It’s more than just gear that gets you out there when you begin harvesting and hunting underwater on one breath. You need a respect for the ocean and the risks associated with what we do as underwater hunters. Before you even entertain going on a shopping spree and loading up with all the flashy spearfishing and freediving equipment you can find, there are a few things you should be asking yourself.
Before the equipment…
Firstly, Ask yourself.. “Am I equipped with the knowledge to avoid getting into trouble and endangering the lives of myself, of my dive buddies and of other mariners?”… At a bare minimum you should be doing an extensive amount of independent research online and from proven publications. Freediving is not without its own risks and combined with spearfishing and hand harvesting, it can be a risky pastime. Ideally, one should start by taking a course and seeking instruction from a professional freedive instructor. There is no better investment for someone who is looking to get into freediving and spearfishing. You can have all the best gear in the world but having a solid foundational knowledge of freediving and risk management that goes with it will give you the keys to the ocean you desire!
What equipment do I really need?
The next question is…do I really need that? You can spend a lot of money on all of the best gear out there, which is great if you can afford it, but you may in the long run end up with gear that you don’t really need. On the flipside, don’t buy junk. You’ll just have to replace it later as you progress as a Spearo. Find the happy middle ground in all of this. Try and think about purchasing your gear in stages.
Focus on your ‘Essentials’:
Mask – Low volume preferred to high volume but most important thing is a good fit!
Buy the best equipment you can afford. This will be the gear you depend on to build the foundation of your skills and grow your bottom times. There’s no point in buying a speargun and all the trimmings if you haven’t yet become a proficient and competent freediver. Get to know and depend on your ‘essentials’ first. These are the pieces that will keep you in the water longer, insulating you, conserving your oxygen while maximizing your efficiency on the whole.
Next, you should add in your ‘Safety Kit’:
Float, Flag and Float line – Safety in visibility and buoyancy support
Line cutter/Dive Knife – If you didn’t get this in essentials you’re getting it now…
Having a proper ‘safety kit’ will enhance your diving in many ways, most of all keeping you safer. The float setup will help mark your position to others in the area and can provide emergency floatation in a time of need. The dive watch/computer will allow you to easily track you and your buddies’ surface intervals and bottom times with the automated functions that these devices provide. In addition there are other obvious utilitarian benefits to these items as well. Your float becomes your pack mule for harvesting carrying all your bits, bobs and catch while your dive watch will help you mentally map the bottom contours and locate those reefs you painstakingly researched…
Finishing the equipment puzzle…
Lastly, build your ‘harvesting kit’:
These are the tools of the trade. The options seem and are indeed limitless. By the end of your journey, I can assure you that you will own a tool for each job and always be looking for that next little gadget to help do the job better!
Is it feasible to set yourself up for a full kit in one fowl swoop? If you’ve got the budget, for sure! Why not?! In doing so just remember to use the same mentality and approach discussed above. Be mindful of where you allocate your funds and prioritize what’s most important. For example, invest more of the allocated budget into your essentials and safety kit rather than your harvesting kit if your funds are finite. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to help shed a little light on what really counts with your spearfishing and freediving equipment when you’re starting out.
Mindset for the Lifestyle
The final, and second most important element to becoming a competent and responsible underwater hunter (aside from the safety of yourself and others) is founded around being ethical in your marine harvesting. Take only what you need and respect the ocean which gives us so very much. Educate yourself on the marine biodiversity of your area and gain an understanding for the quarry upon which you prey. We recommend reaching out to Bottom Dwellers Freediving or the Ucluelet Aquarium for any programs they may have running that can help get you out there more sustainably and ethically Spearfishing and gathering marine life by hand and spear is amazingly rewarding and fulfilling. Become a steward of the ocean and do your best to foster this same outlook in others.
Staying up too late in the darkness of your bedroom. The glow of Navionics on your phone as you scouting out those new potential zones and bottom structure. Obsessively cross checking weather patterns and systems. Checking tides, currents and visibility reports for when everything might align for that window to get you and your crew out there again. Traveling and going the distance to get a little further to that new spot, that next zone. Plunging beneath the liquid curtain and laying eyes on that new reef and what it holds in the hunt for that sustainable harvest.
