Extreme Diving

8 May 2009 By Kelly Sanford
Photo courtesy of William Trubridge

A discipline born out necessity for those without the benefit of sophisticated underwater breathing apparatuses, free diving has been around since the dawn of man. Human competitive and inquisitive instincts have led many individuals to push the threshold, descending into the depths of the ocean on a single breath of air, and it’s from this enterprise that the sport of competitive free diving was born.

When most people think of competitive free diving, they think of Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, whose free diving rivalry was largely fictionalized in the 1988 motion picture The Big Blue, a movie that portrayed the extreme fringes of free diving. These extreme categories, which the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) monitors as individual record attempts and not competitions, are Variable Weight dives, which use a weighted sled for the diver to descend and a vertical line to aid the ascent, and No-Limits dives, which allow any means to descend or ascend on a single breath.

In early April, 21 athletes participated in the annual Vertical Blue competition at Dean’s Blue Hole – the world’s deepest known oceanic sinkhole – located just a few meters off the beach near Clarence Town on Long Island in The Bahamas. Divers compete in three self-powered dive categories – which the event’s host (and world record holder) William Trubridge calls “the purest [forms] of depth achievement.”

These categories include Constant Weight (CWT), Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) and Free Immersion (FIM). In a CWT dive, the competitor cannot drop any weights during the dive, a line is used to monitor depth, but cannot be actively used to assist the dive and bi-fin or monofin use is permitted. A CNF dive is nearly identical to CWT except the use of fins is prohibited. In the final category, FIM, competitors are allowed to use a vertical guide rope to pull themselves during both the descent and ascent portions of the dive.

For anyone who leads a life aquatica, there is an intuitive fascination with these disciplines and a nearly universal curiosity about discovering one’s own potential limits. At this year’s event, four of the six individual world records were broken.

Trubridge, a 28-year-old Kiwi, broke the record for CNF on his second attempt. Though he managed to reach his world record 88 meters on both dives, he blacked out at the surface on his first attempt, which disqualified the dive. The nearly 289-foot dive took three minutes and 30 seconds.

Brit Sarah Campbell broke the women’s CWT record with a 96-meter dive.

Austrian Herbert Nitsch broke the men’s CWT record with a 120-meter dive after setting a 109-meter FIM record just days before.

Got you tingling to try it?

“Free-diving is a sport that if practiced in the right way is safer than almost any other extreme sport,” Trubridge says. “However, without the right basic training and reciprocal safety at the start, it becomes extremely dangerous, so I would always recommend that the first experience with the sport is in a controlled environment with a good free-diving instructor.”

If you’re interested in learning, Trubridge recommends Apnea Academy, which he says, “has the best reputation of the various schools, and all of its instructors are trained by the same core group of experts, including Apnea Academy founder Umberto Pelizzari.”

If you’re able to take advantage of downtime or vacation time, join a club. “After the initial course, the best way to progress is to get involved with a local free-diving club, who you can train with and with whom you can share expenses for free-diving excursions. Like any sport, free diving is more fun and rewarding as a social activity.”

And even if you can’t make it to 88 meters, there’s some good snorkeling water right outside your hull – the ocean’s your playground. Just keep a buddy nearby for safety’s sake.