In this new feature in The Guide, Bobby Kim describes how he made the transition from scuba nut to freediving instructor—and never looked back.
In the zone: Freediving instructor Julia Mouce Dominguez
I had just finished smoking a cigarette while sitting on the stern of the boat and was ready for a beer. Unfortunately, that would have involved pulling my feet up out of the warm blue water and walking over to the tap to get it. I didn’t feel like getting out of the water just yet, so when the captain asked if I wanted to find lobsters for dinner, I was in. When I asked how, he told me the catch—I couldn’t do it on scuba.
It was the first day into our weeklong liveaboard scuba dive trip in the Exumas, a chain of beautiful islands in the Bahamas. And in accordance with Bahamian law, no lobsters can be taken with the aid of scuba. In other words, you have to hold your breath and freedive. Why not? I was always up for a new adventure. I grabbed my snorkel gear and jumped into the crystal clear water. Two of my friends joined me, but we eventually swam off in different directions.
Within the first 20 minutes, I discovered that I was able to hold my breath considerably longer than my friends. While they were making fast returns to the surface the moment they hit the bottom, I was moving from spot to spot 15 to 20 feet underwater, peeking into every crack and hole I could find. Being underwater without an air tank strapped to my back was liberating, and I wanted to do it even longer. For the rest of the trip, I found time each day to give the scuba gear a break and explore the reefs using only the air in my lungs. Little did I realise I was doing it all wrong.
Bobby Kim and some of his charges
Getting Schooled in Freediving
Years earlier, I’d seen a TV program on divers holding their breath and riding a weighted sled down a line to great depths. I found an agency that had a formal curriculum and offered classes in South Florida, and I immediately signed up for their intermediate-level class, completely bypassing their entry-level offering. After all, I was a scuba instructor and a better freediver than my buddies, right?
When the course started, I realized I had far less experience than most of the other students. Big deal. The first pool session gave me even more confidence, because I was able to hold my breath for four minutes during the static breath-hold training, which was the maximum for the session.
But when we hit the ocean for our first open-water session, I had a wakeup call. Equalization. It’s different (at least for me) than equalizing for scuba. When it was my turn to dive, I was expected to make a completely vertical descent down a guide line with my head in a neutral position—almost with my chin tucked. For this type of freediving, I would have to learn the Frenzel technique, which involves pinching your nose and using the back of your tongue as a piston to force air into the Eustachian tubes. “Pinch your nose and blow,” as I would tell my scuba students, wasn’t going to cut it.
In well over a thousand scuba dives, I had never had to pinch my nose to equalize. I just flexed the muscles around my Eustachian tubes to open them as needed—much like a yawn with your mouth closed. This method of “hands-free” equalization works for some freedivers, but it didn’t work for this guy. Over the course of the four-day class, my maximum depth was 25 feet—with a good stretch of my depth gauge-wearing arm.
I’d learned a few humbling lessons: (i) You should never freedive without a buddy. (ii) Freediving after scuba is a major “no”. (iii) Anybody wanting to get into the sport should take a freediving class. And last but not least: (iv) Being a scuba instructor is not an indication of freediving performance.
Two freedivers explore a wreck in Bali, Indonesia
Improving Freediving Techniques
I promised the instructors that I would master the Frenzel technique and return to complete the course (a 66-foot dive was required to obtain an intermediate certification). Back in the real world, mastering the Frenzel became an obsession.
Several months later, I booked a flight to Florida to finish the course. After doing the warm-ups and the required skills, where I was easily able to dive to 66 feet, I was given an opportunity to try a dive to 82 feet. After successfully completing that dive, my instructor said he’d give me a shot at triple digits: 100 feet deep. This number is a big deal for new freedivers. After you reach 66 feet, you are negatively buoyant to the extent that you can stop kicking and let gravity take over. I counted my kicks to 33 feet, then to 66, and then I stopped kicking and let my body sink. The line was flying by me. I was going fast without having to work. Before I knew it, I was at the plate at the end of the line with plenty of air left. I want to go deeper, I thought. I was officially hooked on freediving.
A couple of months later, I returned to Florida and was able to dive to 132 feet—the maximum depth of my certification. I vowed that by the same time the following year, I would dive to 200. In pursuit of my mission, I traveled to incredible destinations to train with some of the world’s best freedivers, including several world record holders. I hit the 200-feet mark in the Blue Hole in Dahab, Egypt. At that depth, the famous “Arch” is visible. It’s a tunnel that leads from the Blue Hole to open water. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen underwater. I had to stop for a few seconds to take it in, before deciding that I might want to start my return to the surface.
Colombian record holder Carlos Correa hanging on a freediving line
Ditching the Tank for Good
I rarely dive on scuba now, although it holds a special place in my heart. Diving without the bubbles has allowed me to interact with marine life in a way that I never would have imagined possible with a tank. Blending in with pods of spinner dolphins in Hawaii, swimming peacefully alongside sharks in the Bahamas, and getting close enough to film humpback whales in the Silver Banks are among the highlights of my freediving life.
Somewhere along the way, I became an instructor for Freediving Instructors International (F.I.I.). Sharing my experience and knowledge with new freedivers has brought me another layer of enjoyment, as I get to be on the receiving end of many hearty high-fives when my students reach depths and breath-hold times that they never thought possible. I’ve also witnessed the excitement and drama of the world of competitive freediving, being selected as a safety diver for the Suunto Vertical Blue freediving competition.
You don’t have to be a professional athlete to freedive, but being in reasonably good physical condition doesn’t hurt. I figured that smoking a daily pack of cigarettes while living on a diet of processed food and beer would not be conducive to freediving excellence. So, I successfully quit smoking (after a dedicated 25-year habit) and adopted a much healthier lifestyle, involving regular exercise and a proper diet. This alone was worth the price of admission.
Bobby Kim, doing what he loves most
For those thinking about giving freediving a try, I can't recommend it highly enough. Since discovering freediving, my life has been about change, and learning from the many mistakes that I’ve made. Freediving has a lot to do with this. At the risk of sounding like a new age bumper sticker, perhaps Umberto Pellizari was right when he said, “The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.”
For information on training with Freediving Instructors International, visit www.freedivinginstructors.com.
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