Asian Diver (English)
The Evolution of Freediving
Tracing the journey of our relationship with the sea, through the ages and around the world
With the constant innovation of diving gear enabling us to go deeper and longer underwater, it’s easy to forget that diving began as the simple act of holding your breath and kicking your legs. Indeed, with the advent of modern underwater breathing apparatus, this most primitive form of diving is now typically differentiated from its more mainstream cousin with the moniker “freediving”. But breath-hold diving in humans began more than 8,000 years ago, evolving through the centuries to its presentday status. And now, freediving is constantly taking on new extremes that have risen in popularity especially over the past three decades.
The first recorded evidence of freediving humans can be traced back more than 7,000 years to the Chinchorro1, an ancient people who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert in what is present-day northern Chile and southern Peru. In a study of Chinchorro mummies, archaeologists discovered that the bones inside their ears had started to grow across the ear canal’s opening to protect the eardrums from recurrent exposure to water. It was clearly exostosis, a condition that afflicts people whose heads have been frequently dunked underwater. Exostosis is a common condition among people who surf, dive and kayak. The Chinchorro were people who dived for seafood. Shell midden fossils and bone chemistry tests on the mummies have proven that their diet consisted of 90 percent seafood. Besides the Chinchorro in South America, seashell fossils found at the coast of the Baltic Sea also revealed ancient people living approximately 10,000 years ago who dived for clams.
It was clearly exostosis,
a condition that afflicts people whose heads have been frequently dunked underwater
EGYPT, GREECE, MESOPOTAMIA & PERSIA
There is plenty of archaeological evidence of diving in Mesopotamia (West Asia – present day Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia), dating back to 4,500 BC and in ancient Egypt around 3,200 BC. The Greeks have been diving for more than 4,000 years. Artefacts and scripts from the Minoan civilisation, which flourished from 2,700 BC to 1450 BC on Crete and other Aegean islands, include figures of seashells as well as colours produced by seashells in Minoan ceramic art. The Greek sponge trade can also be traced as far back as Plato and Homer, who mentioned the use of sponges for bathing in their writings. The Greeks would dive for sponges at Kalymnos island, using a skandalopetra (the Greek word for stone), like granite or marble weighing eight to 15 kilograms. Carrying this weight, divers descended quickly to as much as 30 metres underwater to collect sponges. There is no exact date of when the Greeks started the sponge trade but Plato would have been 40 years of age around 388 BC when he mentioned the use of sponges in his writings.
Divers have also been used by the Greeks in war. According to Thucydides, the famous Athenian general and historian who recounted the Peloponnesian War2 (431– 404 BC) between the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta until 411 BC, divers were used to scout for and dismantle underwater barricades set up to defend against invading ships. The Persians also recorded using divers in warfare. Having conquered Phoenicia (now Lebanon) in 539 BC, King Cyrus the Great of the Archaemenid Empire used divers to cut the anchor cables of Alexander the Great’s ships during the Siege of Tyre in 332 BC.
SRI LANKA (CEYLON)
For thousands of years, the Gulf of Mannar, separating India and Sri Lanka, was known for the pearls and chanks (large spiral shells) harvested from the waters off Mannar island by local freedivers. According to the Mahawamsa, the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka,
King Vijaya landed in Sri Lanka in the fifth century BC and sent a gift of a shell pearl worth twice a hundred thousand pieces to the Pandu King upon taking the hand of his daughter. The ancient Greeks, specifically Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan royal court in India, also wrote in the third century BC about the brilliance of the pearls from the island of the Taprobane in Sri Lanka. In ancient Greece, Sri Lanka was known as “Palaesimoundu”.
Literature from the Sangam-era (third century BC to fourth century AD) such as the Agananuru, an anthology collection of classical Tamil poetic work dated around the first and second century BC, talked about a community named Parathavar which fished but also dived for pearls and chanks. Arab traders and divers from the Persian Gulf also entered into the pearl fishery trade in Sri Lanka between the seventh and 13th century AD.
