Getting Freedive Certified in Bali: Why Didn’t I Do This Sooner?

“Before I freedive, I tell my body that it’s time to enter dream time. It’s time to go to sleep,” a freediver in Amed, Bali, told me. “Your entire body and mind relaxes.”

After getting finishing my AIDA** Freediving Certification, I started to understand what he meant.

Freediving is when you dive underwater on one breath. You’ve probably done a simple form of it already, while snorkeling or having hold-your-breath challenges in the pool. It’s a sport that commands your full relaxation, attention, and self-awareness.

I recently wrote an entire post about the basics of freediving with the help of my instructor, Agata Bogusz. You should read that before coming here. 

Getting Certified: My Fears and Expectations

It’s no secret for regular readers that I occasionally get full-blown panic attacks in the sea. Before my course, I feared that I’d panic and not be able to finish. Would I freak out and embarrass myself? Or could I keep cool?

Despite the anxiousness, I committed to trying it anyways and crossed my fingers that things would go well. I hoped that freediving could actually be a tool that helped creeping panic attacks in the future. I kept my expectations at a bare minimum. I knew nothing about freediving and was prepared to take the full advice of my instructor.

Class is in Session

I enrolled in an AIDA** certification course at Fusion Freedive in Amed, Bali. The school is small, laid back, and has only a string of positive reviews. After my scuba diving fiasco at Penida Dive Resort, I didn’t want to take any chances on dodgy dive shops.

My course consisted of two other men who were already beginner freedivers. Being the complete n00b, I prayed that I wouldn’t hold back the pace with too many questions or shoddy skills.

In the shop classroom, we covered the basics of freediving — how to hold your breath, what happens to the body in a breath hold, the balance between oxygen and CO2, and the importance of relaxation. Everything seemed easy enough until Agata, my instructor/freediving badass/Polish freediving record holder/pretty sure she’s a mermaid explained, “It’s like CO2 is a flashlight in the dark. They cause the contractions, and the contractions tell you where you are in your breath hold.”

My ears perked up at the word contractions.

What?! What the hell are those?!

Diaphragm contractions are the body’s reflex to override the freediver’s mental will to hold their breath.

Agata had me and the two other students lay down and hold our breath until we started having contractions. I wasn’t used to the feeling of my diaphragm contracting and internally, I freaked out. I didn’t want to be a wimp and breathe early, but I had no concept of time and how long I’d been holding my breath. It wasn’t painful but rather very uncomfortable. Would I be able to cope with the discomfort underwater?

We learned that the key to a successful dive is relaxation. The more relaxed you are, the less oxygen you use. How can you be relaxed if you know that you’ll soon be having contractions, I wondered.

And it’s not like relaxation is one of my strong suits, anyways, so anxiety crept up whenever I wondered about how it’d be to actually practice these new skills in the water.

Photo: Andrew Babbage

Getting Wet: Practicing in the Pool

Every freedive goes through a cycle of breathing-up (relaxing), taking your last breath (why the hell do they call it that?), holding it and diving, and recovery breathing. Every single step is essential.

We started with a static apnea dive, where you simply hold your breath for as long as possible. When the contractions started on my first attempt, I felt uncomfortable and a little scared. By the third try, I’d already started getting more familiar with the feeling and got better at walking myself through a calming technique. I focused on slowly relaxing my toes, my ankles, my legs, and leading that up my entire body. After a few practice sessions, I held my breath over 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

We practiced rescues and how to tell if someone doing a static apnea breath hold is okay.

Then, we learned how to swim efficiently with fins longer than the typical fin you’d wear snorkeling or scuba diving. While I thought I looked suave AF, I probably swam like the Little Mermaid on acid.

Getting Wet: Under the Sea

The time came to practice in the sea. My stomach churned as I imagined the feeling of looking up to the surface of the water, knowing I had no scuba tank to rely on. Would it be like looking off a cliff’s edge, only trapped underwater? Or would it be soothing? Would I panic and sink to the bottom? Only one way to find out.

We piled our gear – weights, mask, wetsuit, fins, snorkel, line, and buoy – into the dive shop’s car and made our way to the bay, where we dropped a line with a weight attached.

