths, and stay calm, the longer I could stay down in this magical, blue world.

As I advanced through courses and spent more time in Dahab, I began to notice a small fringe culture outside of the scuba diving community, growing more popular in the water — Freedivers.

On the fringe of diving

Above: Sarah Pierroz. Image courtesy of Elisabeth Lauwerys @oceans_below

Quietly concentrated along a line of buoys, small groups of freedivers were training.

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Bearing only a small weight belt, a mask, and snorkel, they gathered along a few bright red, floating buoys, roped together along the surface of the sea.

After minutes of strong cycles of slow inhales and slower exhales, a freediver would reach out away from the buoy, duck underwater, kick up his extremely long, flexible fins, push downwards, then disappear.

A few seconds later, another freediver followed him down. In what seemed like far too long, minutes later, they both resurfaced. Each recovering, with quick, controlled gasps for air.

One would signal “ok” to the other and they smiled.

For the next hour, the freedivers rotated: one rested, while one dove, while the other acted as a safety. After returning to the surface, they would signal to one another, then cheer, laugh, share an observation, or communicate a challenge.

When I learned that they were going down a rope to depths of 50 meters on one breath, I was dumbfounded.

Now, what is the point of that?

Freedivers were commonly teased by fellow scuba divers; they were called extremists, daredevils, and generally thought to be reckless.

Why suffer when you can put on a tank of air and go explore underwater for an hour instead of a few mere minutes of a darkening deep and risky dive?

I could see their point.

But now, living on a gorgeous island in Thailand, I admit I am one of those who dare.

On one breath, I happily dive down into clear, open, and darkening waters, and explore the fascinating experience of my body and presence within it. In fact, I couldn’t imagine strapping on a heavy tank of air again.

How cumbersome.

The culture of freediving

Image courtesy of Elisabeth Lauwerys @oceans_below

For those who grew up near open water, it may feel natural to see how long you can dive down for.

Spearfishing, diving for pearls, exploring corals and chasing aquatic life would be reason enough to dive a little longer.

Some human populations have a long history of specifically training to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time.

Ama divers in Japan have used long breath-holding techniques to harvest shellfish and seaweed at depths of 20 meters for more than 2000 years.

Additionally, sea nomads, namely the ‘Bajau Laut’ are revered as skilled divers, who live a semi-aquatic existence in the Indonesian archipelago.

In a typical day, they spend up to 10 hours in the water. Armed with a spear, they fish at depth for minutes at a time, all on one breath.

Freediving is part of their everyday existence. They give birth in the water, and the young learn how to dive before they walk.

It’s a matter of training

Regardless, if we grew up near water, or are approaching it for the first time as adults, refining our ability to hold our breath underwater is something that can easily be trained and improved with proper guidance and continuous effort.

For myself, it would be ten years after seeing freedivers for the first time, in a moment when I was amongst friends who were enthusiastically practicing breath holds, or static apnea training, in a pool.

Curious, I thought I would finally give it a go.

One friend went first so I could see. He held the pool’s edge with his fingertips, submerged his head underwater, and relaxed his whole, toned body.

Completely still, he looked suspended in time. His safety stood beside him in the shallow pool.

She rested one hand on the pool’s edge, and her other was spread wide, palm down, on the middle of his back. She calmly coached him.

After two minutes, his body started to violently convulse.

From the outside, it looked rather painful. His diaphragm was contracting, urging him to take in a breath. The signal riveted through his whole body, each time it grew stronger and faster.

Yet, he somehow kept his mind fluid and head underwater for another minute.

It looked violent. He hit a point where he gave in, lifted his face up, and took quick, panicked, recovery inhalations.

He pushed his limits, but he was happy with his time, a personal best: 3 minutes,12 seconds.

I would try but I did not want to put my body under such strain.

To begin, I took a series of deep inhalations and long exhalations using the breathe-up exercises that we practiced, then drew in my final, long inhalation and submerged my face into the water.

I eased and relaxed my body, and knew I could lift my head up whenever I needed air.

My friend guided me. Her hand on my back felt like a warm, supporting, calming connection. I didn’t think very much. I just focused on the warmth.

At some point, I felt like I eased into was in a timeless floating world.

Then, I started to hear loud voices bursting above me. My friends were excited. Then their voices grew burly.

I slowly lifted my head up out of the water, looked up at them, and asked, “Whatever is the matter?”

I was immediately reminded to take my recovery breaths.

My friends were furious with me. I had surpassed their personal best time on my first attempt: 5 minutes, 45 seconds.

However, even though I could easily reach a longer static apnea time, I came to learn that a long breath-hold is just one small aspect of the freediving experience.

Getting used to new sensations

Above: Sarah Pierroz. Image courtesy of Elisabeth Lauwerys @oceans_below

Whether for utility or pleasure, the ability to skillfully dive deep underwater on one breath requires a great amount of mental strength.

You must keep a razor focus on exactly what you are doing and sensing.

If you give in to fear or panic, you put your life at immediate risk.

Although you should never dive alone, you have to feel and understand your body to learn its capacity and limits to keep the highest degree of safety possible.