Research shows that the divers would go out to sea in crews as large as 23 in a boat. On each boat would be a tindal, or steersman; a saman oattee, who was in charge of the boat; a thody, who was tasked with bailing out water in addition to cleaning the boat; 10 divers including the adappanar, or lead diver;
and 10 munducks, or operational assistants. They would pull up the oysters, the stone counterweights and the divers themselves from the seabed and back onto the boat.
The boats would go out late at night around midnight. The tindals would have started getting ready to hoist the sails more than an hour or so before with the adappanar hoisting a light at the masthead as a signal to set off. The divers in the boat would then get ready in the early hours of the morning by attaching the safety ropes around their waists. Stones would also be tied to ropes to act as counterweights for the divers to do a fast descent to the seabed. As the ropes with the weights are released into the water, the diver would take a deep breath and descend rapidly by stepping on the weights. They would then start collecting oysters into the nets around their waists the moment they reached the seabed, while the weights are pulled up into the boat. After about a minute, the diver would tug on the rope tied to him to signal the completion of his task, upon which he would be pulled upwards with the oysters he collected.
The ama (海人) are coastal people in Japan who make their living diving to depths of up to 25 metres to harvest abalone, turban snails, oysters and pearls. Many ancient Japanese references3 have stated that the ama have existed for at least 2,000 years. One of the oldest references which refer to the ama is the Gishi-WajinDen (魏志倭人伝), one of the oldest historical texts in Japan, which is believed to have been published in 268 BC. Some of the oldest archaeological evidence from Japan has shown that the Japanese have always depended on seabed resources. According to an ancient Chinese chronicle containing sporadic references to Japan, the northwestern part of what is now Kyushu has a lack of arable land to enable its people to survive on agriculture, which has compelled them to depend on the sea to barter for staples such as rice.
According to Minoru Nukada from the Department of Health and Physical Education at Toho University4, male and female ama engage in different activities. Male ama (海士) usually catch fish, either by hand or with a spear, whereas the female ama
(海女) will dive to the bottom of the seabed to collect seaweed and shellfish. Through time, the men engaged in offshore fishing or became sailors on ships while the female ama stayed at home and dived to supplement the farming harvest.
Usually females, the ama traditionally dive in only a fundoshi
(loincloth) for ease of movement with only a tenugui (bandanna) covering their hair. These headscarves are sometimes adorned with symbols in order to bring luck to the diver and ward off evil. They also use a safety rope attached to a wooden tub or barrel that serves as a buoy to rest on between dives. The barrel is also used to hold their catch. Their most important tool, however, was the
tegane or kaigane – a spatula-like tool used to pry out abalone from between the rocks on the seabed. In the early 1900s, goggles were introduced and adopted by the ama.
In the decades after World War II, the
ama started wearing a white sheer garb for modesty, while others
started wearing rubber wetsuits in the 1960s.
There are various theories about why the ama are mostly female. One is that the Japanese consider women to be more biologically capable of withstanding cold due to the distribution of fat in their bodies. They are also believed to be more adept at holding their breath. The ama are trained as early as 12 or 13 years by elders. At this stage of their training, they are known as Koisodo or Cachido and dive shallow depths of only two to four metres. After they have been trained a few years
(15 to 20 years old), they graduate to being Nakisodo, Okazuki or Funedo and are allowed to dive to four to seven metres in groups from a boat controlled by one or two boatmen, who also act as watchmen for their safety. The Koisodo and the Nakaisodo both use the wooden tub as a buoy. A fully trained ama is known as an Ooisodo, Okiama or Ookazuki. Usually more than 20 years old, the Ooisodo can dive to a depth of 10 to 25 metres and usually operate alone with a boatman for assistance. They use counterweights like a lead belt or a counterweight (haikara) connected to the boat with a rope and a pulley for a fast descent and are then pulled up quickly after harvesting the shellfish.
Like the ama of Japan, the hae-nyeo
(해녀; 海女) or jam-nyeo are women freedivers who make their living from diving and harvesting shellfish and seaweed from the seabed. They are found in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, especially Jeju Island. Although the exact beginning of freediving in Korea is not known, Korean history experts agree that Jeju was the place where the hae-nyeo were first found. Historical records reveal that as early as 434 AD, pearls were found in the Shilla Kingdom.
