Freediving

Recently I came back from Dahab (Red Sea in Egypt), where I had a great week of freediving training with Molchanova Freediving School! I'm feeling deeply relaxed, recharged and, in a way, like I've got some super human abilities!

For those who don't know, freediving (also apnea) is a way to discover the underwater world in the most natural way by simply holding your breath. I.e. without using any scuba gear, air tanks, and so on.

WARNING: please, never hold your breath in the water (even in a bath tab) without supervision of professionals. This could be extremely dangerous!

Freediving has become a huge part of my life recently, and I just realised that I didn't share much about it on social media. So here's my perspective on the fascinating world of freediving!

Photography and scuba diving

Before I start talking about freediving, I wanted to share what brought me into it.

I love photography. Sometimes, when I see a photo or video that touches me deeply, I think "damn, I really wanna be in that moment!" and after that I'm trying hard to recreate this moment in real life and take a similar shot. This approach already many times led me to incredible lifetime experiences and adventures which I will remember forever.

E.g. on this picture above I'm scuba diving in Silfra (Iceland). I saw a similar picture on Instagram which inspired me to recreate this moment in real life.

To achieve this I had to survive piercing wind, rain and diving in a very cold lake Kleifarvatn to get my drysuit specialisation and prepare for Silfra. The waves in that lake were insane, visibility was terrible (less than 3m), the lake was full of volcanic ashes. I almost couldn't feel my fingers, because everything, including regulator, was freezing!

Silfra is basically a massive crack ("the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates" wiki) filled with crystal clear glacier water. It's one of the best places to dive, because you can see very far away, you can swim between tectonic plates, and it looks dope! The water temperature there is usually 2–4 °C (36–39 °F).

Basically, that's how I got hooked onto the new adventures! Do you have the same thing?

Scuba diving itself is amazing! I'll do a separate post about it. In short, this is my experience with it:

  • in 2016 I tried discover scuba (PADI DSD) in Phi-Phi (Thailand). I went down to about 10 meters, always holding instructor's hand, and I thought I hardly survived, haha.
  • in Summer 2018 we did open water diver (PADI OWD) course in Malta with friends. This was a life changing experience! We learned a lot of insights and managed to get to 18 meters. I was really-really bad and afraid of the water! Thanks to my brilliant instructor Marika for patiently teaching these skills.
  • in Autumn 2018 we did advanced open water (PADI AOWD) course in Cyprus. With nitrox and other good stuff. Managed to get down to 30 meters. My thinking at a time was "I'm very bad, I need to do level x + 1 in order to be fine at level x".
  • I did over 30 dives in total. In Malta, Cyprus, Spain, Kenya, Zanzibar, Iceland, Croatia and Dubai aquarium. The deepest I went was 33 meters (in Mallorca).

So, I did some scuba in the past. I became more-less comfortable under the water. But, at the same time, I always felt kinda clunky under the water, that I'm not the best version of myself there!

At some point later I saw breathtaking photos and videos of humpback whales in Tonga. A couple of months a year (around August) they are chilling in Tonga (the Pacific Ocean, not too far from Fiji), so people could come really close to them and watch these incredible creatures. This became my new dream! I wanna swim with whales in Tonga and take pictures of them!

I started doing my research about it, preparing gear (looking for underwater housing for my Nikon D750) and thinking of how I could not suck under the water. I was thinking to book some specialised swimming lessons. And then I came across a freediving!

Why freediving?

Here's some aspects that I like about freediving:

  • Freediving is an amazing ability to explore underwater world! Usually whales or other fish are a bit afraid of bubbles, and you can't come to them close because you have all this gear which makes you slow when you scuba dive. When you're freediving, you're basically like a fish, you can dive very deep, you can swim up really fast and not being afraid of decompressions sickness. You can just move freely and feel like a superman!
  • Freediving teaches you how to be comfortable with the water. You must be comfortable in what is uncomfortable.
  • It's an incredible tool that teaches you to overcome your fears, teaches you to tap into ancient instincts that allow you to relax deeply. It incorporates a lot of breathing techniques. Helps get rid of anxiety. You just feel really really good down there and don't think of any problems!
  • I look at this like on a measurable yoga/breathing techniques. Whatever you do needs to be measured. Your pulse, you blood oxygen saturation, how long you can hold your breath, when you're having your first contractions, etc. You're establishing metrics and working towards improving them! To me personally this approach is much better than "Try breathing this way. Are you feeling better today?"
  • I love when you're going along with nature, not trying to avoid it. When you're using the tools that have been created long time ago by evolution. I.e. I feel the same about "freediving" vs "scuba diving" as about "gliding" vs "flying on a plane". There's something ultimately beautiful about being with the nature!

