Author: Chris Adair Contributions by: Brad Johnson
Our first blackout of the accounts in this series to share is that of Brad Johnson’s. Brad’s contribution to this 3 part series and this episode will be addressed as an interview more so than a written story of the events. The reason for this is one that’s relatable to the scenario and the impact these events can play in people’s lives. “I have anxiety even talking about it,” Brad says. Even though Brad was enthusiastic and keen to be included in this series and to share his story with the community he found that as he tried to put words to paper he would get emotional and mentally lock up through the anxiety that reliving the scenario would create for him.
Rock, Paper, Scissor, Blackout…:
Brad is a Concrete Contractor in town. He works hard, long hours and enjoys freediving and spearfishing as a meditative and mental escape from the noise and stresses of life. “It’s like a weekend of hedonistic pleasures,” Brad boisterously jokes about the joy that freediving brings him. Brad is a PFI Intermediate Certified Freediver with 30m depths under his belt on the line. He has a son and a partner that are his world and since his hypoxic event (blackout) in Mexico in March of 2020 have become even more so.
Brad was heading down to Mexico with his partner Shannon to celebrate the completion of her 2nd year of Carpentry schooling. There were no real plans for freediving on this trip except to snorkel with Shannon when they felt like getting wet. Otherwise the two were planning to enjoy a few too many pool side tequilas and umbrella drinks in a relaxing week to get away from life’s stresses.
One morning, well into the week of celebrations, Brad received a message from a friend and dive buddy from back home whom they happened to bump into at the airport on the way down to Cabo. Kevin was organizing a boat charter and wanted to know if Brad was keen to join too. Did that fish look bigger underwater?… Game on! Brad pauses on the holiday celebrations for a day and connects with Kevin at the boat the following morning. The boys are comfortable diving together already. They already know the gear provided by the charter and with the guides finding this out the boys get thrown right at it. Starting shallow in the ten meter zone they warm up. Deeper drops to twenty meters feel great. The water is glass, the sun is shining and the vis is all-time for the Canadian green water duo. The guide then spots a forty pound pargo at twenty meters. “Let’s get after it!” Brad’s body vibrates as he tries to contain his excitement.
The conditions are perfect. There’s fish on the reef and excitement is high. Kevin and Brad wind up for an epic siege of Rock, Paper, Scissor to decide who gets the glory of making the first drop to the holed up pargo below. Ten bouts later Brad finally prevails. His heart is pumping from the adrenaline fuelled by the desire to get the fish in the hole twenty meters below. Without skipping a beat, Brad lays flat, takes a peak inhale and drops to the reef to hunt. He pokes around a bit and is feeling great on bottom. He can’t see/find the fish and decides to ascend. Brad gives an okay signal on the way up, hits the surface, starts going through his recovery breaths, then “whoooomph!”… peripheral collapses.
Video of Brad’s Blackout caught on film by his dive buddy Kevin…
Brad comes around and starts making sense of what’s gone on. The in-water charter guide is holding him vertical under the arm keeping his airway above water. Brad composes himself and gets out of the water and up onto the boat. Brad had blacked out. His dive day is done and his body needs time to recover. On the boat he’s offered a cold coca cola to get some sugars in him and they recount what happened with the crew.
Brad kicked to the surface rather hastily but was still cognitive when he hit the surface. As he hit the surface and began going through his recovery breaths Brad blacked out which most likely was from a pulmonary dump due to low oxygen levels created by pressure change. The guide being right there caught Brad and the gun and quickly flipped Brad onto his back. He removed Brad’s mask to allow him to breathe as Brad appeared to have reverted back to nasal breathing. Nasal breathing is our most natural form of breathing and is our dominant form during a blackout and other hypoxic events. Once the mask was off, Brad began breathing. He came around and was taken aback. “I was surprised and in shock”.
