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10 Days of Immersion, A Lifetime of Knowledge

10 Days of Immersion, A Lifetime of Knowledge

July 15, 2016

Written by: Sophie Gaze
Dive Immersion Senior Divemaster

"They freedive because it’s the most direct and intimate way to connect with the ocean… beneath the surface, the body bears only a passing resemblance to its terrestrial form and function. The ocean changes us physically, and psychically.

In a world of seven billion people, where every inch of land has been mapped, much of it developed, and too much of it destroyed, the sea remains the final unseen, untouched, and undiscovered wilderness, the planet’s last great frontier. There are no mobile phones down there, no e-mails, no tweeting, no twerking, no car keys to lose, no terrorist threats, no birthdays to forget, no penalties for late credit card payments, and no dog poop to step in before a job interview. All the stress, noise, and distractions of life are left at the surface. The ocean is the last truly quiet place on Earth.”

James Nestor, Deep

My alarm goes off at six in the morning, and I rub my bleary eyes, wondering where I am and why it feels so early. Remembering I’m in Florida, I roll out of bed and brush my teeth, letting my brain slowly take its time to wake up. I robotically pop a Mucinexâ in my mouth and take a big drink of water. I put my thumb and forefinger on my nose to plug it and force air into my Eustachian tubes. I feel a familiar ‘pop’ and smile to myself. Today is Day 1/10 of my Performance Freediving International Instructor Course and I’m going to need my sinuses to be in good shape.

I was one of three instructor candidates in the 10 day course.

The sport of freediving is a discipline that involves the diver descending on one breath of air. The activity’s popularity is increasing exponentially. Large corporate SCUBA agencies are even beginning to adopt freediving as part of their courses and training regimen. As this sport becomes more commonly practiced on a recreational level, the title of ‘freediver’ is no longer reserved for the serious competitors who are going hundreds and hundreds of feet deep. It’s open to everyone.

At Georgia Aquarium, we have always used freediving in our day-to-day activities. In the Dive Immersion department, our staff directs a guest surface swim daily, in which a video of the experience is filmed underwater. To capture the swim, our videographers perform repetitive dives to depths ranging from 5-10m/15-30ft while holding their breath. To achieve the most ideal angles and creative shots, our dives are occasionally performed with temporary overhead environments (whale sharks and manta rays) obstructing our direct access to the surface. An extensive knowledge of proper freediving buddy safety is a necessary measure to guarantee the overall safety of our divemasters and instructors.

Freediving in Georgia Aquarium: It's pretty cool to take a selfie with a whale shark!

It worked out in my favor that we did not yet have a resident professional freediver in the Dive Operations department at Georgia Aquarium, and I eagerly volunteered myself for this challenge. Capitalizing on the opportunity, I submitted a professional development proposal to pursue my Freediver Instructor certification, and in March, my proposal was approved. This past June I was fortunate to go down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to take a course with Performance Freediving International, taught by USA record holder and captain of the 2012 US Freediving Team, Ted Harty.

Performance Freediving International (PFI) is the longest-running freediving educational system in North America. Since founding the company in January of 2000, Kirk Krack has improved and perfected the PFI courses to teach breath-hold theory, practice skills and improve the depth and bottom time of thousands of students. After doing some research, I recognized how much time, consideration and detail went into the foundation of this agency and the training of their instructors. Since the beginning of my journey into freediving, I have wanted to take my instructor course with PFI, so this opportunity was a dream come true!

I had heard about my Instructor Trainer, Ted Harty, from coworkers at the Aquarium – he had a really good reputation as an awesome instructor and an all around cool dude. Ted left his suit and tie job in none other than Atlanta, Georgia and moved down to the Florida Keys to become a SCUBA instructor back in 2005. In 2008, he took his first Performance Freediving International course, and the rest is history. He is now one of four PFI Instructor Trainers and the founder/owner of Immersion Freediving. Ted has created his own brand with his famous barbecue skills and adorable freediving dog, Sammy. He is also a marketing genius and, judging by the enormous amount of testimonials on his website and social media pages, has created a respected and highly sought after company. His classes book out months in advance! If this interests you, be sure to check out A Day With Ted Harty, an awesome video by Perrin James that summarizes Ted's approach to freediving instruction.

