A month ago, I made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and got my AIDA** Freedive Certification at Fusion Freedive in Bali. Since then, I’ve gone on tens of different types of freedives and my love for the sport grows every time I take the plunge.
I’ve always been an avid snorkeler. I’d put on my pair of fins, mask, and snorkel, and hover on the surface of the sea – occasionally diving down for just a few seconds at a time. Whenever I felt the urge to breath, I’d immediately swim back up.
After watching about a hundred freediving videos on YouTube, and watching the faces of freediving friends light up whenever they talked about it, I knew that I had to figure out how to go down deeper and stay down longer.
This will be a two-part series on my experience of getting my AIDA** Freedive Certification in Bali. This post is all about the theory philosophy of freediving, while the next one will be solely about my personal experience.
Since my certification, I’ve gone down to 25 meters on one breath, swam alongside scuba divers without a tank, gone freediving with manta rays, and explored the coral off of the coast of Timor Leste – reefs with no scuba shop in sight. (Can you see why I’m so behind on this blog? I blame my freedive instructor.)
Table of Contents
What is Freediving Anyway?
Freediving is when you dive underwater on one breath, without the help of an external source of air like you have while scuba diving. It’s a sport that commands your full relaxation, attention, and self-awareness to be successful. It’s as much about your inner personal journey as it is your external one. If you’ve ever gone snorkeling, taken a deep breath, and dove down, then you’ve done a basic freedive already.
There are many types of freediving – some types use fins, some don’t, some go down a line, some don’t, some freedivers compete, some don’t. In all aspects, the core element of diving on one breath is still there. There are also all commitment levels throughout the sport – many freedivers try to push the limits of what the human body is capable of, while others simply dive for as long as they’re comfortable with.
How Does Freediving Work?: Theory and Understanding the Science of Freediving
I know, the word theory can seem a bit dry. But the science behind freediving is fascinating. Did you know that the urge to breathe is not caused by a lack of oxygen but rather because of CO2 build up? When oxygen starts converting into CO2 waste, the body triggers the urge to exhale, telling you, let’s get this CO2 out A-to-the-SAP.
CO2 build-up then triggers reflexive diaphragm contractions that freedivers use as a gauge to know how much more time can be spent underwater. The time you start feeling contractions is roughly the middle point of your dive. AIDA likes to use the analogy that O2 is the gas you have in your tank while CO2 is the gas gauge.
To get the longest breath hold possible, you need to relax. Relaxation is one of the most essential components of freediving as it slows down your heart rate, metabolism, and the rate oxygen is consumed in the brain. If you can’t relax, then you can’t dive to your fullest potential.
Every dive goes through four phases, with each one being essential to a successful dive. First, you must relax. You do this by breathing calmly and going through a mental meditation for about two minutes. Then, you take one full breath by exhaling completely, then inhaling from the stomach to the chest. After your full breath is your breath hold, where you go underwater. Finally, every breath hold must end with recovery breathing, a technique you use to inhale oxygen quickly without getting dizzy.
If it sounds complicated, it’s not. After a few rounds, the four phases become pretty habitual.
You should always keep your entire breath in your lungs for the duration of your dive. This gives you the most oxygen and helps with the ascent.
Is Freediving Safe?
Freediving in the media is depicted as an extreme sport with common deaths, black outs, and losses of motor control called sambas. The fact is that if done properly, freediving is a very safe sport. When you get certified, you’ll learn to never go without a buddy, how to do a proper breath-up, how to do a recovery breath, what weights to wear, warning signs to look for in your dive buddy, and how to rescue someone who’s gone unconscious. As you get more advanced certifications, you’ll learn how to dive deeper, longer, and safer.
Most freediving deaths occur because the spear fishermen, snorkelers, and freedivers made the poor decision to head out without a buddy.
Is Freediving Difficult?