What interests you the most about freediving?

Physiology

Mammalian dive response

It's super fascinating to see that our body is capable of extraordinary things! All mammals (including humans) have this mammalian dive response (MDR) that allows us to survive just insane depths and stay under water for a while. The MDR is basically a combination of several stimuli triggering a series of reactions in our body to save us. One or multiple of the following conditions:

  • Our CO2 in the blood is rising (when we're holding the breath).
  • Our face is immersed into the water (we have a specific receptors on the face).
  • Pressure outside is rising (our lungs volume getting smaller)
  • Low temperature

Trigger series of adoptions in our body:

  • Peripheral vasoconstriction - when our blood vessels in our arms, legs, etc are narrowing..
  • Blood shift / Haemo compensation - our blood shifts towards lungs, heart, brain and other important organs to protect them.
  • Bradycardia - our heart significantly slows down to preserve oxygen.

There're so many more things going on, like spleen effect, hypo metabolism, build up of a lactic acid, etc. I would strongly encourage to take a course, where this will be explained in details!

Hyperventilation

There's a big misconception that freedivers do hyperventilation before the dive. Doing hyperventilation before the dive is extremely dangerous - because you can blackout without notice - you will feel good, but could blackout suddenly. Also having CO2 is important to trigger the MDR, which would slow down heart rate and allow us to stay longer under the water.

E.g. I love practicing the Wim Hof Method (similar to tummo breathing, essentially a hyperventilation), and I think a lot of you do as well. It's really cool, but must never be done before the dive due to the high risk of blackout!

This was a glimpse to some of the physiological aspects of freediving, that will be taught during the course if you decided to be certified.

Below you can read about some major milestones of my freediving journey.

Zanzibar - SSI 1

During my trip to Africa in January 2019, I signed up for the SSI level 1 course in Zanzibar. This was a two-day freediving course. My instructor Alistair Louw was great and taught me a lot! On the first training day I managed to hold my breath for 2 min 40 sec, and swim about 30 meters in the pool under water. On the second day we did a depth training, where I had to dive to 10 meters multiple times, learned duck dive, how to rescue, etc.

Clearly I was very clunky under the water (just look at my first dive). I hardly managed to pass all the requirements for the SSI 1 licence. But I knew that it's just a first step and I will just keep practicing back in London, and eventually will get better!

Unfortunately, I didn't get the licence this time, even though I passed the requirements. There was some weird conflict between the dive center and the instructor. They couldn't communicate between each other. The instructor flew back home from Zanzibar. The dive center people asked me via email if I passed the requirements. I told them yes, but please ask the instructor, not me, because my opinion is clearly biased. Eventually after months of chasing both I ended-up without the licence. Not blaming anyone. Not sure what happened. But I got the experience!

London - AIDA**

Once I arrived to London I started searching for places to train, trying to find my freediving family!

I started with just messaging random people in multiple freediving groups and eventually got introduced to Ilja Ozolins (thanks Marina Kazankova for the intro). Ilja ended up being incredibly helpful! He taught me everything - where to dive in the UK, what gear to buy, which clubs are present, etc.

I couldn't join any outdoor freediving activities, because I didn't have a basic certification. Also I had no luck joining any clubs to start training and get the licence - it was not many of these clubs and they all were fully booked. Ilja suggested me to do AIDA** course with Adam Drzazga (see Blue Water Freediving School), and introduced me to him.

Adam is an amazing instructor! He's a competitive freediver, an SSI, PADI & AIDA Master Instructor, Judge and a former Chairman of the British Freediving Association. In addition he organises great trips to watch seals and blue sharks!

The AIDA** training was in St. Andrew's lake in Kent (less than an hour by train from London). There are even some wrecks under water to see - a small boat and an airplane!

