Dangers of freediving

What are the main hazards and risks of freediving & How can you minimize them?

Diving on a single breath and descending multiple feet under the water might sound like a pretty dangerous thing to do for those who hear about this sport for the first time. But boy, is it fun. One of the main benefits of freediving is that this sport allows to experience feelings of intense relaxation and self-exploration, but to it in a safe way, it is essential to be fully aware of what hazards this sport involves. Learn now with me about the potential dangers of freediving and see what you can do to avoid them.

Conditions that affect the safety of freediving

There are numerous risks that can make freediving less safe. Looking at some conditions of an individual that might affect the safety of freediving will give you a better understanding of what conditions to pay attention to.

Dehydration

Dehydration can trigger decompression sickness (DCS). Although DCS is a low risk in freediving, you can’t be too careful. Being dehydrated might also cause dizziness, confusion, and muscle cramps, which can all be dangerous if you’re underwater.
Being hungover can also cause dehydration, so limit your alcohol intake. The best is if you fully skip alcoholic beverages during training periods, but at least do not drink the night before a dive.

Sunstroke

When you’re in the water it can be difficult to tell if your body is being exposed to too much sun, because you won’t necessarily feel hot.

Sunstroke can cause confusion which could be dangerous in the water, it could also ruin future dive sessions if you need time to recover. To avoid sunstroke, limit your time out of the shade, cover up, wear sunscreen, and stay hydrated.

Too cold

Becoming too cold will make you shiver which will reduce your relaxation and potentially lead to hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is a real risk in freediving as it can lead to nausea, organ failure, or even death.

Always check the water temperature before your dive and choose your wetsuit accordingly. When you start to shiver, exit the water.

Stress

Stress can affect your relaxation in the water and lead to blackouts. It’s important to become as relaxed as possible before a dive.

This can be done in various ways including meditation, breathing exercises but getting enough sleep the night before and eating wholesome, nutritious food also contribute to success.

Medical conditions

Some medical conditions can make freediving dangerous for you. If you have a pre-existing medical condition such as a heart condition, ear problems or lung issues, check with a doctor to see if freediving is suitable for you.

Nitrogen narcosis

Nitrogen narcosis is more likely to be experienced by scuba divers, but some very deep freedivers might experience feelings of euphoria, confusion, visual disturbances, or a feeling similar to being drunk at depth.

Freedivers usually start feeling such symptoms at around 85 ft/25 meters when the nitrogen in the lung starts dissolving into the blood. Usually, it is not dangerous but might cause the diver to make poor decisions, or to panic so it is crucial to be able to identify what are you facing and how to handle it. Staying relaxed and ascending back up is the safe decision.

Environmental hazards

Some risks in freediving are external, such as environmental hazards that also should be taken into consideration if it comes to the risk of freediving.

Weather / water conditions

Strong winds, choppy waves, or thunderstorms can be dangerous when freediving, and definitely not relaxing. Always choose a safe location to dive, away from rocks, boats, or other hazards, and with easy access to the shore in case of emergencies.

Dangerous sea creatures

Some marine life can sting or bite. Things like lionfish, stonefish, scorpionfish, fire coral, and moray eels should be avoided while freediving. It’s a good idea to read up on common marine life at the dive site so you know what to look out for and learn how to treat injuries.

Freediving near coral  reef in Egypt

Marine debris

Getting hurt underwater can be dangerous. Fishing hooks, fishing nets, shipwreck debris, toxic waste, and any other hazardous human waste should be avoided while freediving or approached with caution.

Common freediving injuries

Although injuries are unlikely to occur while freediving, there are a few that might. However, being aware of the potential risks, symptoms, and reasons behind them will help avoid them.

Middle ear barotrauma

Pushing your ears when freediving can cause long-term damage, therefore it is important to equalize frequently (more than once every 3ft/0.9-1m). Equalize your ears on the surface, and as you duck dive, and then continuously on your descent. If you are unable to equalize, do not try to dive deeper.

LMC

A loss of motor control (LMC) might occur when oxygen levels are too low from a breath hold. A diver experiencing an LMC is likely to feel confused, lose control over their body movements and speech, and spasm.

The diver will usually come back to normal after a few seconds with no side effects, however the danger is if water gets into the airway while the LMC is happening. If you see a diver having an LMC, make sure to hold them up and keep their mouth and nose out of the water.

Blackout

A blackout might occur when oxygen levels are too low from a breath hold. It is the same sensation as fainting. This can happen on the surface after the dive, or under the water.
If the diver blacks out underwater, make sure to keep their chin down and airway closed to stop them from taking water into the airway as you bring them to the surface.

On the surface, you can blow on the diver’s face which might be enough to bring them around, if not, rescue breaths are necessary. Blackouts can be dangerous if water is taken into the lungs, or if no one is around to rescue the diver.

