Freediving competitions have gained popularity in recent years, even though freediving itself has been around for thousands of years and competitions have been ongoing for decades. Since many well-known freediving competitions have started using Diveye, an underwater drone system, fans can watch an athlete’s entire dive as it happens from the comfort of their home. This has led to an increase in viewers during freediving competition live streams on YouTube, both from die-hard freedivers and non-divers who are simply curious about the sport.
This is why we created a three-part guide on how to watch a freediving depth competition for those who are new to competitions or are new to freediving itself! Part One gives you useful terms regarding equipment, disciplines, techniques, and injuries, along with their definitions. This is Part Two, where we will discuss competition organization, the dive of an athlete itself, and how they are judged on it. Part Three will cover the safety team, medical team, and other freediving staff behind the competition.
Words in bold are defined in Part One of the guide.
While smaller competitions may have a buoy that athletes dive off of, the rest of the competitions, including national and world competitions, have a dive platform or a boat that has the official dive line and a counter ballast system, which is a safety mechanism that brings athletes quickly back to the surface in case of emergency. Dive platforms and boats give athletes awaiting their turn a place to rest, a place for the medical team and their equipment, and also usually has one of the judges or other competition staff on it as well. There is usually a speedboat on standby in case of emergency for quick transportation back to shore.
There are two dive lines set up for athletes: a warm-up line and an official line. The warm-up line is where athletes would perform shallower dives to warm themselves up for their official dives, with a member of the safety team that monitors the athlete’s dive.
The official line is where athletes will perform their competition dive, the one that judges will watch and where they will earn their points. There is a staff of 2-3 safety divers (and there can be more on standby) who dive down as the athlete ascends to the surface. The first safety meets the athlete at around 1/3 of their depth, usually between 30-40m (98-131ft), and the second will meet at around 20m (66ft) of depth. If there is a third safety, they will meet at 10m (33ft) of depth. They are not allowed to touch the athlete unless the athlete is clearly in trouble or on one of the judge’s commands.
At the bottom of both lines is a heavy bottom-weight that holds the dive line taut. The official line will have a bottom plate with bottom tags attached for athletes to grab and bring to the surface to present to the judges. There is also a grace zone of about 2-3m (7-10ft) that is striped like a candy cane (called the candy cane zone), where athletes stop their descent to grab their tag and are allowed one pull to start their ascent. Through the entirety of the dive, athletes wear lanyards as a safety mechanism to connect them to the dive line, and there is a ball attached to the line 1m (3ft) above the bottom plate to keep the lanyard from getting entangled with the bottom plate.
Official countdowns start at two minutes before the Official Top, or the start time of an athlete’s performance, and a judge calls intervals of times out loud so that the athlete can prepare accordingly. Athletes must start their dive within 30 seconds after Official Top is called, otherwise they will be disqualified.
Performing the dive
The day before an athlete dives, they must inform the judges of the depth they will attempt to reach, called their announced performance (AP). The depth that they actually reach, whether it is their AP or if they turn early, is called their realized performance (RP). After Official Top is called, the athlete starts descending according to the manner of the discipline they are competing in (discussed in the next section). They go down as deep as their strength, oxygen, and equalization allow them. Towards 1/3 of their AP, you will see athletes start to freefall or glide to the bottom, in order to conserve oxygen.
They can turn at any point (for example, if they have problems with equalization), but will incur a penalty for an early turn (See “Penalties”). If they reach the bottom, they grab the bottom tag and start the ascent. Safety divers meet them at about 1/3 of their AP and everyone surfaces together. Athletes must perform a clean surface protocol (see “Surface Protocol”), and then they will receive the judge’s verdict in the form of colored cards (see “Cards”).
Free Immersion (FIM) – Athletes pull themselves down and up the line wearing the same amount of weight on their neck and/or waist, and do not wear fins for their performance.
