As the much-anticipated release of Netfllix’s latest documentary ‘The Deepest Breath’ approaches, e-Surgery has decided to take a deep dive into the world of freediving, finding out how the extreme sport may be impacting the people brave enough to do it!
We’ll answer questions such as ‘Is freediving bad for your health?’, and ‘Are there any benefits to freediving?’ You’d be lucky to find a single person who has the bottle to attempt anything even remotely like what Alessia Zecchini, who the documentary is about, does for a living.
What is freediving?
The modern version of freediving was first started back in 1949, but obviously, people have attempted to dive into the depths of the ocean since the beginning of time. It was in 1949 that Raimondo Bucher dove 30 metres deep, despite scientists and medical professionals claiming that at those depths he would almost certainly die from the pressure of the water on his body, to which he proved them very wrong. And thus, freediving was created!
Is freediving different to scuba diving?
Now we know you might be getting it mixed up with scuba diving (we did too), but they’re in fact very different. Scuba divers have the luxury of having an oxygen tank strapped to their bodies, enabling them to breathe freely while under the water. On the other hand, or fin, freedivers use minimal equipment to explore the sea and train extensively to hold their breath.
Freediving often attracts people who love testing their own abilities and want to experience some of the most extreme challenges life has to offer. Just like climbing mountains like Everest or Kilimanjaro has grown in recent years, the same can be said for freediving. As people are seeking new ways of feeling freedom, nothing quite compares to being underwater free of equipment and being at one with the ocean.
And I mean hey, who doesn’t love a challenge?
The risks of freediving
Like any extreme sport or hobby, freediving does come with many potential health risks. I mean, being 100 metres under the water with nothing but a snorkel, goggles and some flippers doesn’t sound like the safest situation to be in… We’ve gathered a list of some of the most serious and common issues that divers may face, so you can better understand the risk that people such as Alessia Zecchini are taking when entering the waters.
Hypoxia and blackout risks
Hypoxia is the name given to the experience of an inadequate oxygen supply to the body’s tissues and organs.
The following are some of the dangers that are linked to Hypoxia:
- Impaired cognitive function: The brain is highly sensitive to oxygen deprivation, and as oxygen levels decrease, cognitive function is impaired. This can lead to confusion, poor decision-making, and difficulty performing tasks.
- Loss of consciousness: Severe hypoxia can result in loss of consciousness, which can be life-threatening, especially if it occurs in critical situations such as diving without oxygen at the bottom of the seabed.
- Organ damage: Prolonged or severe hypoxia can cause damage to vital organs, including the heart, liver, and kidneys. If left untreated, it can lead to organ failure.
People who experience Hypoxia can often experience blackouts as a result. When this happens underwater, the risk of injury or death increases exponentially.
This is the term used for medical conditions that are inflicted on the lungs, ears or sinuses due to a major shift in pressure from the air or water. One common type of barotrauma is called aeroplane ear which you can tell from the name, often occurs when flying, but it’s also very common amongst divers. The condition is when your middle ear becomes inflamed due to the change in pressure and can be cause temporary loss of hearing and extreme discomfort. Barotrauma can however cause long-term damage, so it’s best to be cautious.
Also given the name ‘raptures of the deep’ is a condition that often occurs to divers who travel further than 30 meters below the surface. The main cause is often the increased partial pressure of nitrogen in the breathing gas at the huge depths, leading to nitrogen dissolving into the body’s tissues and fluids. The effects of nitrogen narcosis can vary from person to person and dive to dive, but they generally resemble alcohol intoxication or the effects of nitrous oxide inhalation, which can get very serious when in dangerous environments.
The symptoms of Nitrogen narcosis can include:
Euphoria and overconfidence: Freedivers can begin to feel incredibly happy and start to feel invincible which can lead to more risk taking.
Impaired judgment and cognition: It can impair cognitive abilities, which includes thinking logically, problem solving and making decisions. This can lead to divers struggling to make simple decisions, let alone big one that could massively change their situation. It can also make them struggle remembering routes or instructions from other divers.
Altered perception: Just like when people are drunk, the divers might perceive their surroundings differently, with their vison distorting as well as their auditory perceptions. Fellow divers could appear closer or further than they are, and sounds can become distorted.
Decreased reaction time: Divers who experience Nitrogen narcosis might slow in reaction time, so when potential dangers appear, they can be too slow to react which is dangerous and could potentially lead to serious outcomes or circumstances.
When a freediver descends to extreme depths, the increased pressure causes the body tissues to absorb inert gases, primarily nitrogen, from the breathing gas. If the diver ascends too quickly, the sudden reduction in pressure can cause the gases to form bubbles in the bloodstream and tissues. This can lead to decompression sickness, which can range from mild symptoms like joint pain and skin rashes to severe and life-threatening conditions affecting the nervous system, lungs, and other vital organs.
The benefits of freediving
While you might be thinking freediving is solely a dangerous thing to do, you might be surprised to know it does have some benefits to your physical and mental wellbeing. So hopefully the potential risk hasn’t scared you too much and put you off experiencing new things, we promise that’s not our intention!
Physical health benefits
The physical benefits of improved lung capacity, due to the training of holding your breath when diving, this in turn helps improve overall respiratory function. Freediving also helps build muscle with divers often becoming far more flexible after a few dives in the ocean, I mean it is basically swimming so of course it’s going to improve these things! And just like swimming, your cardiovascular endurance and body circulation will improve drastically from freediving regularly.
Mental health benefits
Freediving has similar effects to doing yoga, as divers must learn to focus on slowing down their heart rate and holding their breath. This can result in lower stress levels and feelings of anxiety. It also helps increase the confidence of divers due to the expansion of their abilities and capabilities, creating a stronger self-belief in what they’re capable of achieving. This also means their focus and concentration are improved due to the nature of freediving, these skills are essential in becoming a prominent freediver.
Safety measures and precautions
Now, if you are thinking of trying freediving or any other form of deep-water diving, it’s incredibly important that you train vigorously with professionals who have experience in diving. Working with experienced divers is the most sensible action to take when thinking about entering the world of extreme sports.
Proper training will allow you to enter the waters with confidence that you are more likely to make it back safely. Training will allow you to learn the ins and outs of what it takes to freedive successfully, what the safety protocols are, and how the equipment works. So yeah, just don’t be stupid and try it yourself!
Now we know the chances of you being a freediver are slim as it’s a pretty extreme hobby, but if you are feeling worried about your health in any way, you can use e-Surgery’s ‘Ask a Pharmacist’ service for free advice from a medical professional.