The question of safety for freediving is one that I get a lot from people that are hesitating to take the step of a first course. They are a bit scared and it is understandable. Freediving is probably the only sport where you stop voluntarily using a vital function (breathing). Also, you are in an unusual environment, the water, which is associated with hazards in the “collective mind”. In this article, I would like to talk about safety for freediving as a sport, when practicing in a professional structure or after certification, with a buddy, following the common safety rules of the sport.
There are numbers published regarding freediving and scuba diving accidents but they usually encompass also all the snorkeling accidents or accidents that are happening outside of a freediving practice as a sport. For example, car racing as a sport is very different from driving a car in everyday life and the accidents happening in everyday driving are not taken into account to determine whether car racing is dangerous as a sport or not.
In this context, freediving seems to me like a very safe sport. I used to teach scuba diving before I discovered freediving and I was way more stressed about the safety of my students than during a freediving course. If you have a proper setup with maintained equipment and we remove boat hazards, I feel that I would need to drown the student myself if I wanted it to be unsafe. What I mean is that in recreational freediving, as far as you have a buddy paying attention and knowing what to do if you get hypoxic or blackout, you are totally safe. No risks of decompression sickness or lung overexpansion for a panicked student coming up too quick like in scuba diving. Worst case, a student might (should not but … ) blackout and you rescue him. Not a big deal in terms of safety. As for decompression sickness, in recreational freediving, if you respect proper surface intervals, it is very unlikely to happen, whichever your age or physical condition.
Actually, freediving becoming a recognized sport makes it much safer as people learn to always dive with a buddy and how to react in case of an incident from their beginner course. All agencies emphasize the need to dive with a buddy and make people practice rescue skills during the beginner courses. That’s why freediving becoming a sport is making a significant difference and I would recommend anyone that wants to learn freediving, to do it with a certified instructor and not only through youtube videos.
Another reason some people might think freediving is unsafe is the image of extreme sport. But recreational freediving (let’s say diving until 30-40m) is not really extreme. It is just how freediving has been presented so far. We can read sometimes athletes saying they are putting their life on the line each time they go for a dive. I hope not, for their sake!!! Even at a top level, you should not go for a dive if you feel you are endangering yourself. Of course, there is always a risk. But there is always a risk when you take your car to go somewhere. That does not mean that you should feel you are putting your life on the line each time you drive your car. I think this storytelling might be good to attract sponsors and make documentaries or TV interviews, but is not really reflect freediving as a sport.
When you are skiing or bicycling, you expose yourself to more hazards than when freediving. You can hurt yourself pretty bad if you fall. You mitigate the severity by wearing a helmet for example, but you are still more at risk in my opinion than when freediving with a buddy that knows what he is doing. Just the perception is not the same because of the unknown part and the different environment. And the media treatment is not the same either. Each time a snorkeler who had zero knowledge of freediving drowns, it is reported as a freediving accident and makes it in the news because of this “extreme sport” image. You have way more people that die skiing, car racing, moto racing or even bicycling every year and it rarely makes it to the news.
Always having a buddy (trained for rescue and knowing the safety rules), using maintained equipment (buoy, pulley system, lanyard), and staying within your limits make freediving a very safe sport. Beginners going with an instructor for a course are not taking risks. They are challenging themselves mentally and sometimes physically but not endangering themselves at all.