One of the things I wanted to do when moving to Mexico was to take a freediving course. Now if you haven’t been following my Mexican adventures on Instagram you may already be thinking, what is freediving? Don’t you just mean snorkeling? And no. Freediving is completely a different way to experience the underwater world than snorkel or scuba.
In this blog post, I’ll dive into everything you need to know about my freediving experience in Mexico and help you get started if you want to learn to freedive.
Before I begin, I need to mention that I am by no means a pro-freediver. I only just learned 3 months ago, and I still have a long way to go to reach my goals. I’ve already made huge improvements since starting, but I know with more practice I know I’ll get there. Over the last few months, I’ve gotten so many messages and comments curious about my new passion that I thought I’d share my top freediving tips with you!
I hope that by sharing my journey I can give you a little perspective and inspire you to discover freediving for yourself.
Table of Contents
MY BACKSTORY: WHY FREEDIVING?
I’ve always had a deep fascination with the ocean. Ever since I was a little girl, my biggest dream was to turn into a mermaid. If you’ve followed me on Instagram for a while, you may already know about my major Little Mermaid obsession! My parents used to have to pull me out of the ocean – I never wanted to leave, and I still don’t.
Before we get into what it is, here’s a little backstory on how I found freediving. Back in 2014, while backpacking through South East Asia, I got my PADI scuba diving license in Koh Tao, Thailand. Getting my scuba license had been a goal of mine for as long as I could remember as it was the closest thing to actually becoming a mermaid.
Initially, I planned to just do my Level 1 Open Water course, but I loved my experience so much that I stayed an extra week to complete my Level 2 Advanced course. So for years, I chose to scuba dive at any chance I could. However, in 2020, I developed a blood clot in my calf from breaking my ankle. I was then informed that the hobby which brought me so much joy was one I now needed to avoid.
The risk with scuba is the air in the tank is so compressed that there is a risk of me clotting again. This is what led me to discover freediving. And with over 6000 cenotes in Mexico… it seemed like the perfect place to finally try something new and dive (pun intended) into the world of freediving!
WHAT IS FREEDIVING AND HOW IT IS DIFFERENT FROM SCUBA DIVING?
Freediving is a form of underwater diving that depends on breath-holding rather than the use of breathing with an oxygen tank such as in scuba diving. Your dive is totally reliant on one single breath. Because freediving is done on one breath, the dive is short, unlike scuba diving where your dive can last anywhere from 40-60 minutes until your air in your tank is running low.
Scuba divers and snorkelers usually dive to calmly observe the aquatic life whereas freedivers typically are attempting to achieve a deeper depth or dive time, usually simply going up and down a line. Or my personal favorite, fun dives. In Mexico, this means freediving is typically in a cenote where you can discover underwater caves and swim-throughs (underwater passages between caves or rocks) but freediving can also be enjoyed in the ocean, observing the reef and its marine life.
Freediving is also labeled as a competitive extreme sport. Divers around the world train for years to set world records in static, dynamic, and free immersion freediving. My instructor in Playa del Carmen, Pepe Salcedo of Blackfin Freediving currently holds the Mexican record of 93 meters (305 ft) bi-fins (2 individual fins). And my instructor in Cozumel, Julie Ferrara of Freedive Cozumel held the 2007 US record of 44 meters (145ft) for no fins.
To put it into perspective, my deepest dive was roughly 14 meters (46ft), and I can’t imagine going to the depths they’ve gone to!
DOES FREEDIVING HURT YOUR EARS?
Learning how to properly equalize is a crucial part of freediving and a common problem people have. You know that feeling when your ears need to pop from altitude when flying? It’s the same pressure in your ear canals underwater. If you can’t equalize, then you risk damaging your ears or sinuses. Don’t stress, some people take longer than others to learn how to equalize, and men typically have an easier time as their ear canals are larger than us women. My friend Mark had zero trouble with equalizing whereas I struggled to break past 10 meters during our training.
It is also commonly known that if you learned how to scuba dive first, you will likely have a more difficult time getting used to equalizing in freediving. In scuba, you’re taught to equalize straight up while deflating your BCD. You are descending in the water facing upright, whereas in freediving you are completely inverted.
A common mistake I struggled with is keeping your neck in line with your spine. Your instinct is to look to where you are going which causes strain on the neck making it difficult to relieve the pressure.
WILL I BE GOOD AT FREEDIVING?
Freediving really is an individual sport, and everyone’s experience will be different. At the core, nearly everyone can do it – simply hold your breath, and put your face underneath the water. Like anything, it will take practice. The more you do it, the more you gain confidence and the stronger and more natural it becomes.
When I first started I could hold my breath underwater for 1.5 minutes. I just tried again the other day, and I hit a new personal record of 2 minutes and 30 seconds!! And I could have pushed for 3 minutes! It’s incredible to see that progress.
WHAT WILL I LEARN IN A LEVEL 1 COURSE FOR FREEDIVING?
Your level 1 course is an introduction to freediving. In this course, you will learn the proper breathing techniques for freediving such as breathing up for your static breath holds and recovery breath to prevent blackouts. This beginner course will teach you the proper skills and knowledge to reach a maximum depth of 20 meters (60 feet) in the most relaxed way possible.