In the early hours of the first morning of training, however, my nerves were definitely high – and for good reason! Although I did not know exactly what to expect, I was well aware that this course was going to be extremely demanding. PFI’s instructor standards are very strict as evidenced by this excerpt from a letter titled Proof is in the Pudding, written by founder and president, Kirk Krack:

“How would you feel knowing that 100% of instructors going through their program passed? Are instructor trainers that amazing and their students that good? Or are the standards and requirements that easy and loose? Is the instructor trainer that worried about hurting someone’s feelings that they don’t like to put a candidate on hold for more training? The 100% pass rate in my opinion isn’t training, it’s going through the motions.

Many PFI Instructor candidates at the end of the program require some additional training. This isn’t because they’re weak candidates upon entering the program, to the contrary. It’s because our expectations and requirements are very high, very strict and we feel it’s in the best interest of the candidate and their future students to be 100% ready.”

So on Day 1, I apprehensively got into my car and drove to Ted Harty’s house that doubles as his classroom training center to start this endeavor. At first impression, I could see why these students loved their classes so much... Ted is a total perfectionist. His classroom is branded with the Immersion Freediving logo from top to bottom. Everything we will need for our course is set out neatly on three desk stations. The classroom is clean and organized. We even had ice cold water served to us in an Immersion Freediving cup. No detail was overlooked. My inner control freak was doing cartwheels.

The first half of the day served as an orientation to the course. The program was run in three sub-categories: Safety Supervisor, Assistant Instructor, and the Instructor Exam. We began our Safety Supervisor academic training and then headed to the pool. This pool time served both as a review and a chance for Ted to get a feel for where each of the three candidates stood in relation to when we took our Intermediate Freediver courses.

We wasted no time and were in the ocean already by Day 2. We first learned how to set up a freediving rig (a lot more complicated than it sounds). We also practiced pull-downs, target dives, rescue drills, and even started on some instructor-student simulations at 20m/66ft down! I almost had a heart attack when Ted, simulating a beginner freediver student, descended past the prearranged target depth and I had to attempt to catch him before too much damage was done! When we got back on the boat Ted explained that, although this is an instructor’s worst nightmare, it does happen, and I got my first taste for just how much of a massive responsibility it is to be a Freediving Instructor.

On Day 3, it was time for our swim tests. This was the first time so far in the course that I felt marginally within my comfort zone. We hit the pool and busted out an 800m/2625ft swim with mask, fins and snorkel, a 400m/1312ft swim with no equipment, and lots of safety drills. We also had to complete a 50 m/164ft dynamic apnea, which is a freediving discipline where you swim back and forth underwater in the pool on one breath of air. I left the pool feeling confident and excited for what was next.

Day 2 and 3’s knowledge development involved taking the Divers Alert Network (DAN) course, which would teach us first aid, basic life support, and other elements involved in diving emergency management. With my Aquarium background, I was well-versed in this subject matter, but it was really cool to have the opportunity to see how fellow DAN Instructor, Genevieve Sparg, taught the class. It also didn’t hurt that she has literally been diving everywhere – even Antarctica – and had a lot of fascinating stories to accompany her academic material.

DAN class with Sammy, Immersion Freediving's official mascot.

On Day 4, our boat trip was cancelled due to inclement weather, so we spent the whole day in the classroom. I was a total nerd in school, so I felt like I was in my comfort zone here. We finished our Safety Supervisor academic training and started on the Assistant Instructor PowerPoint. We were introduced to PFI’s standards, and Ted went over how to put together a classroom presentation. PFI uses a technique that is common throughout the SCUBA industry called microteaching. This is a method of teaching someone how to teach. The instructor candidate is given a very specific topic to present, and they have to deliver the information in such a way that they hit certain training objectives, key points and so on. What makes an instructor-in-training stand out is the ability to sprinkle interesting stories, relate to current training, and promote continuing education throughout the presentation. Throughout the next two days we would be presenting four classroom presentations, and I felt prepared given my confidence in public speaking from my job at the Aquarium.

Delivering an ocean presentation somewhere off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.

