The History of Freediving


Spanning many millennia, the history of freediving has seen the evolution of an essential survival technique for acquiring underwater food and materials transform into a competitive sport pushing the limits of human physiology. This article will delve into the history of freediving by examining its earliest practitioners, the pioneering divers who brought the sport into public awareness, and the athletes who compete at the highest levels today. We will also explore how education and safety practices from the elite levels of freediving filtered down to give rise to a global community of recreational breath-hold divers.

History of Freediving

Early Beginnings of Freediving

Humans have been exploring the practice of freediving for food and goods for many thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient peoples like the Chinchorians, who lived around 6,000 BC in what is now Chile, were likely engaging in repeated freedives, as shown by bone growths in their ear canals caused by exposure to cold water. This condition is similar to “surfer’s ear” seen in modern divers. The Chinchorians and other ancient coastal groups were not freediving recreationally but out of necessity for procuring food like shellfish or materials like pearls, sponges, and coral to trade with inland groups.

There are also historical accounts of freedivers being used in warfare. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great famously enlisted local freedivers to dismantle underwater booms constructed from logs and metal chains that were blocking his ships from entering the Tyre harbor during a siege. The act of relying on these early “combat divers” allowed Alexander to ultimately sack the coastal city-state.

Pearl diving and sponge diving remained dangerous but essential jobs in the Mediterranean and Asia for centuries. In 1913, a Greek sponge diver named Stotti Georghios dove to over 60 meters to locate a missing anchor from an Italian battleship. Though half-deaf from damaged eardrums, he descended over 3 minutes on a single breath hold, retrieving the anchor. The extreme dive exemplified both the daring and danger of early industrial freediving.

The Early 20th Century Rise of Freediving

In the early 20th century, the development of specialized diving equipment along with bold explorers pushing limits quickly advanced freediving from a survival skill to an organized activity and spectacle.

In 1927, French inventor Jacques O’Marchal introduced the first diving mask fully enclosing the nose to enable easier ear pressure equalization. Additional mask improvements came in 1938 from Maxime Forjot, who added a nose pouch divers could pinch to equalize. Simple swim fins debuted in 1933, invented by Louis de Corlieu and later popularized by Owen Churchill. And in 1951, Hugh Bradner developed the first wetsuits from neoprene rubber.

Capitalizing on better gear, freedivers began systematically pushing the boundaries of underwater endurance and depth in competitions.

In 1949, Italian air force captain Raimondo Bucher dove to 30 meters on a single breath hold on a bet from scientists who claimed such a depth would be fatal. Bucher returned unharmed, kicking off an era of public depth records.

Bucher’s 30 meter dive opened the floodgates to two decades of high profile attempts by figures like Enzo Majorca from Italy, Jacques Mayol from France, and Bob Croft from the US. These men became icons of extreme freediving history, sustaining multi-minute breath holds and descending as deep as 73 meters – pressing far beyond what experts had believed survivable.

Scientists also capitalized on this golden era to run physiological tests aimed at documenting and explaining the incredible abilities of these divers. For example, Mayol demonstrated in one dive how his resting heartbeat dropped by over 50% during his time underwater.

Mainstream Popularity and Growing Dangers

This surge of public attention also brought growing unease about the safety of unrestricted depth attempts from organizing bodies like CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques). When Enzo Majorca collided with a safety diver during a 1976 record attempt, he unleashed a furious rant filled with expletives that was captured by attending news crews. This outburst plus ongoing deaths led CMAS to stop ratifying records deeper than 80 meters from 1976 to 1988 in hopes of discouraging further unsafe dives.

However, record attempts continued, culminating with Angela Bandini reaching 107 meters in 1988 – the greatest female depth yet recorded. Bandini dedicated her performance to the recently deceased Jacques Mayol, who had succumbed to complications during a 100 meter training dive. The same year, Enzo Majorca returned from retirement to successfully reach 101 meters at age 56 – his final record before permanently retiring. The second era of public pioneering had ended, but left a legacy that freediving could capture widespread fame.

The Evolution of Modern Competitive Freediving

By the 1990s, freediving began to shift away from pure spectacle towards becoming an organized global sport. This was facilitated by the founding of the International Association for Development of Apnea (AIDA) in 1992 to standardize rules and sanction competitions.

Some standouts of this modern competitive era have included Natalia Molchanova from Russia, Herbert Nitsch from Austria, William Trubridge from New Zealand, Umberto Pelizzari from Italy, and Tanya Streeter from the USA.

The depths and breath hold times achieved by these athletes have astonished experts in human physiology. Molchanova set an incredible 41 world records across disciplines before her sad disappearance and presumed death during a recreational dive in 2015. Prior to this, she broke her own world record in 2014 at the age of 53 with a 128 meter dive in the discipline of “constant weight with fins”.

In 2007, Herbert Nitsch descended to a staggering 214 meters using a weighted sled in the extremely dangerous “No Limits” discipline, which has no restrictions on external weighting or pull ropes. This dive is considered unbeatable for the foreseeable future due to the physiological barriers and high risk.

On the other hand, William Trubridge made freediving history in 2016 as the first person to cross 100 meters in a breath hold dive without using fins, relying solely on a rope and strict arm power. He did so in one of the most demanding disciplines known as “Free Immersion”. And Umberto Pelizzari not only set multiple depth records during his career, but has since contributed extensively to education in freediving as an instructor, author of training manuals, professor and TV host.

The Performance Filtering to Recreational Freediving

Part of this educational mission has included increased focus on safety practices and distancing the sport from reliance on the riskiest performances like No Limits sleds. Organizations now recognize instituting depth ceilings and equipment standards help ensure the future of freediving. These shifts have provided space for freediving skills to filter positively into the recreational community.

Recreational and competitive free diving groups have sprouted up across the world, populated by athletes that may never break an official record but are dedicated to self-improvement. And the instruction, equipment quality and best practices established at the highest levels of AIDA competition have massively elevated the training standards of new recreational divers through agencies like RAID, PADI and SSI.

Whereas in the past, new divers had limited means to safely develop breath hold skills, the infrastructure is now in place for the next era of growth in recreational freediving interest. From its scrappy earliest iterations to death-defying spectacles and finally as a modern global sport, the history of freediving has been one of determination, education and humans resolutely exploring just how far our bodies and minds can go.