As the snow fell, the wind sent shudders down the spine and the more traditional amongst us settled into a few months of semi-hibernation by a blazing fire, Christian Redl, an Apnea Academy instructor from Austria dug out his chainsaw, took his wetsuit from the warmth of the airing cupboard to the chill of the Austrian lakes and broke two freediving world records – under ice.
On the 14th February, while the rest of us were wining and dining our loved ones, Chris and his team made it to 90m Dynamic Under Ice with Fins and 150m Dynamic Under Ice with Scooter, smashing the unofficial records previously held by Italian, Nicola Brischigiaro.
What drives a freediver to face wind chilled surface temperatures of – 20 C, carve his way through 30cm of ice and plunge into the biting, 4 C green depths of a lake? I was intrigued so I sent along my envoy, the Deepest Bear in the World, to join Christian for a few dives and find out.
Performing a breath hold under ice is nothing new. Diving mammals in the Antarctic have been showing us how to do it for centuries. Weddell Seals regularly dive for up to 15 minutes at a time with a maximum recorded dive time of 82 minutes. They have been tracked to depths of up to 700m beneath the ice, able to glide gracefully most of the way down. True, seals have a few adaptations to help them along, including the ability to store a large amount of oxygen both in their blood and muscles but they do still suffer some of the problems we, less accomplished freedivers, come across. Weddell Seals have been seen, after making several dives, coughing up a white foam thought to be lung surfactant. Emperor Penguins can make it down to 500m and stay under up to 20 minutes on shallow feeding dives. So how would a human fare? And first of all what’s the motivation?
Aside from the pure need to get wet over the winter months, Christian was first introduced to ice free diving through the rather odd means of a music video. In January 2002 he was asked to be the lead actor in a short film for German act DJ Friction. Admittedly rather cheesy, and with a plot blatantly stolen from the "Big Blue"- the video shows him preparing for and making No Limits dives under the ice before being dramatically reunited on the surface with a beautiful lady – not entirely career credible but the sheer beauty of the under ice shots and the shivers that run down your spine as you watch soon explain why he went back to the lake.
So back to reality and leaving seals and dodgy bands behind, how does someone go about attempting a freedive record under ice? First of all, Christian does not have quite as much in-built insulation as a penguin, so a wetsuit is required. Cressi kindly donated a 7/5ml suit, gloves and hood. This keeps the chill off for a while but dives and warm up must be carefully planned because, in Chris’s own words, "Once I get cold, it’s over".
Leaving No Limits Ice Dives to the movies, this year Chris chose to aim for the Dynamic with Fins and with Scooter records. Training for these has been much the same as for other freediving disciplines. Christian admits the main extra factor is the "head game". Typically people who have tried dynamic under ice are achieving only about two thirds of their normal dynamic distance. Whilst the cold is definitely a factor, much of this is due to the additional stress of the environment.
On the day, "warming up" not really being an option once out on the lake, Chris prepared at a nearby pool as his team got set up on the ice. He was accompanied on the dives by no less than 7 safety divers, 2 underwater camera men and a photographer. The photos really are incredible and you can find them on www.freediving.at. All this clearly raises quite substantial costs and the team are grateful to sponsors: Region Weissensee, Omega Watches, Vita Life and Credit Suisse for their help.
The dynamic course was set up with a rope running along under the ice for the diver to follow. A chainsaw cut out safety holes at various points along the way. For his Dynamic With Fins record, Chris dived with holes at 50m, 75m, 90m and 100m and a safety diver alongside.
The team were accompanied on the ice by Dr Holger Göbel who was looking at some of the physiological changes experienced by the ice freedivers. Results have not yet been published but clearly we are expecting to see signs of the mammalian diving reflex and a significant drop in heartbeat on entering the water but maybe there will be more besides – did Chris start to develop a layer of blubber inside his suit? Will his teeth and jaws become overdeveloped to bite his own breathing holes? And why did the Deepest Bear look more fluffy AFTER his ice dives?