Before the release of Netflix’s The Deepest Breath, the documentary of celebrated safety diver Stephen Keenan and World Champion Italian freediver Alessia Zecchini, the freediving community held its breath in fear and anticipation.
While the story of their tragic dive at the infamous Arch at the Blue Hole in Dahab, Egypt, was already fairly well-known in the heart of the community, freedivers also worried about the name the documentary would give the sport after seeing the documentary’s trailer.
Watch the first 15 seconds below, where a disconnected and mysterious British voice states, “Freediving is one of the world’s deadliest extreme sports.”
Luckily, the trailer seems meant chiefly to sensationalize the sport and get more people to watch it. At the same time, the film is incredibly heartfelt, visually stunning, and does an excellent job of explaining the sport from a balanced perspective while shining a bright light on the two freedivers’ passion for the sport.
Yet, it’s no wonder film trailers like the one above and articles titled “Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead” give an exceptionally dangerous perspective of freediving to the outside world at first glance.
Let’s look at some of the real risks in freediving.
Risks in freediving to depth and how they are mitigated
A loss of motor control (LMC) occurs when freedivers become too hypoxic (very low level of oxygen in the blood and body tissues).
Some short facts on LMCs:
- They can be mild or severe, ranging from having blue lips and looking a little shaky to violent body spasms
- LMCs are due to a lack of oxygen in the motor zone of the cerebral cortex
- Once a freediver begins to breathe and oxygen levels return back to normal, LMCs quickly resolve
- Freedivers may never experience an LMC if they train conservatively and approach depth slowly
Freedivers mitigate the risks of LMCs by learning safety, rescue, the importance of always diving with a qualified buddy, and how to avoid becoming dangerously hypoxic in a certified freediving course.
If a freediver becomes severely hypoxic, a blackout (BO) occurs, where their brain essentially “turns off” to conserve oxygen, and a lack of consciousness occurs.
Here are a few quick facts on BOs:
- These blackouts usually occur at depths of 10m (33ft) or shallower
- Blacked-out freedivers will eventually breathe – The real danger is if they BO while being negatively buoyant or face-down in the water (which is the usual position someone would be in if they BO and float to the surface) and their first inhale is water
- Freedivers can go their entire lives without experiencing a BO if they train conservatively and approach depth with slow progression under an experienced eye
This is why freedivers dive with qualified buddies – those who watch them as they dive and can rescue them if needed by turning them on their backs and prompting them to breathe. Learning how to rescue blacked-out freedivers and how to avoid becoming dangerously hypoxic are crucial parts of a certified freediving course.
Barotrauma is “a condition caused by sudden or significant changes in water pressure.” In freediving, possible barotraumas (called “squeezes” by freedivers) can include:
- Lung squeeze
- Throat (or “trachea”) squeeze
- Sinus squeeze
- Middle ear squeeze
- Perforated or ruptured ear drum
- Mask squeeze
Freedivers can eliminate these risks by progressing slowly, avoiding diving while sick, always diving with a qualified buddy, and other mitigating factors discussed in certified freediving courses.
There are other possible risks, such as:
- Being hit by a boat while diving in open water
- Getting swept away in a current
- Suffering from pre-existing medical conditions
- Diving under the influence (drugs, alcohol)
However, these risks are easily mitigated by:
- Diving with a qualified buddy
- Ensuring you are visible when you dive in open water with a brightly-colored buoy and/or dive flags
- Knowing the dive site before going diving
- Even better, hiring a dive guide who is familiar with the area and conditions
- Diving only while healthy
- Getting cleared by a medical professional if you have a pre-existing condition
- Wearing a freediving lanyard on line dives
You learn all of these and more when you take certified freediving courses.
Mitigating risk factors in freediving
You may have noticed a common theme among the risks listed above (I even put them in bold for those who only scan articles for headings, bolded words, and bullet points)!
Freedivers must always dive with a qualified buddy and mitigating risk factors are taught during certified freediving courses.
This means freedivers who get properly educated on freediving theory and dive with a qualified buddy (NOT alone or with your partner who is scuba diving beneath you) can easily eliminate most of the above risks.
“But what about the statistics?” I can hear some people asking.
With some gentle Googling, you may have already seen that Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) released an Annual Diving Report 2020 Edition: A report on 2018 diving fatalities, injuries, and incidents, which gives some statistics on reported fatalities of breath-hold diving (defined as “holding one’s breath while submerged in water”).
