The History of Freediving

The History of Freediving

A brief history of freediving

Freediving being a relatively new sport leads to the false believe that apnea diving has only been discovered recently. There is evidence of people holding their breath to dive from very early on in the human history, evidence that lead the academic Sir Alister Hardy to publish in 1960 a divisive scientific theory labeled the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, his theory indicates that swimming and diving was a key ingredient in the development of the Homo family from the blink of humanity to modern times.

Ancient times, Mythology and Historical Evidence

Freediving was documented for the first time 7-10 thousand years ago on the Baltic Sea coast, where a tribe was named by archeologists “Clamp Eaters” because of the big number of fossil shells found at their area implying that they were diving for food.
In the same era a Scandinavian Stone Age culture called Ertebole on the coasts of Denmark and Southern Sweden were believed to have been a culture of shellfish eating freedivers, as suggested by archaeological finds. Archaeological proof of diving has been found in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations as far back to as 4.500 and 3.200 years B.C. respectively.

There are mentions in Greek scripts and artifacts, like Homer’s Iliad, where the fall of Hector is compared to a dive and also in the scripts of other ancient historians like Herodotus and Plutarch, who mention diving was used for retrieving artifacts and valuables from sunken ships. Other myths include that of Glaucus, the Green Mariner who ate a herb that gave him gills and a fish tail and the tale of Cyan and her fisherman father who swam underwater to cut the anchor ropes of the Persian war ships.

Diving for sponges, which is also mentioned by Homer and Plato, was and still is a well-known activity – especially in the island of Kalymnos. The Greeks hold annual depth competitions in the Scandalopetra discipline (ancient diving method) in honor of the old freediving ways. Furthermore, the philosopher Aristotle is the first to document the common problems associated to barotrauma, ear pain and nose bleeds.

Alexander the Great used divers in his military campaigns and the Romans had a military unit, the “Urniatores” who specialized in sub aquatic war tasks!

Modern Times

In more recent times, the most well-known freedivers are the Sponge divers mentioned earlier, along with the Japanese Ama and Korean Haenyo female divers, who still use the same techniques for the last 2000 years to pick pearls and seaweed from the bottom. Women between 17 and 50 years of age dive naked for long hours, in water barely over 10 degrees Celsius, using rocks to assist the dive to the bottom.

The Legendary Stathis Chatzi

The first ever officially recorded Freedive was been performed by the Greek sponge-diver Stathis Chatzi (Haggi Statti in Italian) in 1913. Stathis, age 35 at the time, undertook the task of retrieving the anchor of an Italian warship "La Regina Margherita", which has sunk to a bottom of about seventy-five meters. As payment he asked for 5 pounds Sterling, and the permission to fish with explosives. The ships doctor found that he suffered from remarkable lung emphysema and was partly deaf, from a life of diving without proper equalization. However, on July 16, he retrieved the anchor from 88 meters depth, freediving with the primitive 'Skandalopetra' diving technique, which is as old as the Greek civilization itself. The legend of Chatzistathis was considered vastly exaggerated until 2001, when the Italian Navy officially confirmed the dive based on the ship’s log.

Modern Freediving

In 1949, a Hungarian-born Italian spear-fisherman named Raimondo Bucher founded the modern sport of freediving, by announcing that he would reach a depth of 30 meters on a breath hold. Using a rock for ballast, Bucher reached the target depth where he picked up a parchment stored inside a cylinder from a surface supported diver. Bucher later confessed he did it all for a small bet of 50.000 lire with the diver waiting at the target depth, fellow Italian Ennio Falco, who two years later broke Bucher's record. This magnificent sport was introduced to the world by something as minor as a bet between two friends. Over the next decades, the sport evolved though a few notable names who were setting and breaking records, making the deep look like an ideal place for competition overcoming the limitations of the body by using techniques and natural physiology responses like diving reflex, blood shift, meditation and others.

Officially, Raimondo Bucher was the first man to ever reach the depth of -30 meters in 1949 but once rivalries started his record became part of the past. Enzo Majorca and Jacques Mayol were the protagonists of the next three decades, reaching the -101 meters and -105 meters respectively. After them, Francisco Pipin Ferreras and Umberto Pelizzari dominated the deep. Ferreras reaches the -128 meters in 1995 but in 1999 Pelizzari’s dive of -150 meters proclaims him the “Deepest Man”. Karoline Meyer (Brazil) made the first world record inside a competition in 1999, making modern freediving history by breaking for the first time the 6’00 barrier.

Competitive Freediving Today

Competitive freediving is becoming a very popular sport, with numerous annual competitions all around the world; either at sea or in a swimming pool. There are many disciplines one can choose from.

Pool Disciplines

Speed-Endurance Apnea

Speed-Endurance apnea is a fixed distance category requiring the minimum possible time. The event is swum in fractions of a pool’s length, alternating apnea swimming with passive recovery at the pool's ends.

Static Apnea (STA)

Static apnea is timed breath holding for as long as possible with the respiratory tracts immerged. Static apnea performances could be done in both pool or open water but it is usually attempted in a pool.

Dynamic Apnea (DYN)

Dynamic Apnea is the distance covered in a horizontal position under water, propelled by means of bi-fins or a monofin. DYN is the most typical of all disciplines in freediving, measuring the maximum distance swam on one breath hold. Performances are attempted in a pool with a minimum length of 25 meters.

Dynamic No Fins (DNF)

Dynamic No Fins is the distance covered in a horizontal position under water without the use of any propulsion aids. DNF is the most natural of the disciplines, measuring the maximum distance swam unassisted on one breath. Performances are attempted in a pool with a minimum length of 25 meters.

Open Water Disciplines

Constant Weight (CWT)

In Constant Weight (CWT), descend and ascend are achieved by use of  bi-fins or monofin and/or with the use of arm strokes, without pulling on the rope or changing the ballast; only a single hold of the rope to stop the descent and start the ascent is allowed. Constant weight is the common sportive depth discipline of freediving.

Constant Weight No Fins (CNF)

In the Constant Weight No Fins category, descend and ascend are achieved using muscle strength, without the use of propulsion equipment and without pulling on the rope. Constant weight without fins is the most difficult sportive depth discipline, since there is no aided propulsion. CNF is very technically demanding,  requiring a perfect coordination between propulsion movements and equalization.

Free Immersion (FIM)

In the Free Immersion category, descend and ascend are achieved only by pulling on the rope without the use of propulsion equipment. Free immersion is the sportive depth discipline with the purest sensations, because of the speed of the water in the body, and the power of each pull on the rope as only mean of propulsion. Performances can be done with the head first during the descent, or the feet first.

The Jump Blue

The Jump Blue, also called "the cube", is a discipline in which the dive is achieved by descending and swimming as far as possible around a square of a 15 meters side situated in a depth of 10 meters, with the use of a monofin or bi-fins.

Scandalopetra

Scandalopetra is the old diving method of the sponge divers and today it exists as an act of honor to the ancient freedivers. Descend is achieved with the help of a stone (usually a marble slab) attached to a rope. Skandalopetra is a team event: one athlete dives and one is waiting at the surface to haul up the diver using the rope, once the desired depth is reached.

Variable Weight (VWT)

Variable Weight is a record discipline (not used in competitive freediving) that uses a weighted sled for descent. Athletes return to the surface by pulling themselves up along the line or by swimming with or without fins.

No Limits (NLT)

No Limits is also a record discipline that allows the use of any means of breath-hold diving to depth and return to the surface, as long as a guide-line is used to measure the distance. Most divers use a weighted sled to dive down and use an inflatable bag to return to the surface.