Imagine an environment that is so deadly to humans that being in it for a few minutes can kill you. Where every second saps your strength and inches you closer to death. Where visibility is limited and invisible currents can sweep you away, and your body might not be found. If you tried to call for help, barely any noise would come out, and there is no guarantee that somebody will save you in time.
In case you’re wondering what all of this applies to, we’re talking about the adversities a human might encounter while doing a breath-hold dive. Breath-hold dives are commonly done by freedivers and spear fishermen, two groups of people who are brave enough to find enjoyment in performing such a risky activity. With all of the risks involved, you might be wondering about the number and frequency of freediving deaths are.
It’s true that freediving can be extremely dangerous, particularly if one lacks the proper equipment and training. After all, you literally only have one breath to work with, and a single mistake at a deep enough depth will lead to a watery grave. With that in mind, the death rate for recreational freedivers is 1 in 500 dives. In competitive freediving, the death rate is 1 in 50,000 thanks to its stricter regulations. By understanding what the most common causes of freediving deaths are, we can work to prevent them from happening as often to recreational freedivers.
Recreational Freediving Death Rate
In order to see the beauty of the underwater world, many people try their hand at recreational freediving. For example, many snorkelers will notice something in the distance and attempt to dive down for a better look.
Some people even bring their underwater cameras to take selfies and capture the beautiful sights for family and friends to see. Other recreational freedivers head down in order to go spearfishing. Some do it because they find the peace and tranquility of the underwater world to be quite calming.
Casual freedivers tend to stay within depths of 5-10 meters. This is mainly because a significant portion of marine life and coral can be seen around this depth. Furthermore, inexperienced divers simply lack the confidence, equipment, and breath-hold capacity to risk going further.
Despite this, recreational freediving has a significantly higher death rate compared to competitive freediving. There is one death for every 500 dives, and there are many reasons why this may occur.
Lack of Proper Equipment
In order to stay safe while freediving, one should have the proper equipment. For instance, freediving fins will significantly improve the amount of thrust you can generate per kick while keeping energy expenditure low thanks to their long fin blades.
Furthermore, freediving wetsuits provide positive buoyancy which will help you stay afloat more easily and conserve energy. Of course, this works against you if you are trying to dive down further, however it is better to be safe than sorry. Additionally, wetsuits provide good insulation when diving in cooler waters.
Additionally, one should never freedive without setting up a freediving buoy and line. A freediving buoy provides a place for you to rest and recover fully between dives. It also lets boaters know your general location so they can stay away and prevent a collision. You can store items in a dive buoy, such as a first aid kit, dive torch, or your small valuables like jewelry. It’s benefits don’t end here.
You can also attach a dive line to the buoy, which acts as a guide for you to see where you’re headed while underwater. The deeper you dive, the harder it is to orient yourself, and having a line to follow makes the dive so much safer.
Recreational freediving is something that cannot be regulated by any authority or government body because it is simply impossible. Anybody who finds a large enough body of water and decides to dive down as far as they can go can do it. This means plenty of unsupervised diving, lack of medical check-ups, complete disregard for recommended safety guidelines, and so on.
Even the term recreational freediving implies casualness, and many freedivers dive without much practice or care. After all, they aren’t in a competition, they are just trying to have fun. Compared to professionals who spend several hours every week training, for months and years on end, amateurs don’t train as seriously and this can result in their deaths if they encounter a situation they aren’t prepared for.
Similarly, they may not do as much research on their dive location. Lots of freediving attempts are done by tourists on vacation who are eager to have a memorable experience. As such, casual freedivers may not be aware of dangerous environmental factors such as currents or riptides.
Not everybody has a freediving buddy they can rely on to watch their backs. As such, some freedivers go it alone, and this puts them at extreme risk. First off, there is always a possibility that they can suffer a shallow water blackout (loss of consciousness as they approach the surface) which means certain death if no one is around to rescue you.
