After years in the shadow of scuba, the sport of free diving has been increasingly moving from the marginal to the mainstream. Also known by its scientific name “apnea,” free diving has always had a fervent following, with its practitioners often obsessively chasing marginal gains in performance.
Providing a simultaneous physiological and psychological challenge like few other sports, free diving is pushing the limits of human endurance.
Just last year, French free diver Arnaud Jerald broke the world record for the deepest dive with bi-fins as he descended to a depth of 120 meters in 3 minutes, 34 seconds.
Helped by hit Netflix shows like “The Deepest Breath” and “Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive,” free diving’s popularity is firmly on the rise and the organization Freediving UAE exemplifies this. It began life in 2009 as a small group of passionate practitioners but has grown into a thriving community of divers — many of whom now test their limits in competitions.
In July, one such event, the Apnea Pirates AIDA Cup, was hosted in Dubai. Organized under the auspices of the International Association for the Development of Apnea, it was a first taste of competitive free diving for some and was notable for a number of new national records being set. Palestinian Firas Fayyad and Iraqi Aws Lafta were among those to claim new benchmarks for their respective nations.
Former scuba diver Fayyad claimed five Palestinian records including holding his breath for 5:24 in the Static Apnea category and swimming 75 meters horizontally underwater in the Dynamic With Fins competition. For Fayyad, it was a documentary about New Zealander William Trubridge, the first man to dive deeper than 100 meters without oxygen, that initially piqued his interest.
“I remember thinking he must be just a one-off, crazy guy,” Fayyad said. “I definitely didn’t think it was a sport so although I was curious, I never really gave it much attention.
“Then I was in Dahab in Egypt three years ago for scuba diving and I saw all these people standing to one side stretching and doing yoga. The scuba instructors told me they were free divers and then when we were underwater, I saw them come from nowhere and just disappear below us, super-fast and with no equipment.
“The next day I went to sign up for a free diving course and that’s where it began.”
As a long-time yoga practitioner, Fayyad quickly became attuned to the nuances of breathwork in free diving and found himself improving quickly.
“The yoga background really helped and within the first month I was doing some big numbers,” the Palestinian explained. “I wasn’t really training to compete but then I started reaching some big numbers that were competition worthy and so I did it and of course it’s an honor to hold the national record.”
Fayyad admits that he has “had some accidents along the way” and the risk of passing out, and even dying, in free diving competition is certainly very real.
“Yes there are blackouts in the sport, particularly in competition, and while it’s not ideal, it is usually resolved on the spot and most divers don’t even have to go to the hospital. Ultimately, there are factors you can be aware of that reduces that risk — the way you prepare your body and your training.
“I’ve injured myself in almost every sport I ever played — broken shoulders, knee pain. But the only sport I’ve never had a lasting injury in is free diving.”
Iraqi national recordholder Lafta, echoes that sentiment, insisting that an understanding of safety is central to all free divers’ training.
“For me the fear is of not executing the dive properly, not of dying,” Lafta said. “Free diving can be very intense and painful and nerve-racking. But if you feel that way you will not go deep.
“You must force yourself to be more calm and more self-aware and these qualities help make smoother diving experience. Fear in anything is normal but safety is paramount in free diving and when you understand this, it is easier to push your limits.”
Lafta first found his way into the sport after becoming interested in spearfishing and discovering he first needed a free diving qualification. Now they are twin passions and he is the first to encourage others to try them out.
“Every weekend I drove 200 kilometers from Abu Dhabi to just learn but I loved escaping the city and that down there underwater, it’s totally a mental game,” he said. “I fell in love with the challenge of it.
“I never thought I’d be a competitor but there is something very enjoyable about pushing yourself through a certain amount of discomfort to achieve a personal best. And of course, the feeling of freefall in the water is not something that you can replicate anywhere. If your mind is turned off and you’re free, falling in the water — it’s pretty epic.”
“Really free diving is like life. When you relax, you thrive. In life, if we are hungry, angry, stressed — we tense up, we struggle through and we don’t enjoy it. But when we find a way to deal with the pressure, we are happy.”