As a long time free diver and newly re-anointed spearo, it might seem strange to want to do an entry level PADI freediver course. In terms of the course goals there was nothing I hadn't achieved before. 1:30 static - check, 25m dynamic - check, 10m depth - check check check. So why do it? At the simplest level, I wanted to improve my diving ability to dive deeper and get more bottom time. The choice was then, to either continue with the anecdotal and historic knowledge I had built up over the years or reset my foundations and use the best techniques available to extend myself in the safest manner possible.
With an opportunity to learn from free dive record holder Adam Stern, the decision was really a bit of a no brainer. Adam is the current Australian record holder for Free Immersion (no fins) at 88m(!) and recently completed a constant weight dive of 100m(!!). He is also an incredibly affable person, who freely dispenses knowledge and experience. A firm believer that diving should be fun, he is also not afraid to shed light on failings in his own or other competitive freedivers techniques if that sharing will lead to improvements in the sports long term safety. Our other instructor is Ben Orrell, owner of by Dive. Spear. Sport. where the course was being run from.
Once booked in, you are given access to PADI's Freediver Touch - essentially an online learning platform that provides the very basic fundamentals around freediving, physiology, equipment, environment and safety. While basic, its a nice touch for those that may not have been free diving before.
Meeting at the Monavale premises for Dive. Spear. Sport. we begin with a recap on the online course theory. Adam and Ben provide deeper reasoning behind each piece, using contextual examples based on real life experience. Its an extremely informative session that covers the physiology of breath holding and diving deep, decompression sickness, Samba, blackouts, equipment and maintaining safety.
Diving should be fun
Following Adam's mantra of "Diving should be fun", we then get into the nitty gritty of mammalian dive reflex, breathe ups and breath holding. These are exactly the foundational skills I am looking for. It isn't long before the entire group of us are sitting in a deeply relaxed state, baselining our CO2 levels in preparation for breath holding. We practise short breath holds followed by recovery to get used to the cycle and it all feels pretty comfortable and "fun". After lunch we head to the Terry Hills Swimming School pool to put our new skills to the test. Starting with static apnea - basically floating face down in the pool while your partner times and monitors you. With your eyes closed, its a surreal and relaxing experience thats only broken by the regular tap and count of your training partner... tap - "1min", tap - "1min 30"..
Tap - "2min".....Tap- "2min 30 sec".....
Each person get 3-5 turns to build up to their maximum. My training partner John, a surfer with concerns about surviving big hold downs punches out an easy minute 30, 2 minutes and 2 minutes 30! He isn't the only person pleasantly surprised at their capability. There are PBs dropping everywhere and whilst 4min isnt a PB for me, its also not something I have been able to hit without considerable training. This is the first affirmation, that I was on the right track.
Next is Dynamic apnea - essentially swimming laps underwater with our diving fins on. Of which, one of the hardest parts is trying to do a tumble turn with the long fin blades. There are some seriously comical variations which hardly lead to the effortless glide demonstrated but we get through it. Its also an opportunity for Adam and Ben to fine tune our finning technique and head positions for more efficient motion. The natural inclination is to look forward, which in turn arches your back and is less streamlined. The less streamlined you are, the more effort you use and more effort means more oxygen. The second affirmation is doing 75m dynamic with fins and 50m without.
We finish with a diver rescue session where we take turns recovering and reviving a diver who has blacked out. Important stuff and a fitting end to a very rewarding first day. If the course had ended there, I would have been pretty content.
Of course it doesn't really count until you are actually diving! So for this day, the plan was to do two sessions in the ocean, one from the shore and the other from boat. For the shore dive, we would be working on our skills in 10m of water off the south end of Palm beach. We begin with free immersion, which is descending by pulling yourself down the weighted line to the desired depth. Its a bit like doing dynamic apnea in the pool where you need to keep your chin tucked in and looking at the line rather than where you are heading. It feels pretty weird diving head first toward the bottom and it takes a few goes and discipline to get set. In between each immersion, Adam is running safety and there to ensure we recovery breath, slow exhale, sharp inhale, slow exhale, sharp inhale, slow exhale, sharp inhale.
slow exhale, sharp inhale, slow exhale, sharp inhale, slow exhale, sharp inhale, breathe
Next is standard diving with fins or "constant weight" as its known in competitive free diving. From a duck dive next to the bouy, to again descending down the line head first. Its another opportunity for us to get expert advise on improving our duck dives, downward finning and body position. Each piece of advise, another incremental tool in the diving toolbox. For example, in general freediving you are never going to dive all the way to the bottom head first but if you can reel off the first 10m more efficiently, then its going to lead to deeper and longer dives. We wrap up the session practising safety and doing rescue and recovery of a simulated black-out.
Late in the afternoon we get to the piece de resistance, the boat trip. This is where everything we have learnt and practised comes together so we can dive like cetaceans into the dark depths... Well sort of.. dive - yes, like whales - no , dark depths - only because the sea resembles a cold green soup. So much for living out a Big Blue moment in gin clear water!
I personally find it pretty disconcerting to dive where I cant see more than a few metres. Interestingly enough, most competitive freedivers do the entire dive without a mask and their eyes shut but there probably isn't that much to see at 100m anyways! You really just have to trust in your instincts and follow the line down until you hit the mark. We each take turns diving and that mark gets deeper and deeper until we hit the max depth for the course. The final affirmation for me, every single diver on the course either got to their initial goal or beyond.
The format of the course itself, is clearly intended to bring a structured approach to entry level free diving. For most existing divers the limits will seem easily reachable but its the foundational techniques, combined with the incremental fine tuning and insight of world class divers like Adam, that I found truly invaluable. You know it makes sense and you can feel the difference. I would highly recommend it to any new or existing free diver looking to improve on their abilities and knowledge to become a better diver.
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.