When we write a review for a product or service, it is usually a pretty straightforward matter. There are some criteria that the product or service is measured against, some testing or use of the product or service, and an objective report for the reader to have as a reference.
This is not one of those reviews…not because the service doesn’t meet certain criteria, or the reader won’t benefit from the information…but because every now and again, the service or product offered is of such a high quality, exceeding all standards, that it stands in a class by itself. Immersion Freediving and founder Ted Harty offers just such a service.
We first learned of Ted Harty in 2009, while visiting Ft. Lauderdale to go Scuba diving. Picking up a Performance Freediving International (PFI) brochure that was on the counter at a now-closed dive shop, we asked the Training Director what all this “freediving stuff” was about. We were given a quick synopsis of the classes and prices and Ted Harty was mentioned, as he was teaching a class at the time. We later learned that Ted Harty is a US National Record-holder, Captain of the 2012 US Freediving Team, Performance Freediving International (PFI) Advanced Instructor and PFI Instructor Trainer, (the first and only PFI independent instructor to receive this rating) and the founder of Immersion Freediving.
Located in Ft. Lauderdale, in sunny South Florida, Immersion Freediving has gained an enviable reputation as one of the premier freediving schools in the world. Ted Harty‘s reputation for stressing safety and technique, in one of the most comprehensive and in-depth freediving programs offered, has brought students from all over the world. Immediate access to the clear, blue waters of the Gulf Stream give students a fantastic training ground with 100 foot visibility and temperate conditions year-round.
Having finally met Ted Harty at an industry trade show in 2013, we decided if the opportunity presented itself, we would take a class with Immersion Freediving. It would take three years and a change in Latitude to finally attend one of Ted’s classes. In that time, we had become acquainted with many freedivers who have taken his classes, and read innumerable testimonials about the level of professionalism, safety, fun and expertise that was being shared with hundreds of students.
We contacted Ted and because we had some experience as a freediver, we had decided on taking the 4-Day (28 hour) PFI Intermediate Freediver Course. Ted immediately sent an e-mail confirmation, and links to a number of resources. There was the invitation to take a Skype Session with him to perfect Equalization Techniques and make sure the diver was able to equalize properly before showing up for the course. Ted also sent a video which covered all the equipment needed for the course, and to be properly equipped to freedive.
A few days later, we received the Performance Freediving International Intermediate Freediver Student Manual and Workbook in the mail. Accompanying the manual were the necessary Medical Questionnaire, Release for Minors, Cancellation Policy, Price List for equipment rental or purchase, further instructions, and a Class Syllabus. It was just like preparing for the first day of college, and we were impressed with the thoroughness of the information sent prior to the class starting.
We diligently read the text, went over the videos and worked on losing a few more pounds before the start date. The information packet explained we would cover:
- Safety and Problem Management
- Equipment for Intermediate Freediving
- Proper Breathing Techniques
- Physiology, Physics and Psychology of Freediving
- Training Exercises and Open Water Techniques and Skills.
Course Contents would include:
- 1.5 hours online education
- Exclusive one on one Skype Frenzel equalizing session with Ted Harty
- 11 hours classroom (more than other courses)
- 2 three-hour pool sessions (many courses only have one pool session)
- 3 three-hour in water diving sessions on private 23ft Bluewater.
- Students will receive 30-70 professionally shot and edited photos to commemorate their experience with Immersion Freediving.
- Students will receive one professionally shot and edited course video to commemorate their experience with Immersion Freediving.
So, the day had arrived and we drove down to Ft. Lauderdale, joining the four other freedivers who would be taking the class with us. Frankie, Kathleen, Mary Jo and Octavio all came to Ted’s class with some degree of freediving experience. Frankie Maduro is a South Florida spearo, Octavio Cortes-Prendas an experienced freediver and world-renowned flutist, Mary Jo Esposito Dettor, an avid spearo and freediver, and Kathleen Fisher, Co-founder and Instructor at Bimini Healing Arts.
Day One: We all trooped into the well-appointed classroom and dutifully sat down in front of the white board, introducing ourselves and making small talk while waiting for the class to start. Sammy the Golden Wonder Dog, and official mascot of Immersion Freediving came in and introduced himself to everyone, then Ted walked up and started the class right on time.
Like the first day in a college class, we all started out with a wide degree of expectations about the class, our own abilities and maybe a little nervousness. Between us, there was a wide degree of experience, physical fitness and ages from the early 20’s to almost 50 years old. There was just as much nervousness as any first-day student when Ted stepped forward and began to speak.
When faced with a classroom full of students from widely different backgrounds, a good instructor will soon overcome those differences, bringing everyone around to focusing on the class material, erasing those doubts and fears and creating an atmosphere conducive to learning. The hallmark of a great teacher is how fast they can accomplish this.
