How often do you think you might die?

I signed up to take a freediving workshop on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand.

Koh Tao, Thailand is an island a few hours from the coast.

Free diving is one of the deadliest extreme sports.

Blue water and diver wearing all black wetsuit, diving inverted

Me freediving near Koh Tao, Thailand in August 2017

I thought I might die a few times.

But I lived.

And I learned a few things, like how to better hold my breath, and how to dive deep without a SCUBA tank.

What is freediving?

Freediving or free diving is the act of swimming in deep water without the use of external breathing devices like a SCUBA tank.

It relies on the diver holding their breath.

Freediving: How I thought I’d look underwater

Freediving: How I actually looked underwater

Why do freediving?

  1. I love to learn from experts, especially as a purpose for travel.
  2. Taking a freediving workshop sounded fun.
  3. I believed learning the skills of free diving would help me to become a better snorkeler (it did).
  4. SCUBA has a large following. But free divers seem to be a bit of a renegade group. This is one of the reasons I’m attracted to the sport.
  5. The lack of necessary equipment is also appealing. Not having to carry a SCUBA tank, diving computers, regulators, etc appeals to my minimalist travel habits.

Was it dangerous?

The most unnatural thing that a human can do is hold their breath.

In 2015, one of the best freedivers was probably swept away by a mysterious underwater current.

I say “probably” because nobody knows what happened. Despite a huge search and rescue effort, her body was never found… more info

The most dangerous thing I do in New York City is ride a bike share down Fifth Avenue without a helmet.

Her: “Why are you holding your breath?” Me: Wrong sport, sorry.

As a museum and business nerd, I rarely face death.

Freediving is more dangerous than bike riding.

But I don’t want to die. I’m happy with my life. I feel that I haven’t scratched the surface of what’s to live.

So it was nice to see how much of a focus the workshop had on safety.

The Workshop

For two days, I had four hours of classwork in a private lesson at the Blue Immersion dive school.

The classroom location was great:

Actual photo I took before lunch one day, studying the lungs and how we breathe.

I took a lot of notes, like this:

I took a lot of notes from my workshop and posted them on my blog.

Read my raw notes from the workshop here.

First Lesson: Do Not Die

People usually drown and die in freediving from shallow-water blackouts.

They pass out near the surface.

We spent a lot of time learning about why shallow-water blackouts happen, and how to prevent them.

Candelaria, my instructor, prepares to hold her breath in a small bucket of water to show me how the mammalian diving reflex works to help us not die. She was very patient with all my questions and pictures and notes.

Read more of my raw notes from the workshop here, including some of the science behind freediving.

Did I pass out?

Despite being uncomfortable with CO2 buildup from holding my breath for an extreme amount of time, and also wondering if I’d make it back to the surface a few times, I never passed out.

Having a shallow-water blackout during a course like this is extremely rare.

My instructor has done hundreds or thousands of dives and has never had a blackout.

But we prepared for it, just to be safe.

Maybe I thought I was going to die here. But there’s a rope you can pull yourself back up with.

Taking a freediving workshop was exhilarating and probably no more dangerous than riding a motorcycle on a crowded road at night.

The Challenge

I loved the challenge of free diving.

The first time that I saw the depth marker for 10 meters (32.8 feet), I thought to myself, “There’s no way that I can dive that deep.”

An hour later, I did it.

I dove to a depth of 10 meters with only one breath of air.

And I did it smiling and happy, giving my instructor a thumbs-up at the bottom.

Not me, but equally white. And you’re not supposed to do Thumbs Up unless you need to go to the surface. Whoops.

My Breath-Hold Record

The first times we measured my breath holds, I got an average of one minute.

After learning some freediving techniques, my average increased to two minutes.

Learning to hold your breath for long periods of time can be dangerous.

My friend Zachary Cohn shared with me some of what he learned during his freediving class here.

If you die after reading that post and trying it, it is his fault!

My Freediving Record

I dove to a depth of 10 meters with only one breath.

To pass my Level 1 certification, I also dove to 10 meters and “rescued” a diver.

This involved pushing them to the surface and performing something like open-ocean CPR.

Course Notes

These diagrams helped me learn about equalization and air pockets in my head.

  • The first few dives are all about pressure and clearing the sinuses using equalization techniques.
  • After a few dives, my body got tired. My legs started to get small cramps. I learned that this was likely from a lack of electrolytes or being in fins for so long. The next day, I bought some electrolyte powder from the dive shop and added it to my water bottle. It seemed to help.

This is a safety bouy that is used as “home base” during freedive practice. You dive down, then always come back up to this.

  • Each student takes time for the “breathe up”, the dive, the recovery, and feedback. This can be 2-4 minutes in total. With three students, it is easy to spend an hour and only get five dive attempts.

The first day was a lot of fun.

On the second day, I was frustrated. My progress did not improve as quickly.

There were a few major skills that we needed to accomplish in order to get certified:

  • Dive to 10m without the use of the rope
  • Dive to 10m, remove mask, safely surface unaided
  • Dive to 10m, “rescue” the instructor, perform safety measures at surface

Eventually, I accomplished them all. It was not easy.

Conclusion

I held my breath for longer than I imagined possible, and I dove with no supplemental oxygen to depths I’m very proud of.

It didn’t feel extremely dangerous, and I do not believe my life was in danger.

I graduated with a Freediving Level 1 certification from SSI, a SCUBA certification body.

I plan to do it again some day and try to dive to 20 meters. I would only do it under professional supervision.

The day after my classes, I had an excellent time snorkeling in Aow Leuk Bay on Koh Tao.

View from my hotel in Aow Leuk Bay on Koh Tao, Thailand. I went snorkeling here after doing my freediving class and felt like I got a life upgrade in skills.

 

I had so much more confidence and could do shallow dives for much longer. It felt great! The best day I’ve ever had snorkeling.

Thank you to my instructor and to Blue Immersion for having a good, safe program. Thank you to my friends Zachary Cohn and Jesse Turcotte who told me about their experiences freediving and encouraged me to take the class.

How long can you hold your breath? Have you ever tried something like this? Are you SCUBA certified? Let me know in the comments.

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