Photo: Andrew Babbage

Photo: Andrew Babbage

A concoction of excitement and nervousness pulsed adrenaline through my veins, relaxation’s kryptonite. But Agata’s presence and the emphasis on safety helped cool my nerves.

Photo: Andrew Babbage

Photo: Andrew Babbage

We did a few warm-up dives down the line starting at 10 meters and eventually going just a little bit further. The first few dives, I felt scared and came up before I reached the bottom of the line. The more I dove, however, the more relaxed and comfortable I felt at looking up to the surface and seeing the profiles of the other divers above me.

Photo: Andrew Babbage

Agata told us to close our eyes and pull ourselves down the line.

When my eyes closed, every sense was muted. I felt nothing, tasted nothing, smelled nothing, heard nothing, and saw nothing. I could hear my own thoughts and focus on precisely what was happening inside my body. My chest compressed as I went deeper. I noticed how buoyant my body was. I felt contractions and comforted myself with the thought that I was in control. I did it — I calmed my racing mind.

There is no other sensation on earth like it. It pushes you mentally just as much — if not more — as it does physically. It was instantly addictive.

After our first dive session, I was hooked. Freediving climbed the ranks of being a favorite sport and was about to become a lifelong pursuit.

We each hit our personal best depth after a few dives, performed rescues, buddy-dived, and I’d successfully completed my AIDA** certification.

Post Certification: Diving the Wreck and to 25 Meters Depth

After getting certified, I went out on a line dive with the shop owner, Kev, and my fellow student-buddy to see if we could reach a new personal depth limit of 25 meters (82 feet).

We did a few warm-up dives to 16, 20, and finally, 25 meters. My first attempt at 25 meters, fear set in at around 20 meters and I turned. Could I do it? Maybe 20 meters would be good enough for now.

Kev encouraged me to try again. I spent a few minutes really focusing on my breath-up and relaxation before the dive and finned down.

I cruised to 25 meters. Then, my mind urged me to get to the surface as quickly as possible. I sped to the top — leaving my safety buddy and Kev behind. My mind screamed, “You’re not going to make it!” When I got to the buoy, I blurted out, “That was hard!”

“Psh, it wasn’t hard!” Said Kev.

I recovered after just a few breaths. Maybe I wasn’t out of air after all?

After the line dive, my buddy and I caught a boat to the Tulumben Wreck, where we took turns spotting one another on dives and cruised past coral, turtles, trigger fish, and other sea life. We swam through some of the overhangs and saw things that would’ve never been seen by simply snorkeling. At a few points during the dive, we hit 16 meters depth and finned below scuba divers.

As a semi-experienced scuba diver, that’s an insane feeling.

Why Choose Fusion Freedive Over Other Freedive Schools in Bali?

Like with scuba diving, not all freedive schools are created equal. After researching a few of the options around Bali, two of my friend and I chose Fusion Freedive because of their stellar safety record and nearly perfect reviews on Tripadvisor. Their main instructors are also as experienced as it gets when it comes to freediving. The school fees also include free transport from southern Bali which can easily cost $50.

Since getting freedive certified, I’ve talked to a handful of other people who went through the process as well. I was surprised at how much more thorough my course and instructor was with safety and strategy than with many of my friends. This could be coincidence, but it did give me a feeling that the quality of your instructor and school plays a huge role in how comfortable you’ll be and how much safety information you’ll retain.

And another reason I love Fusion Freedive is that the staff and Kev, the owner, are super friendly and make the school into a social atmosphere. They’ll take you under their wing and invite you to become in cahoots with the shop mischief (like setting off fire crackers or gorging brownies during midnight baking sessions) even if they just met you five minutes ago. Two friends of mine taught by another instructor at the shop, Diana, loved their experiences as well.

I also highly recommend my instructor, Agata Bogusz, who you can find on Instagram.

Regrets about Freediving

The biggest regret I have about this adventure is that I didn’t get freedive certified sooner. I completed my course at the end of December. Since then, I’ve been freediving with manta rays, off of remote reefs in East Timor, and the Busselton Jetty. (I seriously blame freediving for why I’m so behind blog schedule, too!) For someone who runs high-strung, it’s one of the most relaxing and rewarding activities I’ve ever done — and that alone makes it worth it.

