A sport which began as a simple reconnecting with nature, and exploring the deep depths of our oceans, has grown increasingly competitive over recent years. Potentially as a result of this competitiveness, or perhaps due to sheer adrenaline desire, the death rates in this sport are beginning to attract attention, and fairly so.
Free diving is now the second most dangerous extreme sport in the world. After reading this article you should have some insight into how dangerous freediving actually is, and what the biggest factors are that contribute to this.
What Is The Death Rate In Competitive Freediving?
What may surprise many acquainted with the sport is the fact that the competitive free diving death rate is only one person out of over 50,000 free diving competitions globally. This is an astoundingly low figure given the speculation regarding the death rates in this sport, and the dangers that are understandably associated with it.
So how is that possible?
Well, under the AIDA freediving authority, strict rules are in place to ensure that everyone is able to free dive safely. For example, a doctor must always be present with specialised gear, compulsory safety courses, and a vigorous log of any incidents or accidents which can be used to ban or prevent any athletes from competing.
This comprehensive set of rules eliminates much of the risks associated with competing in free diving, however, it does not eliminate a death rate entirely.
Nicolas Mevoli from New York was the lone figure out of 50,000 competitors who tragically died during an organised competition on November 17th 2013 in the “constant weight without fins” event. Mevoli actually defied one of the regulations set by AIDA that was in place for this competition. Aiming to dive to 72 metres in Dean’s Blue Hole, Mevoli made it to 68 metres before beginning to ascend.
According to the AIDA safety regulations, once you begin to ascend you must keep going, and cannot go back down. Mevoli changed his mind after beginning to ascend, and began to push back down again. He came back to the surface after more than 3 and half minutes underwater, at first appearing completely fine. He suddenly lost consciousness and collapsed, passing away from a pulmonary edema.
Overall, while competitive freediving may hold a stigma of risk and danger, statistically, it is not necessarily so, and the rules are in place for a reason. If you know someone competing or you would like to compete yourself, remember that sticking to the rules is paramount.
So Why Is There Such Conversation About The Dangers Of Free Diving?
It would be naïve to focus on competitive death rates alone, and pretend that this is not an incredibly dangerous sport. According to the 2019 DAN Annual Diving Report, between 2004 and 2017, there were at least 955 breath-holding diving incidents, which they had gathered from public media, breath-holding diving associations, DAN’s Diving Incident Reporting System, and also reports from individuals.
These incidents had a 73% fatality rate, averaging at about 51 fatalities per year.
The above graph represents the varying number of breath holding fatalities which have been reported to DAN per year. As you can see, this graph fluctuates, representing the different levels of fatalities that took place per year. This does not, however, give insight into how many actual incidents there have been, or how many unreported incidents there have been.
Despite this, there were still a huge total of 71 incidents reported in 2012 alone. With a 73% fatality rate of all incidents, it would be fair to assume that the deaths from freediving that year were around 51, with some leeway either side.
This is an astounding contrast to the one single death out of 50,000 that has occurred competitively, and stands to evidence the importance of AIDA’s regulations, and the intense safety maintenance of free diving competitions.
If you like using figures for comparison, what this means is that recreational free diving has one death in 500 dives, making it 100 times more likely to die from free diving recreationally than it would be competitively.
Furthermore, despite the fact that DAN rigorously collects this data across a number of different sources, they have acknowledged the fact that it is highly likely that there are much more incidents than they have been able to report.
It is therefore highly encouraged to submit any information at all to DAN, in order to provide the clearest advice and information to free divers. There could also be some slight bias regarding the fatality rate of the incidents that were reported.
To put simply, if you went free diving with a friend or family member and they suffered an injury from free diving, you may not feel inclined to go online and report it to DAN. If, however, their incident proved to be fatal, it is far more likely that this would be reported.
While this is simply a conjecture, it would drive the fatality percentage figure upwards.
So Is Free Diving Safe?
That brings us to the question of how safe free diving really is. Can it all entirely be blamed on the sport itself, or can it be attributed to other factors? Is any of it just sheer bad luck?
The first thing to address is that free diving is by nature a difficult and dangerous sport, which pushes the human body to its limits. Free divers often fail to respond to physiological warning signals, and cross their mental barrier by will, is tends to be what leads to blackouts underwater.
This is incredibly dangerous without a medical professional on hand with adequate equipment, as there would be at a competition. Free divers are always encouraged to dive only with a ‘buddy,’ to accompany them. This ‘buddy’ is required to observe the dive from the surface of the water, and be ready to dive down to rescue the free diver if they lose consciousness.
