Photo by Roman Castro

Photo by Roman Castro

“The ultimate goal isn’t how long you can stay down and how big a fish you can shoot. The ultimate goal is to get back home safe and alive.” – John Griffith, freediver and spearfisher


It was an easy warm-up dive to 51 ft (15.5 m) so the last thing I expected to happen was a lung squeeze. At  first my dive buddies and I were baffled at the blood I coughed up but we all agreed that it was probably just a little sinus squeeze so we began our quarter mile (330 m) swim back to shore. However, I knew something was terribly wrong when I realized that I was having an extremely hard time catching my breath. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen and my body was going into survival mode. Had it not been for a float to kick back in on, calm conditions and dive buddies, I’m positive that making that swim back to shore by myself could have easily cost me my life. It was a rude awakening to what could have happened had I been alone.

As freedivers, we sometimes hear how a diver who experienced SWB (Shallow Water Blackout) was rescued by their buddy. But more often we hear about a solo diver who died, more than likely due to SWB and no one was there to save them. A lot of people contend that they “dive within their limits” and “don’t push it” and so will never suffer from SWB, which is false. We also tend to think that a lung squeeze happens in deeper waters; as I found out, much is still not understood in this area of freediving. I was shocked when I suffered my lung squeeze in shallow water and even more surprised to find that just the kick back to shore was extremely taxing. It’s no exaggeration when I say that I could easily imagine drowning from extreme fatigue. I thought of all the people who had died hunting and wondered if maybe some of them had died this way. In an online search, I discovered other divers who experienced a shallow water lung squeeze (or something similar to the symptoms I experienced) had breathlessly fought their way back to shore or their boat. In either case, not having a dive buddy there to assist you is a death sentence.

To begin, here is my definition of what solo and buddy divers are:

Solo diver – You get in the water alone and dive alone. You are a solo diver taking sole responsibility for yourself and the risks associated. No one is negligent except you in the event you don’t surface. No one has the task of going back to shore to tell loved ones that you didn’t make it home today. You just simply don’t show up and then the recovery begins. Everyone who has a basic knowledge of freediving will wonder why you weren’t diving with someone else who could have possibly saved your life. Some solo divers will defend the choice to dive alone and some may even suggest that a few deaths a year is ok compared to how many people die doing other things. Others will argue that “it will never happen to them” because they “dive within their limits,” which is suggesting that they are better than you because obviously you made a mistake they think they will never make. If you were wearing a FRV (Freediving Recovery Vest), there is a good chance you’ll be at the surface and found. If not, your body may or may not be found and your loved ones will be frantic to bring you home.

Same ocean “dive buddies” – A group of two or more people go out in a boat or shore dive but split up once in the water. Those people may call themselves buddies but they aren’t. They are just as useless as the people watching from shore. This is worse than solo diving because if everyone is knowledgeable of the dangers of freediving and you don’t surface, everyone in the water is basically negligent. It doesn’t matter what “verbal agreements” were made because at the end of the day, if someone dies, someone else is going to feel a sense of responsibility for the loss of life. People will ask why you weren’t diving together and why rescue procedures weren’t used. Those “dive buddies” are tasked with having to tell loved ones that though you went out together, no one was really close enough to help. It’s a horrible position to be in and heart wrenching for all. Again, your body may or may not be found and your loved ones will be frantic to bring you home.

Photo by Roman Castro

Photo by Roman Castro

Dive buddies – You’ve both taken a freediving course and practice what you learned. Once in the water you stay together and keep arms distance between you and your dive buddy upon surfacing. You may have trained together with and without your hunting gear in order to have a working knowledge of the other person’s dive behavior and profile. You’ve agreed to “one up, one down” rules, practice safety and rescue procedures and have learned to dive together as a team to hunt fish. You may have strategies to deal with bad viz and you’re weighted properly so that should something go wrong, you’ll bob to the surface and your buddy will find you. When the behemoth fish is more than you bargained for, your dive buddy is there to take over if needed. Should something go wrong, your buddy is there to assist you. Even if in the worst case scenario you still don’t make it, your dive buddy likely did their best to help you. In the end, your chances of survival and coming home to your family are greater with a dive buddy trained in rescue procedures.

The reality is that death is a possibility for everyone in our sport of freediving and spearfishing. If you are considering taking up the sport, are new to the sport or have a friend or loved one who is in the sport, put yourself into the situations above and decide which one you’d rather be a part of if you’re the one waiting on shore. Which situation do you want to put your loved ones in? If you’re a parent reading this, freediver or not, which situation do you want to see your child in?

