Freedive · freediving

What Three Months of Freediving in Útila Taught Me

At the beginning of the year, I spent three months on the island of Útila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. I landed on the island on the 1st of January 2020 to be a Masters student at Freedive Utila, and thereafter an Instructor trainee. Let me share what I have learned from devoting three months to the freediving practice!

Artwork by Kimberley Jackson. The different dive sites we have access to from Freedive Utila.

1 The Danger of Pressure and Expectations

I started freediving in 2017. Freediving appeals to me because it is a way to relax and get in touch with myself. Holding your breath brings your awareness to bodily sensations and your inner world. It teaches you to create your own safe space right where you are and leaves you with inexplicable feelings. I usually try to protect this sacred quiet space within me. Still, sometimes it is threatened by concerns about how others view me and my competitiveness and desire to outdo myself. 

This year was the first time I found droplets of blood in my spit after a dive. Freedivers who push their depth ­­limits are susceptible to barotrauma (injuries to tissues caused by changes in pressure). These injuries are usually avoidable when one is under no pressure to perform. But for one who is fixated on achievement, it is easy to ignore bodily signals and sensations and push past what one is ready for. 

There wasn’t a lot of blood, but having a fear of blood made even that small amount unbearable to see and imagine within me. After the particular dive, I heard a gurgling sound and had trouble taking a deep breath (taking a deep breath caused me to cough), both signs of respiratory tissue damage. People usually brush off these few drops of blood, believing that injuries are part of any sport and that all I need to do is rest. But I was concerned about what had caused this to happen because I wanted to avoid it happening again. 

On reflection of my own unique situation, I believe the reasons for my trachea/lung squeeze was owing to a conflagration of factors that were related to me being hard on myself despite being slow to adapt to the new training conditions and environment.

I was ambitious when I left home. I had goals in mind for an upcoming competition. And a training plan that, if followed rigidly, “should” lead to the results I was targeting for or so I thought. But this plan did not take into consideration that I had difficulties adapting to the new country, school, system, social environment, diet, training, and water conditions.

Moreover, I came to the island at a low point in my life, and I was depressed and lonely. This training plan did not consider that everything around me and within me, even those seemingly unrelated to freediving, took a toll on my mental state and body and affected my mental clarity, judgment, and performance.

Tex, the owner of Freedive Utila and my instructor, dives by two principles. He tells his students: 1) Listen to your body. 2) Don’t do anything that is hard. If taken seriously, these principles imply that the sport of freediving is accessible to anybody. It encourages one to stay at where one is at until one is ready to progress further. Natalia Molchanov, the world’s greatest freediver, advises in her manuals that we are not to be obsessed with numbers but be realistic about our limits. She wrote, “Never compare yourself to other freedivers. Everybody has their own way. Feel your body, listen to it. This will help you not only to dive safely but also to know and accept yourself and truly enjoy a new underwater experience.”

Over time, I learned to accept that my training plan was not going to work out. Rather than push myself to attempt an unattainable goal, I decided to use freediving once again as a therapy to bring back health and wellness to my mind, emotions, and body. I re-examined my expectations and adjusted my standards. I decided that freediving was going to work for me rather than I work for it.

Photo by Miska Kontiainen. Really liked the fact that we get to pick up some boating knowledge and skills.

2 The Fun of Curiosity and Wonder

Here at Utila, the direction of the wind and currents determines the site we go to and the available depth we have when we dive. The beauty of our dependence on weather conditions taught me the importance of flexibility in training goals and having fun. I learned that depth need not be the only measure of one’s progress. There was a lot one could work on at shallower depths other than extending one’s personal best (PB).

I watched as my friends Caspar and Yilmaz and then Miska discovered that they could hands-free equalise. Many people think it’s impossible to learn hands-free equalization because they are unwilling to take a step back and become like beginners again, especially when they can now easily Frenzel or do the Mouthfill to deeper depths. It seems almost foolish to return to the beginning, struggling to make it past a few meters of depth, with a completely new technique. But my friends with their childlike spirit of faith, exploration, and tenacity discovered that they could also perform an equalization technique that has a reputation of being “impossible to learn.” 

Is it any wonder that many discoveries are made when we have fun with nothing to prove and with all the time to lose?

We also tried diving as fast as we could, variable weight, diving to the bottom of the ocean and lying in the sand, no fins to the bottom and then kick off from the sand back up to the surface, and one-by-one following closely behind Tex through the many decks of the Halliburton Shipwreck. Yes, it was during a variable weight dive that I discovered I could Frenzel. Being dragged through a water column at such a high speed made me instinctively picked the method of equalization that was the fastest, and it seems putting my hands to my nose and rapidly firing my tongue was my body’s method of choice for this style of diving.

Each day presented different opportunities. I was experiencing the fun of freediving again.