It is not known when the men dropped out of the diving work.
The only explanation we have is the physiological advantage that women have – greater subcutaneous fat and a perceived ability to withstand the cold better. Like their Japanese counterparts, the hae-nyeo start learning to freedive in shallow waters at age 11 or 12 and as their skill level progresses, they graduate to an advanced level when they turn
17 or 18.
The hae-nyeo wear black swimming trunks and white cotton jackets. Diving goggles were introduced during the 1930s, with eye glasses used for almost two decades before diving face masks became available. They also use hollowed-out gourds around 30 centimetres in size as floats.
SAMA-BAJAU: SOUTHEAST ASIA
All freedivers are familiar with the “mammalian dive response” – when your heart slows down, blood vessels constrict and your spleen contracts because your bod y is trying to keep you alive while you are holding your breath underwater. The SamaBajau are a group of sea nomads of Austronesian ethnic group who live off the sea in waters around the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. A study about human hypoxia tolerance published by the journal Cell5 has revealed that a genetic
DNA mutation has given the Sama– Bajau larger spleens, allowing them to freedive for shellfish at depths of up to 60 metres, for as long as 13 minutes.
In the human body, the spleen recycles red blood cells and helps to support the immune system. After previous studies revealed that diving mammals like elephant seals, otters and whales have disproportionately large spleens, Melissa Llardo, the author of the hypoxia study in Cell was eager to find out if the same was true in humans. Her studies revealed that the median size of the spleen of a Sama-Bajau was 50 percent larger than that of the Saluan people, a related group on the Indonesian mainland. The Sama-Bajau were also found to have a gene called PDE10A (which the Saluan did not have) that is thought to control a certain thyroid hormone that in mice is known to be linked to spleen size.
THE LEGEND OF 1913
The legendary retrieval of the missing anchor of the Italian navy ship,
Reggina Margherita, on July 16, 1913 by a Greek sponge diver from about 88 metres (290 feet) is often cited as the first occurrence of modern freediving. While the exact name of this Greek sponge diver has varied from Stotti Georghios, Stathis Hatzis, Stathis Chatzi to Haggi Statti and Chatzistathis, what is not in dispute was his pulmonary emphysema, his perforated eardrum from years of diving without proper equalisation and the fact that he tied a safety rope to his waist and proceeded to descend quickly to the seabed using the
skandalopetra method. He is also consistently described as being a man of average height (1.7 metres), weight (65 kilograms) and age
(35 years old). And it is unanimously agreed that he successfully retrieved the anchor by freediving and was rewarded for his efforts with £5 and the lifelong permission to fish with dynamite.
COMPETITIVE FREEDIVING BEGINS
Like the one-minute mile, the 30-metre (100ft) freediving mark was an important milestone that kickstarted the modern competitive freediving movement. Although scientists had openly predicted pressure-crushing death at that depth, in 1949 Raimondo Bucher, an Italian airforce captain and an avid spearfisher born in Hungary, officially became the first man to dive to a depth of 30 metres. Using a large rock as a counterweight, Bucher dived to the bottom of the sea at Naples without a breathing apparatus. He was met at that target depth by Ennio Falco, a fellow Italian diver, who had staked 50,000 lire against him completing the feat. Bucher won the 50,000 lire but Falco would take his record two years later.
THE ITALIAN JOB
Bucher’s freediving record fired up the competitive freedivingscene in Italy and the next two decades saw the Italians dominate the record books with legends like
Alberto Novelli and Enzo Maiorca spearheading the sport. Together with Brazilian Americo Santarelli
(who retired in 1963) and later Jacques Maol, the famous French freediver who used yoga techniques and meditation to calm his body, records were taken to ever greater depths.
Despite the fears of scientists who believed that the high pressure at great depths would collapse human lungs, Enzo Maiorca broke the 50 metre barrier in 1962 and would go on to achieve 17 world records. Mayol would achieve 11 world records and was the first freediver to go past 100 metres. Maiorca and Mayol’s rivalry was immortalised in Luc Besson’s 1988 film, The Big Blue, a fictionalised take on their rivalry.
