Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Salt Pond, Long Island, Bahamas 23º21.4N | 75º8.23W

There are so many fascinating and unexpected things about freediving, I hardly know where to start. I'm tempted to say something trite like 'there are no words to describe,' but I'm a writer, and that would be improper, if not a relief. There's enough material, enough words for an entire book, but let's try to keep it to a pamphlet.

The mechanics of freediving is fairly straightforward. The athlete dives on a single breath -- without breathing apparatus, retrieves a tag from a metal plate suspended by a rope (like some video game, huh?) and resurfaces.

Now the curiosities begin.

Just about everything I imagined about freediving turns out to be wrong. In this sport where the athletes try to dive deeper and ever deeper, I thought that surely the dangers were deep in the abyss but most of the dangers are at the surface at the end of their breath and body's capacity. Divers often black out from lack of oxygen to the brain, kind of like standing up too fast.

I never imagined the chemical and physiological turmoil that's playing mischief on a diver's body.

The most immediate effect is from pressure. Every 33 feet of depth in the water is equal to the total pressure on our bodies at the surface, so, in effect diving 33 feet doubles the pressure and subsequent compression on the body. Since these divers go down incredibly deep, some more than 300 feet, you can do the math. The pressure is immense, a tighter and tighter bear hug over the entire body.

This intense pressure is felt in air cavities in the head and chest as the air gets compressed and the cavities start collapsing. One diver demonstrated this to me by forcing out all of the air in his chest. I watched in distress as his chest caved in more and more, his ribs protruded. Gross.

They experience great pain in their ears, like we do in a small way when descending in an airplane. The divers have to learn tricks for equalizing this pressure, forcing air into their ears lest the eardrums rupture. The compression around the neck is so intense that merely turning the head suddenly or looking up can cause injury, so on the ascent and descent, divers don't stretch the neck by looking where they're going.

I really thought that breathholding would be a great challenge for these athletes, but it turns out, breathholding is a skill somewhat methodically learned. It's not breathing out that's the problem. Gasses in the body that are usually expelled without incident get forced into the bloodstream and wreak total havoc on the body and mind. Divers experience what they call deep water narcosis, causing profound panic and at the same time limiting motor skills. They hallucinate. Several divers told me that during narcosis they can't tell if their eyes are open or closed; they see the same thing either way.

To state the obvious, these toxic gasses cause some issues, leading to another contradiction. Those three simple steps they have to perform on resurfacing may sound just plain silly, something a 3-year-old could perform, but for someone returning from the abyss, trying to equalize pressure, breathe and shake off narcosis, those simple actions can seem impossible.

So, let's recap. A diver drops into a dark abyss, blindly freefalling, feeling more and more extreme pressure collapsing the body, increasingly experiencing utter panic, hallucinations and limited ability to move the arms and legs. And that's only the descent. Now they must turn around and swim all the way to the surface.

I really believed that in addition to being a mentally challenging pursuit that this was a dangerous, even treacherous sport. Seriously, I thought I might see someone die at this competition, but guess what? In the greatest contradiction of all, it's not all that dangerous -- especially the three types of freediving being practiced at this competition, the three more 'pure' disciplines without the use of mechanical propulsion for ascent or descent. Most of the notorious deaths in freediving have been in the disciplines where divers use mechanical sleds to pull them down and back up. When those sleds malfunction, well, yeah.

The diver (right) goes toward the light.     Photo by Chip
Failure in this type of pure, self-propelled freediving doesn't mean death and usually not even injury. There are a lot of safety measures in place to protect the divers, including ultimately, the deployment of a platform that will bring them to the surface if they have trouble beyond the reach of safety divers.

At this Vertical Blue competition, spectators can swim right up within a few feet of the dive platform to watch the action. It is just impossible to watch this close without being moved, I mean like emotional, tear inducing kind of moved.

Dean's Blue Hole, as I've already written, is awe-inspiring on its own, in the old sense of awesomeness before awesome came to describe a cute pair of earrings as opposed to, say, witnessing a volcano eruption. This crystal clear, turquoise void draws us little humans like a black hole, only this one is blue.

Then watching these folks vanish down into it, you just think science fiction, a transporter, a chute to another dimension, a portal to, um, somewhere else.

I would just hang on the PVC pipe barrier and peer down in wonderment as a diver faded into the cold blue darkness, watching, watching, watching, waiting the long minutes that seemed like eternity for them to please return to us, to our realm of air and sunlight.

The diver comes bursting out in an electrifying moment, face sunken, eyes not quite sentient, like a newborn baby popping out of the womb, water dripping, primal instinct trying to force nerve and muscle to suck in air, to leave the fluid darkness behind and exchange the sustenance of fluid for that of air.

As I watch this crazy birthing or in another contradiction, perhaps a near death experience, I alternately hold my breath and gasp for air, willing the diver to pass through the gateway between the underworld and our own.

I know, such melodrama, but truly, that's how it feels. So often in those 15 seconds of transition when the diver was coming back to us, I teared up, filled with utter elation when the life behind their eyes returned, when they spoke those simple words, "I'm okay."

Chip asked a friend of ours who is an anesthesiologist if there's really some life and death experience there, if the chemical reaction going on is akin to what happens at death.

It seems the answer lies somewhere in that sketchy and tumultuous zone where science ends and spiritual belief begins.

The freediving zone.

More on Freediving and Dean's Blue Hole:
My photos of Dean's Blue Hole.
My thoughts on Dean's Blue Hole.
The Women of Freediving

My article about Freediving in the New York Times.
My Freediving Board on PInterest.

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