Furthermore, if a freediver suffers a medical emergency from an existing condition, they may lack the strength to resurface or may lose consciousness while struggling. Whatever the reason, if they are diving alone when an emergency happens, chances are high that they will drown.
The reasons described above are why it is so common for deaths to occur during recreational freediving. All of this can be avoided if one dives with an experienced partner (hire an instructor or join a group if needed) who can educate them on safety guidelines which can save so many lives each year.
Competitive Freediving Death Rate
When you think of competitive freediving, a sport where world class freedivers are pushing the limits of the human body by diving several hundred feet underwater and resurfacing all in one breath, you’d think that there would be fatalities at every event.
These people are risking their lives just so they can reach an extra meter deeper than their competitor, all the while enduring immense water pressure acting on their internal organs while depriving their body of much-needed oxygen.
If you think that there would be more deaths in competitive freediving compared to recreational freediving, well, the numbers are unbelievably low (thankfully). In all of the competitive freediving competitions worldwide, there has only been one death to occur so far (and we hope it stays that way).
In the more than 50,000 dives and counting that have been performed in competitions, suffering only one fatality is actually a statistical miracle. So how is it that competitors in one of the most extreme sports on earth are able to accomplish these amazing feats so reliably?
It’s thanks to the extreme skill that world class freedivers possess, as well as compliance with the strict regulations of AIDA (or similar freediving authority), that makes this dangerous sport as safe as possible.
If the rules are not followed, then the competition and any of the dives performed may be deemed illegitimate and no diving records can be set. To give you an example of how strict they are, here are some official rules:
- There must be a minimum of one medical doctor present at any competitive AIDA world record attempt. Furthermore, a trained safety diver (spotter) or paramedic must be on standby.
- The medical doctors at each event must have access to specialised gear, such as oxygen masks or a pulse oximeter in case they are needed.
- The medical doctor reserves the right to disqualify an athlete from diving that appears to be unwell or who refuses testing.
- Safety divers must pass a safety course provided by the event organizer to ensure they know what’s expected of them and test if they are capable of life-saving procedures.
- All accidents and incidents are registered and reported.
.. and there are many more rules. As numerous and strict as these rules are, you can’t deny their efficacy. After all, the competitive freediving death rates are so low that tens of thousands of extreme dives can be performed with no loss of life.
Another possible reason that the death rates are so low in competitive freediving are the type of people this sport attracts. These are not the same happy-go-lucky, lackadaisical recreational freedivers that we discussed in the other section.
To be able to perform such superhuman feats of endurance, one would likely have:
- Years of deliberate training where their goal is maximum performance.
- Advanced tracking gear, such as dive computers that track surface intervals and depth with amazing accuracy to help them stay safe.
- A strict fitness and diet regimen to prepare their body for the rigors of their sport.
- Expensive and efficient freediving gear that helps them conserve oxygen and energy while helping them jet through the water like a torpedo: bi-fins or monofins, open-cell wetsuits, low-volume freediving masks, etc.
- AIDA 2-star qualification training (or equivalent, depending on the categories) and higher.
- A reliable network of spectators, training partners and safety divers that are closely monitoring them and will jump in whenever things go awry.
To sum it up, the reason competitive freediving death rates are so low is because the people involved are highly professional and on top of their game. Furthermore, the competitions themselves are well-managed and under intense scrutiny so that they adhere and enforce the strict safety guidelines.
Even sports like cycling, running, or SCUBA diving have a much higher death rate than competitive freediving. Therefore, as much as we want to say that freediving is “safe”, due to the many freediving attempts performed by amateurs that has led to many deaths, freediving will always be a risky sport.
Freediving Death Rates
Based on the incident reports provided by the Divers Alert Network (DAN), which covers the freediving deaths sustained between 2006 and 2011, there are approximately 61 deaths a year.
Out of 447 cases of freediving accidents, 308 or nearly 70% of cases are fatal. In other words, you should do everything you can to prevent an accident in the water, because you have a less than ⅓ chance of surviving one.