However, this is highly limited to provide adequate safety. First of all, lack of visibility through the water could mean that ‘the buddy’ is unable to see that the diver has lost consciousness, or even be able to properly see the diver at all.
Second, ‘the buddy’ needs to be able to reach the diver, and be able to reach them in a very short space of time. And third, ‘the buddy’ requires enough medical knowledge to know what to actually do with their friend who has blacked out. Not calling for an ambulance fast enough could prove to be fatal.
So put simply: if you do not know what you are doing, no free diving is not safe.
Can Freediving Death Rates Be Attributed To Anything Other Than The Sport Itself?
Placing your body under enough stress that you can actually pass through the mental barrier and blackout is not a sport that you would expect to attract anyone who is uninterested in extremity. Additionally, with such high death rates recreationally, divers who are aware of those statistics are highly committed to pushing themselves to the limit in order to dive.
While some of these divers are undoubtedly committed to adhering to the safety rules, others may be more willing to push boundaries in order to complete a better dive.
DAN claims that the most common age for death in free divers is between 20 and 29 years old. What is interesting is that this age bracket is less likely to be experiencing pre-existing health conditions, injuries, or anything that is known to come with older age.
Within this age range 90% were male, and only 10% were female (non-binary or trans figures were not mentioned). This is a vast difference between the two sexes, and mirrors the fatality rate with car accidents, hence why in the UK, car insurance was always traditionally higher for males in their early 20s.
However, it would be conjecture to assume that this means that boys are naturally less safe in their practise of extreme sports, or are just generally more careless.
Due to the fact that DAN do not submit numbers for how many males and females actually practise free diving without incidents, it is not possible to determine if males actually suffer more fatalities for the number of dives that they perform, or if they simply free dive a lot more than females, which would therefore make their casualty rate much higher.
If you and your friends went free diving and had no issues at all, you obviously would not report anywhere the simple fact that you had been. This makes it difficult to properly analyse the death rates data in terms of demographic, because we simply do not know what demographic is actually diving more.
As well as this, some of the most common causes of death in recreational diving are asphyxia, drowning, air embolism, or cardiac events. Men are more at risk of cardiac arrest than women are, which could also contribute to the fact that far more males die every year from free diving than females.
So while it may be easy for some to attribute the high recreational free diving death rate to young males with little regard for safety, the data does not support this conclusion, and it would be disrespectful to say so.
How Do These Figures Compare To Other Things?
The death rate of 1 in 500 may be hard for some people to visualise without context. Scuba diving has a death rate of 1.8 per million of recreational scuba dives. This compares recreational dive for recreational scuba dive, and therefore is a fair comparison in terms of safety regulations that are enforced.
The most frequent cause of death among scuba diving incidents is running low on, or out of gas while underwater. Given that free diving uses no gas at all, the most dangerous element of scuba diving is when it suddenly turns into free diving without warning.
However, scuba diving is not well known for its danger. So how does recreational free diving compare to other activities that are well known for danger? Fire fighters, for example, risk their lives on a daily basis in order to save others and minimalize destruction to property.
While this is a profession and not a recreational sport, its hazards and risks are endless. 1 in 45,000 fire fighters will die each year in the United States, which compared to the 1 in 500 free divers, does not sound like nearly as many.
Placing context around free diving death rates is not intended to scare anyone or place a stigma around the sport itself. More so, it is hoped that by providing better education around key risks or patterns, it can reduce the death rate and make the sport generally safer.
So How Can Free Diving Be Made Safer?
First of all, you need good equipment. Unlike a lot of water sports, free diving is not a sport in which cheap equipment can be used while just starting out. I’m sure a lot of people grabbed their first surf board off ebay or facebook market place, just to learn the ropes and see if it is something that they really want to invest in.
A lot of other sports are the same, with beginners not wanting to splash the cash until they are certain that this is something that they want to commit to. Free diving cannot be treated in this way, simply because faulty or incorrect equipment is highly likely to cause a potentially fatal incident.
A free diving computer is essential to help track your free diving depths, and keeps you safe by sounding alarms to prevent you from diving too deep or running out of oxygen.
This therefore prevents blackouts, decompression sickness, and much more to keep you safe. The Oceanic F10 Free diving computer is specifically tailored to free diving, with water temperature recording, alarms, depth, and surface interval recording.