What it's like to get your freedive certification and learn how to freedive in Amed, Bali.

Disclosure: I was offered a media rate for my course. Like always, all opinions are my own.

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30 Responses

  1. stephanie says:

    Sounds so cool. Great that you tried it!
    I would be terrified! Ive read a book about a freediver and got chills constantly.

  2. Dulice Reden says:

    Excellent article Chantae, the photographs are beautiful. Love reading about your experiences.

  3. I’ve never scubadived before and I choked the only time I went snorkeling so not sure I would try this. I think you’re much braver than I am – kudos for getting your certs!

  4. What an amazing experience. Thanks for including so much detail. Reading your article allows us to actually put ourselves in your place. This is a great read.

  5. blair villanueva says:

    i know how to swim and dive, and your post made me realized that wow, I can be a professional diver! I need more trainings to be one 🙂 Cool!

  6. Miriam Ernst says:

    It sounds like an amazing experience! I’d never done it, I’d really love to try it even if I’d be really terrified! I love your pictures by the way 🙂

  7. This is so so awesome. I would love to do something like this for sure. I have heard things and I want to know if it is necessary to learn swimming to be certified in diving?
    Laveena Sengar recently posted…Nirvana Adventures – The Ultimate Paragliding experienceMy Profile

    • Chantae says:

      Thanks Laveena! Yes, you should learn to swim first before freediving so that you’re confident in the water – you’ll need strong swimming skills to be relaxed and safe 🙂

  8. James says:

    Congrats on getting certified! Excellent post. Love the photos. It definitely looks like you had an amazing experience. 25 m deep on a free dive is quite impressive!
    James recently posted…Cressi Giotto Dive Computer ReviewMy Profile

  9. Ana Ojha says:

    I did scuba diving once but never thought of becoming a freediver. I bet, it would be a thrilling experience to cherish every time you dive in deep water!

  10. Suruchi says:

    Congratulations for the certification. I have a question that how long it takes for this certification. I am sure it will be an adrenaline rushing experience. Loved all your pictures.

  11. Becky says:

    Wow, I really loved this post! I like to scuba dive but sometimes I think it would be nice to not constantly listen to myself breathing while I’m under water and free diving just looks really fascinating! I would love to try it out one day but I think I just would be to scared as well. 🙂

  12. Jo says:

    A question about your “post” AIDA 2* certification dives: AIDA 2* requires you dive to -16m. Isn’t it rather a big leap to -25m from -16m? I mean: 24 m is AIDA 3*! Don’t misunderstand me, it’s good for you that you managed to do it, but I would never even think of trying to go to -25m “directly” after my AIDA 2*. It sounds rather reckless to me.
    Let me be honest: I wish my personal AIDA 2* experience was only 1/5th of the fun you seemed to have had on yours. For me, especially the depth diving was highly traumatic. My exam was in a dive tank that was exactly -16m. (Belgium, where I am does have some lakes, but they are cold and dark. Terrifying in other words.) The tank has great and comfortable conditions: perfect visibility and warm water. I like that. I did the required dive to -16m 4 times “in a row” and: I was glad the tank wasn’t even one centimeter deeper! I freaked out as contractions on ALL 4 dives started already at -8 m on my way DOWN, resulting in 3/4 of each dive being total torture. The contractions came VERY early and they were HARD and frequent from the very beginning. The only reason I didn’t start breathing underwater to stop the contractions is that it would result in drowning. Please don’t say it wasn’t hard (like your buddy did with you), because it WAS hard. And very uncomfortable.

    That was in May 2015. I was so intrigued by it and wanted to do it so bad, but I haven’t done any post certification freediving because I can not stand contractions and they come too early and they are hard from the beginning and they get harder and more frequent very fast. I ate it. And yet, I want to improve. But again: I freak out. I HAVE done the course (AIDA 2*) but I still can not understand how people go voer it so lightly and say: “just relax”! …It’s NOT as simple as that. I’m different…

    It’s so frustrating. I would love to improve, but I hate freediving. And I love it. Heck, I don’t know anymore… I might as well sell my gear. Sorry to be so negative, but I think my story also needs to be heard. There are too many stories about how “easy” it is. (I’m not saying yours is one of those.)

