TOP 10 FREEDIVING SAFETY GUIDELINES
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TOP 10 FREEDIVING SAFETY GUIDELINES
By Donny Mac and Juani Valdivia
Freediving is the art and sport of diving underwater on a single breath of air. Freediving is often considered an ‘extreme’ and dangerous sport by the general public, but in fact, freediving is as safe as any other sport or hobby when a small number of safety guidelines are respected and followed in practice.
Freediving has exploded in popularity as a sport and leisure activity in the past few years. With last year’s underwater Avatar sequel featuring breath-holding Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weavers and the Black Panther sequel Wakanda Forever possibly set to fuel interest in the sport even more, now is a good time to remind ourselves of the top safety guidelines in freediving, to help keep yourself and your buddies safe in the water.
Note: These guidelines can be seen as a concise reminder of what your professional freediving instructor has taught you. It is highly recommended to take a freediving course from a professional. Choose your instructor and school wisely.
Also, there are times when some of these guidelines do not apply, or are modified in some way. Sometimes hyperventilation and overweighting are used by experienced freedivers, for example, in their training programs. However, unless you know exactly what, and why you are doing something, it is best to stick to the guidelines.
Level One student Taisya practices the black-out rescue protocol on Level 3 student Valeria.
1. ALWAYS FREEDIVE WITH A TRAINED BUDDY
‘Never Dive Alone’. You’ll often hear that this is the number one ‘rule’ in freediving. Well, I don’t believe in rules and don’t impose them on other grown adults, but we still need to highlight this essential guideline and place it at the top of the list.
I will be the first to admit that I occasionally jump in the ocean on my own and do a little snorkelling, maybe diving down a few meters or so and enjoying the ocean environment in the peace and freedom of my own company, however, we must maturely accept the risks inherent in what we do.
Whether it’s easy snorkelling around the reef or deep diving on a line, if you black-out underwater while you are alone, you will most likely not survive.
Risk of trauma or death in freediving runs along a spectrum from extremely low to quite likely depending on the freediving activity you engage in and your confidence in that activity. With a trained buddy present, your chance of mishaps or trauma is tiny. Without a buddy, it may be quite high, depending on where you are diving, how deep, and a multitude of other factors.
I would never, never attempt to train depth or train in the pool by myself, even well within the limits of my abilities, and I highly suggest you follow this guideline. I also suggest that your buddy or buddies be trained to at least the level of a reputable freediving organisation’s foundational level course. This is why it’s so highly recommended to take a freediving course. The knowledge you learn in a course saves lives, and it’s easy to learn. It’s a great investment and will massively increase your confidence in freediving.
For those of you who have an idea to head to the pool and ask the pool lifeguard to look out for you (soooooo many people tell me they are doing this) … that is not going to work. If you are underwater and black-out you will sink to the bottom of the pool in placid silence and by the time anyone notices your problem you will be deceased.
Let me reiterate one more time: If you blackout underwater without a buddy within reach, you will probably die, or could have permanent neurological sequalea. It’s as simple as that.
It is possible to black-out unexpectedly, for a number of reasons that are not under your control, so don’t think you are always in control of your own body when diving, and we know you certainly aren’t in control of your insane monkey mind!
Top German freediving athlete Stefan Randig diving in the Blue Hole. His tiny neck weight is not visible in this shot, only the dive watch attached to it!
2. DO NOT OVERWEIGHT YOURSELF
Overweighting yourself when freediving can be extremely dangerous. In the first theory session of my freediving courses we dedicate a lot of time to understanding the physics of buoyancy and how to correctly and safely choose how much lead to carry for your freediving session. It’s not as simple as eyeballing the weight belt and sticking 2 or 3 kilos on it. We must take into account various factors such as water density, wetsuit thickness, body composition and the type of dive.
Some divers may overweight themselves in order to save energy descending and to help them stay at the bottom of a dive. They may also be compensating for poor technique.
Overweighted divers will also be more difficult to rescue and may require the rescuer to drop the weight belt during the rescue (something that should be unnecessary, with correct weighting).