After getting AIDA** certification (August 2020) I started coming to practice here with Adam, Ilja and also met a lot of amazing people at St. Andrew's lake. I feel immensely grateful to Ilja and Adam for everything they taught me!

Greece - AIDA***

In Autumn 2020 we went to Greece with Ilja (he finally got his instructor's licence!). Diving in a warm sea was a pure joy! There was a really cool vertical cave with an entrance starting at 12 meters deep and a bottom at 30 meters. It was a lot of fun diving into that cave!

I think during that time I progressed a lot, became much more comfortable under the water, and managed to achieve 24 meters depth. I think these short weekly trips, when you're focused on one thing, are priceless!

Also during that trip I met Jacky (Shire Yu)! We were both doing AIDA*** course with Ilja. So she became my freediving buddy! Jacky is a great sushi chef in one the top restaurants in South Kensington and a master of organising people!

It's worth mentioning that Ilja is also a fantastic sushi chef and has recently opened his own sushi restaurant Kotta Sushi (come check it out)!

Seal trips in the UK

Adam organises amazing trips to dive with seals and sharks in the UK! I went a couple of times with him, and it was always a blast!

The seals are so cute and charming! They were swimming around me, it's an absolutely fluttering feeling when they allow you to come close and even play with you! This experiences make me realise how fragile our nature is and that we need to be very mindful about what we do, and how we impact our fellow buddies.

I love that freediving unites a lot of people, and most of them care deeply about the environment! At least it's really hard to find a person among them who didn't watch Seaspiracy, My Octopus Teacher, and so on. I love that and I prefer being surrounded by people who care about the nature and learn from them. Because essentially you're a product of your environment, of people who surround you.

I've meet a lot of amazing people during this trip. Just a couple of examples below.

Abs Ginimav is a commercial pilot who flies on massive Boeing 737. But during his free time, he freedives with us on St. Andrews and rescues seals. Just check this super cute seal puppy out!

Tom Milles was my freediving buddy during the last seals trip. He's taking amazing wildlife pictures! He cares deeply about our planet and is working on creation of a startup accelerator focused on tackling big problems in ecology.

There're many more. And I feel very lucky to be surrounded by these amazing people!

Coffee with Alexey Molchanov

If you had a chance to grab lunch/dinner with one person in the world, anyone you want, who would it be? For me Alexey is definitely one of these people who first comes to my mind as an answer to this question.

Alexey Molchanov is a world champion freediver holding 20+ world records. He dives 131 meters deep on a single breath! But he also very well known for promoting freediving! He's leading multiple freediving organisations like AIDA Russia, Freediving Federation, Molchanova School (freediving school named in honour of Natalia Molchanova). Molchanovs producing one of the best freediving gear in the world (e.g. awesome carbon fibre fins).

In July 2021, I noticed in one of his Instagram stories that he's in London. I texted him straightaway and simply asked him to meet. A few hours later I was very surprised to see his reply!

He was flying to the Vertical Blue competitions in Bahamas. He just had a layover in London, so he couldn't meet in the city, but was open to grab a coffee at the airport in the morning before the flight!

I was very excited to meet Alexey, so I didn't hesitate much and went to the airport next morning!

We were chatting about 40 minutes (before he had to fly) about different things, like the lack of freediving infrastructure, ecology problems, challenges in promoting freediving, etc. I was happy to see that he has a very entrepreneurial mindset, he told me how they were testing various MVPs, explained that freediving is not gonna grow if everything will be on the shoulders of hobbyists. We need people working full-time on developing freediving infrastructure and getting salary for that. It really sounds ridiculous that if you want to freedive, you have to go about an hour away, to the lake or to a pond near Heathrow. Imagine that would be the case with yoga studios or tennis courts. So, there's a massive room for growth in that sense.

For me this meeting was super insightful and very motivating. I want to have more of this in my life. I would encourage you to also reach out to people you admire and see where this will get you!

Creating Apnea UK

A few months later we created our own freediving club in central London! This really requires a separate write up. Basically there were a few of us training together in St. Andrew's lake and also trying different options to find a good pool to train.

In September 2021 Jacky found a great pool in central London (Oasis Sports Centre in Holborn) which we could rent, and Alison took over all the required paperwork and accounting to complete. In order to rent a pool we needed to be a club. So a bunch of us organised together and created apnea.uk!