In the 1960s, female freedivers such as Gilliana Treleani (Italy) and Evelyn Patterson (Great Britain) made history by diving deeper than 30 metres. Treleani achieved the mark of 35 metres in 1965. Constant Weight Apnea (CWT), one of the disciplines of freediving recognised by the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), was pioneered by Francesca Borra and Hedy Roessler, both from Italy, in 1978. CWT is a freediving discipline whereby a freediver descends and ascends with the help of their fins or monofin and/or their arms without pulling on the rope or changing their ballast. Only a single hold of the rope, either to stop the descent or start the ascent, is allowed. During the 1980s, Enzo Maioca’s two daughters, Patricia and Rossana also set records, diving to 70 metres and 80 metres, respectively. But it was Angela Bandini of Italy who would shock the freediving community in 1989 by becoming the first human to freedive to 107 metres underwater, breaking Mayol’s world record by two metres.
MODERN FREEDIVING IN USA
One of the pioneers of freediving in the United States is Robert Croft, a US Navy diving instructor who taught personnel how to escape from a stricken submarine. Croft could hold his breath for more than six minutes and was studied by US Navy scientists for signs of “blood shift”. Croft set three depth records in a one-anda-half-year period and in 1967, he overcame what scientists believed to be the human physiological depth limit for freediving by becoming the first person to dive deeper than 64 metres. Croft also developed the Glossopharyngeal Breathing Technique, a technique of forcing more air into your lungs before a dive, called lung packing. He would go on to become the first freediver to dive beyond 70 metres by achieving a freediving depth of 73 metres before retiring from competitive freediving in 1968.
The flagbearer for US freediving after Croft is Tanya Streeter. Streeter reached 113 metres with a No Limit dive in 1998. She broke the world record surpassing the men’s apnea record, with a No Limit dive of 160 metres in 2003, and a Variable Weight record, of 122 metres that stood for seven years.
NO LIMIT FREEDIVING
With the retirement of Mayol and Maiorca, a new freediving rilvary was born with Italian Umberto Pelizzari and Cuban Francisco Rodriguez (better known as Pipin Ferreras), both appearing on the scene around 1990. New freediving disciplines emerged such as Constant Weight Apnea and Variable Weight Apnea – a discipline where the freediver descends with the help of a counterweight and ascends using his own strength, either by pulling or not pulling a rope.
The traditional form of competitive freediving, i.e., diving as deep as possible on one breath, going down with weights and coming up with a buoyancy bag, was renamed No Limit. Pelizzari and Pipin pushed No Limit Apnea to new depths, swapping records going to 110, 120 and 130 metres and beyond. The current No Limit world record holder is Herbert Nitsch, who dived to 253.2 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The dive, which was not accredited by AIDA, resulted in a serious dive injury due to severe decompression sickness. The Austrian made a partial recovery and still deep freedives.
THE FOUNDING OF AIDA
Freediving continued to grow and develop internationally in the 1980s and 90s and in 1992, AIDA was founded by Frenchmen Roland Specker, Loic Leferme and Claude Chapuis in Nice, France, with Specker serving as its first president. Set up to organise clinics to grow the sport of competitive freediving, the International Association for Development of Apnea, aka AIDA, isthe worldwide body responsible for keeping the records and rules of competitive freediving events worldwide. AIDA establishes the safety standards and the ratification of official freediving world record attempts and freediving education. AIDA International is also the parent organisation for national clubs of the same name.
Besides Constant Weight, Variable Weight and No Limit Apnea, another discipline of freediving that has captured the public’s imagination is Static Apnea, which measures how long a person can hold their breath (apnea) without swimming any distance. The current record for Static Apnea is held by Serbian Branko Petrović, who held his breath for 11 minutes and 54 seconds on October 7, 2014.
The traditional form of competitive freediving, i.e., diving as deep as possible on one breath,
going down with weights and coming up with a buoyancy bag,
was renamed No Limit