For the seasoned solo hunters and divers, my intention isn’t to change anyone’s mind or argue with anyone about how one chooses to dive but rather to invite you to take a different approach to viewing the possibilities of the future of spearfishing and freediving. I ask solo divers to take a moment to reconsider the way you talk about solo diving. Perhaps instead of glorifying it with reasons why you hunt solo, speak to the reasons why hunting solo is dangerous and encourage and support new divers in learning to dive with a buddy. I’ll put this into perspective using the United States seat belt law. Bear with me for a moment while I divert the topic.

Between 1984 and 1995, 49 of the 50 United States adopted a seat belt law requiring adults to wear their seat belt (all 50 require children to wear a seat belt). But it took nearly 30 years between the time the federal government required seat belts in all cars to requiring people to actually wear them. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one of the many agencies who conduct automobile safety testing, report that seat belts reduce the risk of fatality by 45% and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50%. Perhaps most people reading this would wonder why anyone wouldn’t wear a seat belt knowing it would increase their chances of surviving an accident. I’m sure most parents who may be reluctant to wear a seat belt themselves ensure that their children are strapped into the seat. Why? Because seat belts save lives.

Dive buddies trained in rescue procedures are like seat belts. Dive buddies save lives. So, why are so many divers still diving solo and encouraging others to do the same?

Like any other sport where injury is a possibility, we understand that our sport also carries a degree of risk. However, many other sports have adopted new technologies to keep athletes safe. Football is the best known example of where cutting-edge technologies are used to keep players safer by preventing injuries without compromising performance. For freedivers, in order to prevent injuries or death we have the option of diving with a buddy or even using the FRV mentioned earlier. Yet every year divers across the world die while freediving. Many of those deaths could be prevented if they were educated on dive safety and were diving with a buddy – the key to remember is that your dive buddy needs to be educated in dive safety and so do you.

What if we were to teach the next generation of divers straight off that the best option is to find a dive buddy knowledgeable in dive safety and rescue, even if we ourselves are solo divers? What if solo divers praised the advantages of diving with a buddy and of strategizing a hunt instead of using common lines like, “I don’t dive with a buddy because they just scare the fish away,” or “I can’t see my buddy in this murk anyway so why dive with one.” What if instead of saying, “I dive within my limits so nothing will happen to me,” we speak truthfully and say, “Even if you dive within your limits, you never know when you could black out so you should dive with someone who knows how to rescue you and you them.” What if by encouraging someone today to never dive alone means that you inadvertently save their life in the future?

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to tips and stories from well known and accomplished spearfishers and freedivers from across the world, thanks to the SpearoNation Spear Podcast. About 95% of the guests have made it very clear that they advocate taking a freediving course and diving with a buddy. But one of the latest guests, John Griffith, said something that struck me as very poignant. He said, “I need spearfishermen and freedivers to not be selfish anymore. If you die because you are being unsafe, you’re being selfish. You’re taking away from the sport for every one of us who are going out there and are trying to grow this thing. Not only grow it in popularity but grow it in public acceptance of the sport.

This sport is in fact growing – even if you don’t want it to – and it’s increasingly more important to emphasize training and the outcome of solo versus buddy diving. As the sport grows and solo divers glorify solo diving, we’re going to end up losing more divers than ever before. That means that people who don’t do this sport but are well intentioned may want to start putting regulations on what you love doing. The general public already thinks that freediving is one of the most dangerous extreme sports in existence. Do a search on “extreme sports should be banned” and you’ll see that there are people who want to stop others from doing things that can cause injury or loss of life (SCUBA diving is on the Forbes list of the world’s most dangerous sports!).  Breath hold diving is already banned in many pools across the United States so it’s easy to imagine freediving being a banned sport if we see more divers die. It’s vital that divers begin to encourage each other to practice safe diving and rethink “selfish” diving. More attention needs to be given to alternative ways of moving forward with our sport. We need to gain public acceptance, starting with promoting and using safer practices and being completely honest in our conversations with new divers about the risks involved in solo diving and freediving in general.

As I kicked back into shore with my dive buddies, I was reluctant to let on to how much trouble breathing I was having. My ego got in the way and I disliked the fact that I had somehow injured myself on such an easy dive but I finally gave in to the struggle – I asked for the float to kick back in on. I didn’t want to cause an alarm but at the same time I knew very well that what I was experiencing was extremely life threatening had I been alone. Had I been alone… That became my focus for a long time following my injury. It’s funny how sometimes you don’t fully realize the value of something until you need it. It took us 30 years to realize the value of seat belts in cars and that they save lives. How long will it take us to realize the value in having a trained dive buddy nearby? Like seat belts, dive buddies save lives. Please, buddy up!