I was so thrilled to see how everyone was pushing really hard to make this happen in a short period of time, it was just a pure magic to see! E.g. Evgeniy Baranov just in a few days created our website apnea.uk, attached Stripe to it (so people could pay for their sessions). Usually if you go diving somewhere, you have to do a ton of paperwork in advance (fill in liability form, prepare your certification, etc). It's super inconvenient, and you have to do this over and over again before you dive. In our club you just need to fill in a form on the website (tick some boxes) and sign everything electronically. It's super quick! This was just an example, I was very excited to see so many amazing people contributed to make this happen and thrive!

At the moment we have 20+ people in the club (usually about 12+ people attending each session, except holidays). We want:

  1. Improve freediving infrastructure, make it more accessible. We just needed a pool to train. But we want more people to have access to this. At the moment we can only accept people with a licence (e.g. AIDA**) because we don't have an instructor yet to train newbies. Even with this limitation and without posting anything on social media we have a lot of people interested/coming. Moving forward we want to increase our capacity (book more slots, maybe onboard other pools), and find good instructors. Ultimately freediving should be as accessible, as yoga or tennis.
  2. Bring more people into freediving and grow freediving community! Freediving is very beneficial activity, it would be great to see more people involved. It would be super cool to organise meetups and workshops bringing famous freedivers to attend. Or maybe even organise a small competition? This would ignite interest of people and grow community.
  3. Create a knowledge base and guides for beginners to start. For me personally it took a lot of time to figure out where people train, dive sites, what equipment to buy, what are the opportunities. It would be good if new people didn't have to repeat these steps.
In March 2022 we're organising a freediving camp in Dahab together with Molchanova Freediving School. This would be an epic week of freediving with one of the best schools in the world! People of all levels are welcome. More details at apnea.uk/dahab. Would be great to dive with you there!

What we all share is a passion for freediving and a desire to expand opportunities here in the UK to practise. And we want to make freediving accessible to all. If you think you can help us out with anything and ready to contribute, please let us know, we would be very happy to take it!

One of the main takeaways I had from this experience is that you don't have to be an expert to contribute. I still suck when it comes to be a decent freediver, but even my poor abilities are good enough to provide some value. Imposter syndrome is real. Please don't let it hold you back!

Dahab - Molchanovs Wave 3

In January 2022 me and Evgeniy went to freedive in Dahab (Red Sea in Egypt) with Molchanova School. Dahab is one of the legendary freediving places. Alexey usually trains here for many months every year, and this place helped him to become who he is.

Spending a week here was absolutely epic! The water was warm and clear, I could see corals and a lot of marine life! We were diving in the legendary dive spots like Blue Hole, canyon, etc.

I was pursuing a Wave 3 course. In order to complete this step I have to accomplish a lot of requirements. For example, I need to be able to comfortably dive to 34 - 40 meters!

My instructor was amazing Kostiantyn Iaroshenko! He was super keen to teach and were were happy to learn. The week was extremely packed with dives, practical exercise and theory - it was incredibly fruitful and we had a lot of fun!

Kostya helped me significantly improve technique, so by the end of the course I was diving very comfortably to 25 meters (and my personal best is 27 meters at the moment). He taught us different relaxation techniques, advansed equalisation tools like deep Frenzel, mouthfill, also packing, reverse packing, and many more.

But most importantly he taught be not to chase the new depth record, but rather enjoy freediving and build up the foundation gradually. Because if you don't enjoy this, why would you do it.

What's next?

  • Keep up training in London! Now I know what to focus on. In March going to Dahab. Will be finishing Wave 3 and doing a lot of fun dives!
  • Swimming with whales in Tonga, taking pictures of penguins and orcas still in my list!
  • Will be growing Apnea UK community! Super excited to see what's gonna be next!
  • One of my distant dreams at the moment is to create some non-profit organisation focused on tackling big ecology problems. A lot of freedivers are passionate about helping the world and being in such community could help a lot with that goal. I have only a vague idea at the moment. I'm inspired by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Effective Altruism, Sea Legacy and similar. I think it would be great to create a proxy for resources/money and focus these resources on the most important issues. What would be a good way to approach this?

Inspiration

Here's some good videos about freediving to start with!

Some inspiring instagram profiles I follow:

Good reads