Ted Harty had the entire class captivated in about 30 seconds. We all knew something of his past accomplishments in the sport of Freediving. Captain of the Us Freediving Team, National Record Holder, SSI and PADI Instructor, a guy who has dived to 85 meter (279ft)..that’s almost a football field in depth. Instead of being a stereotypical “Dive God”, who would regale us with the tales of his derring-do and awesomeness, Ted’s easygoing, conversational style put us all at ease. He quickly went over the administrative stuff and then we dived into the class depths.
“I will fundamentally and forever change the way you approach freediving.”
There is was…the crux of the Immersion Freediving experience. As Ted put it, in his self-deprecating manner, “This body was built by bourbon, beer and barbecue” and he stressed that he was in no way an Olympian in physical conditioning. He related a couple of examples from his first competition in 2009. He told us he was about a 80- to 90-foot freediver and weighed 230 pounds. He wasn’t in good shape at all, but after three weeks of training under the tutelage of Kirk Krack and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank Krack, he completed a 54 meter (177ft) freedive. He explained that because of fundamental changes in his technique, he was able to dramatically improve in performance and comfort.
Ted’s mantra is that technique is far more important than having a six-pack stomach. He stressed that all of us would “be challenged…you will be pushed and push yourselves while I change everything you know about freediving“, but that we would be able to do so much better because of better Technique…not some four-day fitness miracle.
The pace of class the first day was swift. Using the excellent PowerPoint presentation, videos, the PFI Intermediate Freediver Student Manual and Workbook and a decade of experience, Ted covered optimizing breathing for freediving, freediving gear, physics, physiology, psychology and personal training standards. By lunch, we were well-versed in the way the body works when freediving and we went over safety. Lots of safety. Most importantly, we went over why correct safety protocol is so important to a freediver.
The average freediver, especially one who comes from a spearfishing background, is not trained in formal safety procedures. For the most part, we have all heard that one should always a) Dive with a buddy and b) One up, one down, but that knowledge without being put in practice is useless. Rarely does a week go by where there isn’t a story of a “freediver” dying or becoming injured somewhere in the country. Many times, the person is the victim of Shallow Water Blackout (SWB), becoming unconscious only a few meters from the surface, or more often than not, on the surface…slipping unnoticed beneath the waves because their buddy did not know they had to be within arm’s reach.
Ted described how so many people in the spearfishing community come to his class with great skills, long breath-holds, reaching depths well in excess of 100 feet, but are risking their lives on every dive because of lack of safety training. He described that far too many spearos and untrained freedivers have an “Everyone is immune to the rules…it’s the other guy who get’s hit” attitude. With this sobering thought, we watched videos of just what a SWB looked like in real life, how Loss of Motor Control (LMC) can be identified, signs and symptoms of both, and the differences between pool and depth hypoxia. Most importantly, Ted stressed the fact that you cannot tell you are about to black out underwater. It is sudden, without warning and can happen to even the best divers, and on any dive.
The afternoon found us all meeting at a local pool, where it became immediately obvious that Ted and his students were well-known and expected. Directed to the locker rooms to change into our wetsuits, we all found ourselves in the Olympic-sized pool in a few short minutes.
We reviewed safety techniques and what the signs and symptoms were for Hypoxia. Ted reinforced the lessons on stretching and how to activate the Mammalian Dive Reflex. We practices diaphragmatic breathing, rescue techniques, Recovery Breathing, various buddy drills and during it all, Ted’s calm presence was there, encouraging us to relax, coaching each diver personally on every skill, watching to make sure we were focused on each other’s safety.
The second half of the day wrapped with all of us paired off for the Static Apnea training. This block of instruction was to familiarize ourselves on safe breath-up techniques, acting as the safety, and the steps that needed to be taken immediately after the breath-hold. We practiced our new way of inhaling, and we all finished our Static attempts with very comfortable breath holds and a ton of new information on how to perform them in a competition environment.
Day Two: A new morning and a new pool. One of the great things about Immersion Freediving is that Ted has established great relationships with many local vendors…from the pools we used for training, to the sandwich shop that delivered our most excellent lunch to the classroom.
Into our wetsuits and into the pool for Static Apnea: Round Two. This was our opportunity to do our best, put all the theory and practice into use, just like we were in a competition. We completed a specific schedule of breath-ups and went into our first static breath-hold. The steady mantra of Ted’s voice calmly talking each diver through the hold, encouraging us to relax our jaws, our necks, ride the contractions out, get unfocused and relax…relax…then come up slowly, complete a good surface protocol and our recovery breathing.
All set…we were ready for the big moment…our PB breath-hold. Warm-ups were done, our bodies were fully acclimated, the dive reflex was kicked in and it was time to go. “Take a short diaphragm breath in…hold, hold…exhale…hold, hold…repeat.” Like a metronome, Ted’s voice echoed softly in our ears…and then it was time…and we held our breath.
