The History of Freediving

A Young Sport with a Long and Great History!

The History of Freediving

Freediving is considered a relatively young sport and recreational activity compared to its brothers like scuba diving and underwater swimming. But if we study the history of diving underwater on one breath, it turns out that the roots of freediving go much deeper in history than it may seem.

 

The First Evidence of Freediving

We can trace the first evidence of a human diving underwater back to 6000 BC. Archaeologists confirm that the mummies of Chinchorian ancient peoples who lived at that time in what is present-day northern Chile and southern Peru have exostosis deformations of the skull that prove that these people were avid freedivers. Exostosis is a specific deformation of the bones in the ear canals when the bones grow across the ear canal opening to protect the eardrums from exposure to water. Exostosis can be commonly met between professional surfers, divers and kayakers who are also highly exposed to water. So Chinchorians were actively hunting for seashells and other food underwater.

The fossils found on the coast of the Baltic Sea dated back to 7,000 to 10,000 years ago also include seashells, which means that those ancient tribes were also diving for clams for sustenance.

 

Freediving in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, freediving was a means not only for getting food. Plato and Homer mentioned that Greeks used sea sponges for bathing. The centre for sponge production was the island of Kalymnos, where greek divers used big stones called skandalopetra to quickly submerge themselves underwater for sponge collecting. The stones weighed as much as 15 kilograms and allowed the diver to go as deep as 30 meters.

 

Warfare and Salvage Freediving in the Mediterranean

Extensive maritime trade and frequent wars in the Mediterranean gave several more purposes to diving deep underwater. Divers were hired to salvage goods from the shipwrecks and to fight against the enemy at sea.

Thucydides, the famous Athenian general and historian, recounts that divers were used to get past enemy blockades, to bring messages and to scout for underwater barricades against warships during the Peloponnesian War.

In 332 BC during the Siege of Tyre, divers serving King Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire cut the anchor cables of Alexander the Great’s attacking ships that used battering rams against the city defensive structures.

The History of Freediving Skandalopetra Stones
The History of Freediving Skandalopetra Diver
The History of Freediving Sea Sponges

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It Started out with Freediving for Pearls

Pearl diving was practised in the Indian Ocean, in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and in the Gulf of Mannar (between Sri Lanka and India) for more than two thousand years. A fragment of Isidore of Charax’s Parthian itinerary preserved in Athenaeus’s 3rd-century Sophists at Dinner mentions divers collecting pearls in the Persian Gulf. Tamil Literature dated around the first and second century BC describes an ethnos of Parathavar that not only fished but also dived for pearls and chanks.

Native Americans also have an extensive history of pearl diving. Evidence of pearl collection is found in freshwater lakes and rivers of Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi, as well as in the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and along the coasts of Central and South America.

 

The Ama Divers in Japan

At the same time, local diving communities were flourishing for millennia without being known. Japanese coastal people named Ama (海女, “sea women”) also known as Uminchu (in Okinawa) or Kaito (in the Izu Peninsula) began to dive for pearls about 2,000 years ago.

The official records of female divers in Japan date back to 927 AD. Being a matriarchal commune, girls began to learn the trade between 12 and 13 years old guided by their elder more experienced relatives and stayed active well to their 70s. The reason the divers were mostly the women vary, but the most common theory is that female divers were more able because of their fat distribution and the ability to hold the breath longer.

Ama traditionally dived wearing only a white loincloth. White colour was used because of a belief that it can ward off the sharks, the main danger for this very specific trade. Even with all modern contraptions to make the dive easier, longer, and more comfortable, Ama still stick to their roots and dive without air tanks and scuba gear which makes them true adepts of freediving culture.

With the industrial revolution in place, ancient diving traditions subsided, and the demand for breath-hold diving went down. Mikimoto Kōkichi was the one to give Ama a new beginning – his discovery and production of the cultured pearls in 1893 produced a new labour market for professional divers. Mikimoto Pearl Island was established in Toba, and Ama divers took their place in the business to provide pearls for the international market again.

