Free Diving Isn’t Free

September 19, 2018

 Photo, courtesy of PFI Student Manual: What it looks like on a training dive line
 

When I began my journey to become a professional Mermaid I had no idea how intense and brutal the prerequisites would be. After all, “Mermaiding” sounds so whimsical and playful. Surely the process to becoming a Mermaid wouldn’t be an incredibly tough athletic effort requiring physiological changes as well as increased mental stamina? Well, it is! (Disclaimer: All information here is for explanatory purposes, and not intended for the reader to replicate. Those interested in practicing these exercises should enroll in a PFI course for their own knowledge and certification).

I got accepted to IMSIA Mermaid school for 2018/2019 classes. The courses go up levels 1 – 5; the 5th being the Instructor Certification that includes membership to the IMSIA (International Mermaid Swimming Association). The required courses before enrolling in Levels 3 – 5 are:
- Levels 1 & 2
- Certified Freediver (PFI)
- CPR & First Aid Certification
- Water Safety Training Certification (Red Cross)

I decided to start at the top of the list with the most difficult item: PFI (Performance Freediving International) Certified Freediver. Freediving is breath-hold diving. Single breath diving, no oxygen tanks. Competition-level freedivers routinely compete at depths of 100 meters/330 feet and can hold their breath for over eleven minutes! The world record freediving depth is 253 meters/831 feet! The world record breath hold is 24 minutes! It takes an incredible amount of training and physiological changes to perform at even the shallowest depths.


 

 Photo, courtesy of PFI Student Manual: lung volume decreases by 50% at depths of only 10 meters/33 feet!

Basically this means the water pressure doubles at this depth and the oxygen in one’s lungs is compressed into the surrounding tissues as the lung volume decreases by half. The depth to train in for Freediver Certification is up to 20meters/66 feet.

Day one of Freediving School began at our local dive shop for four hours of lecture and theory. We were fitted for wet suits and other gear, then a lunch break and off to the pool! I had trained for this all year in the Caribbean, Black Sea and the Mediterranean, as well as in the local pool.


 

 Photo: Training in the Mediterranean, Greece

I put my wet suit on in the locker room and got into the swimming pool, somewhat perplexed at the feeling of getting into the water fully clothed. (It was my first time in a real, full wet suit). We started with trust exercises and other routine practices, then we began our static breath holds, floating face-down in the pool with a designated buddy who checked in frequently using hand signals to make sure we hadn’t lost consciousness. Before each breath-hold attempt we had to breathe-up.

 

 Photo, courtesy of PFI Student Manual: Ventilation Breathing; saturating the body tissues with oxygen while avoiding heart rate increase.

 

 Photo, courtesy of PFI Student Manual: Purge Breathing; Reducing C02 levels in the lungs and tissues.

These are followed by a “Peak Inhalation” (the final breath before the breath hold or dive). Before this class my breath hold was maxed out at about 40 seconds. After going through this course, my static breath hold increased to 2 minutes, 45 seconds and my dynamic breath hold caps out at 1 minute, 30 seconds. (Though most days I’ve been capping off at a single minute or less, focusing more on equalizing at depth than longevity).

After coming up from the water, whether for a breath hold or a dive, there are also Recovery Breaths (which help prevent blackout – 90% of blackouts happen on the surface!) These consist of six Cleansing Breaths that rapidly exchange the C02 in your lungs with oxygen. The first three are “Hook” breaths that increase blood pressure.

After the breath hold training we worked on diving techniques, blackout scenario rescue and resuscitation, buoyancy checks, weight belt removal and a few other things. Then we were done for the day.


 

 Photo: Our class in the pool; pool certification achieved! (Guess who fell over for the photo?)

The next day we were off to the open ocean after another four hours of theory. After training all year in warm seas and swim suits - and sometimes naked - even a highly-rated wet suit with boots, gloves and hood did not prepare me for how cold the northern California Pacific Ocean is, or how difficult it would be to maneuver with so much gear on.

Our class met on the bluffs, agreed on a dive location, suited up and hiked on down! The instructors checked the depths and dropped the anchor and the dive line. All of us students rotated around the floats clockwise, waiting our turn to dive.

The most interesting thing about free diving is, despite the increased danger and extreme sport of it, it requires a lack of adrenaline to successfully do it. The diver must be meditative and demonstrate extreme mental control over their environmental responses to keep that heart rate LOW. Increased heart rate leads to increased metabolism which leads to increased oxygen usage. Adrenaline and anxiety are the enemies of the free diving athlete. So the goal is to NOT tread water unnecessarily, so as to keep the heart rate down during your breath-ups. They prefer you to cling to one of the floats and just hover face-down in the water, doing ventilations through your snorkel until it’s your turn to dive.