I remember when I first heard about the blackout from Brad’s lips what had happened to him. I was incredibly relieved that he was okay as he is my friend and a former Bottom Dwellers student. I also remember how it felt when he first told me what had happened and how he said he was embarrassed to tell me about it. I told Brad at the time that sharing these stories will only help a freediving community grow safer and stronger. I continue to stand by my comment to Brad and it is the goal of a safer and stronger community that has prompted this series. We can learn alot from each other’s experiences and these are the types of stories that help spread awareness of the risks in freediving.
Nothing that happened to Brad that day was anything to be embarrassed about. Brad had done what he could to rest and recover the day before and on that particular dive he had a hypoxic event. The scenario was managed well enough by the guide that was at his side when he blacked out and ultimately Brad and Kevin came out of the scenario with a learning experience and a story to tell and share.
The question to ask here is what factors contributed to Brad’s blackout as he did on that dive? He was feeling fine on the dives and warm ups. So why did things turn so fast? Let’s take it back to the beginning to break this down a little deeper.
Previously when Brad has prepared for courses or trips he has made sure to put his health first. He would dedicate to cutting out bad foods, stop drinking and focus on health to get his stamina up. This trip with the charter was unplanned and last minute. With Brad going all Ricky Martin and having lived the ‘la vida loca’ lifestyle for the week prior to the dive day the first contributing variable came into play. Brad was automatically starting at a deficit which with freediving can hugely play into one’s abilities to perform. How we fuel our bodies and manage our intake and hydration levels greatly affects our performance in freediving all the way down to our oxygen efficiency.
Leading up to the drop where Brad had his blackout that put him on the boat there were a huge amount of psychological factors and stresses that came into play in the form of excitement. Ten rounds of the most epic Rock, Paper, Scissor game you’ve ever seen, while you’re waiting to see who gets the chance at getting that trophy fish, in a setting that you only get to dream about and visit so often in your life is more than enough to get your heart rate up and have these peer pressures and psychological stresses ramping up against you. This was even more obvious once Brad won the game with the ever coveted and powerful rock where he then proceeded to lay flat, take a peak inhale and begin his drop… without even doing a proper breathe up. Excitement had gotten the best of him. Amidst his excitement on the drop, he trips up slightly on his float line detracting from the efficiency of his descent. He reaches bottom and is hyper-focused and distracted on finding the prized fish. As he turns and begins his ascent he is already in trouble but he just doesn’t know it yet. Adrenaline, psychology, peer pressures, physical ability and lack of preparation all culminated into this scenario occurring as it did. Until Brad was able to step back, remove himself from the scenario and look at it objectively, he was unaware of how things were stacking up against him. Brad actually was “feeling great”… until he wasn’t. Another potentially deadly factor that could have gravely worsened things in this scenario was that in all the excitement throughout the day the crew had completely forgotten to do a proper buoyancy check. “I was wearing too much weight for too little wetsuit.” Brad knows how to manage his weight and understands the repercussions even more so now but the excitement of the day got the best of him and if his guide and buddy hadn’t been right there this could have been a completely different outcome. Overweighting is a common mistake many spearos make and this shows that even certified freedivers can get caught up in the excitement of things and get complacent. Being over weight when a blackout occurs is a lethal combination.
Asides from Brad’s weighting in this scenario and to take the time to do a proper breathe up there were a few other things he could have done to better his performance and lessen the risk of a hypoxic event, however, it again comes back to the fact that he was “feeling great” until he blacked out.
I asked Brad how he has managed dealing with this event and how it shifted his mindset with freediving since. Brad had this to say:
“It was a very humbling experience and I put the brakes on hard with freediving,” he said. “Even with all the work I’ve done with you and the goals I set, I’m now stepping back and giving the sport even more respect where it’s owed.” Brad continued “It’s not that I wasn’t as strong a diver as I was, this experience showed me how serious the repercussions can be and how important having the safety in place is… Never dive alone… You start getting cocky and that’s when you get caught. I almost got caught.”
