As a swimmer, I have a fascination with deep water. Diving is an area of swimming that is both wonderful and terrifying all at once.
In this article, I will explore:
- Explain what free diving is.
- How deep you can free dive.
- Explain how you can swim underwater.
- Investigate how deeply you can swim before sinking.
- Explore the dangers of free diving.
- Investigate how you can get into free diving safely.
What Is Freediving?
Freediving is diving or swimming underwater without breathing apparatus or breathing gear such as oxygen.
It is considered an extreme sport, with expert free divers diving to extreme depths measuring hundreds of feet and holding their breath for long periods of time, sometimes over 10 minutes.
When you consider that the average person struggles to hold their breath for just 60 seconds, and after 3 minutes, the average person could pass out, 10 minutes is beyond extreme.
Diving beyond a depth of 60 feet, with or without oxygen, involves a high level of risk, as at this depth your body will feel the negative effects of oxygen deprivation.
According to PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, deep diving is considered diving to a depth of 60 feet or more.
Whatever depth you dive to, if you are diving without breathing apparatus then it is considered free diving.
How Deep Can You Freedive?
As a general rule, an experienced freediver can dive to a depth of 40 feet (12 meters) safely. After a depth of 60 feet, (18 meters) your body starts to feel the impact of a lack of oxygen and water pressure. Most average swimmers will only ever dive to a depth of 20 feet (6 meters) during their swim lifetime.
|Swimmer / Free Dive Experience Level||Dive Depth||Danger Level|
|Beginner||20 Feet [6 Meters]||Caution & supervision are required. This is the average depth of a deep swimming pool in the UK with dive starting blocks.|
|Intermediate||40 Feet [12 Meters]||Dangerous. Training required.|
|Advanced||60 Feet [18 Meters]||Very Dangerous. After 60 Feet we experience the negative effects of water pressure and lack of oxygen.|
|Expert (Super Human)||100 feet plus [30 Meters]||Extremely dangerous, with a high risk of death. Only to be attempted by world-class freedivers.|
The world record for the deepest freedive is a depth of 702 feet [214 Meters] and is held by Herbert Nitsch
How Deep Do Beginner Free Divers Go?
As a general rule, beginner free divers will go to a depth of 13 feet (4m) and an average swimmer will never exceed a maximum depth of 20 feet (6 meters) in their swimming life.
To go deeper or stay underwater for longer requires considerable training to adjust and prepare your lungs.
I must highlight that free diving, which is diving without breathing apparatus, is a dangerous sport, and should only be done under the supervision of an instructor.
Many beginners make the mistake of going too deep too quickly and forget that they need energy and oxygen to resurface.
Typically, after 5 minutes of not breathing and without training, you can develop serious and permanent brain injuries.
It is an amazing sport but needs to be learnt in a safe and supervised environment.
How Do You Swim Under Water?
The first step in learning how to free dive and explore underwater worlds is to learn how to swim underwater.
Diving and trying to start a dive is very difficult, as you are buoyant on the surface of the water.
As you are trying to push down, the water pressure is pushing you back up to the surface.
Like all sports, technique is important.
Here is a very nice video explaining how to swim underwater, including how to begin your dive and actually get under the water surface.
How Deep Can You Swim Before Sinking?
As a general rule when freediving, water pressure will push a diver to the surface for the first 25 meters of a dive. After this point, the balance is reversed and the swimmer will sink like a stone.
Because of oxygen, gases, and fatty acids in our bodies, we naturally float as humans. Therefore, if you relax in the water, you will float. If you are interested in learning more about buoyancy and how to learn to float for longer, check out my article, If We Are Naturally Buoyant, How Can People Drown?
This makes the first part of a freedive difficult, as you have to “swim down” to get beneath the surface.
Many experienced deep freedivers will use weights to sink them to a depth of 20 meters. Once they get to this point, the body will naturally sink as the pressure of the water is no longer acting upward, and we are being pushed down.
It takes considerable training (a lifetime of dedicated practice) to reach a level of skill to freedive to such an incredible depth of 20 meters.
A freediver will need to hold their breath for an extended and extreme length of time, have the strength to swim, have the mental capacity to not rise too quickly or risk getting “the bends” / decompression sickness and finally, remaining totally calm through the whole process in order to survive.
For more advice on getting started with underwater swimming, and tips on how to improve your underwater technique, take a look at my article exploring the topic in more detail:
Is Freediving Dangerous?
Freediving is exceptionally dangerous, particularly if diving for extended lengths of time to great depths.
All water activities carry some level of risk, but professional free diving takes the risk to a whole new level!
