The sport, which involves plunging into the depths for several minutes without supplemental oxygen, seems to be growing in popularity in the UAE - and enthusiasts say it is not nearly as daunting as it appears. Vesela Todorova reports Among sports, recreational freediving is unique, as it requires fighting the body's most basic urge: to breathe. Yet, despite its need for extraordinary willpower and inherent risks, it is apparently gaining popularity in the UAE.
Enthusiasts say the hazards of plunging to the greatest possible depth on a single breath is offset by the pleasure of exploring the seas without bulky scuba equipment. The number of people taking part in the UAE remains small - only about 30 - but tour leaders say they are receiving more enquiries each week. Most people associate freediving with competitive breath-hold diving, officially refferred to as competitive apnea, and two professional associations hold annual competitions.
Freedivers - whose sport could even be said to be able to trace its origins to the spearfishing and pearl diving cultures of Asia, and later the UAE - were even seen swimming with a whale shark that was trapped in Al Bateen Marina in Abu Dhabi last week. Adel Abu Haliqa, one of the main proponents of the sport in the Emirates and co-founder of Freediving UAE, said freediving can appear more daunting than it actually is.
"Most people would easily manage more than two minutes breath hold within 30 minutes of training," said the current UAE freediving champion, who himself has managed to hold his breath for 4m30s. As with many practitioners, he started as a scuba diver. But fans of freediving maintain the lack of equipment makes the experience much more "authentic". "It is a nice peaceful feeling," said Abu Haliqa.
"You feel a stronger bond with the sea. It is just you, and your breath and the sea," added Wassim Zein, who was the first person to start offering local training back in 2006 after training in Egypt. Nevertheless, it is not a sport to be undertaken lightly. Most experienced freedivers have experienced blackouts and there have also been a number of high-profile fatalities, including Audrey Mestre, a Frenchwoman who had set several freediving records. Mestre died in 2002 while attempting to break the world record of 162 meters set by her husband, Francesco Ferreras, off the coast of the Dominican Republic. She was pulled from the water after almost nine minutes, following a dive that was supposed to last less than four. Zein, who started freediving because he wanted to hone his spear-fishing skills, said the only prerequisite for being a good freediver is the ability to take in a good breath, which is why most freediving sessions start with breathing and stretching exercises.
Freedivers often induce hyperventilation before they dive, to lower the level of carbon dioxide in their bodies. This is believed to delay the brain sending out signals that the lungs are running out of air.
Research also shows that people's heart rates slow and blood vessels constrict underwater, which reduces the flow of oxygen to the extremities so that more reaches the brain - part of what is known as the mammalian diving reflex. As freedivers surface, however, the brain can suddenly be deprived of oxygen as constricted blood vessels return to normal, leading to blackouts. To offset these risks, most experienced freedivers dive with "buddies" trained in rescue and resuscitation.
Abu Haliqa said one of the most important things is to stay relaxed, even in situations when one has pushed oneself beyond one's limits. "Sometimes on my way up [to the surface] I do get the feeling I have pushed too much," he said. "I have learned to relax even more in these circumstances. If you panic, your heart rate goes up, your muscles tense and you use up more of your oxygen." One of best ways of training for freediving is to hold your breath while training in a gym, he said. "The body needs to train to be very efficient with the oxygen it has."
This has allowed one local instructor, Alex Boulting, the other co-founder of Freediving UAE, to dive to a depth of 40 metres without fins, and hold his breath for six minutes. While the idea of this alone might be enough to make some people nervous, freediving is the opposite of that, he said. "It is all about efficiency and conservation of your energy, mental control and understanding your limits," said the Briton.