Freediving, the practice of diving underwater on one single breath of air, has a rich and fascinating history. From ancient civilizations to modern day competitions, freediving has captured the imaginations of people around the world. In this blog post, we’ll explore the history of freediving, from its earliest days to its present-day champions. We’ll also take a closer look at two fascinating stories in the world of freediving: the pearl divers of the Arabian Gulf and the last female divers of Jeju.
The history of freediving can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilizations like the Greeks and the Romans. These cultures were known for their underwater exploits, including sponge diving and pearl harvesting. But it was in Japan that freediving was first documented. The Ama, or “sea women,” were a group of female divers who harvested pearls and seafood from the ocean floor. These divers would hold their breath for several minutes at a time, often diving to depths of 30 metres or more.
In the Middle East, pearl diving was a major industry from the 19th century until the discovery of oil in the region in the 20th century. Pearl divers would plunge into the depths of the Arabian Gulf, using nothing but a weighted belt and a nose clip to hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time. It was a dangerous profession, with divers facing the risk of shark attacks, drowning, and decompression sickness. Despite the dangers, pearl diving was a way of life for many in the region, providing a vital source of income for families.
One of the most fascinating stories in the history of freediving is that of the Haenyeo, or “sea women,” of Jeju Island in South Korea. For centuries, these women have been diving into the icy waters of the Yellow Sea to harvest seaweed, abalone, and other seafood. Like the Ama of Japan, the Haenyeo hold their breath for several minutes at a time, diving to depths of up to 20 metres. For generations, this was a profession passed down from mother to daughter, with young girls beginning their training as early as 11 years old.
Today, there are very few Haenyeo still diving, with only a couple of hundred women still actively harvesting the sea.. In 2016, UNESCO recognised their culture and tradition by adding them to the list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Many of the remaining Haenyeo are in their 70s or 80s, and their numbers continue to dwindle as younger generations opt for other professions. But for those who continue to dive, it is a way of life that they are fiercely proud of.
In recent years, freediving has gained popularity as a competitive sport. Athletes from around the world compete in disciplines like constant weight, where they dive to a specific depth and return to the surface under their own power, and dynamic apnea, where they swim as far as possible underwater on a single breath in a pool. These competitions have produced some of the most impressive feats of human endurance and skill, with records being broken regularly.
But freediving is not just about competition and records. It is also a way to connect with the ocean and explore its depths in a more natural way. Freedivers often speak of the tranquillity and beauty of the underwater world, and the feeling of being one with the ocean. For many, it is a spiritual experience that cannot be replicated in any other way.
The history of freediving is a rich and varied one, filled with fascinating stories of human endurance and bravery. From the pearl divers of the Arabian Gulf to the last female divers of Jeju, freediving has played a vital role in many cultures around the world. Today, it is a growing sport that continues to push the limits of what humans are capable of achieving. However, it is important to remember that freediving is not just a sport, but also a way to connect with the ocean and explore its depths in a more natural and intimate way. It is a reminder of the beauty and fragility of the underwater world, and the importance of protecting it for future generations.
Whether you are a competitive freediver or simply enjoy exploring the ocean, there is something truly special about diving into the depths on a single breath. It is a testament to the power of the human body and the spirit of adventure that drives us to explore the unknown.
So, the next time you find yourself gazing out at the ocean, take a moment to think about the rich history of freediving and the incredible feats of human endurance that have made it what it is today. And who knows, you may even be inspired to take the plunge and experience the underwater world for yourself.