Breath Hold Diving: Part 1

By Dr Rob Schneider

Hamlet was not renowned for his diving skills, but the famous words from the play allow for easy moulding into the subject of breath-hold diving. In this multi-part series, we will explore the activity of breath-hold diving in greater depth and peruse several avenues emanating from there. This first part will be concerned with a historical overview, definition and an imperfect differentiation of the various kinds of breath-hold diving.

Historical Overview
In living knowledge, humans have always been drawn to the sea; in awe of its beauty and majesty, yet fearful of its ferocious power and destructive ability. The treasures yielded from its depths have inspired many to venture in, brave the myriad hazards and possibly harvest a rich reward. This deep urge to explore and reap the bounty of the oceans is probably what drove early humans to start entering the water and naturally from there try to access the underwater environment. In so doing, breath-hold diving was born.

No one can say for sure when or where breath-hold diving first started, but speculation abounds nevertheless. Evidence exists that suggests that since the dawn of recorded history breath-hold diving has taken place.

For several thousand years humans have been holding their breaths and submerging themselves underwater. The main purposes thereof would be gathering food and collecting materials. One could assume, based on human nature, that a sort of competitive and recreational type of breath-hold diving also existed amongst these early divers.

Several examples of breath-hold diving exist in historical records and some groups are still currently active. Greek sponge divers have been known for hundreds of years to look for the ever-dwindling sponges in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. During Greek and Roman periods, breath-hold divers were used at various times to carry out military and salvage operations. For about 2000 years, the Ama divers of Japan and their equivalent in Korea have been breath-hold diving for shells and seaweeds. The interesting thing is that it is the women who do the diving, with the males serving as tenders, because it appears as if the women tolerate the cold water better. Another suggestion is the persistent “folklore” that diving reduces the virility of males. Whatever the reason may be, the style of diving has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, with the addition of masks, fins and wetsuits being the only real changes affected in recent times.

Another example of an industry involving breath-hold diving which has persisted into modern times is the pearl divers of the Tuamotu Archipelago. Marco Polo observed pearl diving on the Coromandel Coast during travels to India and Sri Lanka. The Spaniards regularly exploited Native American Divers for pearling, salvage and smuggling, notably those from Margarita Island, their high value on the slave market indicating the demand for divers.
Humans are not designed to exist in the subaquatic environment, with the obvious limitation of breathing being the single biggest stumbling block. However, humans do possess a thinking ability and a creative nature that allow this obstacle to be overcome. Initially, and for several thousand years, humans relied on the simple technique of just holding their breath underwater to enable them to explore this alien environment. In a nutshell, that is exactly what breath-hold diving is.

Breath-hold diving is really any form of submersion underwater (or potentially any other liquid) whilst holding one’s breath. Based on this definition, putting one’s head under the water while in the bath would qualify. Let us allow common sense to prevail and consider breath-hold diving to be submersion underwater whilst holding one’s breath and engaging in a purposeful activity.
Breath-hold diving started out of necessity and desire, but in recent years the recreational aspects have become more important. Sports have originated
from breath-hold diving techniques in combination with other sporting
Many methods can be employed to categorise the different forms of breath-hold diving, but let’s stick to the simpler ways. Broadly speaking, one can form two groups of breath-hold divers: commercial and recreational, rather analogous to what is considered in compressed gas diving.
Commercial breath-hold diving is where breath-hold diving is used as a vehicle to take workers to their place of industry, in order for them to accomplish whatever tasks necessary. An example of this would be pearl diving, which still takes place to this day. Modern commercial diving – with specialised equipment and compressed gases – has largely eclipsed this form of breath-hold diving.
Recreational breath-hold diving can be further subdivided into pure recreational and sport breath-hold diving. Purely recreational would really be where breath-hold diving techniques are used to enjoy the sub-aquatic environment and derive relaxation from it. Free-diving and snorkelling with downward excursions would be examples of this. Sport breath-hold diving encompasses various types of sport that either primarily focus on the breath-hold diving or incorporate the techniques to create a new activity. Examples include competitive free-diving, spearfishing, synchronised swimming, and underwater hockey and rugby.
A third possibility to keep in mind is the reluctant or unwitting breath-
hold diver. In this scenario, one would find someone who suddenly becomes a breath-hold diver because of unforeseen or unexpected circumstances. An example would be a scuba diver who suddenly runs out of air.
In the following parts of this series of articles, we will further explore the fascinating realm of breath-hold diving. Stay tuned!
  • Brubakk Alf O. & Neumann Tom S. Bennett and Elliot’s Physiology and medicine of diving. 5th edition.
  • Edmonds C., Lowry C., Pennefather J. & Walker R. Diving and subaquatic medicine. 4th edition.

Article from Alert Diver Autumn 2012


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