There’s still a final frontier. Vast tracts of genuinely unexplored terrain still exist on this planet, maybe only a short drive from your front door. The life aquatic is yours for the living and freediving is the vehicle that can get you there.
Take a deep breath. Drop. Silence.
Unseen forces rock you in time with the sway of the sand as you sink deeper, ears popping, while your chest is squeezed ever tighter. A glance up and you’re held weightless in another world. An alien covering of blues, greens, pinks and purples adorns the walls. Tiny yellow and black striped vessels zip past in clouds as they make way for your clumsy bulk. Wide winged rays cut through the current with relaxed ease.
Shafts of light beam through a haze of bubbles and you’re reminded of your painful inability to stay much longer. A wave of stomach kicking contractions drive you to the surface.
The Secret World Beneath The Waves
I live in Wollongong. Not considered an exotic place by any stretch of the word, but we do have some stellar coastline within a few minutes of the CBD. Up until a few years ago the beach was somewhere for me to cool off on those scorcher summer days or as a last resort hangover cure.
I’m a terrible surfer, subpar ocean swimmer and an impatient angler, so the ocean didn’t do much in the way of allure. Yet, some people are really into it. That intrigued me.
Spearfishing and Freediving
I was first introduced to the “good stuff” when I started spearfishing almost two years ago. Originally spearfishing was a means to responsibly source some protein, but it has now become a huge shaping force in my lifestyle. Spearfishing and freediving is meditation to me. It’s a brief window of complete relaxation while immersed in the liquid wilderness.
I’ve witnessed things and had experiences that have kept me buzzing for days. A wall of giant kingfish. Bull rays the size of small cars. The nervous approach of half a dozen timid grey nurse sharks. Flashing colours of a territorial cuttlefish. It was these kinds of experiences that encouraged me to take up photography for the purpose of sharing some of those moments.
Unfortunately the ocean is under a huge amount of pressure from pollution, overfishing, and rising water temperatures. I believe that, in order to help the oceans, we must raise people’s appreciation of them. People will take action for something they care about, right?
Give The Sea A Chance
So if the sea isn’t your cup of tea (yet) and you’re open to something new, here’s a pitch for freediving:
If you live by the coast then freediving is perfect for the time-poor; I can be in and out before breakfast. It’s repeatable too; I’ve dived the same local headlands and reefs over and over and I’m always seeing something new. Also, you can travel with it; Australia alone has almost 60,000km of coastline, that’s a lot of coast to explore!
Still with me?
6 Steps To Start Freediving
1. Call A Friend
Find yourself a dive buddy! There’s safety in numbers and it’s way more fun to share the ocean with your mates.
2. Keep warm
If you’re cold in the ocean then you’re guaranteed to have a miserable time. Do whatever unspeakable things you need to get your hands on a wetsuit*. Bonus points if it has a hood to keep your noggin toasty! This will vary from person to person (and if you live in Queensland or Tassie) but generally, you will need 1-3mm thick for summer and 4-5mm for lengthy stays in winter waters.
*like get a job and buy one.
3. Get Heavy
Wetsuits are really great at floating when combined with a lung-full of air. This makes it terribly hard to drop down and get a closer look at your finned mates. To offset the buoyancy, you’ll need a weight belt. The thicker the wetsuit, the more weights you’ll need.
Ideally, you’ll have enough weight that you can float on the surface without having to tread water, but enough that you can drop down without too much difficulty.
4. Go Faster
A pair of fins (flippers for the cool cats out there) make swimming a breeze and are an absolute must if you want any kind of mobility out there. Freediving specific fins will typically give you better energy transfer from your kick so you can dive without working as hard.
5. Witness The Radness
A mask and snorkel combo will let you see and breathe simultaneously on the surface while you scope out the next sweet dive spot. Hot tips: A mask that is of lower volume won’t crush your face so much at great depths and a light smear of baby shampoo on the inside of your masks helps reduce fogging.
6. Pick Your Day
The ocean can vary from an angry churning mess to a swimming pool-like calmness. A few consecutive days of offshore wind and tiny swell will generally be a marker for clear waters and great diving conditions.
Now, a note on safety. The ocean can be dark and full of terrors if you don’t respect the dangers. I am by no means a qualified freediving instructor so go and seek some professional training if you’re really interested in the best practices to keep you safe.
Like anything, freediving comes with its own risks. The scary one is passing out underwater. Having spoken to people and read accounts of those who’ve passed out while freediving it seems that the reasons for passing out are mixed.
Most commonly it’s due to unknowingly hyperventilating during the breathe up. In short, it’s unlikely to happen but the people who survived did so because their dive buddies were diligent and reacted quickly. Never dive alone!
When diving at any depth you expose your body to significantly greater pressures than that of the normal atmosphere. While most of your body has amazing flexibility to withstand the increased pressure, the ears are most sensitive and need constant attention whilst diving. For the majority of people beginning freediving they can use either the Valsalva or Frenzel technique to equalise the pressure in the ears. The Valsalva technique is the easiest for most people and is executed by pinching the nose and trying to exhale through the nose at the same time. When done correctly the sensation within the ear is likened to it being inflated.
My advice when descending in the water is to aim to equalise constantly and gently and if any discomfort is felt then to stop and rise back up. For more advanced equalisation techniques required at greater depths seek the help of an instructor.
Another risk in the water (and certainly not limited to freediving!) is being struck by boats or jetskis. To improve the chance that they see you and give you a wide birth it is best practice to bring along a brightly coloured dive float with the internationally recognised diver flag.
Make sure to carefully plan your entry/exit points and factor in changing tides, currents, and the size and direction of any swell. Be wary when you’re entering from rock platforms as it’s easy to get picked up by a rogue wave and tossed around (at the very least!). Believe me, it sucks. Also, it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve got plenty of juice in the tank if it’s a decent swim back in.
Finally, I’m not an animal behaviourist but I’ve got a feeling that most things in the ocean don’t appreciate a fondle. Keep those mits away, Handsy McGee!
Get In There
Hopefully, by now you’re getting kitted up, psyched and ready to go for it. Time to find yourself some ocean and start explorin’.