Safety in Freediving

The year 2001 in competitive freediving saw our top-drawer competitors going deeper, longer and farther than anyone thought possible, and all this without fatalities or serious injuries. Sadly, on the recreational side of the sport we lost a number friends, colleagues and loved ones . This morning I learned of yet another drowning, this time an experienced diver in superb physical condition with whom I’d been fortunate enough to spend a week last year. He died ( an apparent shallow water blackout ) in his home waters, spearfishing as he had so many times before.

The fact is that a competitive freediver going for a depth record – approaching or passing the 100m /330 ft mark – is much less at risk than the average recreational diver playing in 20m/66ft of water. We would be wise to understand the fundamentals of competition safety and transfer the risk management techniques to recreational diving.

We must reduce the body count for 2002. Enough. No more.

Sanctioned competitions and record attempts are bound by draconian safety protocols specified by organizations such as AIDA, IAFD and FREE. The provisions in place to keep competitors alive and well are comprehensive, redundant and thus far totally effective. Martin Stepanek, 90m/295ft down on game day, is eyeball-to-eyeball with an experienced tech diver on trimix, ready to shove a regulator into his face if he runs into trouble. Even at this extreme depth Martin’s prospects for survival are excellent. That tech diver is one of a small army of scuba and freediving safety backups deployed to take charge whenever and wherever needed.

Alan Averagediver, snorkelling the reef solo after work, 35 feet down and panicked, is on his own. His outlook is poor. Even if he makes it back to the surface a blackout or samba puts him in the category the New York City Police Department calls "LTD" : Likely To Die.

In the space between the ideal conditions provided by an event support team, at one extreme, and the borderline-lunatic dangers of solo sessions at the other lies a continuum of risk mediated by the buddy system.

We are not going to replay the solo freediving "controversy" here. There is no controversy. To the extent that you wish to live, avoid freediving alone. Going freediving alone is like drinking a quart of vodka and driving at high speed against the traffic on a freeway. Yes, you may survive, but it won’t be your fault if you do. It will be because the universe decided to let you live that day.

The following discussion assumes the reader is familiar with freediving safety fundamentals, particularly the one-up / one-down protocol, and is proficient in basic rescue technique. If you are not, you and your diving companions are at grave risk. Get educated and get trained – now. If you don’t know where to turn for freedive education and training, go to the head of this article, click on "E-Mail Author" and I’ll help you get there.

That established, let’s look more closely at the buddy system and consider how it is that another diver’s presence can enhance prospects for survival.

The term buddy system conventionally refers to a set of rules which divers follow to enhance safety and enjoyment, the cardinal rule being "always dive with a buddy." In this discussion I’ve expanded the concept: buddy system here means a group of two or more divers who have agreed to comply with a set of rules which regulate their diving practices. The buddies are a component of the system.

Here is an obvious but widely-ignored truth: there is nothing at all about another diver’s presence, per se, that enhances safety ! Just because somebody has jumped off the boat with you and is splashing around in your general area doesn’t mean that a buddy system is happening. As Kirk Krack likes to remind us, " Same day, same ocean doesn’t count !"

A shocking number of the freedivers who drowned last year were not alone in the water. As far as risk management is concerned, the mere presence of another diver adds nothing to the safety level. In fact, it could even endanger one or both divers if expectations are at variance with reality.

The safety value of any buddy system is a function of awareness, capabilities, balance, and consistency. Everything depends on what the divers do, what they are able to do, and the mutuality of actions and expectations.

Awareness – A Model of Reality in Your Head

By awareness we mean the degree to which each diver is aware of the status of each of the other divers, and aware of his own status. A diver’s status is a function of where he is (location) and how he is (condition).

Awareness – Locations

Time is of the essence in freediving . When things go bad, assistance must be rendered immediately. Awareness of divers’ locations is obviously critical, although it it is not enough, a point we’ll take up again in discussing conditions and capabilities. If you’re spotting for another freediver, you cannot help him if you cannot find him. If you can’t see your buddy, your knowledge of his location is speculative and subject to uncertainty.

