Max completing padi level 1 freediving course

Learning to Freedive: No Tanks, No Problem

After years of snorkeling, scuba diving, and even a brief flirtation with spearfishing, I felt it was time to explore another avenue of underwater fun: freediving. So, I decided to embark on a Level 1 PADI Freediving course with Fathom Freedive, set against the stunning backdrop of Amed, Bali.

The PADI Level 1 Freediving Training Structure

The course was structured into three key parts: theory, a classroom session dedicated to breathwork, and three dive sessions. To be honest, the sound of “theory” usually makes my eyes glaze over, but not this time. Freediving is about understanding your body’s capabilities and limitations, when and where to push and when to listen to your body.

Theory Session

The theory session, run by Sam was fascinating. It explored the physiology of breath-holding, detailing how our bodies react under the stress of low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels. We delved into the Mammalian Dive Reflex, a natural response that optimizes respiration and circulation when we’re submerged. Safety, of course, was a significant focus, including how to recognize and handle potential issues like shallow water blackout, sambas (loss of motor control), and barotrauma. We also covered equipment basics, from the importance of a low-volume mask to choosing the right fins. Techniques for equalizing pressure were also discussed, such as the Frenzel method, which becomes indispensable as you go deeper.

Breathwork: The Classroom Session

We then moved on to the breathwork session, conducted in a cozy classroom setting. It focused on getting used to the sensations of holding your breath past where it becomes uncomfortable. When CO2 levels in your blood increase, the brain triggers the urge to breathe. However, at this point you still have plenty of oxygen to function, so its about moving past that urge. Your body has contractions which are involuntary spasms, a strange sensation to get and then keep going.

For the PADI Level 1, you need to be able to hold your breath for 1 min 30 seconds. About half the group managed this level. I came in at 2 min 37 seconds, which I was quite pleased with.

Dive Session 1: The First Plunge

Fully prepped, it was time for the first dive session. The beauty of Amed as a destination is the readily available sites just off shore. We swam out 50 meters or so and it was already 30 meters deep. Attached to the buoy is a weight and a line which the instructors let out as the group gains in confidence.

Starting with 10 meters, we climbed down the rope (as opposed to swimming down) to make sure we could equalise upside down comfortably. By the end of the session, I descended to a depth of 18.4 meters, which is deeper than you go on your PADI Scuba Open Water…

Freediving really is a unique sport. Everyone progresses at their own pace and it truly is a personal challenge of recognising your feelings and then overcoming them. On level 1, students rarely get close to their actual physiological limit and it is more about the mental battle.

Dive Session 2: Going Deeper

Feeling more confident after the first dive, the second session was all about pushing limits. This time, I reached a depth of 20 meters and practiced hanging at that depth. The silence at 20 meters is both eerie and calming, enveloped only by your thoughts and the need to focus on your breath. The thought of sharks did not help keep my heart rate low…

This was where the real mental game started; experiencing contractions—the involuntary spasms signaling your body wants to breathe—while maintaining composure at 20 meters below was surreal.

The Third Dive: Breaking the ‘Limit’

For the third session, I surprised and slightly alarmed Daniel, the instructor, when I opted to push myself beyond the usual depth to 22.4 meters hanging from the bottom weights below the end of the rope. Not officially sanctioned, of course, but I had to make the most of the final session.

The Freediving vs. Scuba Experience

Compared to scuba, freediving is an entirely different beast. There’s a sense of liberation in not lugging around tanks and gauges. The silence is deeper, and the connection with the underwater world feels much more intimate. Freediving is as much a mental discipline as it is a physical one. Unlike scuba, where your main challenges are equipment management and navigation, freediving is about mastering your own body and mind. Most of the freediving disciplines are not about exploring the underwater world like scuba but about testing your limits.

However, as a regular snorkeller I am keen to put into practice the techniques to explore reefs and marine life at 5-15m. It was a satisfying moment to dive down to see a clownfish family at 10m on the way back, interupting and slightly surprising a group of scuba divers.

The Advantages of Past Experience

My past experience with snorkeling, scuba diving, and even a taster day of spearfishing came in handy. These experiences made the technical aspects of freediving more accessible, allowing me to focus on the breath-hold and the mental discipline required. Others in the group spent much of the time focusing on the techniques of equalising, duck-diving, and getting the position correct which are all feel unnatural to begin with. For those thinking about giving freediving a go, I would recommend snorkelling and practicing diving to 2-5 meters and equalising ahead of the course. This way you can put more of the theory to test when you have access to the instructors. This isn’t necessary of course but can lead to a more satisfiying experience, and more chance of passing. Only 2 of the 7 of our group passed the course.

Final Thoughts

Sam at Fathom Freedive in Amed, Bali, provided an excellent experience for my Level 1 PADI Freedive course. For anyone looking to break free from the constraints of scuba or to explore a new dimension of underwater adventures, I couldn’t recommend freediving more.

As a water sports enthusiast and adventure seeker, I found freediving to be an eye-opening, boundary-pushing experience, challenging not just my physical capabilities but also my mental fortitude. It is unlike any other sport I have tried.

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Co-founder and Chief Adventurer

I am Max, the co-founder and CEO of adventuro. We are on a mission to help you get into the sports you have always wanted to try, or develop in the sports you love, exploring new skills and locations. We do this by partnering with the best instructors, guides, and activity centres to get a great spread from beginner all the way to instructor training.

For too long, it has been way to confusing to find your next steps, or even to know where to start when getting into adventure sports. I am an experienced and/or qualified paraglider, skydiver, scuba diver, freediver, power boat driver, snowboarder, kitesurfer, kayaker, mountain biker, surfer, dirt biker, wakeboarder, and sailor.

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