By Wynn Parks
Photos Courtesy of Austin Powell – Benthic Ocean
Freediving has to be the silver-backed, granddaddy of extreme sports. This isn’t snorkeling, or diving with scuba gear. In its most extreme “competitive” styles, freediving involves taking hold of an oblong chunk of lead and hanging on while it pulls you down a rope cable until the light turns blue-grey, then disappears—the object being to “out-deep” your competitors, and come back up to tell about it. It’s pretty much taking your life into your own last breath.
Neither competitive nor sports freediving has changed much since ancient times. Freediving still means “voluntary apnea”—holding your breath.
In the Panhandle, Mike Pooler’s Benthic Ocean Sports in Destin is the only brick-and-mortar outfit where freediving is taught, though Tallahassee freediver Rob Pierce’s business, Hypoxia Outfitters, is poised to assemble an elite freediving group of professionals and amateurs alike (styled the “Forgotten Coast Freedivers”).
“Okay, some of the most popular depth disciplines include Free Immersion, Constant Weight, Variable Weight, and No Limit,” Pierce explains. “Also, you have the shallow water practices called pool disciplines.”
Essentially, Free Immersion is pulling oneself down a cable-rope. According to the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), the women’s record is 300.3 feet, while the men’s is 409.2 feet.
Divers doing Constant Weight go up and down along the rope under their own power.
Variable Weighters ride lead sleds down a cable rope. The sinking is easy. What’s tricky is how far to ride and still have enough O2 to come up under one’s own power.
In his courses, Pooler doesn’t teach below 132 feet, which precludes the Variable Weight event. “That kind of competition is the realm of a handful of divers—the hardcore boys,” he says. “They go down over 400 feet, and conditions in the Gulf aren’t really conducive to competitive freedive training anyway.”
The true Evel Knievel types are the No Limit freedivers who ride sleds down, questing single-mindedly for the fabled 1,000-foot mark—down to 800 feet reported—depending on automated flotation gear to lift them back to the surface, in whatever condition.
Out of regard for their sport’s reputation, both Pooler and Pierce cite, at some point, the water safety mantra about never diving alone. When I mention once losing a friend to “shallow water blackout,” Pooler shakes his head.
“Lots of casual divers don’t even know that word,” he says. “You dive. Pressure squeezes your body, but everything’s okay until you start back up. Water pressure un-squeezes—the blood runs out of your brain. You black out. If you got no buddy, you drown.”
Apparently, the pool disciplines can be done anywhere one can float facedown in water. Though they can serve to teach breath-holding skills—i.e., how to stay off the panic button when your brain is screaming “Breathe! Breathe now!”—they are taken quite seriously by practitioners. Static Apnea can be done floating facedown in the water. According to AIDA, the world champion is a Frenchman, who did 11.35 minutes. The women’s champ, from Romania, did just over nine minutes.
Every water baby that ever went to a swimming pool has done the Dynamic Apnea thing, seeing how many laps they can swim underwater. A Greek diver has reportedly done more than the length of three football fields.
When I ask if pool discipline specialists use “hyperventilation,” Pooler and Pierce are unanimous in condemning it as a “killer” practice. Hyperventilating, or deep huffing quantities of natural air, can short circuit the smothering panic and create an illusory sense of one’s limit, leading to blackout.
Pooler suggests Yoga relaxation techniques to optimize the body’s oxygen utilization.
Along that line, the Static Apnea category includes a subcategory permitting use of a pure oxygen mix, but not for deep dives, where it can become toxic.
At first glance, extreme sports seem to fly in the face of good sense, with the hazards way bigger than the rewards. Yet diving to the “bottom of the sea” is a theme that runs through humankind’s most ancient tales. The 5,000-year-old story of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumer describes how that hero got hold of a big rock and jumped off into the deepest parts of the sea to fetch back a limb off the Tree of Life.
If the exhilaration of pushing beyond the limits is what gives a freediver’s life its glory and bliss, the Tree of Life metaphor totally explains it.
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