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Shallow Water Blackout, Freediving, and Deep (book review)

Shallow Water Blackout (SWB) is a major concern for aquatic facilities. Extended underwater breath holding - sometimes called "lungbusters" - is a popular coaching technique to increase cardio capacity by depriving the brain of oxygen until it learns to adapt (i.e. work better, longer, with less oxygen). 

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps recently came out against the practice, while other trainers regularly continue to use it. Fatalities are reported, including during armed forces training.

 Note: some viewers may find this video disturbing. 

If the swimmer was not rescued, she would have experienced a fatal submersion (drowning); she was unconscious and incapable of surfacing. 

This post is not just about the risk facilities face when underwater breath-holding exercises are permitted, it's also to address the recent rise in the popularity of freedivers on Instagram.  

My first exposure to freediving started last year when I completed my PADI Open Water Diver (SCUBA) certification. I love to swim, so I was expecting to love SCUBA diving. And yet, wearing 45 lbs of gear and having both my body movements and breathing restricted by the equipment left me really turned off.

Googling alternatives to SCUBA diving, I came across numerous freedivers on Instagram. Instagram is a great way for freedivers to advertise their workshops, solicit sponsorship, network between events, etc. Their photos are mesmerizing for the obvious reason that they defy logic  - 

@samojeranko (Instagram)

As an experienced swimmer, my mind was still completely boggled how successfully diving to depths of 100+ meters is even possible. That led me to this book - 

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor (2014)

The book goes into the historic origins of freediving (i.e. fishing for food, and pearls to trade). It also goes into great detail about the process how freedivers train themselves to resist the urge to breathe so that they can stay under longer and go deeper. Author James Nestor doesn't take a position of educate or eradicate, but he does leave the facts right on the page. 

"Most competitive divers are blind, numb, and dumb to the ocean environment. They go against their bodies’ instincts, ignore their limits, and exploit their amphibious reflexes to the breaking point. They do this to dive deeper than the next guy. Sometimes they make their target depth; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they resurface unconscious or paralyzed or worse.The freediving I learned from Prinsloo, Buyle, Schnöller, Gazzo... was the opposite of this egocentric, numbers-driven approach. To this group, freediving was about connecting with the underwater environment, looking more keenly at your surroundings, focusing on your feelings and instincts, respecting your limits, and letting the ocean envelop you—never forcing yourself anywhere for any reason. This was a spiritual practice, a way of using the human body as a vessel to explore the wonders in the Earth’s inner space."

The reason I want to share this book is so that you can educate yourself - it's the most informative water-safety related book I have read in a long time. It's a bit long, and technical in places, but well worth it.

It's also naive to think that the increase in popularity and exposure of these ocean-based freedivers won't reopen the conversation about Shallow Water Blackout (SWB). It's important in my mind to directly connect the two issues because there is a lot to understand here and explain to the lay participant or spectator. 


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