Earlier this year on a trip to Panama, I talked with some other travelers who were taking a free diving course. What I learned was that free diving is just like scuba diving except for one small detail. You don’t dive with an air tank and the only air you have is what’s in your lungs.
Free diving sounded like the type of experience that’s a secret to long life, so I filed it away in the back of mind for future reference.
Recently I did some research about where I could get such training and found that a Canadian company called Performance Free Diving was going to hold a beginner class in San Diego! Since it was in my own backyard I almost had to go.
Why bother learning?
I learned how to scuba dive in college and even though I don’t dive often it was a great experience. So I thought free diving would be a new and interesting challenge.
My philosophy is that humans are always looking at life and saying “I wonder what that would be like.” Also, it’s a great idea to take advantage of opportunities like this because who knows what new adventures might be discovered.
I’m glad I took the class and in many ways free diving is more interesting and challenging than scuba. Here are the basics of what was covered in the class.
Day 1 Friday
Training started with classroom work for six hours and covered the physics of diving, physiology, breathing techniques, equipment, and emergency procedures.
For example, in scuba your lungs don’t compress because they have access to air from your tank and you can counteract the increase in pressure from diving. Your lungs automatically stay at their normal size as you descend and ascend as long as you breath normally.
In free diving, you only get the one breath of air you start with at the surface so it’s important to inflate your lungs as much as possible. At a depth of 33 feet, which is twice the pressure of sea level, your lungs will be one half their size on the surface.
Also, the soft rubber material of the diver’s wetsuit compresses under the increased water pressure of diving. As the wetsuit compresses the diver becomes less buoyant. The deeper you go the more wetsuit compresses and the faster you sink. The process is reversed as you ascend towards the surface.
Day 2 Saturday morning
We spent three hours in the morning at a pool working on preliminary items. We were wearing wetsuits but they were so buoyant that a weight belt was needed to counteract some of the flotation. The goal was to wear enough weight to make it easier to descend but not so much we would sink while at the surface. Ideally we would have neutral buoyancy at about 30 feet of depth.
Next we learned emergency procedures and practiced how to assist a diver who was either disoriented or unconscious from diving.
Finally we practiced holding our breath under water so we could get used to pushing past the point where we feel like we need to breathe. We did a series of breathing exercises to slow the metabolism and then some purging breaths to decrease CO2. Then we started with a one minute underwater breath hold which was easier than I thought it would be.
The next breath hold was for two minutes. I assumed that would be pushing my limits but after the breathing exercises it wasn’t that bad either. After that we did 2:30 and the final exercise was as three minute breath hold.
I was able to stay under water for three minutes but some students elected to come up sooner. Everyone proceeded at their own pace and no one was criticized for not making the designated times.
That afternoon we spent about three hours in the ocean working on various diving skills. We met at a beach with relatively mild waves and swam a few hundred yards off shore with a diving rig.
The rig was a series of flotation devices attached to a metal pole that was about 20 – 30 feet long. Underneath were some lines that could lowered into the water at various depths as a guide for the diving class. In that way we could wait at the surface while other students practiced their dives being supervised by the two instructors assigned to the class.
We practiced going down to various depths, starting at 5 meters and not exceeding 20 meters which was the limit for this beginning class. Some of the skills including diving down to five meters and removing the dive mask to demonstrate that losing a mask is no reason to panic.
I had trouble equalizing the pressure in my ears so I wasn’t able to descend head first. I did the best I could. But the instructor kept reminding us to not get too fixed on a particular depth but just improve on our own performance no matter where we started.
Day 3 Sunday morning
We met again at the pool for more emergency procedures such as how to swim down and rescue another diver who had a problem while submerged. Also, we went did more underwater breath holds, this time trying for a maximum of four minutes.
I made it through three minutes but on the four minute attempt I only made it to 3:10. That was much more than I guessed I could do at the start of the class but I think I could do better now that I have a better understanding of how the body reacts to the physical and mental stress of not breathing underwater.
We went out in the ocean at the same spot and continued with the skills we had done the day before. On this day the instructor suggested I dive by lowering myself down the line but with my feet first instead of head first. Sometimes this allows the ear equalization process to occur more easily.
That turned out to be a good idea because, even though it wasn’t as efficient I made it down to about 34 feet. That depth was much greater than any time I had been snorkeling and now I know I know I can go much deeper with more practice.
Secret to a long life
So was the class worth it? Sure, of course 🙂 I ended up diving deeper and for a longer time without a tank than I ever had before. I spent time in a new environment, met new people and got out of my normal weekend routine. Now I’m looking forward to free diving again and beating my own personal records.
The class was definitely an example of one of the secrets to a long life. And it also reminded me of this quote a young woman mentioned to me on her first flight.
photo credit: Performance Free Diving