The principle underlying the deployment of safety divers in competition is ubiquitous coverage : there is never a time or a place where the competitor is not visible to at least one support diver. This strategy addresses two concerns: authentication and safety. The support team is positioned so as to be able to certify that the competitor has complied at all times with event regulations, but more importantly, to maximize the likelihood that the right kind of help can reach a distressed competitor in time to be effective. Recreational freediving safety is based on the same underlying idea: no freediver should ever be in a place that another diver cannot quickly render assistance.

There is a sharp drop-off in the safety value of the buddy system at the edge of visibility. Even when all other factors are optimal, a diver you cannot see is at significantly greater risk than a diver you can see. The perfect buddy protocol is based on continuous visual contact. Any interruption brings an immediate and significant increase in risk level, and divers should factor this into the overall situation assessment and make appropriate adjustments.

For example, a lot of great recreational freediving goes on in murky waters. Freedivers in 5m/16ft of visibility over a 15m/45ft foot bottom are going to disappear from surface supervision within seconds after descending. This does not mean that diving should not go on under these conditions, but the incremental risk should be recognized and managed.

In limited visibility, with the down-diver out of sight from the surface , a bit of coordination can exploit what visibility there is. One tactic is to agree that the down -diver will ascend to the same spot from which he began his descent, so that if the up-diver simply maintains his position on the surface, he will make visual contact at the limit of visibility and thus have him in sight for as much of the dive as conditions permit. In calm waters, with no current, this is relatively easy: the descending diver identifies a navigation mark when the bottom comes into view, and ascends from that point. Winds and /or currents may require one or both buddies to adjust positions. Some days, it is just too dangerous to dive at all.

Drop-and-escort is more aggressive approach requiring coordination with respect to timing as well as location. The down -diver commits to a profile which returns him, ascending, to the bottom of the blackout zone (about 10m/33 ft for typical recreational freediving) at an agreed-upon time after his descent. The spotter descends from the surface just in time to meet the ascending diver at that time and place, and escorts him to the surface.

This method deviates slightly from the basic one-up/one-down protocol in that both divers are "down" at the same time, but properly timed, the spotter’s dive should be much, much shorter and shallower than his personal limits and not tax him at all.

Awareness of location includes more than just the location of the down-diver. The relative locations of the divers are critical . Having taken care to keep your buddy in sight, don’t let the distance between you increase so much (all too easy when the viz is great !) that in an emergency all you can do is watch him drown while you swim frantically from too far away. The spotter is not a spectator. He should keep himself positioned directly above the down-diver, ready to drop and assist if his buddy has difficulty at depth. The spotter certainly should be within an arm’s length when the ascending buddy breaks the surface. A lot of blackouts happen in the 30 seconds after a diver has surfaced, and absent immediate help these can be jut as deadly as a blackout under water.

From the standpoint of maximum safety, the ideal place to be when your buddy is ascending through the blackout zone is an arm’s length away, facing him, in drop-and-escort mode. If, however, the diving parameters are modest, that is, well within both buddies’ abilities, it may be reasonable for the spotter to remain on top and move in to an arm’s length as the down- diver breaks the surface. In good visibility, where the bottom and the down-diver are clearly visible from the surface, this allows the down-diver freedom to roam without a pre-set dive profile, and shortens the spotter’s recovery time. The result: more dives per session, more time "down there".

Awareness – Conditions

Proper awareness of locations configures a buddy system for effective intervention in an emergency. Awareness of conditions mediates the intervention decision itself . Each diver should be aware of his own physiological condition, the physiological conditions of each of the other divers and the environmental conditions.

Self-awareness would seem to be a given for freedivers : most of us suppose we are always quite conscious of things like the urge to breathe, thoracic contractions and the like ! If only it were true.

To the degree that freediving is fun, interesting, challenging and exciting we are more likely to err in our self-assessments. The classic example is that of the spearfisher stalking prey, or fighting a fish at depth. His surface breathe-ups are cut short, his bottom time overextended, and his session and perhaps his life can come to a sudden hyopoxic end. A weekend warrior on a winter vacation to the tropics, enraptured by the beauty on the reef, may be no less distracted.

All of us are at risk when we get caught up in the sheer pleasure of the water world and forget to remember proper recovery at the surface. I could cite the example of a certain well-known world champion’s rescue under just those conditions, but then she’d have to kill me. She is alive only because another freediver was able to scoop her, unconscious, from the bottom and race her to the surface before she drowned.