The first check at 1 minute, responding with a clear and solid signal…then the next check at 2 minutes…then every 30 seconds. Just hold for another 30 seconds…don’t worry about the clock, just each short segment. Ride the contractions out…don’t tense up…relax. Ted’s voice coming through…“start to think about coming up…keep it clean…exhale and surface.” We immediately start our hook breathing…our safety counting down, watching our eyes, getting the strong OK . It was done…and everyone had set a PB Static Apnea time…all of us holding for at least three and a half minutes, with some times well over 5 minutes.
More pool time, including being introduced to “Negative Pressure Dives“. The name says it all. There’s nothing fun about doing them, they make the body react in ways that mimic a dive to much greater depths, and every one of us found ourselves out of our comfort zone for the first few rotations. More drills, including proper kick techniques, more safety, safety, safety…then off to the docks to bring it all together.
Immersion Freediving has their own boat, with a roster of dedicated Captains who have been trained by Ted on what he wants to see as proper safety procedures. The boat is the perfect size for 6 divers, the cooler full of cold beverages, the gear stowed neatly below decks. The trip from the docks at the Pirate Republic Bar, Grill and Seafood Restaurant through Ft. Lauderdale on the Tarpon River takes us past some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, and some of the largest yachts ever made…but the scenery fades into the background as we discuss the upcoming Open Water session and go over safety. Everyone is a little nervous as we head out past the channel markers, aimed for the clear, blue waters of the Gulf Stream.
A short, forty minute trip found us about 6 miles offshore, drifting in a northerly direction as we deployed the “rig”, a custom carbon-fiber pole suspended between two floats. With a rope and pulley system to suspend the weighted bottom plate, Ted could set the depth anywhere he wanted, while the pole and floats gave us plenty of room to hang on while we practiced our breath-ups and got ourselves mentally and physically prepared for the dives.
Working in buddy teams, Ted coached each of us on exactly what skill we would be practicing…starting with very short pull-downs to about 30 feet, and working on equalizing, weighting ourselves properly, rescue skills, safety diver responsibilities, and all of the things we had gone over in class.
In the clear waters of the Gulf Stream, with tiny pelagic fish schooling around this strange flotsam, we practiced and we dived. Our confidence grew with each new depth reached, and skill mastered and demonstrated…all too soon, it was time to get back on the boat for the smooth trip back to the docks.
Day Three: We returned to the class for more academics…and there was a lot of information! From Self-Rescue and situational awareness, to a great deal more Physiology, including studies completed at the Hypoxia Lab on the Effects of Varying Levels of Oxygen. This was invaluable and exciting information, presented with the aid of graphics, lecture, video and we all came away with a much greater degree of understanding on all of the physiological and psychological responses our bodies go through when freediving. New terms floated in our brains…Krebs Cycle, Tracheal Squeeze, Hypercapnia…intensive, in-depth and presented in a systematic, orderly fashion. Each module was a building block for the next. When we talked about diaphragm stretching, we did it as a practical exercise. When Ted described symptoms, he showed us the symptoms..on video or by demonstration…every question was answered and we felt prepared to tackle the afternoon in the Ocean with confidence.
Back on the boat, a new Captain at the helm..and another safety briefing. We were becoming more comfortable with each new experience, and with each other. We had all teamed up, watched each other’s back and knew that everyone was equally trained and prepared to react to an emergency.
The rig was deployed and we were back in the water, this time, we warmed up with the pull-down dives, then we dropped the plate and began working on specific skills; kick cycle, knowing when we were entering Sink Phase, equalizing while staying streamlined, body positioning, how to work as a safety diver, meeting the returning diver at depth and ensuring their safety, and surface protocols. All the while gaining confidence at each new milestone…preparing ourselves for the last day…a full day in the water and reaching new depths.
Day Four: So, with the addition of the extra classroom time, more in-depth academics and theory, additional dive practice, we were ready as we could be for the final exam…the classroom was 700 feet of warm, blue water off the Florida coast. A gentle current moving us softly southward.
We took our positions on the rig, paired off and ready to keep a sharp eye on our buddy, never more than an arm’s length away. We worked on our warm up dives, repeating any skills that were left from the day before…and then, having all met the minimum depth requirements for a Level 2 Freediver, Ted offered each of us the opportunity to drop the plate to the depth we felt most comfortable shooting for. This was for fun..for personal achievement and for building confidence.
