If you’re fascinated by the aquatic world, but don’t like the concept of a cylinder on your back, don’t let that be a barrier. Freediving may just be the water sport for you.

Difficult as it is for scuba-addicts to imagine, some people are not excited by the idea of diving with a cylinder on their back and the associated weight and paraphernalia that accompanies it. However, those same people may share your passion for the underwater world and its aquatic life. Being a non-diver doesn’t need to be a barrier to having some amazing underwater experiences — freediving is a realistic and fun alternative with the proper training.

Freediving is much more than holding your breath, and its proponents claim that — much like a meditation — freediving can bring a calmness and serenity to your underwater experience. But who is freediving for? What’s involved in the introductory training? And how long does it take?

Who is freediving for?

Freediving is an exhilarating activity that everyone, regardless of age, may enjoy. All it requires is reasonable fitness, the correct equipment and the appropriate training. The introductory SSI Basic Freediving course is for participants of 10 years old and up. The equivalent PADI Basic Freediver course is for participants of 12 years old and up.

Isn’t freediving just snorkeling?

No. Snorkeling is to freediving what a try-dive is to an experienced scuba diver — a simple way to get a taste of the sport. Freedivers learn to use breathing exercises to extend the amount of time they can safely hold their breath (apnea). This, in conjunction with different techniques, increases the time they can stay safely beneath the surface. Students learn to focus on their mental preparation, breathing, discipline and control. And, being bubble and noise-free, budding freedivers learn to interact with the aquatic world quietly for as long as their breath permits.

What equipment do I need to go freediving?

In order to begin freediving, you need only three basic pieces of equipment — a mask, fins and snorkel. You may also need an exposure suit and weight system depending on the environment. Many introductory courses supply the required equipment for the duration of the training. Often in freediving, experienced freedivers will use extended, long-bladed fins and low-volume masks, which are visibly different from standard scuba equipment.

The lack of cumbersome scuba equipment is one of the biggest advantages of being a freediver. In addition, being silent underwater means that you can move among sensitive aquatic life without disturbing it, often allowing you to get close without scaring it away. If a technical diver is an elephant, a recreational diver is a horse, and a freediver is a gazelle.

What’s involved in the training?

Like introductory scuba courses, introductory freediving courses are generally split into three distinct sections — knowledge development, confined water/pool training and open-water dives.

The knowledge development section of the training focuses on the body’s physiology and how, with training, you can harness your natural instincts and reflexes to optimize your time underwater. As with all mammals, the human body has the urge to breathe, known as the ‘Mammalian Dive Reflex,’ which you can train to the benefit of freediving. To become an accomplished freediver, you’ll also need a solid foundation in the relationship between depth, pressure and volume and — importantly — how it affects your body and its air spaces. You’ll learn the theory behind equalization techniques, such as the Valsalva and Frenzel maneuvers. Using these properly will help you descend to depth speedily and comfortably. You’ll also learn how to correctly weight yourself when appropriate.

During your confined water/pool sessions, you’ll begin to put some theory into practice under supervision. You’ll learn to relax and focus on your breathing while honing your breathing technique and controlling your urge to breathe. This allows students to practice first with motionless breath-holding in water (static apnea), before moving on to breath-hold with movement (dynamic apnea) A freediver’s tasks don’t end as they hit the surface. Students will also learn the correct technique for ‘recovery breathing’ since, following the dive, your body’s oxygen and CO2 levels will be abnormal.

Finally, having honed your techniques, you’ll make open-water dives to verify all the knowledge and skills you’ve accumulated toward your qualification.

How deep will I go? How long does it take?

Initially, you’ll practice on land, then at the water’s surface. Finally, you’ll increase your depth beneath the surface within safe parameters.

Standards and qualifying performance requirements vary from agency to agency. For example, the PADI Basic Freediver course states goals as a 90-second static apnea (motionless) and 82-foot (25 m) direct apnea (moving horizontally) without open-water requirements. The PADI Freediver course’s goal is a 33-foot (10 m) constant-weight freedive.

The SSI Basic Freediver course includes one open-water dive with the goal of a freedive to a maximum depth of 16 feet (5 m). Students focus on relaxation, duck diving, equalization, finning and surfacing techniques. Several dedicated freediving agencies, such as AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea), also specialize in freediving.

What are the course requirements?

An introductory qualification course may take two to three days. But, as with scuba courses, students can learn at a pace that suits them and the circumstances.

While you needn’t be an Olympic athlete to be a freediver, you are going to require rudimentary fitness. This means being able to comfortably swim approximately 656 feet (200 m) with no pre-existing conditions.

A similar — but not identical — medical form is also usually mandatory to confirm your health. In some parts of the globe, you’ll need a doctor’s clearance as well. However, being free from the weight of tanks, freediving is, of course, less demanding on land. The best freediving instructors can adapt their teaching methods to accommodate students who have documented physical challenges.

Much like scuba diving, freediving education is never complete. Having completed your introductory qualification, a whole world of freediving awaits, with levels from basic to master freediver and beyond.

Not better or worse than scuba, just different, freediving offers a silent window into a fascinating world. It challenges participants both mentally and physically. If you’d like to become a freediver, contact your local dive center to find out more.

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