“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.
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 Fushion Freedive in Amed, Bali. The school is small, laid back, and had 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Choosing a freediving school in Bali
Like with scuba diving, not all freedive schools are created equal. You’ll want to read through recent reviews and discern whether the instructors are professional. Any reviews talking about other instructors signing off on their certifications, diving with tons of other students, or schools that seem disorganized are all red flags. Ignore negative reviews about not getting certified because the student didn’t pass all requirements–people can have a huge ego when it comes to freediving and some students feel entitled to a certification simply for paying a price. Location matters, also. Some freediving schools in Bali dive from a boat while others go from the shore. A more comprehensive post can be found on The Salt Sirens with updated schools: Where to Go Freediving in Bali.
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.
I had a positive experience at Fusion Freedive thanks to 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.
Disclosure: I was offered a media rate for my course. Like always, all opinions are my own.