Adding to the self-assessment problem is, of course, the physiological effect of increased PO2 at depth. If you are not up to speed on freediving physiology you and your buddies are at unnecessary risk. You should correct this as soon as possible. Get the knowledge. A short reminder will have to suffice here : subjective feelings are an imperfect guide to your tissue and blood gas levels. High partial pressures of O2 at depth can make you feel a whole lot better than you really are. A timer or freedive computer is the most reliable tool for making certain your surface recoveries are long enough and your bottom times within safe limits.

The key to self-awareness is attention to one factor : the awareness of self-awareness. In other words, don’t forget to remember to assess yourself ! If you program yourself to continuously ask yourself whether you are paying attention to your physiological status, and you are knowledgeable of the physiology of freediving, the rest follows almost automatically.

Your self-awareness should extend to any and all factors which could affect your performance as a diver or as a rescuer. As you watch your buddy preparing to descend, ask yourself whether you, at that moment, are ready to dive yourself. If not, your buddy should not dive until you are ready – because you may have to.

How are you feeling ? Have you just completed a long surface swim against wind and current ? Did your calf cramp a little on your last ascent ? Going back a little further in time, factor in yesterday’s full-tilt gym session or last night’s keg party . As today’s diving goes into hour two, three, four and more, downgrade your estimates of your physiological status to reflect increasing fatigue. Big picture, be realistic about your overall physical condition and experience. If it is your first dive day after a long winter, even a winter spent training up in the gym, you ought to take your self-assessment down a notch or two.

The contribution of awareness of conditions to safety is most effective when it is extended to all divers in a buddy system, which we’ll consider more fully in a moment. There are visual cues to a diver’s physiological condition, and all of us should make certain we are knowledgeable of these signs in general ( again, get the knowledge !) and also with regard to the specific individuals we dive with.

Continuous awareness of the other divers’ conditions provides opportunities for preventative interventions (" Hey, your breathe-ups are too short. You’re pushing it. ") and can help fine-tune your risk management decisions (" Bob’s dive is too deep and too long for this late in the day – he is fatigued. I’m going to drop to 20 meters and escort his ascent.").


A buddy system consists of two or more human beings, each with unique physical and personal characteristics which are relatively stable over time. Know thy buddies, and know thyself.

A freediver capable of a 6 -minute static apnea in the pool is not necessarily one who can equalize his ears at 30m/99ft, and another diver who has done constant ballast dives to 70m/230ft does not necesarily have good eyesight. Someone with a history of seasickness is unlikely to be in top form in rough seas. A sound buddy system establishes rules and protocols which all of the divers are comfortable with.

When I go freediving with Brett LeMaster, for example, we do not set out to spend the afternoon picking pennies up from a 50-meter bottom site 1,000 meters’ surface swim from the beach. This might be a casual pastime for Brett, but it is beyond my redlines. It would put both of us at unacceptable risk Each diver in a buddy system owes it to himself, and perhaps more importantly, owes it to the others to be realistic and candid with respect to his capabilities. Know thyself, and know thy buddy. Don’t dive beyond the comfortable reach of your buddy. Blackout at depth is certainly less common than the Shallow Water Blackout, but it is by no means unheard of. On the reef, blows to the head and entanglements are examples of other occasions for a bottom rescue.

Capabilities come in to play, too, in relation to general environmental conditions. Rough seas and weak stomachs are common examples. Others include temperatures, equipment, marine traffic, wildlife and topography. Some excellent and experienced freedivers have had little experience with big fish and may not respond calmly to relatively harmless predators such as nurse sharks. Others, perhaps those with little or no scuba experience, may not have knowledge of the hazards associated with wrecks lying there, tempting, on the bottom.

Which brings us to the subjects of bottoms. More specifically, hard bottoms. No, not yours or that of your significant other. Your ability to scoop an unconscious diver off the bottom is dependent on there being a bottom, and at a depth you can manage. Unless he is wearing a very, very thick wetsuit indeed even an unweighted freediver is negatively buoyant at 20m/66ft and will sink like a rock if he loses consciousness.

