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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). 

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

 Note: some viewers may find this video disturbing. 

If the swimmer wasn't rescued, she would have drowned; 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 was last year when I completed my PADI Open Water Diver (SCUBA) certification. I love to swim, so I was expecting to love SCUBA diving. Wearing 45 lbs of gear, and having both my breath and movements restricted? Not the case. 

Googling alternatives to SCUBA diving, I came across numerous freedivers on Instagram. Instagram allows freedivers to advertise their workshops, solicit sponsorship, network between events, etc. Their photos are mesmerizing because they defy logic  - 



@samojeranko (Instagram)

As an experienced swimmer, my mind was confused how 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, e.g. spear fishing and pearling. It also goes into graphic detail the great lengths freedivers go to train themselves to resist the urge to breathe. 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."

It's also naïve to think the increase in popularity and exposure of these ocean-based freedivers won't reopen the conversation about Shallow Water Blackout (SWB) in our swimming pools. Resharing depth records, videos, and posts without the ensuing medical emergencies is dangerous at best and negligible at worst.

I want to share this book is so you can educate yourself about the full scope of the problem - it's the most informative water-safety book I've read in a long time. It's a bit long and technical in places, but well worth it.


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