Brad found he began to push freediving further aside due to the anxiety and stress it caused for him and his partner. He was pushing away dive buddies and using work as a scapegoat to avoid getting out. A big driving factor in his desire to temporarily disconnect from the sport after this blackout experience was his love for his son and his partner whom the experience had rattled fairly hard.
“I haven’t really been diving since. I got busy with work and the times I did get out I was really in my head. My bottom time was cut drastically and every time I’d get that ‘kick’ in the gut it would throw my whole game off.”
Brad’s not done just yet. He’s leaving the white noise behind and getting back out there.
“I don’t want to give up on the sport… I love it… I’m missing it big time… I get out in the water and I relax… Work and life is busy. I’ve been resetting, putting family, the girlfriend and work first and easing back to it. Lately I’m just super tentative with getting back at it but I’ll get there again soon. I’m going to leave the line and the gun at home….leave all that bullshit behind and just get out there and dive… just enjoy it again.”
Hypoxia in the Community: Episode 2: Preview
“Other than luck, the only thing that saved my life from this blackout was making sure I was properly weighted at the beginning of the trip. Had I been overweight and sunk no one would have been close enough to help me and I’m certain given the tide and swell that were running I would have drowned.”
The topic of blackouts is a common discussion throughout freediving communities. Risk management, awareness and preparedness are vital components to competently and safely managing these scenarios when they occur. Management of these hypoxic events begins with being educated on the subject of hypoxia, understanding why these events occur and learning how best to manage them.
There is no ignoring that hypoxia and in turn hypoxic events occur in freediving. Turning a blind eye to the reality of this is one of the more reckless things that one can do in this beautiful sport. A hypoxic event is a response our body has due to the depletion of oxygen in the cells, tissues and/or body as a whole. This is known as hypoxia. Hypoxic events are more commonly described as ‘blackouts’ and ‘near blackouts’ which are also known as Loss of Motor Controls (LMCs) and Sambas. It’s very likely that if you stick with this sport long enough you will witness one of these events at some point first hand.
Acknowledging the Disconnect:
It is apparent that there can, at times, be a disconnect between recreational freedivers and the reality of blackouts and LMCs. It can be easy to remove ones’ self from the fact that events like this can occur until a hypoxic event has either been experienced or witnessed. Free divers generally acknowledge the risks of hypoxia but at times there is a lack of respect when it comes to embracing the protocols and management systems that were created and designed to be implemented to help minimize the dangers and risks associated with these events. Unfortunately, it often takes this first hand experience before many freedivers acknowledge the reality of the risks associated with the sport. To help bridge that gap with this disconnect we have asked a few local freedivers to share their first hand experiences with hypoxic events for us.
Our hope, through this, is to allow the lessons learned from some of our community members’ experiences to shed light on the reality of this subject. Before diving into the dirty details of these stories with our local community members we need to bring it back to our two previous questions. Why do these hypoxic events occur and how do we manage the scenario at hand when they do occur?
The basics of a blackouts hypoxia
Having a proper understanding of the physics and physiology of freediving is beneficial on many levels in this sport. One of the ways it will benefit you is by allowing you to better understand hypoxia and why these types of hypoxic events occur. Nerding out on the science and having a full understanding of Boyle’s Law and Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressure will help you better understand the relationships between pressure, volume and density. It is within the scientific relationships guided by these 2 laws that we become more susceptible to hypoxic events as we freedive.
The purpose of this blog post isn’t to give you a full lesson on the science behind hypoxic events as there is a lot of great instructional material, programs and courses out there that fulfill that need. The general basics however can be broken down as follows to help you better understand hypoxic events.
Hypoxia and the types of blackouts
There are two main types of blackouts in freediving that we will focus on. Performance Freediving International (PFI), which is the instructional system that I instruct at Bottom Dwellers Freediving, classifies these blackouts as ‘ascent’ and ‘recovery’ blackouts. The type of blackout is defined by the mechanisms that contribute to the blackout itself. In general, when blackouts are discussed in freediving they get tossed under the veil of ‘shallow water blackout’. Scientifically there are ways to distinguish between the mechanisms which create those blackouts and in this blog we’ll focus on the two mentioned above.