And this I did at Freedive Utila with many amazing people. I tried so many things I didn’t try previously in my pursuit of depth. For me, pursuing depth meant fine-tuning techniques that were known to work, instead of experimenting with new and unproven techniques. I wanted to achieve the greatest progress in the shortest amount of time. However, letting that go opened my mind to what progress means.

I learned in my time at Freedive Utila to view each problem I had with curiosity rather than criticism. Since I arrived, an issue that has been bugging me was a squeaky left ear, likely a result of middle ear inflammation. One day, Caspar was practicing his Mouthfill, and he did it from the surface with full lungs. This gave me an idea, why don’t I try it too? To my surprise, with this change in equalization technique, the squeaky ear issue went away. Apparently, before switching to this method, I was equalizing a little too slowly with my intermittent hands-free equalization, causing pressure to build up on my eardrums. While this was not so much an issue with short diving sessions where I only perform a few dives, it was too much for my body for the longer dive sessions that we have here at Freedive Utila that can last up to three hours. With this new technique, my eardrums were continuously inflated and never experience the water’s pressure. Realising a constant pressure Mouthfill may actually work for me also made me open to trying noseclip diving, something I was previously resistant to.

Another problem I had that used to make me think I was not cut out for freediving was my early contractions. Probably because I am perpetually high strung, I have a naturally high baseline level of CO2 when using a breathe up that works for most people. While having contractions during diving is common and not an issue and signals the MDR is working, I wanted to know if I could delay them by awhile to increase the period of relaxation during my dive. During one of the static sessions, I decided to try a different type of breathe up that reduces the CO2 content in my body. And lo and behold, for the first time ever, I experienced a “normal” breath-hold which had distinct segments of relaxation and contraction and hypoxia. The arrival of the contractions, rather than being premature, matched the lowering level of O2 in my body more closely. And with this breath-hold, I managed to do a PB!

Hitting a PB for static after trying a new breathe up!

Ironically, progress comes easily when one is having fun.

From these experiences, I learned to listen to my body and find unique solutions to my unique problems. It is true what Natalia Molchanova said that regardless of how long one has been doing the sports, with a curious mind and open heart, it is possible to “truly enjoy a new underwater experience” with every dive.

3 The Joy of Exhale Diving

Unique to the Apnea Total System, besides the lack of depth requirements for their courses and focus on students’ experiences rather than performances, is their teaching of exhale diving in the Advanced course (equivalent to Level 2 for the other certifications). Exhale diving means diving with anything less than full lungs. The most common is the functional residual capacity (FRC) dive, which is diving with the amount of air after a passive exhale.

Being new to the Apnea Total system, I did not have much experience with exhale diving. Even the thought of it scares me. Exhale diving may not appeal to a diver who has been working on depth because exhale diving exposes the diver to higher pressures earlier, hence regressing one in meters. It does not sound attractive to train exhale dives when depth is available. But! There are many benefits to exhale diving, including being less buoyant and being able to conserve more oxygen during the most energy-consuming phase of the dive – the entry and beginning meters of a dive. 

One particular day where we were at the Shipwreck with a depth limit of 33m, I devoted that session solely to exhale diving. Usually, when the body is still warming up, the first few dives are the most uncomfortable. And on other occasions when I’ve tried exhale diving, this is usually the point where I stop, hence reinforcing my belief that exhale diving was challenging and uncomfortable. However, because I only did exhale diving in this session, I slowly realised that the dives became more and more comfortable, and I went deeper and deeper. And not only that, each dive left me with a feeling of euphoria that my full breath dives rarely gave to me.

Our body is actually more adapted to exhale diving than full breath diving. One of the triggers for the Mammalian Dive Reflex is a reduction of lung volume. When you dive on exhale, you are allowing your body to more quickly launch the mammalian dive reflex. Your body senses not just the apnea, coldness on your face, but on top of this that you have less air in your lungs, and hence it will be more conservative with oxygen usage, kicking in the MDR earlier than it would have otherwise dive on full breath. 

I experienced this strengthened conservation of oxygen viscerally and physically with my exhale dives to the same depth being much less effortful than the full breath dive. This opened my mind to trust my body more. Knowing that my body knew exactly how to adjust the knobs of its system to take into consideration the air and oxygen level in my body was mind-blowing. I did not have to worry and stress over every small change I was making to my training program or the quality or length of my breathe up and be perfectionistic over the levels of O2 or CO2 in my body. The truth is the body senses all these changes to the minuteness of detail and will respond accordingly to help me make my dive.

Photo by Yael Eisner.

Was the three months I devoted to freediving worth my time and money? It was more than worth it. Thank you Freedive Utila for the wonderful friendships and experiences. And thank you to all my islander friends who accepted me as their own and made me feel so at home.

The island has opened its doors once again beginning October 2020 after a long drawn out battle to try to keep Covid-19 out.

Do keep this little island and dive school in mind in your freediving plans!

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