Freediving is such a personal sport that comes easy for some and is a challenge for others. In its most basic form, nearly everyone can do it – simply hold your breath, and put your face underneath the water. But to get to a more advanced level, you have to be able to relax and have a keen sense on the state of your body.
One frequent problem people have is equalizing, where you maintain the ideal pressure on all sinus and ear canals by using your own air. If you can’t equalize, then you risk damaging your ears or sinuses. Some people take longer than others to learn how to equalize, but nearly everyone can do it eventually (even those who think that they can’t).
Another issue freedivers face is pushing past the contractions. Like I said earlier, contractions are a normal part of freediving but can feel uncomfortable at first. I’ve met people who get their contractions early or can’t tolerate the discomfort. Some people have strong contractions while others have ones that are very mild.
For me, freediving is challenging enough to be fun, especially since it’s a sport where you can progress both mentally and physically with every dive. It can be as easy or as challenging as you like.
How Do I Know What School to Choose?
After my hellish experience at Penida Dive Resort, I am a massive advocate for doing your research before entrusting your safety with a dive school – scuba or freedive. Keep in mind that the right school for you might not even be the cheapest.
Before getting my freedive certification in Bali, I searched for blog posts and reviews online. If any school has a review with a negative rating because of safety reasons, it’s out. I can brush off minor complaints about food, location, (some) equipment, staff attitude, but never safety. If the dive school you’ve searched has negative safety reviews – run, do not walk. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
Your school should offer:
Legitimate freedive certifications: AIDA International is what I got mine in and the association is reputable and the most common. You can read a full list of agencies here.
Small student to instructor rations: This is usually covered in the certification association, that often doesn’t allow a high number of students per instructor. Still, I’ve seen scuba instructors break this rule by mixing fun divers and students. This shouldn’t be happening with freediving either.
Experienced instructors: It takes a certain personality to teach freediving. Your instructor should not only be a capable diver themselves but also be able to stay calm and safe during any emergency. Usually, this comes with experience.
After researching all of the freediving schools in Bali, my friends and I decided that Fusion Freedive in Amed seemed like the best freedive school in Bali to go with. Their main instructor, Agata Bogusz, is as experienced and talented as it gets. The school has only positive reviews, offers free transportation from Bali’s main cities, high-end equipment, and is up-to-date with all certifications. I’d highly recommend them to any readers thinking about freediving in Bali. (And there is a post to come on my full experience!)
Should You Teach Yourself?
All signs point to no. The sport of freediving is so young and is constantly evolving. A few techniques that were once considered safe or the preferred way a few years ago have now been adapted to fit modern research. For example, the hyperventilation you see old-school freedivers do is no longer a recommended practice. It’s best to learn from a proper freediving instructor, who is up to date on all the latest information, instead of watching a few YouTube videos and hoping for the best. And just because Good Ol’ Bill is a great friend and freediver doesn’t mean he’ll make a great teacher, either.
Experienced instructors also know what to look for in body position and breathing technique, something you just can’t teach yourself.
The Benefits of Freediving
Freediving has been shown to increase brain plasticity, physical and mental health, and is often considered one of the best meditation exercises. Freediving brings you a sense of self-awareness you’d never thought could be possible. Many freedivers also feel that it’s an addicting experience that teaches them self-discipline and how to relax.
It’s also a way to explore the ocean without the cost of renting scuba equipment each time you want to take a peek under the sea. You can explore reefs for as long as you like without the worry of doing back-to-back dives or ascending too fast as you do with scuba diving.
And since freediving is always done with a buddy, it’s a great way to develop friendships and perfect your communication skills.
Have I convinced you to get certified yet? Seriously, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done – and I’m not saying that halfheartedly. I had no idea that within a month of being certified, I’d be having some of the best underwater mental and visual experiences in my memory. I’ve even swam with manta rays — without a tank!
Many thanks to Agata Bogusz, Polish record holder, AIDA competition judge, freedive instructor trainer, and my freedive instructor for helping me put this guide together.