Water is dense… much more dense than the air of our atmosphere. Salt water is even more dense than fresh water but, for these general purposes, it’s not enough to make a notable difference and we’ll just focus on the salty brine that we all love and enjoy so much. As we freedive and move deeper through the water column, pressure increases fairly rapidly.
Pressure is measured in units known as Atmospheres of Pressure (ATA). For every additional ten meters of depth in this salt water environment, an additional 1 ATA will be felt. Thus, by ten meters of depth we will already be subjected to a second ATA of pressure doubling the amount of pressure that was exerted on our bodies while at the surface. This change in pressure is shown as 1 ATA at the surface and changes to 2 ATA at ten meters of depth. According to Boyle’s Law and assuming that temperature remains the same (which we will for these basic purposes) there is an inversely proportional relationship between volume and pressure. This indicates that at ten meters of depth (and now 2 ATA) our lung volume would already now be half (i.e. 1 over 2, ½ or 50%) of what we had at the surface. Now that’s a pretty drastic change in your lung volume and we’ve only descended ten meters! As we continue to dive deeper pressure continues to increase by 1 ATA for every ten meters of depth, while volume continues to show the inversely proportional relationship to pressure.
Have you ever been freediving and felt like you’re out of air at fifteen meters even though you only left the surface fifteen seconds prior? This is due to the relationship between volume and pressure, the reduced volume of air that is now occupying your lungs and how the autonomic functions of your body are responding to this volume decrease. At twenty meters of depth and 3 ATA your lung volume will now be one third (33%) of what it was at the surface. You might assume that this would indicate lower oxygen levels at this depth but that would be incorrect. This is where Dalton’s Law comes into place.
Although increased pressure results in decreased volume, this reduction in volume actually increases gas density. This relationship allows your body to access more oxygen for cognitive behaviour under the added pressure than you would otherwise have access to at the surface. Pretty amazing right!? That same amazing relationship between physics and our physiology is actually the reason we are so susceptible to blackouts and LMCs while freediving. By pressurizing our body and utilizing the oxygen (which we would only realistically have access to while at depth under pressure) we subject ourselves to a scenario where we’re able to utilize more of the oxygen we would require for cognitive and conscious behaviour at the surface while operating at depth without even knowing we are doing it.
These relationships in Boyle’s and Dalton’s laws are why we become so susceptible to hypoxia and blackouts while freediving, in particular, on our ascents where the relationships are reversed. As pressure decreases, the volume of air in our body begins to increase. The density of oxygen in the blood, cells and tissues then in turn begins to decrease. As a result, our cells and tissues are spontaneously robbed of the oxygen we now require for cognitive behaviour, resulting in an ‘ascent’ blackout due to critical hypoxia.. The mechanisms to create an ascent blackout and the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) flip, described above, is directly related to these laws and the relationships between pressure, volume and density as well as the rate of oxygen consumption by the freediver.
Recovery blackouts have slightly different mechanisms in place but are as directly related to the affects pressure has on our body as ascent blackouts. During recovery blackouts critical hypoxia is reached upon surfacing and is correlated to blood pressure disruption which occurs due to the reduction in pressure on ascent. This is why recovery breathing is implemented in freediving. It combats the blood pressure disruption which, if left unchecked, can result in the recovery blackout which accounts for the majority of blackouts in freediving.
Now that we have a solid understanding of the basic science behind hypoxia and the reason these two most common types of blackouts occur it is also important to consider what types of scenarios lead us to these situations. Regardless of how well trained an individual is in freediving, we are all susceptible to hypoxic events. This is why the number one rule in freediving is to never freedive alone.
