The World of Competitive Freediving

Bob Talbot’s movie Ocean Men: Extreme Dive (2001), featuring Umberto Pelizzari and Pipin Ferreras, was filmed back when competitive freediving was fairly new. In this visually stunning and inspiring movie, Pelizzari set the constant-ballast world record with a dive to 262 feet (80 meters), while Ferreras did a no-limits dive to 531 feet (162 meters). Those may sound like unbelievable depths, but wait until you hear what those records are today.

I started freediving in 2000, when proper freediving gear was hard to come by in North America — particularly for women. Now the gear is not only readily available but also has evolved greatly. You can get a wetsuit so flexible it’s like wearing an extra layer of fat for warmth. For improved efficiency, most athletes choose monofins over traditional fins. Mainstream dive computers now come standard with a freedive mode.

In addition to advances in gear, athletes are benefitting from improvements in training techniques. Companies such as Performance Freediving International (PFI) send instructors all over the world to teach people to freedive deeper, longer and more safely.

The way freedivers train has changed a lot since 2000. Today a student who comes into an intermediate course doing 20- to 40-foot dives and breath holds of one to one and a half minutes will leave four days later diving to more than 100 feet and doing breath holds of four to five minutes. Advances in training and gear have helped take freediving to a whole new level.

There are three pool disciplines in freediving today:

  • static apnea — a timed breath-hold underwater with no swimming
  • dynamic apnea — the distance a diver covers swimming on one breath
  • dynamic apnea no fins — the distance a diver covers swimming without fins on one breath

Then there are the depth disciplines, three of which are self-powered:

  • free immersion — pulling oneself down a line and back up without fins
  • constant weight/constant ballast — using a fin to kick down and back up without dropping weight or using a line
  • constant weight no fins — kicking down and back up without using a line or fins and without dropping weight

There are two assisted categories:

  • variable ballast — using weights and, usually, a sled to descend and then leaving the weights at the bottom and using a line and/or kicking to ascend
  • no limits — using any means to get down and back up; usually involves a weighted sled to get down and a lift bag or pulley to get back up

Now for the big numbers. The following are the current world records in all disciplines from the Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA), the worldwide federation for breath-hold diving.

  • static apnea: men, 11:35; women, 9:02
  • dynamic apnea: men, 922 feet (281m); women, 768 feet (234m)
  • dynamic apnea no fins: men, 715 feet (218m); women, 597 feet (182m)
  • free immersion: men, 397 feet (121m); women, 289 feet (88m)
  • constant weight: men, 413 feet (126m); women, 331 feet (101m)
  • constant weight no fins: men, 331 feet (101m); women, 223 feet (68m)
  • variable: men, 466 feet (142m); women, 417 feet (127m)
  • no limits: men, 702 feet (214m); women, 525 feet (160m)


Those numbers are why many people think freediving is absolutely crazy. But there has been only one death ever during a record attempt.

Female freediver swims down head first
Mandy-Rae Krack on her 164-foot (50-meter) constant weight no fins world-record dive.

Most freediving fatalities occur in recreational freediving. They’re usually the result of people thinking they aren’t pushing themselves and are playing it safe. Because of that, they think they can dive without the direct supervision of a buddy. But such supervision is critical for every freedive.

During AIDA-approved record attempts and competitions, athletes must follow the organization’s safety guidelines to the letter, or the judges will not allow the attempt/competition to proceed.

PFI held its annual Déjà Blue competition Oct. 5-11, 2013; as usual three different safety systems were in place during the depth part of the competition. Even in the pool safety freedivers were there to spot/follow every athlete along with an evacuation boat and medics on site.

The competition employed the following three systems:

Safety freedivers: These people are probably the most important part of the safety system. They time the athlete’s dive and meet him or her at about a quarter of the total depth on the way back to the surface. These people secure the diver’s airway if he should lose consciousness underwater. They can bring a diver to the surface in a matter of seconds and have him conscious and alert shortly after that.

Counterbalance system: This is a retrieval system. All divers wear a 3-foot-long (1-meter-long) lanyard (for constant-weight it is usually secured around the wrist); on the other a carabiner is clipped to the competition line. At the bottom of that line is approximately 25 pounds of weight; at the other end is about three times that amount. If the diver does not come up in the expected period of time the system is released, and the heavy weights sink, pulling the lighter end — and the diver — to the surface.

Scuba divers: Not every competition or record attempt uses scuba divers, but PFI still does for the added safety as well as the help with video. These divers keep an eye on the freediver all the way down and back. They have a lift bag they can attach to the diver (or the line) to bring him to the surface faster. (They also usually cheer for the freedivers after they touch the bottom plate at depth, which I always appreciated.)

It may surprise some people to learn that I’ve had 14 blackouts in training, but thanks to these safety protocols each was a learning experience and nothing more.

When I first started freediving I thought that world records were set by freaks of nature — people who were just different from the rest of us. After 13 years in the sport and after having achieved seven world and 13 national records, I can tell you it’s not that way at all. Records are set by ordinary people who dream big and who find the drive and desire to train harder than everyone else. They let themselves achieve the unimaginable.

See the Film

Ocean Men: Extreme Dive is now available on Blu-ray. Shot in six countries on 70mm film, this award-winning IMAX documentary tells the story of two passionate freedivers and their forays into the beautiful, dangerous and serene depths.

Explore More

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2013