Bear in mind that these statistics include a wide range of activities like children playing in the pool, recreational snorkelers, spearfishing, and competitive freediving.
It’s also challenging to get accurate information on injuries and fatalities outside of a single country due to language barriers, lack of a formal reporting system, people’s likelihood to report incidents, etc. So these statistics must also be taken with a grain of salt, and they are, in all probability, very under-representative of actual breath-hold diving fatalities (the report does a good job of letting you know these barriers to retrieving data).
If you look close enough, you’ll also see the following two charts, the first of which includes the distribution of breath-hold fatalities by activity category in 2018, and the second of which includes the distribution of freediving fatalities by activity category in 2018.
You can see freediving fatalities add up to less than half of snorkeling fatalities. And, breaking that freediving number down even further, you may notice that freediving fatalities are divided into “Spearfishing/Harvesting,” “Pleasure/Sightseeing,” “Training,” and “Unknown.”
According to this data, people who spearfish have significantly higher fatality rates than those who are training or freediving recreationally.
This can be because:
- Spearfishing is different from freediving: spearos spend extended amounts of time at depth and sometimes have to fight with what they catch
- Spearos dive alone more frequently, often due to a lack of a buddy
- Some spearos do not take freediving courses, instead learning on their own or from a buddy (who may not have taken a course themselves)
However, this article is not at all aimed at spearos. I’ll state that it’s an entirely different sport. And while it does involve freediving, it also includes many more factors. DeeperBlue.com has its own Beginners Guide to Spearfishing that covers many aspects, including some of it’s dangers.
I simply want to explain why spearfishing fatalities are higher than in training or recreational freediving and how they should be considered separately in statistics.
The report also states, “Of the reported breath-hold fatalities in 2018, most reported fatalities occurred during snorkeling. This is expected, as the activity is accessible, and participation is unrestrictive. Following the same trend as previous years, freediving has the smallest portion of fatalities recorded. This could be due to the organizational structure and rules that are associated with this activity as well as the selection and specialized training.”
And so again, we see that if you freedive safely and follow the rules given to you in a certified freediving course, you are likely much safer than a regular tourist snorkeling on vacation (especially in a full-face snorkeling mask).
What about risks in freediving competitions?
As I was watching Vertical Blue 2023’s livestream on YouTube, the live chat was filled with people who had just watched The Deepest Breath and stumbled upon the competition livestream. Which is fabulous, by the way – freediving is amazing and deserves to be in the spotlight!
While they were watching the livestream, they had a lot of questions – particularly on safety. Plenty of those questions can be answered in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of DeeperBlue.com’s “Easy 3-Part Guide to Watching a Freediving Competition.”
But in short – official AIDA or CMAS depth freediving competitions are essentially the safest places for people to freedive.
Why is that?
- Trained medical personnel must be on-site to deal with any injuries
- There are safety teams in place who are trained in deep rescues – There are usually counter ballast systems in place to recover freedivers in case they BO deeper than safety divers (an uncommon occurrence)
- Emergency safety plans are in place to deal with serious injuries that require evacuation – Emergency evacuation to a hospital is on standby
- Rules are in place that dictate how deep an athlete can dive and when they can dive again if they had a BO or injury
- Every athlete must wear a freediving lanyard
In the many years freediving competitions have been held with thousands of freediving competitors, only two competitors have passed away during a competition: Audrey Mestre in 2002 and Nicholas Mevoli in 2013.
After each tragic death, competition rules and safety regulations were amended to keep future competitors safe. This is why freediving athletes can regularly dive to depths of 100m+ (328ft+) during competitions – they feel secure in the competition environment and know their safety is the top priority.
So is freediving actually dangerous?
The answer is: it can be – but it doesn’t have to be if you’re freediving “correctly.”
“Correctly” means you:
- Took a certified freediving course
- Don’t dive alone (only with a trained buddy)
- Progress slowly
- Dive healthy
- Perform recovery breathing after each dive
- Dive with good technique
- Weight yourself accordingly
- Other aspects you learn in a certified freediving course
Too many people try freediving with the information they’ve learned from articles, books, YouTube videos, or other inexperienced freedivers.
To dive safely, you must learn from a professional and experienced freediving instructor or coach. This costs money, yes, but you’re paying for your own safety – this is no time to bargain or look for a “free” option.
In fact, I want to leave you with another question – one that’s just for you.
“If you wanted to try skydiving or rock climbing, would you try it alone with only the information you learned from a YouTube video?”
Now apply the answer to that question toward freediving.