Constant Weight (CWT) – Athletes use only a monofin or bifins to propel themselves down and up the line, wearing the same amount of weight on their neck and/or waist. They are not allowed to pull or grab the line except in the candy cane zone (multiple grabs are allowed, but they can only pull once). However, they may gently glide their hands along the line in order to keep their orientation.
Constant Weight Bifins (CWTB) – The rules are the same as in CWT, but athletes can only use bifins and can only perform flutter kicks. Dolphin kicks (kicking with both legs at the same time in the style of a monofin) are not allowed and will disqualify the athlete.
Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) – Athletes use only arm strokes (a modified breaststroke) and leg kicks (breaststroke leg kicks) to propel themselves down and up the line. They wear the same amount of weight on their neck and/or waist and do not wear fins for their performance. They are not allowed to pull or grab the line except in the candy cane zone (multiple grabs are allowed, but they can only pull once). However, they may gently glide their hands along the line in order to keep their orientation.
How Athletes are Judged
Surface protocol (SP) is what judges use at competitions to measure an athlete’s well-being at the end of their dive, proving that they are not too hypoxic (low on oxygen) at the surface. According to AIDA rules, within 15 seconds of surfacing, the athlete must look in the direction of the judges and perform the following steps in their exact order while staying upright and not letting their airways dip below the surface of the water.
- Remove facial equipment.
- Give the OK sign to the judge.
- Say “I’m OK” or “I am OK” in English.
Under CMAS rules, the athlete has 20 seconds to simply give the OK sign (something many athletes prefer) without letting their airways dip below the surface. With both organizations, if the athlete does not perform proper SP, they will receive a red card (see “Cards”) and their performance will be disqualified. An interesting fact is that in AIDA competitions, coaches or spectators can yell things like “breathe, show the OK sign, say I am okay” during SP, while spectators and coaches at a CMAS competition must remain completely silent.
Judges have three colored cards to show their ruling over an athlete’s dive. Keep in mind that judges can change their ruling later and give a different card (yellow or red) depending on what they see when they review dive footage from either Diveye or a bottom camera attached to the end of the dive line.
White card – The athlete has reached their AP, brought back a bottom tag, and performed clean surface protocol.
Yellow card – The athlete incurred a penalty but performed clean surface protocol.
Red card – The athlete’s performance is disqualified. This can be due to suffering an LMC or blackout at the surface or a blackout at depth, letting their airways dip below the surface of the water, having to be supported (or even simply touched) by safety or their coach, or other factors (see “Disqualifications”).
Penalty points are deducted for a number of situations, and both CMAS and AIDA can consider different situations either penalties or disqualifications. If an athlete turns early at depth for both AIDA and CMAS, they will be penalized 1 point for every meter that is less than their AP. While a pull on the line outside of the candy cane zone (for CWT, CWTB, and CNF) is considered a penalty according to AIDA, it will disqualify an athlete in a CMAS competition. The same applies for an early start (starting your dive before the Official Top): CMAS will disqualify the performance while AIDA will issue a yellow card and deduct penalty points.
There are other possible penalties, but the ones mentioned above are the most common ones.
The main disqualification for athletes is not performing proper SP. Other disqualifications can include a late start (starting the performance more than 30 seconds after Official Top), dipping the airways beneath the surface of the water during SP, being supported (or touched) by a coach or competition staff, descending on the line only to turn upright and then start descending again, performing dolphin kicks in bifins during CWTB, and other less common situations.
After a judge has given their ruling, an athlete has a certain amount of time to file a protest if they do not agree with a ruling the judge has given them. Athletes can also protest another athlete’s ruling (for example, if the judges gave an athlete a white card but another athlete felt that the SP was not correct). Athletes have a certain amount of time to file their protests, and afterward, judges and the protesting athletes convene to view the video footage available and discuss it between themselves. If there is any doubt among the judges, the benefit of the doubt is usually given to the athlete.
Stay tuned for the third part of the guide, which will cover the safety team, medical team, and other freediving staff behind every competition!
Feature photo by Daan Verhoeven