 

The Haenyeo Divers in Korea

Korean Haenyeo people (해녀; lit. sea women) are a community of female divers from the province of Jeju living off the seabed and known for their independent spirit, iron will and determination. Jeju’s diving tradition dates back to 434 AD. Originally male, Haenyeo became a matriarchal society around the 17th century, when female divers outnumbered the male. The possible reasons for this change also vary. The war negatively affecting the male population, and female predisposition to diving is the most common hypothesis.

 

Island Freediving Tribes in South-Eastern Asia

With so many islands in what now is the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, nomadic traditions can’t be any less potent in this region. The Sama-Bajau people with their origins from the southern Philippines around Mindanao and now spread all around Malaysian and Indonesian islands are famous for their particular genetic adaptations useful for freediving. A 2018 study showed that Bajau spleens exceed the norm by an average of 50% comparing to the neighbouring land-based group. This difference allows their bodies to release more red blood cells when diving. And the red blood cells are the binders of oxygen that is essential for the breath-hold activity and allows to stay longer underwater. A more in-depth genetic study reveals Bajau’s special adaptations for vasoconstriction and blood pH control which are crucial in the mechanism of the mammalian dive response – this reflex is in detail explained in all our beginner freediving courses.

Another ethnic group spread around Thailand and Myanmar coastal regions called Moken demonstrate exceptional ability to see underwater. Research showed that Moken children see as twice as good underwater than the reference group of European children. This ability relates to pupil constriction and focus accommodation that Moken children develop naturally while diving. The same research also shows that European children can achieve the same adaptations being trained for about one month. Sadly, this training does not provide the same effect for an adult.

History of Freediving Haenyeo Diver
History of Freediving Haenyeo Divers
History of Freediving Sama-Bajau

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The Freediving Legend of 1913

The first semi-modern mention of a human reaching considerable depth on a breath-hold was from 1913 when a Greek sponge diver named Stotti Georghios retrieved a missing anchor from the depth of over 60 meters. The diver was employed by the Italian navy, and the legendary ship’s name was Regina Margherita. Sad but true, the diver was rewarded with only £5 and lifelong permission to fish with dynamite, while he suffered a considerable lung and ear trauma during this ordeal. As witnessed, and probably because of the lack of proper freediving physiology knowledge in place, these disorders were a common thing between the men of his profession at that time and well before. But in about 50 years this would fortunately change.

 

Freediving Tools and Equipment Take Shape

Later in the 20th century with the industrial revolution taking its toll and the technologies advancing, more and more advanced freediving equipment start to appear.
To allow the diver to see underwater, in 1927 Jacques O’Marchal invented the first freediving mask designed to enclose the nose. Later in 1938, Maxime Forjot used rubber material to improve it, allowing the diver to pinch the nose for better equalisation.

Not long before that, in 1933 Louis de Corlieu patented “swimming propellers”, the first prototype of freediving fins, later modified and mass-produced by an American Owen Churchill. This invention was a big success, and Britain and the US purchased large quantities during WWII.
In 1951, to give the body of the diver some protection from the exposure to cold water, a physics student and diver Hugh Bradner used neoprene for the prototype of the first freediving wetsuit, and again the invention was popular with US Navy who used wetsuits for the marines in the Korean War.

 

The Modern Freediving Pioneers: the Race Begins

Freediving stopped being ‘only’ a profession and was officially born as a sport when in 1949 an Italian air force captain Raimondo Bucher dove 30m to the bottom of the sea near Naples on a wager and won 50,000 lire. This was the first officially recorded freediving prize. However, nobody believed the human body is capable of diving to that depth, and the scientists confidently predicted Raimondo would die from high pressure.

The first freediving record holder in history was Bob Croft, a US Navy diving instructor, who was training the soldiers to escape from a disabled submarine in the training tank. He set a goal to show that a human can hold his breath for a considerable amount of time, and starting with 2 minutes, after a year of training could hold the breath for over 6 minutes. He demonstrated his students a successful escape from the flooded submarine, and then, after peacefully seating for more than three minutes on the bottom, peacefully ascended.
Due to his exceptional abilities, Bob served as a research subject for over six years from 1962 to 1968 and helped to discover the blood shift that occurs in the human body after extensive exposure to oxygen deprivation.

