To the uninitiated, it is a frightening sport—seeing how deep you can dive straight down into the water while holding your breath.
And then get back up to the surface.
It just so happens that a world premier record holder in the sport of freediving is a New Zealander, William Trubridge, and in 2010 he was also the first person to dive unassisted (no fins) 100 meters under the water on one breath of air. To put that in context, that is more than 300 feet or more than one US football field down under water. Current records, however, including Trubridge’s own, now even exceed this depth.
No, there are no oxygen canisters hidden on the ocean floor. No tricks. In fact, man and woman have been holding their breath for over thousands of years while diving deep beneath the ocean’s surface while spearfishing or gathering food from the ocean’s bottom. It is only in relatively recent years that this activity has evolved into a sport.
The sport of freediving consists of a number of separate disciplines or categories for which competitions are held and world records exist. Perhaps the most basic is what is termed “static apnea,” where you simply immerse yourself in water (often a swimming pool), and hold your breath as long as possible. The current record is over ten minutes. The other disciplines in freediving involve diving straight down into the water (usually the ocean) and attempting to go as deep as possible. Usually, the contestants state a desired depth that they wish to attempt to reach. They follow a rope down and at the set depth, remove a card from the rope, and bring the card to the surface to show that they reached their depth. The specific disciplines vary based on such things as whether or not you use fins, whether you have weights to aid your descent, and whether you can touch or use the rope to assist you. In perhaps the freakiest form of freediving (at least one freediving organization doesn’t recognize it because of its danger), the diver can use any means possible to drag him or herself as deep as possible. Using a heavy metal sled to pull him down, Herbert Nitsch holds the record at 214 meters (702 feet) set in 2007.
Actually, in a spooky sequence of events, when you free dive, at first and while you are closer to the surface you have to swim, that is, make an effort to propel yourself downward. At a certain point, however, you reach what is termed neutral buoyancy. Then, as you continue down, you no longer need to swim. You are heavier than the water and you literally sink like a stone.
Another interesting aspect of freediving is that success depends in great part on relaxation, both of the mind and body, in sharp contrast to other sports where brute, concerted effort often prevails. Yoga and relaxation techniques play as much a part as breath-holding training and swimming and diving skills.
William Trubridge was born in the UK in 1980. When he was 18 months old, his parents moved to New Zealand where he was raised. He considers New Zealand his home. He began freediving when he was 23, and has trained with many of the experts in the world of freediving.
Similar to a great number of freedivers, Trubridge speaks of the incredible calm and focus associated with freediving, along with the ability to freely interact with the ocean and its creatures without the encumbrance of scuba gear.
Over the years, Trubridge has held fifteen world records, and currently remains world freediving champion in two disciplines: constant weight apnea without fins 101 m (331 ft), and free immersion apnea 121 m (397 ft). He was the Suunto Vertical Blue champion in 2010 and the 2011 World Absolute Freediver, meaning he amassed the most points while competing in various freediving disciplines.
Trubridge currently resides, for at least part of the year, at Dean’s Blue Hole, a famed salt water sink hole in the Bahamas which plunges 203 meters (666 feet) straight down.
This is where he made the first successful 100 meter dive mentioned earlier; a documentary film “Breathe” produced in 2011 chronicles this achievement. There, at Dean’s Blue Hole, Trubridge currently runs both a freediving school and an annual freediving competition, both appropriately named Vertical Blue. In case you are interested, as of the time this is being written, the next four-day Beginner Freediving Course is February 1-4 and costs $475.
Trubridge is also actively involved with environmental efforts to protect dolphins and to curtail the amount of plastic dumped into the oceans.
New Zealand remains proud of its freediving champion, and certainly he has fostered an interest in freediving in other Kiwis. Recently, last year, he failed to make a record-breaking dive. He was disappointed, but added “I feel humbled by all the support that’s come from New Zealand.”
Needless to say, freediving is a dangerous sport. Along with the logistics of diving and holding your breath, tremendous pressures are exerted on the human body at depth. At deep depths, it is said, the lungs collapse due to the pressure down to the size of walnuts.
Numerous freediving videos, showing Trubridge and others, are available online. Some videos are indeed frightening showing divers surfacing from their dives and having involuntary convulsions or being unable to coordinate their movements from oxygen deprivation. This discoordination is termed “samba”—after the dance—in colloquial freediving parlance. Divers also sometimes black out under water and, if things go well, are brought up to the surface by rescue divers and survive. Notably, two world champion freedivers have died in recent years. Nicolas Mevoli, freediving world champion, died while attempting a world record in November, 2013, and more recently, Natalia Molchanova, a Russian world freediving champion, holding 41 world records at the time of her death went missing, presumed drowned, on a recreational dive in August, 2015.
Over the past weeks as I’ve become interested in William Trubridge and freediving, I’ve tried seeing how long I can hold my own breath on dry land. For those who may be interested, two of the cardinal rules of freediving are 1) to never, ever practice freediving or holding your breath in water without a buddy, and 2) don’t hyperventilate before breath-holding since it can dangerously blunt your sense of oxygen deprivation and cause you to black out. The first time I tried holding my breath, I felt I was dying and had to take a breath after twenty seconds. Now, with practice, I am able to hold my breath more than two and a half minutes. Certainly, nowhere near even amateur freedivers, but still I am pleased with my improvement.
Nestor, J. (2014). Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.