For beginners, to check that your weighting is safe, exhale fully on the surface, and see how deep you sink. You should slowly sink no deeper than about half a metre and you should still be able to float on the surface after a passive exhale when wearing a wetsuit and your weight belt.
For line/sport diving, your neutral buoyancy (the depth at which you neither float up or sink down in the water) should be adjusted according to how deep you dive, but I usually suggest that the neutral buoyancy should be set to an absolute minimum of 10 meters and somewhere between 10m and 12m is a safe depth for beginners.
As you learn more about the sport you will understand better how to adjust your neutral buoyancy for both safety and performance.
Remember, what goes down, must come up! And remember to recalibrate your weighting every time you get a new wetsuit, add layers, or undergo a significant body recomposition.
Don’t forget to take that snorkel out before you dive!
3. SNORKEL OUT BEFORE YOU DIVE
One of the surprising things you will learn on a freediving course is that you should remove your snorkel before each and every dive.
When we black-out we will exhale, and for a short window of time, even up to several minutes, a natural protective mechanism will usually prevent us from inhaling water into the lungs. In other words, the body protects itself from drowning for a short period of time, allowing a rescuer to take us to the surface and safety. This closure of the vocal cords is called laryngospasm.
So the first good reason to remove the snorkel before diving is to avoid interfering with this natural protective process. It is best not to have the mouth wedged open with a water-filled snorkel when you are trying to avoid drowning. A water-filled snorkel in the mouth is also going to hamper the rescuers efforts to resuscitate you effectively as it would block the diver’s airway, which is the first priority during in-water rescue.
Another good reason to remove the snorkel is that the untrained individual often resurfaces from a dive with the snorkel still in the mouth, and uses the air in the lungs to expel the water from the snorkel with a forceful blowing action….
Imagine that you are surfacing from a dive that ended up being unexpectedly long or challenging and you have become quite hypoxic (having too little oxygen). You then use the very last bit of oxygenated air in your lungs to forcefully expel that water from the snorkel… By doing this you run the risk of rapidly reducing the partial pressure of oxygen in your system and tipping you over the hypoxic edge into a loss of motor control (LMC, ‘Samba’), or even a full black-out.
So, please remove the snorkel before you dive.
When preparing for a dive, your breath should be so quiet and smooth that your buddy should not hear it from the snorkel when they are standing beside you.
4. DON’T HYPERVENTILATE
Hyperventilation, or ‘over-breathing’, means passing more air in and out of the lungs within a certain amount time than is necessary to maintain a normal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body.
The forceful or exaggerated breathing you see in some breathwork methods such as the ‘Wim Hof method’ is an example of deliberate hyperventilation, but it is also possible to hyperventilate unconsciously, such as when agitated, angry or anxious.
Hyperventilation can be extremely dangerous when combined with breath-holding in an underwater setting, and a good part of a level one freediving course’s theory is usually dedicated to explaining this concept. But why would hyperventilation be dangerous?
Simply put, we inhale oxygen (O2) and exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) when breathing normally. When we hold our breath a build-up of CO2 is responsible for causing the urge to breathe. Hyperventilating alters the normal gas balance in the body, reducing CO2 in our bodies before we dive. So if we hyperventilate and then dive, we will experience less urge to breath! Sounds good, right?!
The problem with this technique is that you may reach your hypoxic limit without realising it, because you will not be receiving the friendly (albeit uncomfortable) feedback from that CO2 building up. CO2 is our best friend! It keeps us alive.
Put another way, because your urge to breath is so low, you may feel a false sense of security and turn back to the surface too late.
On top of this, on a more fundamental and physiological level, the less CO2 there is in the blood, the more alkaline it will be. The more alkaline the blood is, the more strongly oxygen will bond to haemoglobin, making it less readily available for use. This means that the more you hyperventilate, the less oxygen you have available. Not ideal!
First recovery breathing, THEN the OK sign, please!
5. ALWAYS DO RECOVERY BREATHING
Recovery breathing refers to a technique of controlled, deliberate breathing upon surfacing after a freedive, with the aim to quickly re-oxygenate the body.
It can be seen as a preventative safety technique, and could mean the difference between a little ‘samba’ after a dive, or a full loss of consciousness and black-out.