Our ears were a little wonky from the numerous dives below 66 feet from the day before…as were others…this is a physically demanding course…so we elected to keep the plate at 100 feet…a comfortable depth to aim for. Completing our breathing at the surface, reaching down and doing a proper entry, we began our descent, equalizing early and often, keeping our body aligned with the rope, counting our kicks until we were at sink phase…then relaxing as gravity took over and we slowly sank to the plate. With a quick pause to grouper call up some diagram air to assist in equalizing one last time, we turned and headed back to the surface, arms extended above our head. Ted’s soft grunt and downward motion of his arms keyed us in to bring our own arms down for the last 10 meters…and softly exhaling the last of our air, we broke the surface…our safety diver right beside us, counting “Hook…One, Two, Three…exhale. Hook…One, Two, Three…exhale. Hook…One, Two, Three…Ok?” As we said “OK” and gave Octavio the OK sign, a grin spread across our face…we had completed everything we had set out to do and were now a certified Intermediate Freediver.
In Conclusion: We returned to the dock and washed down our gear, loaded our cars and gathered at the Pirate Republic Bar, Grill and Seafood Restaurant, adjacent the dock. Looking out over the placid waters of the Tarpon River, we celebrated our accomplishments and congratulated each other on the great performances. We laughed about the shared experiences and then we quietly went on our way…comfortable in the knowledge that we were better, safer, more competent divers…and for some of us, dreaming about the next class we would take. We drove away from the group with Ted’s words echoing in our mind…“I will fundamentally and forever change the way you approach freediving.”
Value for Money
While Scuba and Technical divers can take numerous courses that teach them to safely dive in caves, penetrate wrecks, use rebreathers, or any number of exciting specialty courses, for many years Freedivers had little in the way of formal certification. As we know, Scuba certification gives the trained diver the ability to rent equipment, get a cylinder filled with Nitrox or other mixtures, or charter a dive trip. The certified Scuba diver is able to satisfy the liability requirements of the shop or charter by producing proof of minimal qualification.
In comparison, many people who consider themselves freedivers, or spear fishermen (spearos), have no formal freediving education or training. Many of us came to the sport by getting in the water and doing it. Whether we started as snorkelers who wanted to get closer to the creatures we saw below us, or went spearfishing with our buddies, mimicking their techniques until we gained a degree of comfort in descending below the surface, we became freedivers. Some freedivers started as “fin-swimmers”, or became intrigued by watching a movie or video, and took to the water, armed with a mask, fins and a snorkel and little else.
All to often, we read of or hear a story about somebody getting killed or injured “while freediving”; whether they were just swimming, snorkeling, spearfishing…it all becomes “freediving” in the minds of the public. As the sport grows, and more and more people are drawn to it, there will inevitably be a rise in incidents. Ted Harty, and all the freediving instructors around the world, are committed to making this sport a safe one. Ted is extremely passionate about sharing his expertise on safety with the large Florida Spearfishing community.
Certification can be simply for your own, recreational-level knowledge. Some readers will want to compete, and learning the skills, techniques and terminology will help open that door for them. Others may want to pursue a professional path, taking their love of the sport to the highest levels and train the next generation of freedivers.
Regardless your reason, there is NO reason to not take a class from a certified instructor. Your safety and the safety of your buddies will dramatically improve. Your confidence levels, skills and comfort in the water will improve. By using proven techniques, you can add significant time to your dives, reach greater depths and experience all this sport has to offer.
The cost of the Intermediate Freediver Class is not insignificant; but in comparison to the knowledge gained, the skills mastered, the new Person Best achievements, and the fact that lives are saved by taking this class, it becomes obvious that the cost is far outweighed by the benefits.
For a video sample of what is involved in the course take a look at this teaser filmed by Ted himself.
Finally – what did we really think?
Price: For the 4 day PFI Intermediate Freediving Course, the Course Fee is $795.00. Three boat trips @ $60.00 per trip plus tax is $190.80. The total cost is $985.00.
Is there “cheaper”? Absolutely. If the cost is your only concern, though…then you may have missed the reason so many people come to South Florida from all over the country to take a course from Ted Harty. This course may be one of the most detailed, intensive and safety-oriented freediving courses on the planet. The Value for Money ratio falls firmly in favor of the student.
Relevance/Usefulness: Freedivers and spearos will all benefit from this. The numerous testimonials given by former students where they relate how their lives, or a buddies life was saved, because of skills they learned from Ted Harty are all the reason we needed to take the course.
Instructor/Professionalism: So, having spent 33 years in the military, commercial, and recreational dive fields…as a college and high school instructor, and having worked with the best instructors in the world, we feel safe in saying that Ted Harty, and Immersion Freediving taught the most professional class we have ever attended in the dive industry. The classroom is bright and everything set up on arrival, all the material is provided with more than enough time to review before the class, the requirements and expectations are laid out clearly, the attitude is above reproach, the class mascot is an absolute gentleman, the boat is immaculate…the Captains thorough professionals.
Textbook/Material: The Performance Freediving International Intermediate Student Manual and Workbook is a college-grade, academically sound teaching tool. It contains a wealth of information, is sleek, fresh and professional in design and functionality.