Decompression sickness

Decompression sickness (DCS) is a low risk in freediving, but it is a possibility. As freedivers are taking one breath from the surface, they will not be taking on the same levels of nitrogen when they dive as scuba divers do. However, some nitrogen is still taken on by the body, and deep divers (past around 165ft) need to start considering the risk of DCS.

Taking a good break in between dives can decrease your risk of DCS when diving deep, if you are diving over 230ft you should probably limit your deep dives to just one in a session. Deep divers can also breathe oxygen after a dive to decrease their risk of DCS. It is also important that you should never freedive after a scuba dive as you can interfere with the nitrogen off-gassing process that happens after diving with a tank of air.

Mask squeeze

A mask squeeze (facial barotrauma) can occur if you do not equalize the air space between your face and your mask. It is simple to do, simply breathe out a little from your nose when the mask starts to feel tight on the descent.

If you experience a mask squeeze, you are likely to have bloodshot eyes with potential swelling.

Trachea squeeze

A trachea squeeze might occur in freediving because the negative pressure in the trachea can cause blood vessels to rupture. This might feel like a throat tickle or a cough, or create mild pain, and you are likely to have a little blood in your spit afterwards.

Usually, this injury is mild and you will not need medical assistance, however it is important to take a break of at least three days before doing any more diving. To reduce your risk of a trachea squeeze, avoid looking up and stretching your neck while freediving.

Lung squeeze

A lung squeeze (lung barotrauma) is much more serious than a trachea squeeze. It can occur because of increased pressure on the gas spaces in the lungs while freediving.
A lung squeeze is most common past depths of around 100ft, and symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, faintness, dizziness, and fatigue. You are also likely to cough up blood from a lung squeeze but it will look more pink and foamy.

There are varying levels of severity in lung squeezes, some people will have minor symptoms, whereas a very severe lung squeeze can be fatal. If you experience any symptoms of lung squeeze, breathe oxygen if possible and seek medical assistance straight away. It is vital to completely recover from a lung squeeze before attempting to dive again.

How to minimize the dangers of freediving

Reading about the potential risks of freediving might sound scary, but the good news is that with preparation and proper training, we can keep the hazard level low. Let’s have a look at how we can make freediving as safe as possible.

Never dive alone

The number one rule of freediving is to never dive alone. You might trust your own judgment, but it only takes one bad dive. Mistakes could have fatal consequences if you are alone. Diving with a buddy could save your life.

freedivers during training

Know your capabilities

No freediver woke up and decided on a whim that they would try to dive over 300ft deep. Diving deep comes from months, if not years of practice and repetition.

One day 30ft might feel impossible, but after some practice it soon becomes easy. Then, you can add a few feet, repeat the new depth, add a few more feet, and so on until you are reaching depths you never thought possible when you started. It is important to add depth a little at a time, and to only go deeper when you are completely comfortable.

Check conditions before diving

Before going for a freediving session, always check the weather and the wind speed at the dive site. If the conditions feel too dangerous, cancel the session. Safety first!

Make sure that your gear is in proper condition

Having correctly sized and good-fitting equipment is crucial in order to minimize the dangers of freediving. Make sure that you find a mask that fits your face well, fins that are comfortable even after a longer period, a nose clip that suits your nose shape and will not leak air as you dive.

You might also want to check that your wetsuit is not too tight, and that you have the appropriate amount of weight on your belt to remain safe. Also, learn how to set up your buoy correctly, check that your rope is marked with the correct depths, and that your lanyard can be strapped onto you securely and that the clip opens and closes properly. Maintaining your gear may take time and effort but can save your life if anything goes wrong.

If you’re unsure, change the plan

If you don’t feel 100% ready to perform a dive to the depth you have planned, don’t do it. A few nerves are normal when going for a personal best, but if you have doubts that you’ll make it, or if that day you just don’t feel as relaxed as you normally do, there’s no shame in canceling or diving a bit shallower.

Dive with people you trust

A strong safety diver is essential when performing dives close to your personal best depths. If you decide to go diving with someone new, make sure you ask questions. What is their personal best? How deep do they feel confident performing safety to? Are they confident performing a rescue if necessary?

Your buddy should meet you at around one-third of the depth of your dive, on your way back up. If they are not comfortable doing this, find a new buddy or reduce the depth you are attempting.

Practice safety protocols regularly

You should also be confident performing a rescue for your buddy if necessary. It’s good to regularly go over rescue protocols so that if you have to do it in real life you will feel confident to do so.

Have a plan for emergencies

Always have a plan of action in case of an emergency during a dive session. Think through the order of steps you would take if an emergency happened on your line and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there oxygen close by?
  • Can we exit the water easily and quickly?
  • Where is the closest hospital?
  • What is the local emergency phone number?
  • Is someone in the group trained in emergency first response?
  • How far is the nearest chamber?

