Free Diving: Not Your Everyday Breath Control Set

Note: The sport of freediving comes with inherent risks, and should not be attempted by anyone who is not formally trained, nor without proper safety precautions. Coleman Hodges and James Nestor are both adults who have carefully weighed the risks and decided to pursue this sport.

Growing up in a swimming environment, I always thought of myself as pretty solid in terms of cardiovascular shape and, more specifically, lung capacity. Even now when I only swim a couple times a week (if that) to try and maintain some sort of good physical shape, I tend to think I can hold my breath longer than the average land dweller. Recently, I was introduced to a sport that is centered around holding ones breath, and after doing a little research on it, realized that I have a lot of work to do.

It’s called freediving. To freedive, all you have to do is take a deep breath, go under water, and start swimming down. No scuba equipment, no extra oxygen; just you, your one breath, and the open water underneath you. To a swimmer, I’m sure that seems rather simple, and probably even pointless, but hear me out on this one. Many who practice freediving regularly are able to stay underwater for 3-4 minutes, sometimes longer. That’s certainly a little more than a sprinter holding their breath for an entire 50. The depths a normal (non-competitive) free diver goes down ranges into the hundreds of feet.

Free diving has been around for centuries, being used by cultures such as ancient Greece and Japan, who would dive down to retrieve sponges and other goods from the ocean bottom. Many cultures have used freediving as a form of sustenance, harvesting edible shells or fish from their dives. Today, freediving has become a multi-faceted activity, ranging from recreation to competition, and even being used to communicate with some of the oceans smartest creatures.

That’s what really got me hooked into this whole idea of freediving. Not the thought of trying to hold my breath for insanely long periods, or going to unthinkable depths, but that by using this technique of submerging oneself, some scientists are actually able to interact with oceanic creatures. Using echolocation, via “clicks”, whales and dolphins are able to see all around them for vast distances, sometimes beyond a mile. Previously when scientists have tried to interact with whales, they were using scuba equipment, and it is hypothesized that the scuba equipment was sensed by the whale’s echolocation and somehow bothered them, causing them to be standoffish and avoid contact with the scientists. With freediving, however, the whales are able to see the humans simply as fellow mammals, and have been much more receptive to interactions with scientists who dive down without equipment.

I was introduced to free diving by author James Nestor, who I saw give a presentation on his newly published book Deep, which explores his 2+ year journey with freediving. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask James a few questions, and I hope you find the answers as interesting as I do:

What happens to your body when you go under water for an extended amount of time i.e. when you freedive? 

The second you put your face into water something extraordinary happens: your heart rate will lower to about 25% of it’s normal resting rate, blood will start rushing from your extremities into your core, your brainwaves will soften and mind will enter a meditative state. All these reflexes allow us to stay under water longer by conserving oxygen, which then allows us to dive deeper. The deeper we dive, the more pronounced these changes become, eventually spurring an almost Hulk-like transformation that turns us into deep sea diving animals. No, really. Plasma will start filling the alveoli in the lungs to keep the lungs from collapsing; the organ walls allow for the free flow of water and blood to pass through to equalize against the pressures, which, during very deep dives, can be about 30 times that of the surface. The equivalent pressure on land would kill or injure us, but not in the water. These triggers, which scientists call The Master Switch of Life, not only protect us from dying, but they enable us to dive to unthinkable depths and come back up the surface in perfect health. Competitive freedivers dive to depths below 300, 350, 400 feet all the time. The deepest freedive ever is 700 feet! The longest breath hold is twelve minutes and thirty seconds! We’re really just beginning to understand our true potential in the water. It’s thrilling stuff.

What attracted you to free diving? 

I was sent by Outside Magazine to cover the World Freediving Championship in Kalamata, Greece in 2011. It just blew my mind. I had no idea the human body was capable of diving so deep, for so long. I began to wonder what else we were capable of. That sparked the book, and my interest in freediving. Since then, I’ve never looked back… or, up.

How has free diving provided scientists with new research outlets that perhaps weren’t available to them before? 

When you freedive, you are entering the ocean in your natural, silent form. Animals immediately respond to this. Instead of swimming away, like they do with scuba divers or submarines, a paradigm shift occurs. They swim toward you; they often welcome you into their shivers and pods and schools. You become not an observer, but a part of the underwater environment. This has allowed freediving researchers to get closer to animals like dolphins and whales than any other institutional researcher using scuba or robots or whatever. What these freediving researchers are discovering will, I think, rewrite textbooks. It’s the most exciting research I’ve ever stumbled across, and it’s all happening just a few dozen feet beneath the surface.

Can anyone take up free diving? What advice/precautions would you give to someone who is newly interested? 

Yes. We’re all imbued with a set of mammalian dive reflexes that kick in the second your face touches the water. We are meant to dive, and dive deep. The key in freediving is to think of it like a yogic practice, a meditation. Don’t try to stay down longer than your buddies; don’t try to push it; don’t try to show off; never dive alone. It’s only then that people get hurt — and those stories of people getting hurt are all we ever hear about. Nobody ever hears about the 99.99999% of people who practice freediving responsibly. Enjoying an incredible day of diving with dolphins doesn’t make headlines. So, the key in freediving is to listen to your body, respect your limits, and just use common sense. This can be a very safe activity, and it’s one of the coolest things you can ever experience. Best way to start out is to take a class. Ted Harty at Immersion Freediving ( and Performance Freediving International ( offer top-rate courses with a focus on safety. They’ll get you deep –safely — in no time.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

For seasoned watermen and waterwomen (like those who, I suspect, are visiting ( freediving will come quickly and naturally. You folks already feel the pull of water; you’re already great swimmers. Freediving will just show you the other side, that alternate universe below surface. And once you dip below around 35 feet, where your buoyancy shifts and the ocean starts softly dragging you down instead of pulling you up (a zone freedivers call The Doorway to the Deep) you’ll never want to leave. It’s the most peaceful, meditative feeling imaginable, and it’s open to everyone. You just take a breath and go.

And there you have it. I can’t say I recommend, or personally endorse, using it as a medium for competition, but I do find this sport fascinating as a way to connect with the ocean as well as oneself. Remember, it’s definitely best to start by taking a class, even for us more experienced swimmers and swammers. But if you’re ever in the mood to branch out from your normal pool time, I say do some investigating to where your nearest freediving outlet is. After all, it is a lot more than your everyday breath control set.


James Nestor has written for Outside MagazineMen’s Journal, Dwell Magazine, National Public Radio,The New York TimesThe San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and more. His science/adventure book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Eamon Dolan Books) was released in the US and UK on June 24, 2014. Within two months of its hardcover debut, DEEP was a BBC Book of the Week, New York Times Editors’ Choice, Amazon Best Book of the Month,Scientific American Recommended Read, The Week Book of the Week, Christian Science Monitor Top Book of July, iTunes Top Book of the Month, and more. The book follows clans of extreme athletes, adventurers, and scientists as they plumb the limits of the ocean’s depths and uncover weird and wondrous new discoveries that, in many cases, redefine our understanding of the ocean and ourselves. In 2015, DEEP will be translated into German, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, and more.

James Nestor Deep Book Cover James Nestor

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About Coleman Hodges

Coleman Hodges

Coleman started his journey in the water at age 1, and although he actually has no memory of that, something must have stuck. A Missouri native, he joined the Columbia Swim Club at age 9, where he is still remembered for his stylish dragon swim trunks. After giving up on …

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