Ever thought it would be awesome to hold your breath for a long time? I’m talking 4-5 minutes long. Being a surfer and someone who loves the water, I’ve had this thought a lot.
Years ago I remember seeing an episode of National Geographic about spearfishermen in the South Pacific. I was mesmerized when I saw a fisherman dive down 30-40 feet and walk along the ocean floor for 4-5 minutes at a time in search of his next meal.
It blew my mind that anyone could hold their breath for that long, especially since my lifetime achievement was only around one minute and thirty seconds. I thought you’d either have to be a human-fish hybrid with gills or you’d have to train for years to get to that level. Turns out I was wrong on both accounts.
Recently I’ve watched in awe on Instagram as people go diving in the ocean on a single breath swimming through caves and taking you on underwater journeys that seem far too long to be without a tank of oxygen.
I decided that freediving was something I wanted to learn. I figured it could only give me more confidence and composure during long hold downs when I wipe out surfing and that it could take my snorkeling and spearfishing experience to a whole new level.
FREEDIVING INSTRUCTORS INTERNATIONAL
I did some research on freediving courses in Oahu and found Freediving Instructors International (FII), an organization that offers freediving courses led by highly trained and skilled freediving instructors.
FII has courses for divers of all levels. They have beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes, plus a number of specialty courses like spearfishing and waterman survival.
The Level I Freediver course is two days, part classroom lecture style learning and part hands-on skill development. It seemed like the perfect platform for learning the fundamentals of freediving so we decided to give it a go.
Our instructor was Daniel Koval. Daniel is an internationally recognized spearfisher and freediving competitor. The guy is a freakin’ fish. He can hold his breath for over six minutes and dive beyond 300 feet, making him one of the deepest divers in the United States. Sounds like the right kind of person to be learning from, huh?
DAY ONE: SCHOOL IS IN SESSION
The first half of day one was all about learning the fundamentals. Daniel led us through a 56-page freediving handbook which covered proper equipment, physics and physiology, correct breathing, breath-hold techniques, safety, and problem management.
The info we learned during the first half of the day was thought-provoking and inspiring. Daniel has trained thousands of entry level freedivers like ourselves, and most of them are able to hold their breath for three minutes on their very first day of the course. I could hardly believe this was possible, but I was determined to be one of them.
The second half of the day we suited up and got in the water for some hands-on learning. We worked on our dive entries, how to be a good dive partner, safety protocols, and static breath-holds.
A static breath hold (aka static apnea) is when you hold your breath without any movement, fully relaxed, and perfectly still, as long as you can.
It can essentially be done anywhere above or below the water. We did the exercise floating face down in the water which we learned makes it a little easier because being submerged in the water activates our natural diving instincts, called the mammalian dive reflex.
We performed three static breath-holds with targets of 1, 2, and 3 minutes, and I have to share my experience because it was a trip.
On the first target, I had no problem holding my breath for the minute. The second hold was a different story. I came up short, only getting to 56 seconds! I was super bummed and down on myself for not even getting close to 2 minutes. I started to have negative thoughts about there being no way I could reach 3 minutes on the next attempt.
As I waited for the others to finish up their 2-minute holds, I reflected on what happened. Daniel asked why I had come up and I told him the urge to breath felt too strong.
During the course, we learned that the urge to breathe is due to a couple of things. One being the build-up of CO2 in our lungs, and another being our instinctual desire to exhale after every inhale.
Most divers experience contractions in their diaphragm at some point after this sensation kicks in. Apparently, dealing with contractions is just part of the mental battle of freediving, and everyone experiences contractions a bit differently.
Daniel likes to make a game out of his breath-holds to see just how many contractions he can handle. He mentioned his first contraction is usually around 1:30-2 minutes and that he has counted to well over 100 contractions in a 5-6 minute hold! That’s crazy.
So back to my experience. As I prepared for my third breath hold (target time, 3 minutes), I thought about what happened on my last attempt. I had been so focused on holding my breath and not breathing that it made me want to breathe even more. So much that I couldn’t resist coming up for that sweet oxygen.
