There are few things that compare to the feeling of being completely submerged in something that could kill you, yet never feeling more free. This is the case with the sport of freediving. These athletes dive to depths of up to 700 feet of water on a single breath of air, with no oxygen tank handy to save them if needed.
(See if you can spot the scuba diver in this photo)
These adrenaline-crazed individuals, such as my boyfriend and I, experience something unlike anything else on earth. One cannot be more dependent on their training and skills than at this moment. It is both an exercise for the body and the mind. One of the most important talents in free diving is remaining calm. The calmer one is, the less oxygen their body uses, giving them maximum bottom time.
“It’s one of the best challenges, being able to overcome your mind to be able to push your body to experience something a small percentage of the world gets to see,” said Brandon Verdura, a 24-year-old Coast Guard rescue swimmer and professional underwater photographer.
(Sometimes he lets me hold the camera too)
Before beginning a dive, divers practice what is called a breathe-up. This is where they slow their heart rate and prepare to fill their lungs to maximum capacity, to dive for as long as possible. Special fins reaching over three feet in length, are used to provide maximum bend and thus propel the diver downward with as much force as possible with minimal energy so oxygen is not wasted on the descent, but rather exploring what lays beneath the surface.
To my Florida friends who may be reading this, or anyone who is planning to travel to the Sunshine State in the future… Want to give it a go? You’re in luck. Florida offers many options for perfectly conditioned dive locations year-round. Some locations within driving distance of UT include Ginnie Springs, Seven Sisters, Wekiwa Springs, Blue Springs, Crystal River and more. All Florida springs pump out crystal clear fresh water at a constant temperature of 72 degrees, making it swimmable all year, although a wetsuit is advised due to the chilly temperatures, which can drastically cut breath-hold time.
Crystal River inhabits hundreds of protected manatees that you can get as close as you’d like to! (Without touching of course to avoid getting tased by one of the watchful preservation workers – just kidding, but seriously don’t they might tase you haha)
Our personal favorite is Ginnie Springs. We try to make the two-hour drive to North Florida every couple of months to dive their multiple springs, caves and, of course, enjoy the lazy Santa Fe River. Ginnie Springs offers beautiful camping facilities for just $22 a night per person.
Our favorite hole to dive is Devil’s Ear. This particular dive spot offers a true natural phenomenon. The tannins in the river mix with the fresh water pumped out of the spring at this interception point to create rainbow water color. However, this beautiful wonder can only be truly viewed and appreciated from about 15 feet below the surface where you pass the river floor and enter the hole where the spring is located.
As I dive straight down, my only guide is the floating buoy that is anchored in the spring to mark the spot in the murky water. I’m unsure what I should be looking for. But as I descend to about 15 feet, the hole opens up and the water is crystal clear. As I dive further, I see plants growing on the walls of the cave and a giant tree trunk wedged across the hole. As I hook underneath the horizontal tree and begin my ascent back to the surface what I see is breathtaking, no pun intended. The surface appears a mirage of colors. The view is so unbelievable that many viewers of my boyfriend’s photography work say it’s photoshopped. But those who have done it themselves are quick to correct the skeptics.
As we perform our breathe-up at the surface before another round of photos, a young free diver pops up, amazed by the colors, exclaiming that it is like nothing she’s ever seen before and I wouldn’t doubt it. Free dive courses are offered throughout Florida to teach free divers how to safely push the limits of their capabilities and experience an even more secluded depth of up to hundreds of feet.
Few people dare to risk their lives for something only personally pleasing, but that’s what makes this sport so unique. The experience one has beneath the surface, completely on their own, is special to them in a way only a limited number of people can relate to.
Photos by Brandon Verdura