Freediving is a fun and challenging way to experience the underwater realm. It offers us a unique way to interact with marine wildlife and can be a great way to put food on the table. But all too often I see freedivers and spear fishermen who have grown complacent or are simply unaware of the risks involved with underwater breath-hold diving. By following these 10 important rules of freediving safety, we can keep ourselves and our diving partners as safe as possible on all our underwater adventures.
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1. NEVER DIVE ALONE
This one is so very simple, yet time and time again it is often ignored. So perhaps it’s best to think of it this way… freediving solo is akin to Russian Roulette. It’s not a matter of if you will black out, but when. No, this is not an exaggeration. If you do not have a competently trained buddy in the water with you, you’re essentially offering your life up to fate.
2. PROTECT THE AIRWAY!
Aside from never diving alone, this is probably the most important rule of freediving. Even if you are rusty on handling black out and near blackout scenarios, the biggest thing you and your partner need to remember is to protect the airway from water. If you forget everything else that you’re about to read in this list, remembering these first two rules can prevent disaster.
3. KNOW HOW TO HANDLE A BLACKOUT
Discuss how to recognize and handle blackouts and near blackouts with your partners. It is also important to review and practice these skills in the water with them. If you are unfamiliar with these safety protocols, freediving certification courses teach these in depth and give each student hands-on experience in various rescue scenarios. If you are interested in taking a freediving course, take a look at the links in the recap below.
4. DIVE WITH AN EVENLY MATCHED PARTNER
In other words, dive with others who have similar depth and skill levels as you. Diving with an well-matched partner and conforming to the level of the least capable (shallowest) diver ensures that anyone performing the safety role will in fact be able to rescue their fellow divers in the case of an incident. If you are diving with a buddy that cannot safety you at the depths you intend to reach, then you must limit your dives accordingly. Nobody wants to perform a body recovery search because the safety couldn’t reach you after a black out incident or entanglement at depth!
5. COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE!!!
In order for your diving partner to know what may be required of them, you must communicate your intended depths and dive times. If you have an average dive time of about 2 minutes, but your partner assumes your dive times are closer to one minute, that will have them stressed out for about a minute and rushing at you by the time you get to the surface. As you can imagine, it’s not so fun for them. Even worse, if they assume you have a 3 minute dive time and it’s really more like 1 minute, there could be a critical delay in assistance should something go wrong during your dive.
6. WEIGHT YOURSELF CORRECTLY
Proper weighting ensures the safety of yourself as well as well as that of your buddy. To be properly weighted, you must be positively buoyant at the surface after a full exhalation. Many divers, especially spear fishermen, prefer to weight themselves to be very negative, using more and more weight as the dives get more and more shallow. However, all that excess weight will become like a noose around the neck in the case of a shallow water black out. Not only will it make rescuing a diver more difficult, but it will keep the diver from floating at or up toward the surface should a black out occur. To learn more about proper weighting techniques and how to determine your individual weighting needs I highly recommend signing up for a freediving certification course.
7. ONE UP, ONE DOWN
Always dive with one person breathing at the surface acting as safety and maintaining visual contact with the diver below. If constant visual contact is not possible due to poor visibility, a float line can be attached to the diver as a visual reference for those closer to the surface. However, this may not be an option if diving in conditions where there is a risk of entanglement (i.e. kelp forests, coral arches etc.). Another option for low visibility is to dive in groups of 3. This is a great technique, especially for spearfishing or diving at greater depths, as it allows for a group rotation between surface safety, back up diver, and active diver. This also gives whoever is acting as surface safety longer recovery times. In the case of spearfishing, the back up diver can act as shark spotter/defense or as a back up handler in case a fish puts up a fight or holes itself up. This frees up the main safety diver to focus on any possible rescue situations that might arise, and will in turn give the main diver much greater peace of mind (and this is a huge plus, given how much of a mental game freediving can be). The 3 man rotation is what we use while depth training, as we often dive beyond the range of visibility in even the most crystal clear waters.
8. ALWAYS FOLLOW THE 30-SECOND RULE
Acting as surface safety you must maintain direct supervision of your partner during their first 30 seconds at the surface – no exceptions! During this window you should be within arm’s reach of your partner in case they should show signs of hypoxia or the early stages of a black out. If you are further from the diver as they begin to surface, be sure to quickly swim towards them to close the distance in time before they break the surface. Maintaining direct supervision even after he/she gives the “OK” is a must, as many divers have been known to surface, take a breath or two, give an “OK” signal, and then black out or suffer a loss of motor control. If you are not within arm’s reach should this occur you will not be able to protect their airway which, as stated in rule #2, is your primary concern as their safety.
9. USE ADEQUATE SURFACE INTERVALS
For recreational freediving (less than 130 ft / 40 m), your minimum surface interval should be twice the duration of your dive time. Surface intervals increase as your dive depth and time increases, but for recreational freediving purposes, doubling your dive time is the general rule of thumb. To give an example, let’s say you’re diving down to a coral reef in 35 ft of water and since you take your time observing the sea life, your total dive time is 1:45. Upon surfacing, you should remain at the surface breathing up for a minimum of 3:30 before beginning your next dive. What this does is allow your blood to become re-oxygenated while also allowing you to off-gas the CO2 that has built up during the dive.
10. DIVE WITHIN YOUR LIMITS.
This can be a tricky one as many people don’t know exactly where their limits are, and if you dive frequently, those limits are naturally evolving over time. The key is to not push your dives to the point where you are struggling or winded by the time you’re reaching the surface. You should always feel fresh and alert. That being said, you wouldn’t believe how often I hear people tell me they don’t need a diving buddy because they always “dive within their limits”. Diving within (what you think is) your limit IS NEVER AN EXCUSE TO DIVE ALONE!!! I cannot overstate this enough, and here’s why. Over the course of a diving day, CO2 gradually builds up in your blood stream and, although you may not notice it, this has a taxing effect on your body. This is just one of many factors that have an effect on your ability to dive, so it is vitally important that as an individual you learn to listen to the subtle cues your body is giving you throughout a dive session. Hydration, diet, how well rested you are, water temperatures, thermoclines, swells, and many other factors all have an effect on one’s ability to freedive comfortably and safely on any given day. Given this many variables, no two diving days are the same. Checking in and listening to your body throughout each dive day is an incredibly valuable skill that every freediver should acquire, and will help you reduce (note I’m not saying prevent) the risk of shallow water blackout or near blackout events.
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Alright, there you have it folks! Those are my top 10 freediving safety tips! Whether you are new to the sport or have been enjoying recreational freediving or spearfishing for many years, I HIGHLY recommend signing up for a freediving course. The safety guidelines mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the technique and skills required to freedive safely and effectively. Certification courses will teach you everything from proper entry techniques, efficient kick strokes, how to select and use freediving gear, safety supervision and rescue skills, how to breathe before and after a dive, as well as how to determine and adjust your own personal weighting requirements. Sound like a lot? It is! And I can promise you your friends, family and dive buddies will thank you for it. Courses can be found through several agencies in the US and abroad, including Performance Freediving International, Freediving Instructors International (FII), AIDA, and PADI. Good luck, and safe and happy dives to all!
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