As you might imagine, freediving isn’t an entirely risk-free pastime. The biggest risk is always drowning since asphyxia can occur if you don’t get to the surface before running out of breath. Furthermore, being underwater puts more pressure on the lungs when you descend. It’s therefore very important for anyone who is considering taking up freediving to understand the possible dangers, so they know how to avoid them when underwater.
If oxygen levels become too low in your body, you could suffer serious medical problems that could even be fatal. You need sufficient oxygen in your bloodstream to remain safely underwater and to be able to ascend safely to the surface. If your oxygen level is too low, you could experience a hypoxic fit or blackout that could be fatal if not treated quickly enough.
With this in mind, you may be concerned that freediving is terrible for your health, but that isn’t the case. In fact, if you do it safely and correctly, it could even offer you health benefits. Studies have shown that freediving techniques and skills can improve body awareness, lung function, and breathing and even reduce your stress levels.
Luckily, it’s easy to prevent a freediving blackout. You should avoid hyperventilating before diving, leave sufficient recovery time between dives, ensure you stay within your ability limits during your dive, and be well-hydrated and in good health before descending. You should also always dive with another person.
Nitrogen narcosis is a potential danger in freediving. It occurs when you dive deeper than around 25m (85ft). This condition is due to gases in the lungs that dissolve into the bloodstream when you breathe in before going underwater.
As you swim deeper, more nitrogen dissolves in the bloodstream. It then flows into the brain and causes symptoms such as euphoria, numbness, intoxication, hallucinations, tunnel vision, paranoia, anxiety, disorientation, poor coordination, bad decision making, confusion, shivers, cognitive impairment, and impulsiveness.
All of these symptoms are dangerous when underwater as they can affect your ability to return to the surface safely.
While it isn’t common, another danger of freediving is decompression sickness (also known as the bends). It occurs when nitrogen bubbles form in the body tissues because of sudden decompression. Although freedivers don’t inhale pressurized air, their final breath before they dive contains nitrogen, which still pressurizes you when you descend.
The bends may occur if you only take short interval times at the surface or mix freediving and scuba diving in one session. There are sometimes physiological factors that cause the Bends, too, such as medications you take or your hydration level.
You can avoid this condition by:
- keeping your freediving session to under 2 hours,
- only diving once per day if you’re going below 180 feet,
- ascending no faster than 3 feet per second,
- being well-hydrated before diving,
- avoiding alcohol before diving for 24 hours,
- and to be in good health, well-rested, and stress-free before diving.
Lung squeeze or, to give it its official name, lung barotrauma, is an injury to the lungs caused by a rapid change in pressure. If you reach your lungs’ residual volume threshold, which occurs at around 98-131 feet deep, you can experience this condition that can manifest as pneumothorax, an arterial gas embolus, pneumopericardium, or pneumomediastinum.
Staying within your depth limits
All divers have different safest depths depending on their level of experience, lung capacity, and confidence. A beginner may only feel comfortable if they dive to 5 – 10 meters, but an experienced diver may be able to dive down to over 12 meters in depth. It’s important to remember, though, that while depth does add to the risks of freediving, it isn’t the only factor that makes freediving potentially dangerous.
An experienced diver may be able to dive down to 200 meters before returning safely to the surface. On the other hand, a shallow dive may go wrong depending on sea conditions or the diver’s overall health. Therefore it’s important to know your own safe diving limits and stay within them at all times during your dive. One way to ensure that you don’t exceed those limits is to invest in a good diving watch that clearly shows your depth.
Staying safe after your dive
It’s important to remember that you should avoid certain activities after freediving to stay safe. The risks don’t end when you get out of the water. For example, you should avoid scuba diving within 12 hours of your freedive.
Doing both activities within this time period will increase how much nitrogen is in your body, and it could cause medical problems. You should also ensure that you avoid flying for at least 24 hours after your freedive. This is because flying puts added pressure on the body. It could be too much for it to take after the pressure incurred in your dive.
Is it safe to freedive?
Of course, there are some dangers associated with freediving, and we’ve listed some of the most significant here. However, it’s possible to mitigate those risks by taking a sensible approach to the activity. It’s absolutely essential to have undertaken appropriate training and instruction before you freedive so you know the basics of staying safe.
You should also ensure that you never push yourself beyond the limits of what you know you can manage when you’re out in open water. You should never go freediving alone. Always ensure you have a friend or instructor with you so they can help you if you do get into trouble underwater or during your ascent to the surface.
Finally, you should make sure that you are adequately equipped for the experience. Enjoy yourself without taking any unwanted risks. Remember that most freedivers never experience a problem and may even experience health benefits from their hobby!
Interested in other types of diving? Take a look at our article covering everything you need to know about scuba diving.
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