If you are reading this article, you have likely tried to see how long you can hold your breath. Here is what that typically feels like for most people.
At first, it feels easy and relaxing. I tell my students, you better enjoy this part cause it’s going to become “less fun” in your near future.
The first uncomfortable thing most people feel is they feel an urge to swallow. The next thing most people feel is a contraction. Depending on your level of experience, they may be very mild at first or very strong. A contraction is your diaphragm muscle physically contracting, it’s trying to make you take a breath, but we as Freedivers shake our head and say, “uh uh…not yet.”
The contractions will continue to get stronger, and stronger and closer and closer together. It’s going to slowly get worse and worse until you say, “that’s all the fun I can have today and you take a breath.”
When people think about holding their breath, almost all people intuitively think of what I just described. Said another way, you know that when you hold your breath, there is a linear progression of discomfort. It slowly gets more and more uncomfortable the longer you hold your breath.
In my opinion, this basic and correct understanding of what it feels like to hold your breath is the most common cause of freediving blackout fatalities.
When you are diving in the ocean, there is not a linear progression of discomfort
I took my first freediving class with Kirk Krack, the founder of Performance Freediving in 2008. I remember sitting in the classroom and Kirk telling me that when you come up for a dive in the ocean you could feel completely fine and still blackout.
I clearly remember thinking ok, that’s absolute nonsense. He’s just trying to “scare” us into diving in buddy teams.
I remember thinking there is zero way you would feel fine and then blackout. Every time I have held my breath, it gets worse and worse near the end. My plan is just to stop holding my breath before it gets too bad then I will be fine.
I’m going to ask you to take a look at this video below. Reading me explain what is in that video does not do it justice. As a freediving instructor, I can tell you this is the single best example of an underwater blackout I have ever seen.
This video contains two blackouts that occurred while spearfishing. If you do not want to see a fish actually being shot, start at the 35-second mark, and then stop after the first blackout.
Couple of things to dive into here. The first spearfisherman that had the blackout has been spearfishing for 30 years and typically dives by himself. He has never had a loss of motor control or a blackout before in 30 years.
This dive happened with Ren and Ashley of Evolve Freediving. They are both PFI Instructors.
The diver told Ren and Ashley that he typically hunts in 70ft/21m – 80ft/25m range and this accident happened on a 45ft/14m dive. He had made seven drops on the same spot.
He was not diving outside his comfort zone and was an easy dive compared to his typical dives.
First, let’s quantify how many dives he has done in his life. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say an active spearfisherman has done 50,000 individual drops over 30 years. I typically do 60 individual drops in a single ocean session during a class.
So he’s done 50,000 drops. 1 out of 50,0000 drops had a bad outcome. So if that bad outcome had occurred during any of the 49,999 other dives, he would likely be dead. Why? He said he typically dives by himself or with no one watching him.
The fact that his single bad dive out of 50,000 total dives happened to have coincided with the one time he was diving with a freediving instructor who was watching him, is the only reason he is alive today.
As scary as that video is to watch because a freediving instructor who is trained in freediving rescue techniques was with him, the diver was brought back to the surface and quickly revived and was fine.
I will be discussing how to help someone from a blackout in future articles.
Let me ask you a question about the first blackout
Did you see the moment where he asked for help……..no you did not. Why? Because he felt fine. You can see it with your own eyeballs. Secondly, when Ren and Ashley talked to him on the boat afterward, he said he felt fine right before he went out.
The second video shows a student of mine rescuing a friend of his. My student had shot a fish and told his buddy, “I’m going to swim back to the boat will be back in a sec, don’t dive.” The buddy thinks, “yeah I’m fine, I don’t need to wait, I’m diving now.”
As you can see, this diver hits the surface and blackouts. Luckily the boat was only a few feet away from where the diver had the blackout.
My student was on the boat, saw what happened, and was close enough to be able to jump in and implement the rescue techniques he learned in my class and saved the diver’s life.
How many times have you swam back to the boat, and it was WAY farther than 8ft away? If that boat had been the typical 100ft/30m – 300ft/91m away, he would have died.
Let’s go back to my original statement. When you are holding your breath on the couch, you will feel a slow and steady increase in discomfort. Most people assume the same thing will happen in the ocean.
If you haven’t already figured it out yet, there is not a slow and steady increase in discomfort when coming up from a dive in the ocean.
The reason behind that is rather complicated and beyond the scope of this article. It mostly has to do with the partial pressure of oxygen drops extremely rapidly the last 30ft to the surface.
If you talk to freedivers that have had blackouts underwater or near the surface, MOST of them will tell you they felt fine. This spearfisherman in the video said he felt fine as well right before the blackout.
Why most freedivers and spearfisherman are not worried about safety
After being around freedivers and spearfisherman for 12 years, I can tell you that many freedivers and spearfisherman implement almost zero of the safety procedures I referenced in my first article.
Most freedivers and spearfishermen will say the following when I ask them about diving alone or not having a buddy right next to them.
“…but Ted, I don’t push myself, I know my limits, I’ve never had a problem before, I just come up before I blackout…”
I’ve heard countless variations of that sentence for the past 12 years.
Here’s the thing, it’s very likely you will feel FINE before you blackout. That video showed it to you, and if you talk to most freedivers and spearfishermen that have blacked out will tell you the same.
Ask Mandy Ray Cruickshank, a 7-time freediving world record holder.
She will tell you she has had eight underwater blackouts in her career, and on 6 of them, she felt 100% fine.
Maybe it’s possible you are more in-tune with your body than a 7-time world record holder… I highly doubt it.
Once you understand and believe you can feel fine even on a dive that ends in a blackout, do you see how meaningless the following statement is?
I don’t push myself, I know my limits, I’m in tune with my body, I just come up before I blackout
Here is the problem, that is honestly a really good argument. I’m not kidding, bear with me.
I’m over here saying “hey, you are not being safe, you need to dive in a team, have a buddy close enough to grab, and watch for 30 seconds”. The other side is saying “Ted, I am safe, I’ve never had a problem that proves I’m safe.”
The “problem” with that argument is it always works until you are dead.
Never having a problem does not mean you are diving safely. What happens to you after you have a problem defines if you are diving safely or not.
You are never going to hear skydivers say, I’ve been sky diving for 15 years, I’ve never had a problem, I’m going to stop packing my reserve chute because it’s just a pain in the butt, and I’ve never needed it. They don’t say that because they don’t want to go SPLAT.
Here is the last thing I will say on this subject
Let’s say you, unlike any of us mere mortals, have an internal blackout sensing device
You are coming up from a 50ft dive, and your magical device tells you, you are about to blackout out. How does that help you? Really how would it help you to know, I’m about to blackout?
The only thing that will determine if you live or dive from a blackout is having a buddy at the surface that you trust knows what to do, and will be there when you need them… aka a bulletproof buddy.
I’m not the freediving police, you can dive however you wish. I hope this will shift your focus into becoming a safety-first freediver as well as a reliable bulletproof buddy that your buddies can count on.
Dive safe out there, it’s not even that hard, especially when there are online resources available to you.
While online courses are not a substitute for the skills you would learn in an in-person freediving course. It is a great starting point for people just getting started or for people that can’t afford a course or do not have access to a freediving course in their area.