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What is Freediving and How do You Start?

Male freediver

In its simplest form, freediving is just swimming underwater. Absolutely no gear required, although a bathing suit might be helpful if you’re doing it in a populated area. Hold your breath and swim under water. Now you’re freediving.

Our species has been doing it for thousands of years to collect food, and we’re actually well adapted to being underwater. Babies hold their breaths right away when you dunk them (only do this supervised!). Our mammalian dive reflex fires up when we get water on our face.

To swim underwater long enough to actually see anything, though, and to do it safely, there’s much more to it. A whole industry of gear makes highly refined equipment just for freediving, and it’s close cousin spearfishing. All of it makes freediving easier and safer. But, really, at the end of the day, all you need to start is your bathing suit.

Compared to scuba diving with all of its (very heavy) equipment, freediving is light and streamlined. Shorter fins and a mask are easy to travel with and easy to store. With colder water and a thicker wetsuit to keep warm, the gear gets a bit bulkier.

One quick note on safety for freediving: Never swim alone.

Things can go wrong when you’re diving and holding your breath for long periods of time. It’s beautiful and enchanting under the water. It’s easy to spend too long on the bottom. Always swim with someone who can pull you out of the water if necessary.

To learn the basics of the safety and the gear, take a course. Speaking of courses, here’s how to get started freediving.

Course: Padi Beginner Freediver

Padi is world renowned for its scuba diving courses that are taught in 186 countries around the world. But you may not know the company also has many courses for freediving as well.

The Beginner Freediver course is an excellent place to start learning the basics of freediving gear, holding your breath underwater, and wrestling that wetsuit on without giving yourself a heart attack. In the course, they work up to holding your breath for 90 seconds on land. They also start to train dynamic apnea, which is holding your breath while moving underwater for 80 feet in a shallow pool. Just 80 feet horizontally though. 80 feet deep is quite the dive!

You can take the course without ever having snorkeled, and you can use also your own snorkeling gear.

Mask: Mares Viper

Mares Viper

Without a mask under water, there’s not much to see. Humans can swim underwater without a mask or snorkel, but it’s damned hard to see anything and you’ll come out of the pool looking like it was just 4:20.

The Mares Viper looks like some sort of insect, but is actually a very popular freediving mask. There is a lower volume of air inside, which means less pressure on your face when you get deeper. The shorter distance from your eyes to the lens gives you a better field of view.  The matte finish doesn’t reflect light and scare away fish you’re chasing. The soft silicone seals well to most faces and is comfortable for long periods of time. It may not be the best choice for mustaches though, where a harder silicone might seal better.

Snorkel: Omer Up-SN1 Snorkel

Omer Up-SN1 Snorkel

Snorkels are a bit controversial in the freediving world. Some people use them, and some don’t.

They’re used a lot in snorkeling, where you just paddle around on the surface, breathing through the snorkel the whole time. Under the water, thought, snorkels can cause issues.

For shallow dives, snorkels are great. Dive down, return the surface and blow out the water. You can keep your face in the water and keep an eye on the fish below. As you get deeper though, the snorkel drags through the water and makes it harder to keep water out of your mouth. Many freedivers spit out their snorkel when as they dive, sealing out water better than your tongue can in the snorkel.

The Omer Up-SN1 snorkel is a basic but comfortable snorkel that accomplishes what it needs to do. It doesn’t have purge valves or dry-tops that can just fail when you’re out diving. If it pops off your mask when you’re under it floats. The soft silicone mouthpiece is easy to hold in your mouth for longer swims.

Fins: Mako Competition II Fins

Mako Competition II Fins

Most snorkeling fins are short, great for traveling and storage. Freedive fins tend to be longer, bigger, and more flexible giving you more push in the water.

Most freedive fins are made from one of three materials: plastic, fiberglass, or carbon fiber. They increase in price in that order as well, plastic being much more affordable than carbon fiber.

The Mako Competition II fins have interchangeable blades so you can use plastic as you’re getting started, then upgrade to fiberclass and carbon fiber if you start going out more. Carbon fiber will be the lightest and most flexible but also the most fragile. Plastic is the best value and a great place to start with freedive fins.

Wetsuit: Cressi Apnea

Cressi Apnea

For those of us in cooler places, we’ll likely be wearing a freedive wetsuit most or all of the time in the water. Wetsuits are divided into two main categories: open and closed cell.

Closed cell wetsuits have a lining on the outside and the inside. If you’ve surfed before, you’ll likely have tried a closed cell wetsuit. The neoprene has a lining on the inside and the outside to make them stronger and easier to put on. The downside to having a lining on the inside is it lets water move around more, cooling you down.

Open cell wetsuits don’t have a lining on the inside, sticking the neoprene rubber right to your skin. This creates tiny suction cups against your skin, keeping water out and you warmer. The downside? It usually needs some sort of lube (not that kind) to get into. Soapy water can work, but something better for the environment is always better.

The Cressi Apnea wetsuit has a Blacklite coating on the inside, making it possible to get on without any soapy assistance. It still maintains all the qualities of open cell neoprene keeping you warm and tasty in the water.

The Apnea comes in two pieces so you can wear the top separately on warmer days. Tatex kneepads prevent rocks or coral from tearing up your knees, and a sternal support on the chest helps with loading a speargun. Choose your thickness based on the temperature water you’ll be in: 5 mm for cold water, and 3.5 for warmer water.

Weight Belt: Seac Rubber Belt

Seac Rubber Belt

Most people float to some degree. They definitely float when wearing a wetsuit. To make it easier to dive without wasting all your energy, add a weight belt with just enough weight to make you neutrally bouyant at your desired depth. This means if you want to spend your time at 30 feet, add just enough weight so you don’t sink down or float up at 30 feet. Any more than 30 feet and you’ll be negatively bouyant (meaning you sink) so be careful with how much weight you put on.

Everyone floats differently but a simple test is put your gear on with weights. If you float at the surface with the water level between your chin and your mouth then you’re neutrally bouyant at the surface. If the water is below your chin, add a bit of weight. If it’s above your mouth, take some off.

The SEAC Rubber belt is a simple rubber belt which keeps the weights in place. The quick-release buckle pops open with one hand in case you need to ditch your weights and get to the surface fast.

Camera: AquaTech AxisGo Phone case

AquaTech AxisGo Phone case

If it’s not on the ‘gram it didn’t happen? You do you, but I like taking pictures underwater to remember the best places. Instead of spending thousands on a mirrorless camera and waterproof rig, just get a waterproof housing for your phone. Newer iPhones can go as deep as 13 feet without a case but do you really want to trust that? A hairline crack in the glass and $1,000 pocket computer is toast. Easy solution: An AquaTech AxisGo waterproof housing. Controls on the housing operate all the buttons and the touchscreen still works through the case. The case is 100% waterproof down to 30 feet. Capture those awesome surfing or freediving shots with just your phone.

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