Unfortunately for me, I was shivering violently within the first hour and had to make the decision to tread water for warmth. (I also deliberately peed in my wet suit multiple times to try and create warmth – sorry, not sorry, rental shop!) The next three hours dropped me into pure survival mode – it was all I could think of or focus on. The water cut like a knife. And every dive compressed the cold that much more into my body. I felt like the pressure from the hood was going to give me an anxiety attack. I had to mentally remind myself that I was still able to breathe with so much pressure on my throat. Strangely enough, the hood felt like it was blinding my peripheral vision despite its skin-tight cling.

Since most divers dive off a boat, our instructors wanted us to practice shore dives. We swam several hundred yards off shore, passing through a kelp forest that kept snagging our flippers as we passed. I tried to keep that fear level down. I mean, I wrote a scene in my book about this and it wasn’t good! There were stinging jellyfish as large as dinner plates passing through the underwater forest, and limited visibility through the silt cloud in every direction. Stay calm and swim on, right? Riiiiiiiiight.

Each person in the lineup had to complete the following one-trial tests:

 Photo, courtesy of PFI Student Manual; Open water tests

I completed all but two tests before I just simply couldn’t focus enough to perform appropriately. I couldn’t think of anything. I couldn’t focus on my breathe-ups, and took too long trying to breathe up and focus just before each dive and could feel the impatience of the shivering lot in line behind me. I couldn’t equalize properly on my descents and the pressure on my sinuses became too much. My arms and legs were numb and the cold against my chest hindered my breathing.

I felt constricted and claustrophobic in the hood. My mask nosepiece kept filling up with water. The gloves were too bulky to adjust my equipment. I saw sparks on my 8th dive test. I still did the last two tests, but bailed out early on the depths. So I took a rain check and rushed out of the ocean to get into dry, warm clothes. My lips, hands and feet were blue. I left convinced that wet suit insulative function was a myth, and that perhaps I was out of my league with what I was attempting here. (Maybe certification in the Bahamas would be a better option)?

 

 Photo: Our Class

I went home super bummed that I didn’t complete in one go, but also understanding that the conditions were not right for me, and that all the training I had done prior was woefully inadequate, primarily in terms of the mental control that free diving requires. I was so present in-my-body that I was at its mercy. I went home and immediately researched books on the subject and ordered this:

 

 Photo: Deep, by James Nestor. I highly recommend this read for all Mermaids and aspiring free divers!

It gave me enough insight to change my training protocols and I had a few weeks to train up before my retest.

I began to practice ventilations and dry equalizations while driving between appointments, to expand my lung volume and flex my Eustachian tubes and make the practices second nature – up to 100 dry equalizations a day. Elevation changes were especially valuable to practice in. I went to the pool to practice about four or so days a week before my retest. The depth is only 3.8 meters/12.6 feet, but it was good to practice dives with equalizations under pressure changes, as well as dynamic breath holds and static breath holds clinging to the pool floor at length. Next came the mental preparation. This part required grim determination and a zen-like meditation to consciously slow the heart rate, while clamping down on surges of fear or worry.

Finally, I got the call to complete the course. My instructor couldn’t get any others from prior classes to take the rain check so I got a private class. We scoped out a few locations on the coast, settled on a good one and swam out.


 

 Photo: Private class

My instructor made me redo most of the dives that I had done before, to get the practice and one-on-one instruction. It was cold out there but I didn’t feel it. There was pressure but I ignored it. Water filled my mask’s nose piece but I didn’t acknowledge it. Each dive was easy. Simple as anything, as easy as the swimming pool. I passed each test with minimal effort, rocking every single task in a state of meditative bliss. At the end of the dive line I would linger, comfortable and relaxed with no urge to rush back up to the surface to breathe. It was so perfect.

On my very last dive I missed my first equalization but made the rest of the dive with no problem. I had some sinus pain at 35 feet, but I completed the test and returned to the surface. My instructor noticed that I had a bloody nose, but despite the shock of realizing I was gushing, all was well! I passed the class and I am now a PFI Certified Free Diver.

Free Diving isn’t free – it takes training, dedication and the willingness to pursue literal mind-over-matter. It might also cost you a bloody nose or two. And a wet suit full of urine. You might also learn about your own limitless potential in perseverance and what changes the human body can go through to achieve such a thing. What you think you are limited by, and what you are truly capable of.

 

 Photos: On my way to becoming a Mermaid Instructor and professional  swimmer!

 

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