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Apnea and the Love of Freediving

A month ago I watched my friend Luis dive 7 meters deep and swim through an underwater cave. This took place in a cenote in Tulum, Mexico. The cenotes of Mexico are sinkholes that give access to a fresh water cave network that spans roughly 216 miles. Words cannot describe their beauty. They are filled with colorful, exotic fish; turtles; and limestone. The crystal clear water allows one to see all this beauty with only a pair of goggles.

The first time I saw Luis go through an underwater cave -a swim through- I was drawn by the challenge. But out of respect (and fear) for my life, I decided I would not follow him. That night we found ourselves at a party with a large swimming pool. Tipsy off mezcal and a little stoned from a joint, I swam roughly 40 meters no fins in one breath.

The next day I came back and Luis showed me a cave that lead to another opening, inaccessible to other tourists not willing to take the challenge. He assured me that the swim was super short. I put my trust in him and committed to the swim. Even though the distance was quite short, I was nervous as shit. After having completed the challenge I had to swim back. Knowing I had just succeeded did not make things easier. Nevertheless I returned and was grateful for the experience.

Then Luis showed me another swim through. I watched him do it a couple of times and then followed him. This one was a tighter cave and a little deeper but shorter than the first. The experience and feeling after surfacing were amazing.

Luis showed me a third swim through. It was another cave right below the one I had just completed. He told me that this swim through was the most beautiful one. It was along the edge of the entrance to the large caverns that are explored by scuba divers. I felt confident I could do it. But I was not able to get myself to relax. My heart was racing both from fear and from the thrill that I would get to see this miraculous under water temple. I was unable to get my heart rate down. I was sure that I could make the swim through even with my elevated heart rate. But with respect for the danger I decided to abort the mission. There is no room for error in freediving.

The love of the cenotes has given birth to a new love of mine: playing in the water with one breath. After the experience in the cenotes I met a competitive freediving judge, Anna, who recommended that I take an AIDA freediving course. She pointed me to an instructor here in Tamarindo, Costa Rica that she had coached in a competition years ago. I took his course last weekend.

The course was for an AIDA2 certification. AIDA stands for Association Internationale pour le Développement de l'Apnée. The organization is a non-profit that hosts competitions for freedivers all around the world and is the most notable issuer of freediving world records. The level 2 certification requires the freediver to: complete a written exam, hold their breath for 2min (static apnea), swim 40 meters horizontally in one breath, and dive 12 meters in one breath. At the end of the course my records were:

40m horizontal with fins (DYN)
17m deep (CWT),
4min40s static (STA)

My PB that stands out is the 4min40s static apnea. This was the first time I did a full send on a single breath hold - I pushed myself to my limit with the knowledge that I was being watched by a professional freediving coach.

The lead up to the 4min40s hold was as follows. We were instructed to do 2 warm up rounds before the final attempt. The first warm up round we had to hold our breath until our first diaphragm contraction.1 Then we took 1min to breathe recovery breaths and then 2min to relax before our next breath hold. The 2nd breath hold we were instructed to hold until 20s after our first contraction. Then we did another 1min recovery and 2min relaxation before our final breath hold where we held for as long as possible.

Before doing this exercise I had asked the instructor if he could stop me at 4min15s. He said no, I needed to listen to my body and choose when to stop. I am grateful for that because I found out that I was able to push past my self perceived limit. It also showed me that, for now, 4min40s is my physical limit. I came up with my leg twitching2 and my face pale - I had a slight LMC.3 I struggled to give the OK sign with my index touching my thumb, but I managed to do so.

I learned that my body has late and weak contractions. My peers had their first diaphragm contractions around the 2min mark while I had my first diaphragm contraction around 3min30s. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing, comfortable 3min breath holds; the curse, small time between warning and blackout.

There's so much more to say about freediving but I'll have to cut this article short for now. I can't wait to be back in the water to push myself deeper into the blue abyss.

  1. Holding your breath is broken down into two phases - the easy phase and the struggle phase. The struggle phase begins when one receives their first involuntary contraction. This is an involuntary swallow. Then come involuntary diaphragm contractions. Hopefully you never get to the third phase. []
  2. I came up because my leg was twitching. I was able to push through discomfort but that twitch made me think that maybe I was really out of oxygen. I was right. []
  3. Loss of Motor Control. Freedivers use a euphemism, samba instead of LMC, because it looks like a diver breaks into a little dance when they are trying to gain control over their body again. []

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