Enter the world of freediving

5 June 2015



Words: Geordie Mills, Apnea Academy instructor | Photos: Peter Buchan

“The scuba diver dives to look around, the freediver dives to look inside.” Umberto Pelizzari, Founder, Apnea Academy

These words, by a true legend of the sport, sum up why so many people, from so many different walks of life, pursue the activity that is freediving. What is freediving many ask? Not a simple answer; the definition is: Diving without the aid of any artificial breathing apparatus - as deep, as far or simply as long as you can on a single breath of air. But it is, in fact, much, much more than that. Some go as far as saying it is a spiritual experience. I can relate to that as it is unlike any other activity I have ever participated in. Some call it an extreme sport; a claim that many have difficulty going along with, primarily because what happens physiologically is the polar opposite of what defines an extreme sport.

Humble beginnings

Freediving is by no means a new activity. Yes, it is gaining more attention these days thanks to the world of information we now live in, but it is an activity that has been pursued for literally thousands of years. Cave paintings have been discovered depicting people thought to be diving to the depths to gather food; the Ama (Sea Women) of Japan have been passing down the art of gathering pearls, seaweed, shellfish and the like on breath-hold for around 2,000 years; Mediterranean sponge divers have been carrying out their work on breath-hold for centuries; and the list goes on.

Breaking barriers

Modern-day divers depicted in the media these days, however, practice it as a sport or recreational pastime. Through roughly the last century, the limitations have been challenged on a regular basis. In 1949 a dive to 30 m, as a bet, was considered suicide by scientists of the day, but the diver survived. Then the limit was set at 50 m, a depth doctors agreed would lead to the collapse of the thoracic cavity. In 1961 however, a diver, one Enzo Mairoca, again returned from that depth unharmed. Scientists and doctors were perplexed and became silent.

Over the past 50 years, the pioneers of the sport have repeatedly broken through barriers believed to be the maximum depths attainable, with the mythical 100 m depth surpassed in 1976 by Jacques Mayol. In this period, interesting rivalries have played out among a very colourful array of competitors and the depths being plumbed by the modern-day 'gladiators' of the sport are nothing short of astounding. The current records in various disciplines are all deeper than 100 m and the static breath-hold record, without breathing pure oxygen, is an unbelievable 11:54!

Disciplines on offer

These days, organised competitions, usually in idyllic locations with calm seas, deep, warm water and amazing visibility are regular occurrences. There are a number of disciplines with professionals choosing one or more to specialise in;
STA – Static
Measured time with face immersed in water

DYN - Dynamic With Fins
Measured distance in a swimming pool, with fins

DNF - Dynamic Without Fins
Measured distance in a swimming pool, without fins

CWT - Constant Weight: Measured depth, descending and ascending using fins as propulsion, without changing the weight, with only one touch of the guide rope at the end of the descent

CNF - Constant Weight Without Fins: Measured depth, descending and ascending without fins, using only arms and legs as propulsion, without pulling on the guide rope.

FIM - Free Immersion: Measured depth, descending and ascending by pulling along the guide rope only.

VWT - Variable Weight: Measured depth, descending with the aid of a weight and ascending using arms and/or legs, pulling along the guide rope allowed.

NLT – No Limits: Measured depth, descending with the aid of a weight and ascending using any method of choice.

SA Freediving National Championships

As mentioned, these competitions usually take place in picture-perfect locations far from South Africa. That is until now. On the weekend of 13-15 June 2015, and for the first time in many years, the SA Freediving National Championships will be taking place in Port Elizabeth, organised by Eastern Province Apnea Federation. Far from 'ideal' conditions some may say, but then who can argue when the passion shown by our growing freediving fraternity is so strong. On that weekend, some of the South African freediving community will be testing their mettle against each other in the pursuit that they have grown to love, in the cold, toothy, blue-green waters of The Friendly City.

Since the sport is in its relative infancy in South Africa, and sea conditions can be somewhat fickle, organisers have wisely combined both sea and pool disciplines, to ensure it succeeds, no matter the weather. Disciplines to be contested will be CWT, CNF, DYN, DNF and STA.

The competitor list includes a broad spectrum from enthusiastic, relative newcomers from around the country, including land-based Gautengers, to the current deepest diver in South African waters, Gletwyn Rubidge.

Gletwyn Rubidge, SA’s incumbent Master Of The Deep, descending into the abyss on a recent Free Immersion dive to 71 m - the unofficial South African record for this discipline

Getting into the sport

“Where,” I hear you ask, “would Gauteng divers be able to practice their craft to compete?” Any scuba divers who have had the pleasure of diving inland waters, like Bass Lake, Miracle Waters and the like, will now have an answer to the question many have asked, "What was that guy with the long fins and no regulator doing on the bus?”

Indeed, freediving is an activity not limited to those living near the ocean. There is a growing number of freedivers, regularly holding their breath in inland quarries and pools, getting the legal fix that is the post-dive euphoria experienced in no other activity.

It would be remiss to write anything about freediving without pointing out the associated risks, particularly when not following strict safety protocols. In fact, the Apnea Academy’s particular method of teaching starts any course, be it a Discover Freediving or a more advanced course, by demonstrating the dangers associated and being rigid about safety procedures - first on the list being NEVER, EVER FREEDIVE ALONE.

Who can do it

Aside from that, all we want, and I speak for hundreds of instructors around the world from many schools, is for the students to enjoy it as much as we do. Anyone can do it; that is the true gift. It is as low impact as it gets and there are divers out there in their ‘80s who still love the activity. There is much, much more to be said about this amazing pursuit, but alas, that is for another time.

Until then, consider the possibility that you too can, with a little guidance under safe instruction, reactivate the mammalian dive reflex you forgot around the age of five months.

More information

SA Freediving National Championships: This event is taking place in conjunction with the Noordhoek Dive Festival in Port Elizabeth from 13 – 15 June 2015. Anyone interested in attending or entering should contact Chevonne Bishop of EP Apnea Federation on

Join the Apnea Academy: The author works because he has to and freedives because he loves to. If you're an adventurous soul looking for something truly different, contact him or his dive partners for more information on their school run under the auspices of the internationally acclaimed Apnea Academy, led by Umberto Pelizzari, 16-time world record holder on