Going for It: Freediving

One of my biggest fears is running out of breath underwater. When I was younger, I nearly drowned in a swimming pool with my friend when we slipped off a floatation device. If it wasn’t for a family friend who jumped in (with all his clothes) to save us, I might not be here today.

Since then, my parents enrolled me in swimming lessons and I’ve developed an absolute love for the water. I love everything associated with it (diving, snorkeling, swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, jet skiing, etc.). I’m really lucky that my parents pushed me to learn to swim (although there probably was no choice after that incident), since both claim to not know how – and my dad grew up in Maui, the most ideal place to swim and frolic about.

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Because. Ocean. Love.
Because. Ocean. Love.

However, I never got over my fear of running out of breath underwater. There were several instances while learning to surf in which I was pulled under the waves and had a difficult time resurfacing – and all I remember was my heart panicking. I used to be much more capable of holding my breath for longer periods of time when I was in elementary school, but nowadays, I can barely last 5 seconds diving underwater without resurfacing.

I decided to challenge this by signing up for a freediving course in Amed, the ultimate diving and snorkeling spot in Bali.

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I was pretty fortunate since I happened to tell a local that I wanted to freedive, and he dropped me off at a freediving place that had solid 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor all across the board. I hadn’t done any research on any freediving places prior to this, so I just got lucky. In other words, I wasn’t going to die here. 

I ended up going for my AIDA ** (2-star) freediving certification course in one day due to my tight schedule. I was nervous as hell, and I made a point to tell the staff that, since I wanted them to know that, despite my diving certification and snorkeling/swimming experience, I was terrified of the prospect of running out of oxygen while underwater. 

I quickly learned that there really wasn’t anything to worry about in terms of running out of breath. It’s all in your mind, a state of thinking, and anyone and everyone can train their brain to inhale and hold a large breath (without exhaling) both in and out of water.

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Unlike my 2-week long open water diver certification course two years ago (which I stupidly planned alongside my work schedule, so I was literally diving from 6-10pm some days), this course was extremely quick and easy. The theory part of it was simple, straightforward, and not boring at all – or maybe that’s because I didn’t have a textbook in front of me, and my instructor was showing me everything visually rather than me reading and taking notes. 

After practicing several rounds of relaxing breathing techniques (large inhales of breath using the chest and diaphragm, then alternating, then combined), I finally felt comfortable with holding my breath for long(er) periods of time than I was used to. 

I was most scared about the skills part in the pool, which turned out to be the easiest. Unlike in scuba diving, you have such little equipment to worry about. It’s just your mask, snorkel (which you let go of anyway once you descend), large fins, weight belt, and a carabiner (only more advanced freedivers use this). That’s a far cry from the tank, regulator, BCD, and the heavy pounds of artillery (what I call it) that you need for scuba diving. I had no issues holding my breath for long periods of time underwater while relaxing on the surface – it was basically like sleeping in a pool while holding your breath and not exhaling at all.

I was quite proud of myself for even holding my breath to the 3-minute mark, pushing myself to keep going despite my body’s contractions. It was a really interesting dynamic – at the 2:15 mark, I felt myself freaking out (as normal). Agata, my instructor, kept insisting that if I pushed past the first contractions, my body would adjust – and it did. You’re required to close your eyes the entire time, but I literally saw flashes of light in my head as my body tried to adjust to the spasms I was having. I felt my eyelids fluttering and my lungs read to explode, which was one of the scariest things. But alas, that was the hardest part of learning to freedive – holding your breath – and I succeeded in that test.

As you learn in theory, the worst thing you can do is panic – and that goes for anything underwater, swimming included. You’re constantly reminding yourself to stay calm and that you have reserves of oxygen to keep you alive. Panicking and freaking out only uses up more oxygen, therefore defeating the purpose of freediving. I’m pretty sure the best freedivers are all Type B personalities. 

Freediving is a sport – and an insanely admirable one. Think of it as the crossfit of diving. My instructor even told me all about various competitions she participated in (both depth and static), and I was intrigued. Before taking the course, I thought freediving was extremely dangerous. Now, all I want to do is figure out my ear pain situation (more on that later) in order to dive again.

Terrified before getting into the water
Terrified before getting into the water

I learned so much in theory – different methods of equalizing, how monofins are the two-feet-together fins that make someone look like a mermaid (though not used often), and how to rescue someone if doing static exercises poolside. 

I was inclined to believe that turning my “sock” (surf bootie) inside out to unveil a giant cockroach inside (still alive) was the reason why I wasn’t able to descend properly into the ocean. 

When we got to the bay where we would be diving, we only went out to a shallow spot of the ocean and I was supposed to practice 2m at first, and only as low as 10m if I was comfortable. 

I didn’t even make the 2m mark. 

We can pretend this is me...
We can pretend this is me…

My ears have always given me trouble while scuba diving – the result of not being able to equalize properly. I’ve always overlooked this and endured the nausea and inevitable throwing up post-dives, but it’s apparent that I need to get checked by a doctor. I’m pretty sure I have some type of ear pain in which I shouldn’t be diving, and my old doctor never caught it. 

And alas, when freediving, if you can’t equalize properly, you’re effed. After all, you don’t have a tank of air strapped to you, so if your ears are shooting with pain the entire descent, you’re shit out of luck while you hold your breath at the same time. My ears were like, “Nope,” every time I tried to go down past a certain point, and despite having the ability to keep holding my breath, the shooting pains in my ears were enough to make me nauseous every time I surfaced for air.

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I was so disappointed in myself. No one likes failing at something, especially when you inevitably have to endure the walk of shame back at the freediving school to report that you couldn’t even manage one dive. 

In the long run, I was thankful for the experience. Freediving has been something I’ve always wanted to try, and I realized that you’re not always going to ace everything you do on the first try. Rather than make myself sick again, I finally listened to my body and decided to play it safe and not get my certification – but I can always try again in Ko Tao, after learning how to properly equalize (unless my ears are just defective). If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again?

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Special thanks to Agata of Fusion Freediving for being such a great, patient instructor!

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