Later Bob got involved in the competition with two more rising freediving legends of that time, Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca that led him to set the records of 64 m in 1967 and 73m in 1968. After that Croft retired from freediving, he is also credited as the first diver to use air packing when he used a unique technique to stretch his lungs and add more air over their total capacity.

Enzo Maiorca was an Italian free diver born on 21 June 1931 in Syracuse, Sicily. A good swimmer from his childhood, Maiorca started chasing the depth in 1956 when he read an article about a new diving record. Within a few years in 1960, competing with his rival Jacques Mayol, he reached 45 meters, and later in 1988 ended his career with a record of 101 meters depth, after which retired from freediving.

The 1988 film The Big Blue by Luc Besson depicts Maiorca as Enzo Molinari, portrayed by Jean Reno.

Maiorca’s famous rival, Jacques Mayol, was a french freediver and, like Maiorca, a multiple record holder. Between 1966 and 1983, Mayol set eight no-limits world records. In 1976 Mayol broke the 100m barrier and set a no-limits 101m record at the shore of Elba, Italy.
Not only a no-limits champion, but he also set a record of 61 m with constant weight and using fins in 1981. In 1983, at the age of 56, he reached the depth of 105m.

 

Freediving as a Modern Sport

The pioneers of freediving proved that the human body has potential for deep breath-hold diving that nobody could even imagine before. They paved the road for a whole new generation of young and ambitious athletes who significantly extended the limits set by their predecessors.

The modern hall of freediving fame accommodates the names of Umberto Pelizarri, Natalia Molchanova, Alexey Molchanovs, Tanya Streeter, William Trubridge and Herbert Nitsch, just to name a few.

Tanya Streeter held the overall no-limits record of 160 m for more than two months from 17 August 2002. It was greater than the men’s record and still remains the women’s world record for no-limits apnea.

Umberto Pelizzari is the sole person to have established world records in all the then-existing disciplines of freediving.
In his 1990s rivalry with his training friend Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras, he set a constant weight record of 80 m and no-limits record of 150 m in 1999. Later in 2001, Pelizzari ended his career with a variable weight record of 131 metres. The competition between Pelizzari and Ferreras is depicted in the 2001 IMAX film Ocean Men: Extreme Dive.

Natalia Molchanova, the woman-legend of freediving, started her athletic career in swimming, but left the sport for approximately 20 years and tried freediving only at 40. Nevertheless, she owns 41 world records in each of 6 main disciplines: 101m constant weight and 90m free immersion in 2009, 70m no fins 2014, and 127m variable weight in 2012. Molchanova is the first woman to go deeper than 100m and the first to pass 9min breath-hold limit with 9:02 in 2013. In 2015 she was tragically lost in Formentera diving with her group. The film One Breath released in 2020 is based on Molchanova’s freediving career.
Natalia founded the Molchanovs freediving association offering the Molchanovs Freediving Courses and Molchanovs freediving gear now led by her son, Alexey Molchanov, also a prominent athlete, holder of 12 world records and deepest constant weight diver with 130 m set in 2018.

The most famous athlete in no fins discipline is William Trubridge, who was also the first to break the 100m barrier unassisted. He is the holder of 102 m no fins and 124m free immersion records both set in 2016 at the Dean’s Blue Hole, Bahamas. Alexey Molchanov later bested the free immersion record with 125m in 2018.

The official deepest man on earth is Herbert Nitsch who has held world records in all of the eight freediving disciplines recognised by AIDA International. Nitsch broke the 214m mark in no limits discipline in 2007 in Spetses, Greece. In 2012 he reached 253.2 meters, but was injured in the process and suffered multiple brain strokes due to severe decompression sickness. Nitsch is also famous for his “couch training”– a dry training that consists of multiple exhale breath-holds lasting for 60 to 90 minutes.

History of Freediving Herbert Nitsch
History of Freediving Natalia and Alexey
History of Freediving Natalia Molchanova

Do you want to learn how to freedive or you have questions please feel free to contact us anytime? Also do contact us if you want to join any of our courses. We teach freediving courses in the Philippines but we also teach freediving online via nice and entertaining Zoom classes almost everyweek. Same goes for our freedive instructor courses that we teach every few weeks online – we offer different options but they are fun and entertaining.

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