You should never swim underwater unsupervised, as holding your breath underwater can go wrong very quickly. However, some athletes dedicate their lives to free diving and train hard for the event.
What deep freedivers achieve is nothing less than superhuman.
Here are some dangers faced by free divers:
1 – Holding Your Breath For Long Periods of Time
Professional freedivers dive to such great depths that it actually takes some time to reach the extreme depths.
As a result, professional free divers can hold their breath up to 8 minutes and even longer.
This is not something that the average person can achieve. You must do years of training and work on expanding lung capacity to achieve this amazing feat.
2 – Oxyen Starvation
When freediving to deep depths, and going multiple minutes without air, a freediver will experience oxygen starvation.
Shallow water blackout is a real problem for all swimmers holding their breath and not just free divers. Insufficient oxygen levels may cause a diver or swimmer to “blackout” without warning.
Typically, one of the most challenging parts of a dive is the final ascent, as the oxygen in the blood suddenly drops as a diver is rising to the surface.
Deep water pressure makes oxygen in the blood more potent, [source] so as the water pressure drops on the ascent, the oxygen levels drop and the diver can pass out without warning.
3 – Decompression Sickness
Decompression sickness can occur in the final stages of a dive, at the ascent phase, when the external water pressure is quickly dropping.
If a diver surfaces too quickly, there is a serious risk of decompression sickness, which can be anywhere from mild to fatal. We also call this condition “the bends”.
As you dive, external pressures force nitrogen into body tissue. If this nitrogen is released from the body tissue too quickly, for example, by a fast ascent, it can cause air bubbles in the body to form, blocking critical blood vessels.
This is a major concern for divers and all divers should ensure they full decompress in the water before rising too quickly.
4 – Lung Barotrauma
Lung barotrauma is a serious condition where the pressure in the lungs is equalised by blood or fluid coming across the wall of the alveoli. [source]
Again, this condition is related to pressure levels and occurs when a diver holds their breath while ascending. [source]
Some causes of this condition can be because of a diver having insufficient flexibility in the diaphragm or rib cage, or if the diver is cold and, as a result, tense.
This is a very serious condition and a diver should never proceed with diving if affected.
5 – Nitrogen Narcosis
Nitrogen narcosis is caused by excess nitrogen in the body of a diver, which typically occurs at depth.
With greater water pressure at depth, large amounts of nitrogen can be in your bloodstream, creating a mental state similar to being drunk.
Just like being drunk, your perception, grasp on reality, and judgement are all impaired.
When diving to great depths, it is important to be coherent and mentally sound in order to make good decisions.
This “drunkenness” can put a diver at significant risk.
How Do I Start Freediving?
Despite all the dangers of free diving, it seems to be a human instinct to be attracted to it.
Exploring an underwater world, unimpeded by breathing apparatus and scuba gear, is very attractive.
As it is such a high-risk sport, it is important to get the proper training from an accredited professional to enjoy it safely.
In fact, it is one of the very few sports that should NEVER be attempted alone.
Step 1: Go Onto The PADI Website
PADI stands for the “Professional Association of Diving Instructors” and is one of the world’s leading dive training bodies.
You might think, “I don’t want to be an instructor – why look these guys up?”
PADI offer a freediver programme to help you get into the sport.
This is a guided course to safely learn and get into the sport.
Download the following PDF to learn about what PADI offer:
Step 2: Find Your Local PADI Centre
PADI centres are located all across the globe.
Use the following link to find your local PADI accredited freediver centre.
Step 3: Contact Your Local PADI Centre
You can then get in touch with your local PADI centre to try a beginner’s freedive course.
I have found some variation in price and course titles between each centre, so you may have to contact your local centre directly to ask for advice on how they can help.
I have mixed thoughts about freediving. I both love and hate it.
I am fascinated by the superhumans that dive to such extraordinary depths, and I will stay glued to freediving documentaries all day along, however, I am terrified by what they are doing.
Freediving is a very skilled sport and can bring exceptional happiness and fulfilment to the divers.
Elite free divers who dive to exceptional depths describe the experience as almost spiritual.
At the same time, the dangers associated with holding one’s breath underwater should never be taken for granted and it is a sport that should be done under supervision with the right professional guidance.
I am excited about starting my freediving journey. I am still only on the fringes of the sport, but I am hoping to progress through the PADI programme and become a competent freediver.
I will never dive deep as that is not my goal, (and it would scare me to death) but I hope to dive deep enough to enjoy the freedom of swimming through underwater worlds, unimpeded by scuba gear.