    • Chantae says:

      Hey Jo,

      I can definitely see what you mean. Every experience is different and I obviously can only share my perspective and how it was for me. I know freedivers who can go to 5m and some who can go 70m+. It’s definitely a personal experience. I felt comfortable going to 25m the day after my AIDA**, but many friends and other divers of course would not feel okay with that. I also have a good friend who gets very hard contractions sometimes as early as 30 seconds while simply resting. It sounds like your contractions could be harder than many others’as well — which of course plays a big role.

      I am happy you’ve shared your experience because like you say, it’s always better to have a variety of voices and stories. Freediving is very mental and obviously everyone’s mind works differently. For example, I don’t think I could ever push it to the depths and limits that many competitive freedivers do.

      What about practicing in a relaxed environment (not worrying about courses or pushing too far beyond contractions)? I know that yoga has helped many divers with the relaxation side of things. Sometimes I think freedivers in general focus too much on time, depth, etc and not on the experience of simply freediving and using it as a tool to see new things and push limits (whatever and wherever they are). A great buddy also is essential, which IMO, can be really hard to find.

      Thanks again for sharing and I do hope you DON’T end up selling your gear :).

  13. Jo says:

    Thanks for replying. What was the depth of your personal best in your certification and how “easily” did you get to it? Maybe you can mention that in your blog post? It would help A LOT: if – for instance – your personal best was -22m during certification and you did it with great ease and comfort, then going to -25m already on the day after without any training wouldn’t seem all that reckless anymore…

    I just wish people would sometimes be a bit more clear and take into consideration that there are dozens of stories about failure for every succesful story. It’s so freaking frustrating.

    • Chantae says:

      Hey Jo,

      I can see what you mean. I think there ARE stories of frustration out there and the community has many people posting in forums about their challenges. Like I mentioned before, this is a blog about my experiences so it’s not exactly the best venue for featuring other people’s stories.

      I don’t remember exactly what depth I did at certification, but the 25 meter was done with my instructors as a fun dive the day after finishing. After my certification (same day) I was also diving increments from 16-20-22-25 meters. I did not jump from 16 m one dive to 25 m the next. So, I was in a familiar environment and felt very safe. Every body is different. If you look at Sara Campbell, a world-record holder, she was able to dive past 50 meters in a few months — and then some, progressing much faster than nearly every diver who has been training for years. That is an example of crazy progression that most freedivers are not able to do. One of my best friends gets contractions at 30 seconds, has a hard time equalizing past 15 m, and we dive together all the time — she goes almost as often as I do. The spectrum of what people are doing (and enjoying) is massive.

      There are so many things at play – mental ability, physical ability, flexibility, conditions, etc. I think in these types of sports it’s pointless to focus on how easy or difficult it comes to others because it is such a personal activity and meant to be enjoyed — whether you can dive for 1 minute or for 6, 5 meters or 50.

  14. Jo says:

    Well, you should know some background – I hope it explains my reactions a bit… I live in Belgium, Europe. We have cold, dark lakes where I get scared easily. No freediving there for me.The rest of my family absolutely HATES water. And it’s also difficult to justify driving for at least 60-90 minutes to the nearest freediving training after long working days. There is no buddy, no trainer, no nothing. I can also forget about freediving holidays…

    You have no idea (no you haven’t) how frustrating that is. I might very well end up selling my gear indeed. I’m very sad and depressed.

    About your post certification dive of -25m: maybe your personal best on the certification day itself was way more than -16m (maybe more like -18 or -20m?) and maybe that dive also felt very comfortable? If that would be the case, your dive of -25m on the day after would seem a lot less reckless. But we don’t know, as you didn’t give the specific info about your personal best during certification… Maybe you could add this to your blog post. As it looks now, we have to guess your personal best in certification. And if that was -16m, then going to -25m the day after does seem reckless, you have to at least aknowledge that… Just my two cents…

  15. Jo says:

    Hi, Chantae, thank you so much for the extra info. It puts things MUCH more into perspective. Your dive to -25m on the day after your certification is not reckless after all. Maybe you could just add a bit of this information in the blog post itself (in case people don’t read the comments here). Especially these are interesting to add: the fact that certification depth for Aida 2* is -16m, and the fact that you did incremental dives the same day of certification to -20, -22m… Maybe most people will not even think about what I thougt (you jumping from one dive of -16m to the next of -25m), but still…

    I’m having contact with the Belgian female champion and she is going to help me out regarding my early contractions and discomfort. I might contact you back with info and what I learned. Maybe it can help your friend as well (if she gets those contractions after 30 seconds already, she might be having the same problem as me).