There are several different ways to perform recovery breathing. Some like it small and quiet, some like it big and loud. Different folks, different strokes… But whatever technique you choose, make sure to do it after every dive or breath-hold, no matter how easy.
When I asked Umberto Pelizzari his thoughts on recovery breathing, he said that the most important thing is to deliberately take at least ONE BIG inhalation. immediately after surfacing. The exact technique is not so important, just make sure you do something! And make it a habit!
The technique I teach to my entry level students for recovery breathing is as follows:
- A quick active inhalation though a wide open mouth,
- a short pause (1- 2 seconds) with mouth closed, then
- a completely passive exhalation with or without some resistance from the lips.
But why do recovery breathing after every breath-hold?
When you become hypoxic, you can no longer think straight or make sensible decisions. You may not even be aware of where you are or who you are. Upon surfacing in a hypoxic condition, unless you have trained yourself to get oxygen back into the body as quickly as possible by religiously performing recovery breaths after every breath-hold, you may breathe poorly or even forget to breathe at all, tipping you over the barrier into an LMC or black-out that requires support or rescue by a buddy.
I have never had an LMC or black-out, but I came very close to one after a dive where my lanyard got caught at 43m deep. I made the mistake of spending time down there trying to unravel it.
About 10m from the surface I started pulling hard on the line instead of finning and I was quite hypoxic when I surfaced, but still in control. With each strong and precise recovery breath I could feel my head clear up until I was able to laugh again.
It is your responsibility to make sure you are fresh enough on the surface to support yourself, and thereby not put others around you in danger, or overly demanding and stressful situations. A good recovery breathing protocol is crucial for freediving safety and must become a habit for any dive, deep or shallow.
BONUS TIP: Complete your recovery breathing first, then give the OK sign. We all know the diver who surfaces after a dive, then immediately gives a sloppy OK sign while barely paying attention to you, as if to say “That dive was so easy, I’m such a badass!” It may be difficult for the buddy to tell the difference between a sloppy surface protocol and an LMC. Be respectful of your buddies and perform surface protocols like you actually give a s**t.
Freediving safety lanyards ready for use at the famous Aqua Marina restaurant.
6. USE A SAFETY LANYARD
When I ask my new students what they think a lanyard is for, they usually suggest that it has something to do with keeping track of the line, or that it helps with keeping a sense of direction.
This is not the case at all. If the lanyard was so tightly stretched between your wrist and the dive line that you could feel it then you should abort your dive because your body position and line orientation must be terrible.
The simple fact is that the primary purpose of the lanyard is to keep you from disappearing beyond the bottom of the dive line and never coming back again!
To be more clear, if you black-out deeper than where someone is capable of rescuing you from, then you will sink to the bottom of the dive line and be retained there by the lanyard. Your buddies can then retrieve you (in a worst case scenario) by pulling up the dive line.
If you black-out without a lanyard on a deep dive, in deep water, and cannot be retrieved, you will definitely not survive and your body will probably never be seen again.
Always use a lanyard that is produced by a reputable company and has stood the test of time. My first lanyard was a DIY lanyard I bought off a shady fellow in the internet. I watched it snap in very strong current at 15m when my buddy was diving. He shot off into the great unknown. Fortunately, the visibility was very good so I could easily track him and escort him to the surface, but had the visibility been poor it may not have been such a fortunate ending.
My personal guidelines for when to use a lanyard:
1. Use one on any dives deeper than 25m.
2. Use one on all dives in water that is deeper than 40m.
3. Use one when visibility is very low (less that 10m).
4. Use a lanyard in all dives in medium/strong current.
5. Use one if in doubt about anything.
Always make sure to regularly check the metal components of the lanyard for wear and tear and rust. It is essential to rinse all safety equipment thoroughly in fresh water after each session in salt water.
A freediving safety pulley system attached to the bottom of the buoy, and a random snorkeller in the background who has never done a freediving course.
7. USE A PULLEY SYSTEM
The freediving pulley systems we are now so used to arrived on the market only a few short years ago. They are produced commercially by Octopus, 2befree, and Molchanovs, among other companies.
