What Are the Risks of Freediving?
The main risks for freedivers include barotrauma, nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness, and a hood squeeze. However, other risks such as dehydration, marine life, or becoming too hot or cold are also common with freedivers.
Freediving is the perfect alternative to scuba diving, plus you don’t have to carry all the heavy equipment and scuba accessories. However, even though you are not breathing compressed air through a tank, some risks are worth a mention to make you safer.
Within this article, we will cover the following points:
- What Is Freediving?
- Personal Risks
- Pressure-Related Risks
- Environmental Risks
- How Can You Prevent The Risks Of Freediving?
So, what are the risks, and how can you be a more responsible freediver? Read on to find out more!
What Is Freediving?
Freediving is an underwater sport that relies on the diver taking the plunge on one single breath, known as a breath-hold.
Freediving, also known as free-diving, free diving, breath-hold diving or skin diving, is a popular type of underwater diving (also perfect for spearfishing) that requires no breathing apparatus. Instead, when freediving, you sink below the surface after taking one deep breath in and hold it until you resurface.
Despite the risks, freediving is growing in popularity around the world, as people seek to test the limits of their endurance while enjoying the mesmerising underwater world.
Did you know there are currently 5,000 registered freedivers?!
Whether you are a newbie freediver or freediving pro, there are some risks associated with freediving that you should be aware of.
The risks linked to freediving can be split into three main categories:
- Personal Risks
- Pressure-Related Risks
- Environmental Risks
Personal Risks of Freediving
Personal risks include dehydration, under or over-eating, eating something dodgy the day before, smoking, taking medications, drinking alcohol, excessive exercise before the dive, personal hygiene, and feeling tired/stressed.
Being aware of your personal risks can prevent more serious diving injuries from happening on your underwater adventure.
So, what is meant by personal risks? Well, let me walk you through the main points!
Keeping on top of your fluids is important for your overall health, but when freediving it is critical. When freediving, you can easily become dehydrated because of the following:
- Immersion diuresis – Because of our mammalian dive reflex, naturally we excrete more fluids (by urinating) underwater than drinking fluids. Did you know that a 1% decrease in hydration can result in a 10% decrease in your performance? So, always stay hydrated before and after freediving!
- Sweating – If you start sweating in your wetsuit, you will lose fluids through perspiration.
- Exhaling from your mouth – When breathing out through the mouth, water is lost via water vapour.
But wait, there’s more!
If you become dehydrated when freediving, your blood will also become thicker.
This means your heart has to work much harder to pump your blood around your body, which consumes more oxygen. To keep hydrated, drink sports drinks that contain electrolytes and keep a bottle on the boat or at the marker buoy for a quick top-up!
There are some basic rules when it comes to eating foods that prevent low blood sugar levels and foods that can increase your heart rate, although nutritional needs vary from person to person.
It is also important to never freedive on an empty stomach or immediately after eating!
Diving without eating puts you at risk of impaired cognitive function and increases the chances of suffering from a hypoxic episode.
On the other hand, if you dive straight after finishing your mouthful, then your food is likely to sit in your stomach during the dive, resulting in burping and reflux issues.
The best foods include complex carbs, fats, and/or proteins which will provide you with a slow release of energy. If you are still unsure where to start, speak to a nutritionist or experienced freediving instructor.
Smoking can reduce the amount of Oxygen carried within your blood and cause nicotine withdrawals, making Freediving more difficult!
If you are also a scuba diver, then you are probably well aware of the risks of smoking and diving. If not, do not worry, as I am here to explain why you should ditch the ciggy before heading out (and why you should quit altogether).
Smoking increases the amount of carbon monoxide in the body, which binds with haemoglobin 140 times better than oxygen.
For those that skipped biology class, this means that the more you smoke, the less amount of oxygen can be carried in your blood.
Freediving is also a relaxing, non-rushed sport. So if you are someone who needs to grab a cigarette after every dive then a long freedive session can cause nicotine withdrawal.
This is not only going to be unpleasant for you but also for your fellow freedivers around you.
The best way to prevent these issues is to be strong and believe in yourself to give up smoking. Not only will it make diving more pleasant, but it will also add more years to your life.
Alcohol impairs our cognitive skills and dehydrates our bodies… therefore it should be avoided before Freediving!
Before you pop open that beer or pour yourself that glass of wine, there are a few things you should know about.
If you haven’t experienced it yet, alcohol impairs motor and cognitive skill function, dehydrates your body, and often leaves you with a stomping headache the next day.
So, if you are freediving in the morning, skip the drinking session the evening before.