Develop your skills

Whether you are new to this exciting sport or an advanced freediver already, there is always room for improvement. The better your technique is, the safer you will feel in the water so always take time to deepen your knowledge. Connect with other freedivers in your area, watch training videos and read freediving manuals.

Practice mindfulness

Stress can make a huge difference to how freediving feels, and can even encourage a blackout, this is why it’s important to only dive to depths you are comfortable with. To reduce stress even further, you can practice mindfulness and meditation before a dive session to become as relaxed as possible.

Perform proper relaxation breathing and lung stretches

It is important not to hyperventilate during the relaxation breathing before a dive. Hyperventilation can postpone the urge to breathe underwater which might make you push past your limits and blackout unexpectedly.

Also, when you start to dive deep (past 100ft), lung squeezes start to become more of a risk due to increased pressure. Performing lung stretching exercises can help your lungs to become more flexible and better prepared to handle pressure.

Don’t dive under the influence

This one should be pretty obvious, but it is never a good idea to freedive under the influence of drugs or alcohol that might impair your judgment. Dive with a clear mind and have confidence you won’t make silly decisions.

Conclusion

Clarifying the question ‘is freediving dangerous’ should be the first step for those who are considering picking up this unique water activity. Breath-hold diving, like any other extreme sport has its own risks and hazards, but these can be minimized with proper training, having the correct gear and following safety practices.

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When practiced in a safe way and following safety protocols, freediving -no matter it is recreational or competitive – does not cause brain damage. Neither the breath hold or the pressure on the body have negative effects on the brain. The risk of brain damage can occur when the freediver suffers a blackout and is left without immediate help, gets decompression sickness due to too deep or too frequent dives or passes out underwater and hits the head. Following safety guidelines and diving with a buddy/trained safety divers lowers the chances of getting into such situations.

The safe depth for a freediver always depends on his/her experience, level of training, own capabilities, physical and mental health as well as on the actual weather/water conditions. Freediving organizations suggest a maximum depth rate of 130ft/40m for recreational freedivers. New freedivers learn to dive down to 30ft/10m safely on a beginner course then progress to deeper diver as they improve.

However, there is no official restrictions on flying after freediving, freedivers who perform deep dives are advised to wait 18-24 hours to avoid decompression sickness which is related to the depths as well as lengths of the dives. During dives, the water pressure causes more oxygen and nitrogen to be dissolved in the blood. While the body consumes the oxygen quickly, nitrogen needs time to leave the bloodstream, otherwise the bubbles can cause blockage and lead to a stroke or heart attack. To play safe, the best is to follow the official DAN guidance that scuba divers follow and get on a plane only after 24 hours after diving. This waiting period allows excess dissolved nitrogen to leave your bloodstream.

There have been several notable freedivers who have died while training or in competition.

The most famous is Russian Natalia Molchanova. Natalia is considered one of the best freedivers of all time and set numerous world records. She went missing in 2015 while giving a private lesson off the coast of Formentera, Spain. She was reported to dive to 130ft/40m and never resurfaced.

Another notable freediver who died while a world record attempt is the French Audrey Mestre. Audrey died at Bayahibe Beach in the Dominican Republic in 2002 while attempting to dive to 561ft/171m. She reached the depth successfully but could not come back to the surface as the air tank that was supposed to inflate the lift bag to take her up has no air in it. Her body was brought to the surface by her husband.

Nicholis Mevoli American freediver was the first freediver who lost his life in an international free-diving competition. Mevoli died in 2013 during the popular Vertical Blue event at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. He was trying to set a record by diving to 72m with no fins. After resurfacing, he lost his consciousness; safety divers and the medical team could not revive him. Mevoli was reported to suffer pulmonary edema.

The latest important death is the death of Stephen Keenan (2017) who was accompanying Alessia Zecchini as a safety diver in the Arch Dahab, Egypt. The reasons of the fatal accident were disorientation and blacking out due to not ideal conditions (high winds and low visibility).

The exact death rate of freediving is difficult to determine as most deaths that occurred during freediving cannot be attributed to freediving alone but generally, there are about 50-60 freediving-related fatalities yearly. According to freediving organizations, general water sports like scuba diving and even most land sports like running or cycling have a higher death rate than freediving. Surprisingly, the death rate of recreational freediving is about 10 times higher than the death rate of competitive freediving which is about 1 in every 50000 dives. This can be explained by the fact that competitive freedivers are extremely well-trained, follow strict safety rules and are accompanied by safety divers which make fatalities very unlikely to occur during competitions or while training.

Freediving, as it is considered an extreme sport, has numerous potential risks and hazards, however, if it is practiced in a safe way and followed by proper training and safety protocols, it is a safe activity and has many health benefits. It can boost your physical health as it improves overall fitness, flexibility and lung capacity. Also, freediving helps build better mental health too by reducing stress, improving concentration and supporting self-discovery.

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