Apnea is derived from the Latin “to deprive” and Greek “to breathe” and is a term for suspension of external breathing. During apnea, there is no movement of the muscles of inhalation and the volume of the lungs remains unchanged.
Freediving is a form of underwater diving that relies on a diver’s ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than on the use of a breathing apparatus. Practiced in ancient cultures to gather food, harvest resources, reclaim sunken valuables, and to aid military campaigns, divers faced the same problems as divers today, such as decompression sickness and blacking out during a breath hold. Freediving for commercial rather than recreational purposes may have begun in ancient Greece, since both Plato and Homer mention the sponge as being used for bathing. Divers used weights to help them reach depths of 100 feet for as long as five minutes in order to collect sponges and harvest red coral. Over 2,000 years ago, Japanese women divers, known as Ama—meaning Sea Woman—began to collect pearls. In the Mediterranean, divers hired to salvage valuables from shipwrecks were paid based on risk; those that dove deeper than 50 feet received a third of the salvage while those that dove more than 90 feet got half of the haul.
In the United States, freediving is an extreme sport with over 10,000 active practitioners. An estimated 20 die each year, meaning one death in every 500 divers, making it second only to BASE Jumping—which has one death in 60—in danger. By contrast, skydiving is much safer, with only 1 fatality in 100,000. Competitive freediving is currently governed by two world associations. AIDA [International Association for Development of Apnea] and CMAS [Confederation Mondiale des Activites Subaquatiques]—also known as the World Underwater Federation. Each has its own rules on recognizing a record attempt. AIDA, formed in 1992, has headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland and is the world rule and record-keeping body for competitive breath holding events. It aims to set standards for safety, education and comparability of official world record attempts. AIDA uses a star system [from 1-4, with 4 being most difficult] for grading freediving certifications and recognizes eight world record categories, including five sea disciplines [no use of equipment, use of fins, use of vertical depth rope, use of weighted sled for descent, use of inflatable balloon for ascent] and three pool disciplines [immovable breath hold, unassisted horizontal distance, horizontal distance with fins]. Formed in Monaco in 1957 and now headquartered in Rome, CMAS recognizes 13 world record categories. French underwater explorer and pioneer Jacques Cousteau was a founding member of CMAS, which delineates breath holding world records categories to include sea, freshwater and pool.
Freediving can be extremely dangerous. All competitive free divers have a ‘buddy’ who accompanies them, observing from within the water and all participants must be adept in rescue and resuscitation. Breath holding ability is a function of the body’s on-board oxygen stores, efficient oxygen utilization and hypoxia [oxygen deficiency] tolerance. Most divers strive to improve fitness by increasing lung capacity through various training exercises, including breath-holding and hyperventilating. Training can be performed on land or in water. Divers train to acclimate muscles to work under anaerobic [without oxygen] conditions and for tolerance for CO2 to build-up in their blood.
The average lung volume of a healthy adult male is 5.8 liters. For a female, it is 4.2 liters. Stephane Mifsud, a 45-year-old Frenchman, has a lung capacity of 10.5 liters, nearly 45 percent more than the average man. He is also a five-time world champion breath holder. In June 2009, Mr. Mifsud held his breath in a swimming pool for 11 minutes, 35 seconds, which remains the world record. Four years later, Goran Colak of Croatia swam 281 meters—more than five-and-a-half lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool—without breathing and while wearing fins. Tanya Streeter holds the women’s record for “No Limits” freediving [unrestricted, traditionally using weighted sled for descent and inflatable balloon for ascent], reaching a depth of 525 feet near the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2002. The king of freediving is New Zealand’s William Trubridge who, in December 2010, dove nearly 332 feet—more than the height of the Statue of Liberty–without assistance to set a world record that still stands. In May 2016, he set a second world record for “Free Immersion Apnea,” diving over 407 feet with only the assistance of a vertical depth rope. It was the 17th world record for Mr. Trubridge, who won the 2011 World’s Absolute Freediver Award as the sport’s best.