How Deep can Freedivers Dive?
How deep can freedivers dive? This question is often asked by both those who are just starting their way in this sport and those who are already practising for some time. What limits us? What helps us?
How Deep can Freedivers Dive?
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Freediving as we know it now, with freediving courses and a complete education system with instructor courses and such, is relatively new. Still, the practice of deep diving and staying under the water has its deep roots in history. Here we have a complete overview of the entire history of freediving and the freediving records.
In Ancient Greece, some people collected food and special sponges in the depths. These divers used special large stones, skandalopetras, weighing about 15 kg, to quickly go under the water to collect the sponges. It is believed that they dove up to a depth of 30 meters. In another part of the world, in Korea on the Jeju Island, there were Haenyeo divers (literally sea women) already in the sixth century AD. They continue their traditional work now, as they used to do it many centuries ago. Girls begin learning to dive at an early age and work until old age, up to 70-80 years. With each dive, the Haenyeo women descend to a depth of 10-30 meters and can hold their breath for more than 1-3 minutes, harvesting various seafood. The Philippines’ Sama-Bajau people, whose life is closely connected with the sea, also have an interesting traditional diving technique. It allows them to dive up to a depth of 60 meters and stay with one breath for up to 10 minutes. Many scientists believe that using such skills has changed the people of this tribe’s genes over a thousand years, adapting them for diving.
If we turn to common people, our contemporaries who were born in conditions similar to ours, we will still be able to find many record-holders among them.
In 1913, Stotti Georghios lifted a lost anchor from over 60 meters deep, receiving his £ 5 prize and a lifetime permit to fish with dynamite. His dive was recorded but not widely known. Doctors of the beginning of the 20th century confidently stated that pressure at a depth of over 30 meters would kill any diver. Their opinion was disproved in 1949 by Raimondo Bucher, who dived on a bet to a depth of 30 meters, thereby winning 50,000 lire. Bucher’s record was interesting for many young people. And one of them, Alberto Novelli, beat him in 1951, diving to a depth of 35 meters, and later in 1956, dove even deeper, to 41 meters.
And a few years later, the era of the Italian Enzo Maiorca and the Frenchman Jacques Mayol began – perhaps the most famous freedivers in the world, who were glorified in one of the best freediving movies in history, the “The Big Blue” by the great Luc Besson. Physiologists of that time determined the absolute depth limit for humans – 50 meters, but in 1961 Enzo Maiorca overcame it. Soon Maiorca and Mayol conquered 60 meters – their achievements led physiologists to an absolute deadlock.
Today, when freedivers dive deeper than some submarines, physiologists only partially explain the phenomenon of freediving and can not even approximately define new limits for humans. The leading theory about the human body’s adaptation to depth is the theory about the “underwater reflex of mammals”. The essence of the theory is as follows: all mammals left the World Ocean and have not lost their aquatic skills in the process of evolution. Those skills allowed some species – like whales and seals – to return to the ocean. These animals did not acquire any fundamentally new adaptations, which led the scientists to the idea: with sufficient training, a person can dive no worse than seals and whales.
Physiologists have studied the body’s basic physiological reactions to great depths even in times of Mayol, and since then, nothing has changed in general. Under the influence of pressure, the chest is strongly compressed, causing a decrease in heart rate by 40-70 per cent – bradycardia, which, in turn, leads to a decrease in oxygen consumption.
Under the pressure, after 10 meters, blood flow is redistributed towards the vital organs. As a reaction to holding the breath, the spleen contracts, the number of red blood cells that transport oxygen increases in the blood. Carbon dioxide gradually begins to accumulate, which, in turn, improves the release of oxygen to the tissues—the lungs contract to their minimum volume (less than a quarter of the original). In physiology, this process is called the body’s adaptive response.
Although everyone has the same adaptive response, you will not be able to simply go and dive a hundred meters. The first limiter is the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that goes down when inhaling and pulls up when exhaling. The more elastic the diaphragm, the higher it can be pulled up when diving, the less the lung residual volume. That is why an untrained person, even if he or she knows how to hold their breath well, will not be able to dive deep right away – they will not be able to compensate for the pressure and the pain in the diaphragm and eardrums will stop them. Also, there will be a feeling that there is not enough air – a normal reaction to CO2 buildup. Although this is not so: there is still enough oxygen in the blood, it’s just that the CO2 level has increased.
If a person wants to dive deep, he must have an elastic diaphragm and trained intercostal respiration muscles. For a fuller inhalation, they must stretch well. You also need to learn how to equalize the middle ear’s pressure and sinuses with the outside pressure.
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Simple equalizing works up to 30 meters. To dive deeper, you need to master the so-called Frenzel Technique. This technique does not utilize the force of the lungs but works with the air in the mouth, somehow similar to swallowing. The larynx is closed, and equalizing goes through the tension of the tongue muscles. What if we dive even deeper? The next method is mouthfill: at a depth between 10 and 25 meters, when we can still use the air from the lungs, the mouth should be filled with air, inflating the cheeks. And then, we use this reservoir of air to equalise the middle ear. If we relax the glottis, then all this air will instantly go into the lungs, and you can forget about further immersion. This technique allows you to dive very deep, and possibly over a hundred meters. This exact technique is usually what master freedivers train. Some think that great depths also require mastering the technique of air packaging, although there are also a lot of opponents of this method. When air packing, a person draws air into the lungs to the limit when he can no longer inhale in the usual way. Then, using his mouth as an airlock, he can pump another two or three litres of air into the lungs.
Deep freediving is classified into a number of disciplines. The first is called No Limits – it is diving with a weighted sled and going up on an air-inflated balloon, a technically difficult and dangerous activity. It was a technique using which Jacques Mayol set his records. The champion of this discipline is the Austrian athlete Herbert Nitsch, who managed to reach a depth of 214 meters in 2007. In 2012, he dove a record 253.2 meters but temporarily fell asleep due to nitrogen narcosis during the last part of the ascent. The attempt was not valid.
The second discipline is a descent assisted by a weighted sled going down the line (called VWT, Variable Weight). The world record is 150 meters, set by Walid Boudhiaf in 2020.
The other four disciplines endorse the athletes to rely only on their own physical resources. They can use fins (CWT, constant weight), swim without fins (CNF, constant weight, no fins) or have them pull themselves up and down the line (FIM Free Immersion).
The Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov dominates the world ranking with a world record in CWT monofin of 130meter, CWT bifins of 110 meters and a world record in Free Immersion of 125 meters. The world record in CNF it’s 102 m, set by William Trubridge in 2016.
But does the absolute depth limit exist?
Physiologists don’t even try to guess. According to Mayol, whales do not have any special deep-sea features that we are lacking. And the whales can go down more than a thousand meters deep… Only time will tell what the limit for freedivers is.
Do you want to learn how to freedive or have questions, please 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 every week. The same goes for our freedive instructor courses that we teach every few weeks online – we offer different options, but they are fun and entertaining.