    Thanks again for the clear reply. I totally agree on the many factors at play in freediving. It’s a complex and highly personal thing. But still, it’s good to see that (except for Sara C. and other top freedivers) most people are not superhuman. That’s why I asked about your max. depth during your certification day. 🙂

    • Chantae says:

      Great to hear that you’re going to be training with a freediving pro — always is great to have another perspective and way of practicing 😀 Please do come back and share any tips that have helped you, I will definitely pass them along and include them in any future posts 🙂

      • Jo says:

        Hey, Chantae!

        I’m smiling all over because I now (and finally) experienced the stuff which makes me remember why I wanted to try and learn freediving in the first place. Here’s the story:

        I did a “dry” breathing session with the Belgian female champion. She let me practice this (every evening for a week and a half):

        – breathe up: for two minutes: inhale to a comfortable level with bellybreathing only(!), exhale PASSIVELY (this one is VERY important). Dont’t worry too much about the length, but make sure the exhale is really passive (don’t blow all the residual air out!)
        – last breath: take a maximum breath with bellybreathing only: really try to take as much air into your lungs, but do NOT use chest breathing, just the abdominal breath! This will not fill your lungs entirely. When you can not get any more air into your lungs, stop inhaling, hold your breath, relax your chest/belly so the air gets distributed evenly in your chest. Hold this breath for 10-20 seconds.
        And repeat: breathe up, last breath.

        …After a week and a half, we would have our “depth” session in a 15m “deep” tank. (I know it’s not deep in freediving competitions, but for me, that is deep! It’s personal, remember? ;-D )

        So, my instructor let me do this before each dive:
        – the breathe up (as described above) (PASSIVE exhales!!!)
        – one full inhale (belly + chest)
        – one passive exhale
        – last breath: full inhale (belly + chest)…and dive…

        We began with free immersion and I did a few constant weight dives too. Long story short: I didn’t get to the bottom in constant weight (got to -12m or so though), but I could have. I didn’t have contractions during that dive at all! Doubts stopped me. Just the doubts. How stupid…

        Anyway, during one very relaxed free immersion dive, I got to the bottom and it felt SO good. I patted the bottom with my left hand. And I had only one or two contractions on my way up.

        All in all, all the contractions I had during that entire session were so soft, I don’t even remember how many (or few to be more precise!) I had.

        I think the major difference with my certification (aida 2*) is this: back then, I wanted to get it so badly so the pressure was on. Also, I can not remember how I did my breathe up back then, but it wasn’t as calm and relaxed as it was now. And now, I was much more relaxed in general. And there was no performance pressure: my instructor said: take your time and if you go to 3 meter and that is your maximum, that’s totally fine.
        When I came up after my first (FIM) dive in that session (to around 10-12m), my instructor said: “uhm…what’s your problem again?”

        So yes, I’m very happy. It’s just a shame I’m living in cold little Belgium with cold, dark, murky (scary) waters (YUCK!).
        Looking forward to dive more. 🙂 🙂 🙂

        • Chantae says:

          Hey Jo! Wow, I’m really happy you came back and shared your experience and that you LIKE FREEDIVING AGAIN!!! Woo hoo! Just shows that if you stick with it, it really pays off. Sorry for the late response – something is a bit off with my comment notifications lately. I love that your instructor really seemed to focus on relaxation and keeping everything passive — that’s really important and probably helped a LOT.

          Wow, that’s awesome!!! I bet with this technique you’ll be able to go deeper and so on :). It is all about having fun and personal challenges. I’m sure the self doubt will go away with experience, making it much easier too! Great job reaching the bottom!!! Free immersion is my favorite.

          Very glad to hear that you had a totally different and better experience now with your instructor. Now time to conquer the dark water 😀 (I have no tips for that unfortunately, hahaha)

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