Freediving. It's easy to understand its appeal. Keen to experience the deep ocean without the cumbersome steel tank and tangle of tubes myself, I decided to give it a whirl on a trip to Indonesia's Gili Islands.
Freediving is an athletic sport, requiring a certain standard of fitness so you can swim down to a reef and then fin your way up to the surface again. I've snorkelled for years, but aware that my technique and safety awareness was lacking, I enrolled on a course at Freedive Gili in gorgeous Gili Trawangan, a small island off the northwestern coast of Lombok. The school is owned by Mike Board, UK Full Immersion freedive record holder and his partner Kate Middleton (no British royal relation!), yoga teacher, and also an expert freediver.
A growing sport
Humans have freedived for millennia. Scandinavian records of freediving date back to 5000BC, the ancient Greeks practised it, and communities of women in Japan (known as ama) and Korea (haenyeo) freedive today to gather shellfish, seaweed and pearls.
Competitive freediving (immortalised in the film The Big Blue) has really taken off in the last 20 years and there are now events and championships all over the world. But for most of us mortals, recreational freediving is all about learning to snorkel more efficiently so we can see more oceanic life.
Courses and instruction are organised by both the SSI (Scuba Schools International; divessi.com) and AIDA (aidainternational.org).
The science of freediving
Freediving is all about being as physically relaxed as possible. The more nervous you are, the faster your heart beats, the more air you use. Fortunately we humans have an in-built mechanism (the Mammalian dive reflex) to help us out. Immerse your face in the water and your heartbeat automatically drops, conserving energy. At the same time you have to mentally visualise the dive ahead.
Because of the competitive nature of freediving, it has a reputation as an extreme sport. Yes, there are superhumans who can dive to insane depths on one breath of air (my instructor Mike has reached 91m). Professional training is vital, and freedivers today use a 'buddy' system (like scuba divers) so there's someone on hand to perform rescue procedures should trouble arise.
The two-day SSI Level One course I completed started in Freedive Gili's yoga space, explaining the diaphramic breathing techniques necessary to maximise air intake. Later we addressed the potential risks involved, particularly how to deal with a blackout (which are very rare but can occur due to lack of oxygen). Our class included an experienced spearfisher from Australia and a marketing manager from Fulham in the UK (who'd never snorkelled before). All courses combine yoga stretches with freedive training.
Most freediving training involves swimming vertically down a drop line in the open ocean. There's the big blue around you but you're concentrating on freedive technique rather than searching reefs for exotic sealife. Everyone got down to 8m by the end of the course, and two of us reached 20m. Later we used our training to explore Sunset Reef off Gili Trawangan, where we spotted three hawksbill turtles (fellow, if far more advanced, freedivers).
The freedom of having no bulky scuba gear to slow you down, the lack of bubbles (which scare off fish) and the silence of the underwater experience is very special indeed. I also love the physical and mental challenge, and while I'm no athlete (and I'll be 50 next year) I see myself doing this sport for years to come and achieving greater depths than the 22m I reached in Gili Trawangan.
Gili Trawangan is a tiny coral-fringed island a two-hour boat ride east of Bali. Once a backpacker party destination, it has matured into a relaxed vision of the tropics, and the idyllic white-sand beaches are dotted with boho hotels and seafood restaurants. Gili Trawangan has myriad accommodation options, embracing everything from budget to high-end - check out the shoreside bungalows at Karma Kayak and the luxury villas of Kokomo. There are also several excellent scuba diving schools including Lutwala.
Freediving elsewhere in the world
There are now freedive schools all over the world - from Australia to the Bahamas, and Iceland to Thailand.
Dahab on Egypt's Sinai peninsula offers a world-class freediving centre, and the spectacular Blue Hole (a nearby freedive mecca). Blue Ocean Free Divers (blueoceanfreedivers.com) has a purpose-built 30m pool for training in Dahab, and offers one-day AIDA taster courses. Also based in Dahab, Desert Divers offers a seven-night freedive package (including hotel and transfers but not airfare) that includes freediving the Blue Hole, Thistlegorm wreck and Ras Mohammed's Shark Reef, plus a camel safari.
Cornwall in the UK offers fascinating freediving, including the chance to swim with basking sharks and migrating spider crabs in the spring months. Freedive UK (freediveuk.com) has a full range of courses and snorkelling tours.
The website deeperblue.com is a key freediving resource and a great place to meet and learn about the sport with forums for freedivers and spearfishers to search for buddies, discuss dive sites and sea conditions.
This article was first published in December 2012 and updated in December, 2014.