Driving the sustainable mindset…
The mind of the freedive harvester is ever working and focused on that sensation and that addiction that keeps drawing them back to the sea for that shared adventure and experience. The draw to this is not only fuelled by the hunt and experience within the adventure itself. It’s fuelled by the culmination of these events bringing friends and family together around the fire and around the table to enjoy the bounty retrieved from the ocean that day.
Honouring and respecting one’s catch through the process from start to finish. Descending into the depths on one breath. Observing, understanding and making the appropriate choices before selecting the harvest. Returning to the surface and being granted that gratifying breath as the surface tension breaks in accomplishment. The connection one feels from this is undeniably strong and beautiful. It’s this underlying gratitude and respect for the liquid environment and the resources pulled from within it that cultivates and guides the thoughts and actions of the sustainable mind in ethical ocean harvesting.
Where it begins…
Ethical and sustainable harvesting begins with the education and knowledge to support the choices that lead to the end game you are desiring to achieve. Making decisions in the hunt that will promote the long term health of the reefs from which we are harvesting drives the mindset of most freedive-harvesters, especially of those who can truly identify as sustainable and ethical hunters. This title isn’t earned by owning a speargun alone. In fact, spearfishing can have adverse effects on a reef if the wrong choices are being repeatedly made once someone becomes proficient at freediving and hunting. Where then do these ethical and sustainable choices start?
Identifying your Target:
A hunter should always have a strong knowledge base of species identification. This is even more important with regards to the species being harvested. Knowing the specific species you are targeting and the physical traits to identify them is where to start with this. Once you have learnt how to identify between the specific species it’s important to learn more about each of these species before you begin your hunt. Consider what facts and traits about this species make them a sustainable and ethical choice or not.
Species identification does not start and stop with the ability to distinguish between different species however. There are decisions to be made surrounding each species’ specific characteristics which take the decision making process even further. Species specific size characteristics, rate of maturity (Baby making prowess… cue the Marvin Gaye), overall knowledge of life spans of the species and seasonal habits such as nesting and mating. These pieces of information among others all play into the choices of ethics and sustainability in freedive-harvesting and spearfishing.
Some fantastic hardcopy resources to check out to get more informed are available from Harbour Publishing who have a selection of different books and field guides relevant to our waters. Another fantastic way to learn a little more about your local species would be to check out a local aquarium. The Ucluelet Aquarium, the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea and the Vancouver Aquarium all hold exhibits which can inform you and show you real life examples of specific species you’re interested in learning about.
Is there anybody home?
Being present and spending time on the reefs we’re harvesting from allows us the opportunity to physically observe the state of the reef we’re hunting before making any decisions on what we’re removing. We generally have a good idea of what we’re after and the goals of our harvest before we even get in the water, however, being able to lay eyes on the reef and see the diversity in species and the population density of specific species allows us to momentarily gather information to better assist in more sustainable and ethical choices. If you are noticing an abundance of fish of a certain species on the reef, ask yourself why. Should you notice that the reef only has limited numbers of specific species, again ask yourself why and then consider if taking any of those species would be a sustainable and ethical choice.
Ongoing questioning allows us to take a step back, create correlations, make better decisions and ultimately learn from our experiences. We can learn a lot by observing from even one drop to a reef. The more drops we make in a zone, the more we learn about the area and general trends. The more knowledgeable we become, the better decisions we will make.
It was ‘thiiiiiis’ big…
For freedivers that are spearfishing or hand harvesting the ultimate goal is to get out and collect what’s desired and needed for the table. We do, however, sometimes get caught up in our natural competitive tendencies which may guide and steer us further away from our ultimate goal than we’d like. Beating your own personal best (PB) or pulling out a bigger fish than your buddy did last season are some examples of the mentality that can get us caught in this scenario.
Throughout the Freedive-Harvesting courses with Bottom Dwellers Freediving we address this social dilemma and age old story as “the hunt” and acknowledge how easily it is that we can get caught up in it. The fact of the matter with fish is that with most fish species bigger fish are better and more successful breeders. There is a-lot to be said for leaving the bigger fish to swim another day to allow them to continue breeding and help sustain the reefs’ populations. Ultimately, the most sustainable and ethical choice would be to select a fish that is large enough to warrant the purpose of taking for your meal/meals but that is also not in the biggest class of fish on that reef. Limited time on each drop and that competitive edge engrained in many of us can affect our ability to make clear decisions under pressure.
Checking in… Ego or Sustainable?