Education and Training
The most valuable training accessible to anyone starting out in this sport is the training one gets from a basic level certification from a credible agency and certifying body. These certifications instruct you in the fundamentals of freediving with a focus on proper buddy system diving. There are many credible agencies out there to choose from, including but not limited to: PFI, AIDA, SSI, and Molchanov. The most important thing when starting out is to get some formal training right out of the gates. Having the proper training under your belt will set you up to be a safer, more proficient and more confident freediver. In the event that a blackout or LMC should occur in front of you in a live diving environment you will have been prepared with hands-on experience in the motions of managing someone through some of these potential scenarios. Regardless of how well trained you are, if you’re diving alone you will be rolling the dice on your well being. It’s as simple as that.
The variables with hypoxia
Now let’s brush the surface on what types of scenarios and variables contribute to hypoxia or increase the likely-hood of a blackout or LMC. General health, physical ability, physical environment, stress levels, peer pressures and the psychology behind freediving as well as general diet and habits all play into each and every dive we take. Freediving is an extremely mental sport and one of the most beautiful moving meditations one can experience. Finding the beauty in the ‘flow state’ which freediving provides is what draws many individuals deeper and deeper into the sport. It is used for cross training amongst many high level athletes to sharpen and strengthen the mind as well as train oxygen efficiency and carbon dioxide (CO2) tolerance. The mental aspects of this sport can, however, play against us and undermine us at the worst of times.
All of the variables mentioned above can play into our dives and our ability each and every day. “I know my limits and dive within them… I’m fine…” is a sing-song we hear all too often in the world of freediving. The fact of the matter is that there are just too many variables involved to always be in control and that’s why having a buddy there can mean the difference between diving another day or not. Some simple things you can do to enhance your abilities, performance and safety with freediving are the following: Dive in buddy systems with proper freediving supervision (i.e. one up, one down). Always complete your recovery breaths. Have a clear mind. Dive rested. Eat well/healthy, hydrate and follow surface-interval protocols. Being in-tune with yours and your dive buddies’ health and well-being will provide awareness that can benefit and add to the enjoyment and safety of your dives.
Risk Management: Learn it to Execute it
So what do you do if a hypoxic event affects your buddy during a dive? How do you properly manage this scenario? Unfortunately, this isn’t a topic that is easily and fully coverable in a blog but we have a valuable resource that we will provide you with to help get you a better understanding of the ins and outs of these processes. Ted Harty is owner of Immersion Freediving out of Florida and is a veteran PFI Freediving Instructor. In recent years he has created an online self paced instructional resource called www.freedivingsafety.com . This website was designed and created by Ted to help raise awareness on the subject of hypoxic events in freediving due to demand with regards to the ever growing number of cases in the sport.
www.FreedivingSafety.com provides a free online safety course. You will learn the truth about blackouts, how to minimize your risk, how to potentially save your buddies life should a blackout occur, as well as how to tell if you are wearing too much weight (you likely are…). While this online course is not a substitute for the hands on skills you learn in an in-person freediving class, it’s an excellent starting point from a trusted and reliable source.
We highly recommend that if you’re practicing breath holding in a liquid environment while freediving or snorkelling to any capacity, head over to the link provided and take the Freediving Safety program online. This program will virtually run you through basic freedive safetying protocols and techniques with a goal to make this basic knowledge more accessible to the general freediving community. This online course is not a replacement for the formal and hands on training you will get in a certifiable freediving course, however, it’s great knowledge to have access to if you’re getting out there before getting the chance to get a course under your belt.
Making the Connection
Now let’s make the connection of the knowledge learnt here to real life events by showcasing real community members’ stories and scenarios. To do this we’ve reached out to 3 local Vancouver Island freedivers who have all experienced hypoxic events and blackouts in live diving environments in the last few years. These are real life examples and stories from our small and ever growing freediving community on the west coast of Canada. Brad Johnson, Galyn Franklin and Josh Marek have all shared their stories with one communal goal. The hope is that through bringing these stories from our local waters into perspective for the readers that we will shed a little more light on the reality of blackouts in freediving and the scenarios that surround them. Join us for Hypoxia in the Community: Episodes 1-3 for the first hand stories, emotions felt from the events at hand and the experiences learnt throughout these endeavours.