We had a few minutes to relax before our third and final static hold. Daniel gave a pep talk which helped me get my head back in the game. “This is the safest environment to push yourself in,” Daniel said, “freediving is mostly mental and very few people ever push themselves to what they’re capable of.”
I felt like I needed a strategy. If a were to float there and think about nothing but holding my breath for 3 minutes, I would never make it.
In the last moment before my final attempt, I thought to focus on counting incredibly slow to distract my mind and fool myself that I wasn’t actually trying to hold my breath for 3 minutes.
Those 3 minutes were like an epic battle between mental weakness and will. The first 60 seconds were pretty easy, I had only counted to about 12 and I was feeling good.
The second minute got a bit harder. My mind started to wander and the urge to breath reared its ugly face. Per one of Daniel’s tips, I surveyed my body from head to toe to ensure I was completely relaxed and kept trying to come back to where I left off counting.
The third minute was really strange. It felt like time was flying by and standing still. The urge to breath was strong, but so was I. I could hear Daniel and Tara above the water, but it was muffled and I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.
I heard “15 more seconds til target time.” But since I had fallen short on my previous attempt, we had discussed my personal target time being 2 minutes as opposed to the full 3.
I started a very slow countdown from 15 and calmly came up when they tapped my shoulder at the target time. I wasn’t sure if I had held my breath for my individual target of 2 minutes, or for the full 3. When they told me I had gone the full 3 minutes, I celebrated like I had scored the game-winning touchdown in a big game. I was fired up. Take that, foolish mind! I win, haha.
DAY TWO: OPEN WATER, DIVING FOR DEPTH
On the second day, we headed out into open water to put our newly developed skills to the test. We swam a few hundred yards offshore at Ala Moana to where it was about 70 feet deep. Daniel and his girlfriend Kristen (who is also a badass freediver and the gal behind the lens on all these great pics) set up shop. Daniel set up freediving ropes marked at 5, 10, 15, and 20 meters (66 feet).
The plan was to warm up by diving to each of the marks on the rope, with the ultimate goal of reaching the bottom marker at 2o meters.
When I was on my 10 meters (33 feet) warm up I heard some nearby whales singing. The acoustics were so loud and beautiful, it was like I was in an amphitheater listening to a whale song orchestra. I didn’t want to surface, but you know, I’m only human and that whole urge to breath thing kicked in so I swam up for air. That was an unforgettable experience.
There were five students in the course that day, and only myself and another guy ended up making it the entire 20 meters (66 feet). It was very liberating. I felt like I could’ve gone a bit farther, but that’s reserved for the Level II Freediver course where they dive deeper (pun intended, haha!) into safety and rescue, proper technique, and breath-holds. They also literally dive twice as deep, up to 40 meters (132 feet!).
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In case you were wondering, a good rule of thumb for breath-holds is that you should be able to hold your breath about half the time when moving (dynamic) as you can when you’re not moving (static).
And when you freedive for depth you travel about 1 meter per second. So a 10-meter dive should only take about 20 seconds round trip. 10 seconds down and 10 seconds back up. Our deepest dive was 20 meters, so we only needed to be able to hold our breath for about 40 seconds total, which was easy after all the training we had done.
All in all the course was awesome! There was nothing but camaraderie, support, and good vibes with the whole crew. I’ve only scratched the surface on the mysterious world of freediving with this post. There is so much to learn and inherent risks involved so I encourage everyone to get proper instruction and training if you already freedive or if you would like to get into it.
I plan to delve deeper into the hobby and eventually want to take the Level II Freediver, Spearfishing, and Waterman Survival courses… I’m hooked!
If you’re feeling inspired to give freediving a shot or you want to up your game, check out Daniel Koval over at DeepFreediving.com and enroll in one of his awesome courses. You’ll be stoked you did! Daniel is a natural teacher with the perfect balance of patience, humor, and encouragement making him a real pleasure to train with.
See you in the water!