It’s important to check in and remember the reasons as to what brought you to the reef, the goals you had before getting there and staying true to these as best you can. I’ve been in the position before where I have regrettably taken big fish off reefs I had said I wouldn’t anymore after having imposed my own size restriction caps on certain species for myself’. In this particular instance I ended up taking a fish that I truly didn’t want for any reason other than to attempt to beat out my previous best.
There there were plenty of other options around on the reef to put fish tacos on the table that day but the hunt got the best of me. In the end I was rewarded with nothing but a heart sinking feeling with the decision I made in taking this fish. It was exactly the same weight as my previous best. That lapse in judgement was enough to bring me back into check about where my intentions really were at the time of that dive and how I now operate on that particular reef to this day.
Keep it diverse, Keep it Sustainable
You’re now identifying the species you’re after. You’ve made the effort and taking the time to get educated on the specific characteristics of those species. You’re observing the state of the reef and its overall composition. The next step in sustainable and ethical harvesting is to remember to switch the focus of your targets and to keep your catch bag diverse. Being diverse in your harvest takes the pressure off the specific species that you focus on and target more regularly. Taking the time to learn new species that are edible and that you can enjoy will go a long way with keeping your reefs healthier in the long run.
We’re incredibly fortunate in the Pacific North West to be able to enjoy the abundance of edible harvest accessible from our ocean. Lingcod, rockfish, greenling, crabs and prawns are the top taco contenders but by diversifying and moving away from the common targets the world becomes much more than just your ‘oyster’. Learning to enjoy sea urchins, gooseneck barnacles, sea cucumbers, sea weeds, kelp, a variety of bivalves and univalves unfolds a smorgasbord of bountiful beautiful harvest accessible with the right knowledge, understanding, skill sets and a Tidal Water fishing license.
We’ve already mentioned the negative effects that social media can have with the effects of peer pressure and competitive edge. Location mapping and landmarks however are by far the worst side effect social media has on a reef and adventure sports in general. The physical pressure that gets put on a reef as knowledge that it holds good fish spreads can have terrible side effects. Even more so as it gains popularity as a productive hunting site. For these reasons, and as my own general rule, I do not share locations on public forums, including this article.
We’ve seen reefs with once good fish populations that are now suffering due to geographic location and ease of accessibility. The unceasing and relentless pressure put on these common knowledge locations by different groups of divers being the primary cause for this. There’s nothing wrong or rude about not sharing a spot over social media. In fact, I applaud people on holding those spots close and keeping them sacred. By sharing locations I’m not just talking about saying the location name or area, it also comes down to being flagrant with your use of landmarks in social media posts.
Blowing up your spot
People are generally pretty smart. By knowing the general area you were in, using a few extra digital tools and a little local knowledge it can be pretty easy to pick spots out for their location. Prior to social media, people had to explore and find their own locations for whatever activity they were doing. The only way they found out where spots were was by word of mouth and maps. Everyone wants the quick fast track to that next best spot and keeping those spots close to you is the best way to preserve them.
I’m a big advocate of this approach with locations. Even with some of our closest dive buddies there is a “you know when you go” mentality that we run with for some locations and pride is held in keeping those zones undisclosed. The best part is that your true dive buddies will understand and respect this if they’ve ever had to work for spots of their own at some point. It’s about protecting those spots that you care about from the devil that is social media when it comes to geo-tagging and locations.
You owe it to that reef that’s provided you with those bowls of ceviche, those fish tacos and those sensual scallop medallions. You owe it to the reef and all the species on it. As sustainable as freedive-harvesting and spearfishing can be it can have negative effects. If too many people are hitting the same spot it will undoubtedly have negative side effects on those heavily targeted species if it’s easy enough to access.
Sustainable and Ethical Mindset
There’s a lot that comes together to own the title of a sustainable and ethical harvester. This mindset and lifestyle is more than just freediving and spearfishing. It’s about utilizing knowledge and understanding so that one can make the right choices while on the hunt to promote sustainable and healthy reefs for the future. It’s about respecting and cherishing that environment and what it provides. We’re always learning, improving and bettering ourselves. Being open to conversation, and being humble and respectful of each other is what will continue to grow a healthy, positive and sustainable freedive-harvesting community. Enjoy those experiences. Enjoy those fires and meals with friends and family and do so in a way that will allow for the next generations to come to do so as well.
Dive Safe and enjoy those bigger picture tacos, Chris…
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.