Excessive exercise risks becoming compromised underwater and reduces your breath-hold abilities. Freediving doesn’t require you to have a six-pack, but it does require relaxation and a good level of cardiovascular health.
Freediving demands strength and focus! Make sure to get enough rest and relax before Freediving!
I’m sure you would agree that when you are tired or stressed, your mind and body don’t function properly…
As freediving works your body’s cells, after you surface you can become very tired. Ensure you get enough sleep before the dive and focus on staying relaxed. If you are prone to getting stressed, then work on some breathing techniques.
Not only will practising your breathing improve your mind, but it will also help with your breath-hold!
Many freedivers urinate during their dive because of immersion diuresis, and frequently ‘peeing’ in your wetsuit can lead to skin rashes.
Although this might not be an obvious one, and even if you have not urinated in your suit, give it a good clean with an antibacterial solution like Milton or Detol to remove any unwanted bacteria after every dive!
If you are diving while taking medication, always speak to your doctor to make sure there are no symptoms or side effects that could affect your performance underwater.
Pressure-Related Risks of Freediving
The most common pressure-related risks of freediving are the same as scuba diving. These include barotrauma, nitrogen narcosis, and decompression sickness.
Now stay with me now, because here comes the important part!
We have covered pressure-related injuries before, but for those that haven’t read our article on common diving accidents, then these injuries occur when the air spaces inside your body are reduced leading to the following dive injuries:
If you forget to put air into your mask as you descend, then you will surface with red eyes, as the capillaries burst from the pressure. So, remember to also equalize your mask on the way down!
Middle Ear Barotrauma
Equalizing your ears during your dive is super important to relieve ear pressure, particularly on your descent and ascent.
If you do not put air into your middle ear, the eardrum will rupture or fluid will rush into the middle of your ear.
If your ears are unable to release the air on the way up, then you are likely to get a very painful reverse block.
Congestion in your sinuses can cause issues, which is why it is always recommended to never go diving with a cold.
If you surface with a nosebleed, it could be your capillaries have ruptured, and you are experiencing sinus barotrauma.
If you get too cold, tense up, or dive beyond the residual volume of your lungs, you could experience lung barotrauma. This is a very serious injury. You must stop the dive immediately until you have fully recovered.
If air becomes trapped between your ears and your hood during descent, you may experience a hood squeeze. To prevent this, allow some water into your hood before you dive. You can also punch a few holes into your hood to allow water to enter and escape.
Most freedivers wear a hood, but even if you opt to go hood-free, you should still familiarise yourself with the risk of wearing one.
Commonly known as “being narked”, nitrogen narcosis occurs when the amount of nitrogen in your body increases with depth, giving you a drunk feeling. There is no way to prevent nitrogen narcosis, but repeated dives can lessen the symptoms.
Decompression Sickness (DCS)
DCS is a sickness, where bubbles form, which can block the small blood vessels in your body. This often requires a trip to a recompression chamber.
DCS is the more serious risk of freediving, and if you are a scuba diver too, it is probably not the first time you have heard about it…
To prevent DCS allow enough time during your surface intervals, stick to only one deep dive (>50 m) per day, and avoid mixing scuba diving and freediving. The current advice is to wait 12 hours after scuba diving before you go freediving.
Environmental Risks of Freediving
Environmental risks such as the weather, dive site conditions, litter, and plants and animals can affect a diver’s performance freediving.
The environmental risks of freediving are often overlooked and forgotten about, but they can also be serious for a diver.
Before going freediving, consider the following at the dive site:
- Entanglement and injuries from litter
- Dangerous aquatic life
How Can You Prevent the Risks of Freediving?
Planning the dive, creating a risk assessment, and finding a good dive buddy before taking the plunge is the best way to prevent the risks of freediving.
I know exploring the ocean is exciting, and I’m sure you want to jump in as soon as possible. But, wait, as there are a few things you need to do before heading out.
To prevent the above risks, you should:
- Create a dive plan that includes your dive site, risk assessment, dive procedure, and any potential risks you may encounter on the dive
- Practice your breathing techniques
- Avoid exercise before freediving
- Stretch before your dive
- Check your equipment
- Prepare a first aid kit and other necessities if needed
- Stay hydrated before and after the dive
- Dive with someone that you trust and is familiar with freediving safety
- Finally, NEVER push your limits
Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!
Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.
Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:
However, there are some risks of freediving you should be aware of. These include personal risks such as smoking and getting enough rest before the dive, pressure-related risks such as DCS, barotrauma and nitrogen narcosis, and environmental risks, like tides, currents, and aquatic life you could encounter.
But, if you plan the dive and stay within your limits, your dive should go smoothly!
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