The bottom then becomes part of the rescue team – if there is a bottom. Freediving in bottomless waters is properly approached with considerable caution by beginners and intermediates, and ideally under the supervision of experienced trainers. Nobody in this world is capable of pulling you up from 100 meters, but a dedicated buddy may well die trying to.


Throughout this discussion I’ve stressed a theme which I call balance. A buddy system is ideally balanced (and maximally effective) when the rules, situational awareness and the relationships between capabilities and conditions are the same for all the members.

A key principle of the balance concept is this: as the difficulty of a rescue intervention increases, the risk to the rescuer approaches and eventually equals the risk to the victim.

We should always be clear with our buddies on what the parameters (depths, times, surface recovery times, etc.) of a session are, and be certain that every member’s capabilities are in line with them. Ideally, the parameters should be set so that within them, every member is an expert , easily able to perform as a diver and as a rescuer. Therefore, the dive parameters for a given buddy system on a given day should be set by the capabilities of the least capable member.

Situational awareness should be shared and in agreement at all times. My buddies’ assessment of my capabilities and current physiological state should be congruent with my self- assessment. My take on my buddy should be the same as his take on himself. As a diver prepares to drop, he should be confident that at least one of the other divers is aware of his location, condition and intention, and able at that time to execute an effective and timely rescue within the parameters of the planned dive and current environmental conditions. This is especially critical in systems of more than two buddies. It is all too common for everybody to assume somebody else is spotting.

Another common violation of the balance principal, and I see this a lot, is when somebody drops down immediately after his buddy has surfaced and signaled O.K. The down-diver has acted as if his buddy is recovered, ventilated, aware and ready to spot for him. The freshly-surfaced buddy sees himself as breathless, thighs burning, snot-clogged and wondering where the hell the other diver is. The descending diver has put himself at risk ( the spotter is in a state where he is least able to assist) and worse, perhaps, has put his buddy at risk The rescuer should not need a rescuer.


Finally, sound buddying is only effective to the degree it is consistently executed. When we lower our guard, we create opportunity for tragedy. Look, if it were always obvious in advance that a dive was going to end in a blackout, nobody except solo divers would ever drown. This cruel truth is echoed in the testimony of so many of the victims’ companions : " ….nothing unusual was going on, it was just another dive like a million others he’d done before, how could this happen……?"

There are significant risks inherent to freediving, risks which devolve from the complex interactions between complex systems of variables. The problem of reliably predicting specific occurrences of life-threatening events during recreational dives is simply too difficult. Risk management (and, ultimately, survival) is best served by behaving as though every dive is likely to produce an emergency.

Proper education and training , along with the consistent execution of the principles reviewed here can reduce the risks of recreational freediving to levels approaching those seen in sanctioned competitive events. That must be our goal. A day off from safe freediving practices is a travel voucher for somebody’s permanent vacation.

Come With Me If You Want To Live. . .

The competitive freediving environment is a very, very safe one, and the main reason is the active participation of support divers dedicated to observing, monitoring, and protecting the competitors. Each support team member has a relatively narrow, well-defined domain of responsibility and is tasked with keeping himself in a high state of readiness.

This is what we must emulate in recreational freediving buddy systems. Buddies should try to be self- aware, aware of others, and aware of others’ awareness of themselves and of others. Whew ! Sounds pretty circular, and so it is, but therein lies its power. From my point of view, when my buddy is diving I should be in a position similar to that of the entire support team around a competitor. I should know where he is at all times, know where he’s going, how long it will take, what his general capabilities and current condition are, know what my general capabilities and current condition are, know the state and behavior of the environment and above all, calculate that all these add up to survival for everybody no matter what goes wrong during the dive.

All of this may seem pretty regimented – "What", you ask ," … happened to the ‘free’ part of freediving ?" . Executing effective buddy systems is, like anything else, a matter of commitment , drilling it until it is second nature. The practices I’ve advocated here are not rocket science, just common sense wrapped around a little freediving knowledge. These practices will not inhibit your freedom. To the contrary, they will help keep you free. If you think the buddy system described here is too restrictive, perhaps ( as the seatbelt propaganda goes ) you should reflect a bit on the dimensions of the typical coffin.