As you descent, you start to experience more pressure on your ears and airway, which you have to equalize. Your lungs start to compress and can feel quite unusual.

At a depth of 30 meters, they reduce from 6 litres to just 1 mere litre in volume. And when your diaphragm contracts, you start to feel how it is to stay calm and move in the water, despite the snapping motion growing stronger and more frequent.

As you learn to go deep, you have to trust that you can understand your body’s signals, and can distinguish which signals are mental constructions of fear and which signals are non-negotiable.

If you move down too fast, you may fail to equalize, tire out, experience lung squeeze, perforate an eardrum, panic, or blackout.

Entering this new world between your inhalation and exhalation, at depth, is a slow, tender journey of awareness, one that needs to be navigated carefully.

Our body’s response to freediving

Personally, I was fascinated by how naturally adapted we are as humans to dive deep underwater. This helped me navigate the space between fear and reality.

As soon as your face goes underwater, your vagus nerve triggers a series of adjustments in your autonomic system.

Your heart rate slows down, a process known as bradycardia, as does your metabolism, allowing your body to conserve much-needed oxygen.

Your blood vessels also narrow, a process known as peripheral vasoconstriction, which diverts blood from the hands and feet towards the heart and brain, so you don’t starve your brain of oxygen.

As you go deeper underwater, the increased pressure squeezes your spleen to produce extra hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in the body.

Additionally, as you increase depth past 80 meters, a surprising physiological adaptation occurs.

Instead of your lungs imploding from external pressure, some of your blood shifts and forms a thin layer around your lungs, making a protective barrier, which prevents your alveoli from collapsing.

Also, when you hold your breathblood oxygen levels decline while carbon dioxide levels rise. This stimulates a small cluster of chemoreceptors in your bilateral carotid bodies running along your neck.

This sends messages about the state of the circulating blood to the brain, regulating neural outputs to the heart and circulation, further establishing the parasympathetic, slowing effects on the heart.

These changes to our physiological system underwater, called the mammalian diving reflex, are something that we do naturally as babies.

It allows us to swim underwater until we are six months old. It is also something that we share with aquatic mammals, such as dolphins, seals, otters, muskrats, and beavers; as well as diving birds, like ducks and penguins.

Because they are able to conserve oxygen so well, many of these species can breath-hold for up to an hour at a time.

The love of exploration

Image courtesy of Elisabeth Lauwerys @oceans_below

So why do we bother to explore this underwater world in one breath?

One of my most cherished memories is when I was with a handful of freedivers in Koh Tao, Thailand and a captain of a neighbouring diving boat whistled over and signalled a big “W” to us.

Quickly three more boats joined the area. Groups of scuba divers had just come up from a dive, they were out of air and floating on the surface. They all ducked their heads down for a glimpse of the unexpected surprise.

It was at this moment I understood why people freedive instead of scuba dive.

A whale shark was nearby. And we weren’t out of air, because our lungs were our tanks.

My freediving friends and I dove down with glee, uninhibited, to swim closer to the majestic visitor.

It was completely humbling to feel so close to such a rare and captivating creature. I could look into her eyes, see the little entourage of remoras hitched onto her, notice scars from boat motors on her skin, watch how freely she glided through space, and feel like I was allowed to relate with her.

No tanks, no bubbles, no barriers.

Freediving can feel like a superpower.

It allowed me to entered into an unknown space, if even, just for a moment.

Competitive vs Explorative Freediving

At its heart, freediving is an expression of pure love and joy of being in the water.

I’ve come across countless inspiring freedivers who continuously share their passion and kindly open the gates into a new world of learning and understanding.

Each day, instructors, carefully take out complete beginners into the deep blue. With compassion and patience, they help develop ease of moving underwater and facing one’s fears head-on.

I’ve listened to a friend describe what it’s like to taking out groups of cancer survivors to free dive with dolphins.

They felt empowered to explore a world with creatures who didn’t label them with any particular experience. They could simply be playful, at ease, and in a magical experience of joy and vitality.

I’ve cheered on a world record holding friend, who uses fame as a platform to passionately advocate for the protection of the ocean and its aquatic life.

And another who has translated his skill set to create survival courses for surfers, in harrowing scenarios where they are forced to wait to take a breath. He has helped to save many lives.

There is so much to explore in the world of freediving, more than anyone line dropped from a buoy may set out to teach. More than a competition in depth could capture.

Freediving offers a new world, rich with insight, wonder, and playfulness.

From that first long inhale, to being completely present in the space of no breath, to gasping for recovery, we may come to learn so much about ourselves than we would have we stayed in a regularly intervals breath, out of the water.

Sometimes when we dare to abandon our autonomic existence, we can gain more understanding of ourselves.

Simply by holding our breath, not because of pollution, but instead by choice, we may enter into another surprising state of existence, if we dare.

Written by Sarah Pierroz

Sarah Pierroz is a Canadian artist and international arts educator, first teaching in Cairo, Egypt and then onto the Friuli-Venezia-Giula and Veneto region in Italy, at the United World College of the Adriatic. Much of Sarah's art explores the subtle sense of expression and feeling deep within the body, inspired by her studies in yoga and movement.

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