Freediving is breath-hold diving, being in and under the water while holding one’s breath.
Today, most people associate freediving with images of superhumans plunging to the ocean’s darkest depths with only the air in their lungs, the power of their bodies, and the will of their minds to keep them alive and bring them back.
However, every time you slip into the water and hold your breath, you are a freediver, exploring our world of water from the shallows to the depths.
What is Freediving?
Diving without an aqualung is often called ‘skin diving’ or ‘snorkeling.’ Both can use a mask, snorkel, and fins, but freediving will always involve a breath hold, no matter how deep you go.
Humans started freediving through necessity, for food, tradeable items, or items lost overboard. However, in more recent times, freediving has evolved into a recreational pastime, a way to take photos, catch food, and as a sport.
Competitive freediving has different disciplines to reflect how you can be in the water and hold your breath. This came with competitions involving teams, countries, and many individuals.
In the early part of this century, there was a distinction between salt and freshwater records, although this has since been stopped.
In individual and team world championships, each diver will perform a constant weight dive with fins, a dynamic swim with fins, and a static breath hold with points awarded for each discipline to arrive at a final combined score.
Free immersion, constant weight no-fins, and dynamic no-fins can also be a competition discipline; they are usually stand-alone events.
The most recognized disciplines are explained below, although many people often seek to invent new disciplines, whether for fun or freediving competitions.
A Brief History of Freediving
Freediving has a long and varied history that dates back to ancient times. The sport of freediving, the intentional practice of breath-hold diving without scuba gear, first began in Greece in the 5th century BC. Fishermen used freedivers to catch fish with nets and spears and hunters for spearfishing.
READ MORE: History of Freediving
The modern sport of freediving emerged during the 19th century when divers began competing to see who could dive deepest on one breath. This was especially popular in Italy, where it became known as “apnea” (the Greek word for breath-holding). By the 20th century, freedivers were competing on an international level in a variety of disciplines, such as finswimming and deep diving.
Today, freediving is practiced worldwide by recreational divers, competitive athletes, and professional underwater photographers and videographers. With advances in technology and training techniques, it continues to grow in popularity, with records for freediving being broken yearly.
Freediving has even been featured in major films such as The Big Blue. As time goes on, its popularity will only continue to grow. Almost every diving agency now has freediving certifications as part of it’s curriculum.
Types of Freediving
Let’s take a look at the different types of freediving now. You’ll hear Freedivers talk in strange code when referring to diving to depth or in the pool with different equipment, and here we’ll try to de-mystify it.
Open Water Depth disciplines
Constant Weight Freediving (CWT or CNF)
This can be done with fins (CWT) and without fins (CNF) and is often completed by diving down off a freediving buoy.
This is a depth discipline and a competition discipline. Seen by many as the purest form of freediving, the diver descends and ascends under their power, and the weight (or not) they wear on their person remains the same throughout the dive.
Constant weight with fins (CWT) and static apnea were the original two competition disciplines before Dynamic with Fins (DYN) was added. In the first international competitions, most people wore bi-fins, with only a handful using the monofin. The freediving monofin proved far more effective than bi-fins, and now it is the monofin that all deep competitors use.
READ MORE: The Monofin
Constant weight without fins (CNF) has become increasingly popular in the past few years. Some competitions have CNF as a category, with depths thought impossible even for No-Limits diving a few decades ago. CNF can be challenging, overcoming initial positive buoyancy at the start of the dive and then negative buoyancy at the bottom as the diver ascends.
This is further complicated by using one of the pulling arms to equalize. To help overcome the issue of equalization, most CNF divers wear a nose clip and fluid goggles (or no mask) to keep both arms free for the stroke.
Free Immersion Freediving (FIM)
A depth discipline where no fins are worn and the diver pulls down a rope and back. This is often used as a warm-up for a constant weight dive to save the legs while still preparing the body for depth and checking how smoothly the ears are equalizing.
It is also used extensively in beginner freediver courses so students can learn equalization skills slowly and carefully. For many people new to the sport and having issues equalizing, it is only possible to do so feet first, so pulling down the rope is invaluable, although this takes extra effort.
Whenever a diver uses free immersion to prepare for depth diving, fins are always used as a safety precaution to make it easier to ascend to the surface.
Variable Weight Freediving (VWT)
This discipline uses added weight to take the diver to depth, and then the diver returns to the surface under their own steam, finning and using the arms to pull on the rope.
It is not a competition discipline; however, national and world records are set in it, and it is often used to train equalization and constant weight with fins diving.
No Limits Freediving (NLT)
This discipline is the deepest, the one that most makes the news, and arguably the most dangerous. In No Limits, you use a weight to take you as deep as possible and then a buoyancy device to return you to the surface. Very few freedivers train for No Limits.
However, it was the primary method of freediving used by pioneers such as Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca when diving deeper and was immortalized in the film The Big Blue.
In the sixties, the depths achieved meant that the diver at the bottom of the dive could use a tank to fill a lift bag that would take them back to the surface. As dives got deeper and deeper, however, the lift achieved was not as effective, and sometimes the hose would come out of the bag it was supposed to be filling.
In addition, with the risk of nitrogen narcosis, it was unsafe to rely on the diver at the bottom of the dive to execute a series of functions to fill the bag. As a result, the deepest divers have preferred to use a buoyancy device not reliant on air or the diver at the bottom to perform and bring the diver safely back to the surface.
Static Apnea (STA)
This is simply holding your breath for as long as possible, lying on the water’s surface, usually in a swimming pool or freediving pool. It is one of the most challenging disciplines, simply because nothing distracts you from the breath-hold. Giving up is also very easy as the surface is millimeters rather than meters away.
Static apnea (STA), along with constant weight with fins, is one of the original competition disciplines and is always the last to be performed in competitions. It is the ‘decider’ discipline, with competitors using tactics to ensure they only have to do the minimum needed to win unless they are going for a record!
Static apnea is a discipline that can be practiced all year round in a pool, which is perfect for freedivers who live far from open water or in colder climates where it is impossible to train depth all year round. In addition, it is excellent training for all-around apnea ability, mental toughness, and confidence.
Dynamic Apnea (DYN or DNF)
This can be done with fins (DYN) and without fins (DNF)
This discipline is usually performed in a pool and is based on the maximum distance horizontally under the water. Both are competition disciplines but dynamic with fins is used in International team competitions.
Dynamic disciplines are excellent training for style and constant weight diving, particularly in colder countries where access to open water diving is limited to the summer months. Some divers can also not equalize or find it very difficult, so dynamic with and without fins is a way to enjoy freediving without depth issues.
Even though records can be set in every discipline, when freediving for fun, the most common discipline freedivers use is constant weight, using fins to explore and enjoy the underwater world.
Free immersion is often used for equalization practice and to get to a suitable depth for buddying while saving the legs for a possible rescue. Many freedivers take to one discipline, such as dynamic without fins, over another simply because they enjoy the feeling and have little access to depth due to location or weather. If a freediver is keen on competing, they usually focus on the main competition disciplines of constant weight with fins, dynamic with fins, and static apnea.
However, freediving is about being in the water while breath-holding, and practicing one discipline can benefit another.