Yesterday on Apex Predator, we aired our season finale Save Your Breath: River Otter at 8pm on The Sportsman Channel. In order to transform himself into an otter-like hunter, host Remi Warren was tasked with mastering the art of Breath-hold Spearfishing, and Owner of Abyss Freediving and long-time LLC/PFI Freediver Instructor Bill Van Deman acts as our coach and expert. He shares a bit of his story with us below:
While weekday mornings growing up were a passive struggle with my poor mom to squeeze in every last ounce of sleep, I remember leaping out of bed before daylight on Saturday morning to watch the Tarzan television show. I am referring to the early seventies live action television show, starring Ron Ely as Tarzan, his chimpanzee companion, Cheetah, and spunky orphan companion, Jai. I have vivid memories of an unarmed Tarzan facing off with a dangerous predator each week. I can still visualize Mr. Ely, forced to make an unnaturally long underwater swim attracting the attention of a nearby crocodile and then engaging in a thrilling wrestling match with said reptile to escape just before he depleted his final oxygen reserves. Tarzan’s underwater swimming ability always stood out in my 4th grade imagination and I would recreate these underwater battles in the lake, at a pool and even in the bath.
I discovered breath-hold spearfishing, about 13 years ago. It stirred long forgotten memories of being underwater as a kid- you could say it reawakened my inner Tarzan. I began to research and read about breath-hold spearfishing and freedivers- these superhuman individuals accomplishing unbelievable depths and unreal breath-hold feats I thought were only possible in fictional action movies and television. With some research and practice, I began to understand that I could awaken these innate adaptations and hone my underwater abilities. After spending the first 30 years of life never going much deeper than 10-15 feet depths, I began to see huge improvements in my diving capacity- making maximum attempts past 70’ and hunting comfortably in 35-45’ of ocean water.
Like Tarzan swimming unknowingly into a danger that the viewing audience sees from afar, I found myself unknowingly on a collision course with an unforeseen threat. My newfound abilities had exceeded my level of training, and my limited understanding of where the greatest risks occur in freediving left me extremely vulnerable. While I dove with experienced buddies, we rarely practiced the cardinal rule of safe freediving- always diving with direct buddy supervision. Kirk Krack of Performance Freediving International (PFI) training agency defines direct supervision as “arm’s length”. In other words, one diver goes down, the other diver waits attentively at the surface to provide aid or direct support for the diver upon return. After supervising the dive recovery, the roles reverse. The safety becomes the diver and the diver is now at the surface as the safety. PFI’s second rule of supervision is watching the diver for 30 seconds after a dive. An overwhelming majority of black-outs occur at the surface after a dive, during the 30 seconds that it takes for oxygen to be carried into the lungs, absorbed into the blood and pumped by the heart into the brain. Like many brash new freedivers relying on physical ability and a fearless Tarzan mentality, I did not understand the protocols or the physical risk to an isolated diver. This led to a scary situation.
One October, I was hunting around 60-65’ on the deck of a sunken shipwreck approximately 30 miles off of St Petersburg, FL. On one particular dive I felt especially comfortable at depth. I stayed down longer than usual before settling on a nice snapper. When a two hundred pound goliath grouper appeared abruptly from inside the wreck to engage me in a tug of war for the snapper, I realized that I still needed to get to the surface to breathe. I began to follow my shooting line back to the lifeguard float at the surface tethered to my line. As I ascended, I began to feel the rapid change in pressure and my decreasing oxygen level. I went from feeling like the “King of the Jungle” at depth to a growing unease just before the surface. I aimed for my float and came up quickly with my arms and upper body clutching the float for support. My upper body began to convulse involuntarily and I felt my head bob uncontrollably while a sense of light-headedness gave me a foggy awareness of my surroundings. I do remember seeing my boat captain not far from where I surfaced. I recall the panic and the helpless wide eyed look he gave me- it felt like looking at a mirror of how I was feeling as this was going on. I got back into the boat shaken. When I went home that night and went online, I discovered that I had experienced my first loss of motor control (LMC), or near black-out.
The positive that came out of this situation was that 1) I lived and 2) I began to take the sport and my training seriously and enrolled in a course with Performance Freediving International (PFI), an established and reputable Freedive training agency I had hear about from several experienced freedivers. Taking the PFI Course produced immediate gains in my breath-hold performance (my underwater static breath-hold went from 3 minutes to over 5 minutes in four days!), but my knowledge of the risks, vulnerabilities and the necessary safety precautions required to mitigate these risks made me a safer diver and a more prepared dive partner for my spearfishing buddies. Within a few short years, I progressed from Intermediate Freediver to PFI Safety Supervisor, to Assistant Freediver Instructor to PFI Freediver Instructor in February of 2013. During this time, I learned and trained with many top PFI Freediving Instructors- US Freediving Team Captain Ted Harty, World Record Holder Ashley Chapman and World Record Trainer and PFI Founder Kirk Krack. The PFI Program had trained 7 world record freedivers to over 22 world records, and I am now using these methods and seeing the results with my own students through my PFI Affiliated company, Abyss Freediving LLC .
My respect for the ocean and the risks involved with freediving has increased, as has my strict reliance on the proven safety protocol and proper supervision I learned through these courses. I have seen many talented but untrained young men with that Tarzan mentality die unnecessarily in this sport over the past decade due to preventable causes- overweighting, diving alone, poor supervision, not waiting for 30 seconds after a dive- but I have also heard many positive stories of how the safety protocol learned in the PFI course saved countless lives. To date over 5,500 student have taken a PFI course and we are seeing this breath-hold safety training become accepted in everything from the professional surfing world, where PFI trains Red Bull athletes, to the United States Military, where many operators are using PFI’s Breath-hold Survival program. The irony is I know I am now safer doing 100 foot target dives using proper safety protocols and direct trained supervision than I ever was putting myself at risk in shallower depths diving solo. In reality, even Tarzan doesn’t survive alone. He needs Cheetah and Jai, and quite often Jane to survive “in the Jungle”. I hope you can awaken your inner Tarzan (or Jane). Breath-hold spearfishing and Freediving can open an incredible new world of adventure with the right training methods and support.
Bill Van Deman
Owner, Abyss Freediving LLC/PFI Freediver Instructor