Conquering the fear of diving without an air tank: My first freediving experience

Conquering the fear of diving without an air tank

During my 9 day stay in Gili Air, I tried out freediving for the very first time.  It turned out to be a big discovery.  I never knew holding my breath could be such a natural state of the body.  I never knew I can hold my breath for so long.  I feel I am one step closer to swimming with dolphins!

By Dolphin Embassy[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This is on my bucket list…


How it all began…

On GIli Air, there were signs all over the island advertising this 2 day freediving beginner course, saying most people learn to dive down to 20m on one breath.  Without an air tank, only with fins and a mask, that is.


20m?  That’s about the depth I’ve been scuba diving at Gili Air, obviously with an air tank.  I recall the surface looks pretty far up from down there….  Are people, or, am I capable of diving down there without a tank?  When I’m capable of holding my breath for only 20 seconds?


There were 2 reasons these ads got me interested.  1, because swimming with dolphins (the wild ones, not the ones in aquariums) is on my bucket list, and they only hang around with humans without air tanks on their backs.  2, because I’ve always wanted to be comfortable while underwater.  Even though I am able to swim and scuba dive (but not so experienced), the fear of not being able to breathe crosses my mind every now and then. Back when I was a child, I had a hard time learning to swim.  The breathing rhythm was difficult for me.  Every other stroke I was gasping for air, trying to exhale and inhale during that one second my face was out of water.  Even today, 2 decades after finally learning, this fear persists.



So let’s do it!

Both days of the 2 day course consisted of theory (classroom style) session followed by an open water session.  I was quite surprised to learn that many freedivers are yogis, as breathing play an important role in both sports.  Back home I practice yoga a bit, and it did help me learn the breathing technique for freediving.  Before my open water session, I was SUPER nervous.  A short (and enjoyable) theory session was not enough to make me confident.  And, I just learned that relaxation is the key to freediving.  Oh no.  That made me more nervous.


So there I was, floating in open water, holding on to a buoy with a rope and weight hanging down. The target for the first day was 12m.  At my own timing, I repeated the breathing cycles, took a deep breath and pulled the rope to get myself underwater and deeper down.  A few meters deep, I got scared.  I felt like I was running out of oxygen already.  It was uncomfortable.  My instructor, Hubert, told me the brain plays tricks and it just feels like there’s no more oxygen, and not to worry.


After a few more attempts and a few meters deeper, I started having problems equalizing.  Being a scuba diver, I didn’t think equalizing would be a problem.  However, freedivers descend so much faster that I had difficulty keeping up with my equalization process.  Pulling the rope to descend + pinching my nose + act of blowing my nose simply took too much time when I only have two hands!


At some point I realized I wasn’t in discomfort underwater any more, even though I was holding my breath.  The water was pretty rough that day and I had to pull hard on the rope to prevent my body from drifting away.  But a few meters down, I realized the water was calm.  Very calm.  All around me, it was blue.  Very blue.  The sun shining through the water was beautiful.  It wasn’t just the water that was calm.  I was calm.  I didn’t feel any pain holding my breath.  It didn’t even feel like I was holding my breath.  It felt natural.  I was totally relaxed.

“Freediving in the Ocean: Liv & Big Blue” by jayhem [CC BY 2.0], via Flicker
This is what it felt like…. 


That was the moment confidence arose.


At the end of my first open water session, I learned to dive 12m, smile, and come back up in one breath.  I was underwater for 45 seconds (which is unfortunately way too slow) comfortably, without an air tank!


Day 2 again started with a theory session and a brief introduction to stretching and some ab exercises.  In the water, the target for the day was 20m.  I was a bit confident as 12m turned out totally doable the day before.  By this time, my fear of holding my breath was gone.


However, out in the water, I once again struggled with equalization.  At first it was somewhat worse than the day before.  I couldn’t even equalize at 10m.  Hubert taught me some more tricks which I tried on each dive attempt.  I would pull myself down, try to equalize. If I can’t, I’d stop there to try the tricks.  If it still does’t work, I’d pull myself up a bit, and then descend once again.  Repeat until I felt like I need oxygen.  12m suddenly seemed so far deep!


Trying it over and over and over, I was able to hold my breath longer and longer and longer.
At the end of the day, my record was 18m in 90 seconds.  That’s how long I was struggling to equalize.  WOW!  90 SECONDS underwater in one breath!!!  Never have I thought I am capable of doing that!



It’s clear that it was all in my mind, that holding my breath would be painful.  Learning the proper breathing technique and RELAXING was really the key.  Looking back, there were 2 things that helped me relax.  One was Hubert, my instructor.  I trusted him 100% and felt completely safe out in the water with him.  When I was down a few meters, he would follow me and look into my eyes until I was out of the water.  That helped me to NOT look up or down just to be scared of the depth, and even a sense of security arose. I’m not down here all by myself. 


The other thing was floating on water before the dives.  It’s what I was doing while holding on to the buoy and repeating the breathing cycles before descending.  It happens to be something I love to do when in the sea, lake or a pool, since I’m not a big fan of swimming.  What a coincidence.  Floating on the water, relaxing every muscle possible and letting the waves take my body.  It’s sort of like meditating.


At the end of the session, they took me and another group out to swim around and have fun in a reefy area.  The 2 instructors were literally mermen.  Swimming around in the water freely, playing around with scuba divers.  How awesome is that!  Could I be like that some day?  Hopefully!


Have you ever tried freediving?


One important thing to note:
NEVER EVER ATTEMPT TO FREEDIVE BY YOURSELF!  This is the most important thing in freediving, of course for safety reasons.  Always have a properly trained diver with you in the water.
Conquering the fear of diving without an air tank: my first freediving experience

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