They work on a simple principle that allows us to easily drop the line down to whatever depth we desire, but crucially, when we pull the line back up and want to take a break, we can let go of the line and it will catch in the pulley system, preventing the bottom weights from dropping back down again.
Now, of course, this makes pulling up the line at the end of a session much easier because we can easily take a rest to shake out our arms.
But, of course, the most important reason for using a pulley system is that in the freak event that a diver blacks out deeper than the safety diver can retrieve them, they will sink to the bottom of the line, and because they are safely attached by their lanyards (see guideline #6 !!) it will be possible to pull up the diver using the pulley system.
It is absolutely essential that you practice with your pulley system to find the quickest and most efficient way of retrieving a blacked out diver. I have met waaaaay too many freedivers who are obviously incapable of helping a blacked-out diver with the pulley system because their technique is so poor, and/or they are physically not strong enough to pull up a diver and the bottom weights.
Of course, maintaining the ability to use regular knots to secure the diver and pull up the line without a pulley system is also important, but if you are doing any significant depth with your buddies and you still don’t have a pulley system, enjoy your incoming Darwin award.
Bottom weights for every day, every dive! But only use as much as you need!
8. DON’T OVERWEIGHT THE DIVE LINE
Just because a diver is very famous and dives well over 100m deep, doesn’t preclude them from being a fool!
One of the most shockingly egotistical and dumbest things I’ve ever seen on a freediving session was a very well-known diver who was using 20 (!) kilograms of bottom weights attached to the dive line, on a regular buoy, on a drift dive session, in the open ocean, far from shore.
The dive line was set ‘open’ to 100 metres deep and the famous diver was coaching someone who had never dived below 75m at that point. Due to mishearing his alarm, the diver missed the turning point and unintentionally dived deeper than 80m. Yes, the diver was hurt because of this dive (lung injury), but luckily avoided a deadlier outcome. If the diver had blacked out at depth, do you think it would have been possible to pull up that 20kg of lead, dive line and diver from 100m deep, fast enough to save his life?
Answer: Not a damn chance.
I understand the temptation to use a very heavy bottom weight in order to more closely simulate the conditions of a competition when performing the FIM discipline (Free Immersion), but the above example, even if the line had not been opened so deep, shows why this renders the dive line unsafe for use.
Other instructors will have differing opinions, no doubt, but I personally suggest that you use no more than 12kg to weight a line for FIM, unless you have a competition setup with counter-ballast. And use less weight for the other disciplines.
Also make sure that your pulley is not too small for your dive line. A thicker dive line will not run as easily through the pulley system as a thinner one.
And this brings us to the next guideline…
A student practices saving my ass from certian doom, ends up being like a strange religious and iconic image!
10. KNOW YOUR EMERGENCY NUMBERS AND HAVE A WAY TO USE THEM.
So you visited a wonderful ocean environment, you went out diving with your friend, they blacked-out and you rescued them and towed them to shore… now what?
You find an unconscious person in the water, close to shore, in a remote location, and pull them out… now what?
Know the emergency numbers of the country where you are and have a way to use them. You should know the general emergency number, and I also highly recommend finding out the coastguard’s number, too.
For drift diving in the open ocean the dive operator should have a cell phone on the boat. A cheap phone in a zip-lock bag can be placed in a freediving buoy. Always keep a phone on the shore with your things or in your vehicle.
Imagine making it all the way back to shore with a victim and having no way to contact the emergency services. That would be your fault, and have fun explaining that to the family of your buddy.
No one gets certified under my watch without exceptional safety fundamentals!
So these are my top 10 essential freediving safety guidelines. There are certainly more safety guidelines to discuss and I’ll bring them up in another article, but I think these are the most important.
Let me know what you think about this list. It would also be nice to hear your stories about safety in freediving being neglected and the consequences of that, or situations where strong safety protocols resulted in a quick and efficient rescue.
About the author:
Donny Mac is based in Dahab, Egypt
where he teaches freediving and other complementary disciplines
for those looking for a deeper dive into the world under the ocean
and a deeper look inside the Self.