“Freediving? I saw a sign for that class and thought it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. I have a snorkel. Why would I pay someone to teach me how to use it?” This from a surfer I was chatting with one evening here on Koh Tao after we mentioned we’d be taking a freediving class for the next two days.

It’s a fair question. It doesn’t take much practice for anyone who can snorkel to free dive down a bit to check out a fish or bit of coral then pop back up to the surface and continue along. But this is trained breath holding for prolonged periods, without a snorkel in your mouth. It requires breathing exercises in advance of entering the water and a process called a breathe up before each dive. Competitive freedivers can reach depths of more than 200 meters (656 ft) and hold their breath for longer than 10 minutes. As far as I’m concerned, those people are crazy. Neither Jen nor I have any desire to become competitive freedivers but since our time on Utila last year where many of our friends enjoyed it recreationally, we’ve been eager to try it.

free-immersion

By the end of the first day, I thought we’d thrown our money away. Not because we weren’t learning but because I absolutely hated it and Jen wasn’t loving it, either. Equalizing the pressure in my ears and sinuses was a problem, one that became increasingly painful as the day wore on. When SCUBA diving, it’s easy to ascend a bit or pause for a moment to work out the issue – I wear a tank of air on my back that allows me to stay under water for over an hour. But with freediving, there isn’t time or air to waste. So if you can’t equalize, you abort the dive. To make matters worse, my brain simply did not want me holding my breath while I looked out at the big blue ocean. My conscious mind knew that I could safely descend more than 6 meters on one lungful of air but my vagus nerve proved to be far stronger than rational thought and sent me back to the surface as quickly as possible. When I woke on the morning of the second day, I had no desire to finish out the course.

free-immersion-no-fin

But after receiving a simple bit of advice from our instructor, I managed to stay under water for over a minute without having done a full breathe up. From that moment on, I started to enjoy myself. And by the end of the day, I was smiling as I pulled myself down the line. My sinuses never let me go past 11.5 meters (38 feet) but I was happy to pause on the line, look out into the beautiful blue water, and enjoy the silence and peace of freediving. I don’t expect it to replace SCUBA as my preferred method for enjoying the underwater world but I’m glad we took the course and expect I’ll stop in to the freediving schools in Indonesia and maybe the Philippines for a few fun dives when in the area.

The Details

We took our course with Apnea Total, based on Koh Tao with affiliated schools on Utila, Bali, Gili Air, Boracay, and elsewhere. The basic freediving course consists of a bit more than three hours of classroom instruction and four hours in the water over two days. Unlike SCUBA courses, there’s very little homework, no book to read, no long videos to endure or tests to take. Instead, there’s an instructor scrutinizing your breathing, watching your stomach and lungs expand and contract, paying attention to what you can do with your diaphragm. There’s plenty of information about safety and completing a rescue exercise is required for certification. Ideally, by the end of two days, one has completed a 20 meter (65.5 feet) freedive. Jen made it to 13.5 meters (44 feet) but couldn’t equalize her ears after that point. We both now add “Certified Freediver” to our list of certifications earned since the start of this trip.

JW pre-dive

And that piece of advice that changed everything for me? Distraction. When fighting the urge to ascend knowing it’s safe to stay put or continue down the line, think of something happy, recite the alphabet, count to ten in a language other than English, anything to remove the brain’s focus from the desire to flee. This trip has given me so many happy memories to choose from that I can’t believe the idea didn’t occur to me first.

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