Days 5-7 blurred together in a whirlpool of classroom presentations, confined water (pool) presentations, and open water (ocean) presentations. The in-water presentations were, on paper, pretty much the same as our classroom work, but now we were dealing with the added challenge of problem solving as we taught the particular skill we had been assigned. In the middle of each presentation, Ted would get together with the other two instructor candidates and conspire a list of “problems” that each simulated student would have. As the presenting instructor candidate, it was our job to recognize these problems and correct them for the student in order to pass each presentation. This was a challenge for me, as I do not have a long background in freediving like I do in SCUBA. I surprised myself, however, and of the eight presentations we gave both in the pool and the ocean, I passed all but one of them with high scores. As a SCUBA instructor I was at an advantage going into this part of the course, and it gave me the self-reliance to take on these in-water presentations.

On one of our ocean days during this time frame we put the rig in right next to a large collection of sargassum, a type of brown seaweed that gathers in large clumps and creates a mini-ecosystem for different aquatic life. In the time that we were set up inside this clump of seaweed surrounded by schools of filefish and juvenile blue runners, we saw two silky sharks and one large hammerhead shark just 15m/50ft below us. It was so cool to experience that because when you’re floating in 600ft/183m of open water, you don’t expect to run into much marine life. To see that many sharks in one day was an experience I will never forget!

An Immersion Freediving student performs his breathe-up in a clump of sargassum.

On Day 8 we were headed back out on the boat and I knew that the most difficult tasks had yet to come. I remember feeling particularly nervous this day as I had read ahead in the standards of my Instructor Manual to see what I would have to face. One of the tasks we had to complete was a 20-second hang at 20m/66ft. This may not sound like a considerable amount of time or depth, but when your lungs are a third of their original volume and you have three atmospheres of pressure above you, it can be a bit intimidating. It was especially daunting for me because I am used to the boundaries of our 10m/33ft exhibit back home in Atlanta. I was not entirely sure this was something I could even do. Ted was really encouraging and when it was my turn to dive, I concentrated on applying the breathing techniques that I had been practicing in the course so far. I was able to complete my 20-second hang! This was a huge confidence boost for me and I tackled the rest of the skills and rescues asked of us that day with the same type of heightened focus.

Day 9 and 10 of the course were our designated Instructor Exam days. Regardless of the outcome, I knew I would have to return to Florida at some point and audit a class to complete my Instructor Certification. After my success on Day 8, I made an internal promise to just do my best, hopefully surprise myself, and if not, try again at a later date when my body was more conditioned to the depth. I passed my classroom, pool and ocean presentations for the Instructor Exam with the same level of competence as the ones I had done previously in the course. No disappointments there. My struggle presented itself during the last two skills: the capacity requirements and stress test. The capacity requirements called for us to complete three 20m/66ft dives with a maximum surface interval of 2 minutes while solving problems at depth and briefing/debriefing at the surface. Given that my comfort zone has a bottom of 10m/33ft, I knew this one would be a challenge from the start. I also did not successfully complete the stress test, which is a secret within the course and cannot be discussed for the purpose of this blog. These two skills were the deciding factor between me leaving with an Assistant Instructor Certification or an Instructor Certification. I had never been denied a certification in my life, and I was profoundly humbled by the difficult level of expectation for this certification.

All in a Day's Work!: Hanging up my mask, for now. I will be back in September to complete the course.

After reasoning with myself that I still accomplished a great deal during the course, I was able to get off the boat with a smile on my face and a sense of pride. Of the three candidates that entered the course, 3/3 finished with their Safety Supervisor rating, 2/3 completed the Assistant Instructor, and 0/3 achieved their Instructor Certification. I was not alone in this effort, and each of us was assigned something to improve on in preparation for our class audit, to be scheduled at a later date.

It has been a while since anything has challenged me as much as the sport of freediving has. It is truly a testament to excellent instructors like Ted Harty that I have pursued this venture to this point and want to continue to the end. Diving down to any depth on one breath of air was originally so far out of my comfort zone that I would never have even considered taking on training like this. It was because of a few, good, competent, well-trained instructors that I have had the assurance and knowledge development to make it this far into my training. I am determined to one day serve as a similar source of inspiration and mentor a promising freediver to develop the same passion for this captivating sport as my instructors have lead me. I will not stop until I have finished what I set out to achieve.