Next, choosing the right buoy and lines is critical. Without these two pieces of equipment, you are enormously preventing your own free diving growth, but are also putting your life at risk entirely needlessly. Having a buoy to rest on between dives preserves your energy as it means that you don’t need to tread water during your surface intervals.
You are more likely to suffer muscle fatigue, and exhaustion, meaning that when you next go below the water for your dive, you are hugely increasing your risk of drowning. As well as this, resting between dives replenishes your oxygen levels, and failing to rest properly means that this does not happen as effectively, which can then lead to shallow water blackouts.
Purchasing a good buoy with a large surface area and ample gripping area are ideal to let your body rest between dives. When shopping for one, also bear in mind that other divers and boats need to know that you are there, since there has been a large increase in the amount of divers that have been killed or injured by boats in recent years.
In order to make yourself visible, purchase a buoy with a flag in bright, fluorescent colours, thar will easily catch the eyes of any boat captain, preventing them from driving right into your dive site. The XS Scuba Universal Floating Object is made from good quality polyester, and comes with its own flag and line.
Air Restriction Devices (or ARDs) are small handheld devices which help to train your lungs and breathing muscles, meaning you can inhale more oxygen before descending, allowing you to dive deeper.
For divers who are wanting to achieve longer and more difficult dives, they really need to have trained their lungs and diaphragm with an Air Restriction Device, before attempting anything too strenuous. Taking the time to train is of paramount importance, as you really don’t want to add to the shocking free diving statistics purely because you rushed into it.
A highly recommended Air Restriction Device is the PowerBreathe Plus 2 Fitness which is renowned worldwide for its ability to dramatically improve breathing muscle strength and stamina. While it may seem like a steep price, it will save money in the long run.
Nailing the foundations is essential before splashing out on expensive free diving masks and such, and training your lung strength is the foundation of free diving.
It is not just poor or insufficient equipment that contributes to the high recreational free diving fatality rates. Diving alone increases the risk of death exponentially. As discussed earlier, most free divers will go with a ‘buddy,’ which in itself is still not risk-free. Some divers however, will still choose to go alone and take the risk.
This is absolutely not worth it and not something that you should ever try. Diving alone means that if you do suffer a shallow water blackout, you will almost certainly die from it, because there will not be anyone around to rescue you.
Not only this, but if you lose the strength to resurface or begin to lose consciousness from the struggle, due to just sheer tiredness or perhaps a pre-existing medical condition, the chances are high that you will drown.
Overall, regardless of your ability or confidence that you would not need support, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence which makes clear that you are highly likely to drown. It is of paramount importance that divers educate themselves and others with this information, in order to save lives in an incredibly dangerous sport.
Lack Of Adequate Training
Another noticeable cause of the high death rate among free diving is the lack of proper training and experience that a lot of divers have before attempting certain depths. Never ever over-estimate your level of fitness, and if your brain is signalling to you that you are nearly out of air, do not bypass it, and come back up immediately.
It is also not always depth that you need to consider, but also frequency. You may be diving only 30 feet below the surface of the water, but if you continue to go up and down, you will be susceptible to shallow water blackout.
Remember that if your lungs are exhausted you are equally likely to drown in shallow water as you are in deep water. Ensure that you take long and sufficient breaks of at the very least 4 minutes. Sometimes 3 minutes can be advised, but it takes 4 minutes for your carbon dioxide levels to return to normal, and allow your high energy phosphates to fully recharge. While resting, focus on your breathing, but try to lie as still as possible to conserve your energy.
And finally, as advised earlier, if you do not train your lungs up, you cannot expect to be making spectacular free dives. Learning to free dive takes considerable time and patience, and you should not dive deeper or more times than you are able to while you are still gaining experience.
Hyperventilation is a huge risk while free diving, and is often fatal. Our normal breathing, which is automatic, inhales around 20% of our total lung capacity, and puts no strain on our breathing muscles. When we become aware of our breathing however, we can make it autonomic, and inhale more for longer.
This does not come without complications, because when we bypass our self-regulating automatic way of breathing, we can begin to breath quicker, which is when hyperventilation becomes highly likely. Without careful focus, you are at risk of hyperventilating, which can lead to death.
If you are wanting to take free diving seriously, train your breath every day. Exhale for longer than you inhale, pause at the end of each inhale and exhale, and keep your body relaxed as you do so. This preparation in the diving world is called a ‘breathe up’ and is absolutely essential for your healthy and safety.