Natural Born Freedivers

Natural Born Freedivers

Human beings are natural-born freedivers.

Our bodies respond to being in water in many fascinating ways. We exhibit the same adaptations as dolphins, whales and seals. By becoming aware of our innate response to water, we can consciously understand and unlock these forgotten abilities! The sport is not only for extreme athletes ‘pushing their limits’.

I’m training in the freediving discipline of Constant Weight No Fins. It is the purest form of freediving. I have no equipment to help me breaststroke down and back up. I will ascend with the same weight I carry on my descent (about 4lb). People ask if I'm superhuman or have a superpower. My response is always ‘Yes!’ It’s a superpower we all share, thanks to the mammalian dive reflex, which causes so many profound changes in our bodies when we enter the water.

As I float in the ocean, holding onto a diving buoy, inhaling to the count of 8, exhaling to the count of 16, the most profound response of the mammalian dive reflex has already been triggered by submerging my face in water. The slowing of the heart rate is known as bradycardia, which allows me to relax. It also brings peace and tranquillity, a feeling that many people experience when swimming. Since a lowered heart rate allows us to conserve oxygen, it is no surprise that we can hold your breath longer in the water than on land! Typically, my students can hold their breath for at least two minutes on the second day of a beginners’ Freediving workshop.

After a few minutes of relaxed, deep, belly (diaphragmatic) breathing at the surface, I exhale all the air out of my lungs then slowly fill them up completely.  At the top of my breath, I remove the snorkel from my mouth and duck-dive beneath the surface. There is a rope that guides my descent, and I am attached to this with a lanyard for safety. At the bottom of the rope, there is a heavyweight, which keeps the line taut and straight. I wear no fins. I wear no mask. Everything is a blur. I have only a nose clip so that I can equalize the pressure in my ears hands-free, all the way down.

I am often asked about the effects of the extreme pressure as I descend, and why my lungs don’t collapse. Well, our inner-dolphin kicks in to help with this one!  As the pressure increases and our oxygen slowly decreases, blood vessels in the extremities constrict and shift blood away from our arms and legs to keep our vital organs and brain functioning. Peripheral vasoconstriction means that we have more blood volume in our abdomen so our lungs are also protected by the forces of pressure. When training, I can feel the blood leaving my extremities. It feels like pins and needles and I always think to myself, ‘Well done body! You’re doing what you’re meant to be doing!’.

As I continue down on my dive at approximately 20-25meters depth, I reach a point where I become negatively buoyant and begin to freefall. I am wearing a weight around my neck, rather than a belt around the waist. It assists me in maintaining a streamlined position for this part of the dive. As I descend to my target depth at a rate of about 1 meter per second, my focus is on relaxation, equalization and maintaining proper position by making small adjustments to my body position in relation to the rope. I close my eyes, clear my mind and remind myself that even thinking uses oxygen! I wait for the crucial alarm on my dive watch to alert me that I am just a couple of meters from the bottom of the line and prepare to turn. At the deepest moment, I grab a tag from the bottom of the line, which I will present to the judges on my return. I am allowed one pull as I start the swim back up. At this point, over 1 minute has passed. Now the hard work begins!

As I begin the swim back to the surface, an unpleasant feeling of needing to breathe begins. But this is another physiological response to understand… The urge to breathe is triggered by a rising level of carbon dioxide in the body. By remaining calm and relaxed, I can continue to remain efficient in my use of oxygen. During the long swim back to the surface, I keep reminding myself I have more than enough oxygen. At about 20 meters, my safety freedivers will be waiting and accompany me to the surface. There are no safety scuba divers in freediving, as the required ascent speed would put them in danger of decompression sickness.

My journey in freediving didn't begin with a desire to pursue depth records. It came out of the simple awareness that I was happiest underwater. In developing a deeper understanding of my body, I have found myself exploring and pushing its capabilities in competitive freediving. But diving deep is not what drives me.

Over the last 10 years, freediving has become part of everything I do. As a Master Freediving Instructor, I teach adults and children to connect to their inner dolphins. As a conservationist, I work in initiatives to create the future guardians of our oceans. In Bermuda, South Africa and Mozambique, I’m lucky to have taught over 3,000 children underwater confidence, snorkelling, freediving and ocean conservation. I have taught over 1,000 children in Bermuda in the unique two-day ‘Kids on the Reef’ program.

Teaching children creates future adults who will grow up to protect and love the ocean. As these guardians grow up to change the world through initiatives and politics, they will naturally align their beliefs to be in harmony with mother nature. If only 1% of children grow up to make conservation their passion and life purpose, there will be dozens more like me, protecting the ocean and educating thousands more.

Teaching children to play underwater is a vital part for them to learn how valuable our planet’s oceans are. They can read textbooks and watch videos online, but the immersive experience has a profound impact.  Diving with turtles (and many of my children have!) teaches how important it is to care for them. They understand that pollution by plastic is harming turtles. They tell their parents, family and friends to stop single-use plastics! Many parents told me their children banned straws, balloons and other plastics at their own birthday parties to help save the oceans!

Also, freediving theory & practice teach children in ways that transcend into ALL areas of their lives! They can connect to themselves and learn how to be present in-the-moment. Freediving brings a holistic transformation. They discover how to relax and breathe deeply and efficiently. They become aware of their bodies and physical strength through yoga, stretching and swimming techniques. They develop mental strength and confidence through learning to overcome the urge to breathe. They achieve all of this while connecting with nature, immersed in the blue underwater wilderness. Freediving combines everything that is important for children to grow up connected with the world around them.

Many children have beliefs holding them back from exploring the ocean. However, they can easily be enticed into diving with their friends, experiencing the beauty of the underwater world and learning about the life of fish and corals. Some children are afraid of water and don’t believe they can submerge their face in the water, let alone dive down. But after spending time in the water, they surprise themselves and are soon using their mask and snorkel. Once they see how beautiful it is, and not as scary as they thought, curiosity pulls them to dive and explore.

A 9-year-old boy diagnosed with ADHD joined me for five days on a Freediving Camp in Bermuda. On the first 3 days, he was struggling to stay underwater for just a few seconds. He was unable to relax enough to breathe in time correctly. He was in a panic underwater and failed to engage his inner dolphin! But at the end of the week camp, he was holding his breath for two minutes and swimming down to 10 meters. And the magic came when his mother said he had become a different child outside of the water too!

As for me, teaching children is the reminder that freediving is not just about depth and time. Freediving is about the journey to discover confidence in yourself and discover that you have the ability to do so much more than you think!


Written by Beth Neale

Beth Neale is 3x South African National Freediving Champion and African Continental Record Holder. She has dedicated the last 5 years to ocean conservation initiatives in South Africa, Mozambique and Bermuda. As a Master Instructor, she has taught over 500 adults freediving, and 3,000 children ocean conservation and freediving. She has a corporate background in wildlife film production, and is sharing the ocean through digital media. She uses unique images to entice people with the beauty of our underwater world, leading them to take the plunge for themselves!