You will train your body to be more efficient with oxygen, breathe deeper, and dive more efficiently to take your underwater experience to the next level. You will also learn the first stages of safetying and rescuing your partner.
Did you know that the urge to breathe is not caused by a lack of oxygen but rather because of CO2 build-up? When oxygen starts converting into CO2, the body prompts the urge to exhale. This is your body telling you it wants to release the CO2. The CO2 build-up then triggers contractions you feel in your throat. Freedivers use this as a gauge to know how much more time can be spent underwater.
The first thing you will learn about is your Mammalian Dive Reflex. This is seen in aquatic mammals, such as dolphins and seals but less in humans. This reflex is triggered when you submerge your face in cold water. It is a survival response that lowers your heart rate and redirects blood flow only to the essential organs, heart, lungs, and brain.
Next, you will practice a static breath-hold (also known as static apnea). This is when you hold your breath without any movement, fully relaxed, and perfectly still, as long as you can. This is done in a pool, or in my case, a cenote.
Inhale for 2 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds. The goal is to lower your heart rate as much as possible before submerging your head. You will look like a dead body floating but the goal is the remain completely relaxed. You can either close your eyes and go into a meditative state or I like to keep my eyes open and observe the marine life below me. I find it a nice distraction.
My static PR is 2.5 minutes, but I was told I could have pushed past the natural contractions your body makes to 3 minutes.
Once you know your static breath-hold time, you can translate that to your “working dive time”.
Using me as an example:
2:30 static = 75 seconds working dive. Then, you’ll want to go down AND come back up, so cut in half again. 75 / 2 = 37.5 seconds to get down, 37.5 seconds to come back up. The ideal speed to travel while freediving is 1m/sec, 37.5 seconds to go down, which means you should be able to get to 37 meters!
Again, assuming everything goes smoothly but I usually have trouble equalizing once I get to 11 meters so I have to spend a few more seconds sorting my ears out before continuing to go deeper. Again, freediving is only something I picked up in the past 4 months, so right now I’m proud of my progression and reaching 14 meters. But it’s pretty incredible to know that I could potentially get as deep as 45 meters!
Lastly, you will learn recovery breath called “hook breathing” to ease the recovery from hypoxia and avoid blackouts. Hook breathing is a particular recovery-breathing technique used when resurfacing after dives. Hook breathing quickly sends more oxygen into your bloodstream than regular breathing.
As soon as you resurface, exhale the air in your lungs. When you inhale, you should make a noise that sounds roughly like “HOO”. Hold your breath for 1 – 2 seconds, then repeat 2 more hook breaths before resuming normal breathing. You don’t want to hyperventilate.
WHAT FREEDIVING EQUIPMENT DO YOU NEED?
Opposite to scuba diving, the only ‘gear’ used as a freediver is fins, weights, a mask, snorkel, and a wetsuit. Personally, I like to swim in warmer destinations where I won’t need a wetsuit. During my training, I did wear a wetsuit as cenote freshwater tends to be colder especially if they are caved in. If you’re traveling to Mexico, I did a roundup of all my favorite cenotes around Tulum.
I’ve honestly gotten so hooked, I’ve now started ordering all my own gear so I can freedive anywhere and not have to rent gear. Even though everything is disinfected, I just prefer having my own mask and snorkel at least. I ordered mine off Amazon, here is the exact link! I honestly was very torn between going with black or white, I may just end up ordering both for variety in underwater photography.
Which do you prefer? Black or white?
You can also find some of my favorite bathing suites from the trip and some other great options here (these are perfect for any beach or tropical vacations you plan, and not just for freediving!).
WHAT FREEDIVING SCHOOLS IN MEXICO WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Whatever body of water you are near, I’m confident you will find someone who teaches freediving. The sport is only growing in popularity, and I’m excited to dive in more places around the world; however, I can only speak for Mexico right now. Here are some of the top schools I personally dove with and would recommend in Quintana Roo.
Blackfin Freediving in Playa del Carmen – this is the school I did all my theory with and I personally spent the most time with their instructors. Blackfin will take you to private cenotes unable to be accessed by the public, like this one below – it’s one of my favorites! They operate anywhere between Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Cancun.
Freedive Cozumel in Cozumel – both times I visited Cozumel for freediving were spent with them. Julie runs the freediving and mermaiding side of the business and Rolando operates the freediving and scuba diving. Freediving in Cozumel is all done in the ocean vs in Quintana Roo where it’s mainly cenotes.
PHOTOGRAPHY AT THE CENOTES & WHILE FREEDIVING
Check out my best cenotes guide where I breakdown best cenotes around Tulum & which allow photography. You can also check out my camera gear post where I share everything that is in my camera bag. My most Instagrammable places in Tulum post includes some cenotes as well as other great photo spots in Tulum.
I hope this post helps shine a little more light onto this sport and inspires you to try freediving for yourself! It’s honestly so freeing once you try it, you’ll never be able to go back.
If it inspires you to try or you’re a free diver as well, please leave me a comment & tell me about your experience or how this post helped you!
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