With that said, there may be some bias in these numbers, since these statistics are based self-reported by onlookers through the DAN website. For instance, there could be many more accidents that have occurred, but people didn’t know there was a website to report it.
Furthermore, if for example a friend or family member had an accident and survived, you may not be as likely to report it. On the other hand, someone who is grieving a loss and wants others to not go through the same thing will be more likely to do so, which might skew the data towards more fatalities.
The data also shows that the demographic of people who are most likely to lose their life while freediving are males between the age of 20 to 29 years old. Within this age range, 90% of the deaths are males and only 10% are females. Furthermore, 90% of all reported freediving deaths occurred in the ocean.
Notable Freediving Deaths
Amateur freediver deaths comprise the vast majority of all freediving deaths, however occasionally even professional freedivers can lose their life due to unforeseen circumstances.
Over the years, some notable figures in the freediving community have passed away while training, recreationally with friends, and very rarely in competitions.
Each freediver listed below has a long list of accomplishments which we briefly go over, and each one lost their life due to equipment malfunctions, errors in judgment, mysterious circumstances, or just plain bad luck.
Nicholas Mevoli was an American freediver who was the first athlete to lose his life in an international freediving competition. Remember the 1 in 50,000 statistic we mentioned earlier? Unfortunately, Mevoli was that one person.
He had an obvious talent for freediving, having only freedived for about a year before he began to freedive competitively, winning two titles in the Deja Blue competition and placing third in the Caribbean Cup. While participating in the Caribbean Cup, he set an American record by reaching a 3-digit depth of 100 meters in CWT, being the first male to do so.
Mevoli set his sights on achieving a 72m (236ft) CNF dive on a single breath at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas, at an event hosted by Vertical Blue. This dive location has a depth of 202m (663ft), making it the world’s deepest blue hole in seawater.
After reaching 68m (223ft), he decided to turn back but then made the curious decision to resume diving, evidently believing that he could have gone even further. Mevoli eventually resurfaced after spending 3 minutes and 38 seconds underwater. He appeared fine, signaled that he was “okay” and even had his photo taken, but then suddenly lost consciousness and fell backwards into the water.
Despite being rescued by safety divers and being attended to by the event doctor, who tried to resuscitate him for over 90 minutes, his pulse could not be restored. He was eventually taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead due to a pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).
Mevoli’s death was tragic because it seemed like he was fine when he resurfaced. Furthermore, people were confused as to why he decided to dive downwards again. According to competition rules, once a diver starts swimming up to the surface they must continue all the way to the top.
Perhaps when he first decided he needed to resurface was when he felt that something was wrong. If he had just headed back up instead of diving back down, would he be alive this day?
Born into a family of SCUBA diving and snorkeling enthusiasts, it’s no surprise that Mestre would take to the waters. As a baby she already began swimming, and at only two years of age she came first place in a 25-meter swimming competition.
Even as a young girl, Audrey Mestre continued to excel in water-based environments and quickly made a name for herself by winning numerous swimming awards. When she was only 13, she was already proficient at SCUBA diving but due to French law, couldn’t get a full certification until she was sixteen years of age.
She eventually decided to try her hand in professional freediving after meeting a personal hero of hers, legendary freediver Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras. Mestre and Ferreras quickly entered into a relationship. Mestre moved to Florida to be with Ferreras and he became her freediving instructor. It would not be long before she started setting world records in no-limits freediving.
No-limits freediving is an official AIDA sanctioned discipline where the diver descends and ascends using whatever equipment they prefer. A common setup is to descend downwards using a dive sled that follows a fixed line, allowing one to reach great depths in one breath that normally would not be possible with self-propelled means.
To resurface, divers rely on inflatable lift bags to rapidly carry them back to the surface before they run out of breath. As you would expect, no-limits freediving is extremely dangerous, pushing the boundaries of what the human body is capable of withstanding at these extreme depths.
In October 2002, having set her eyes on breaking rival Tanya Streeter’s 160m (525ft) no-limits world record, Mestre attempted a no-limits dive to 171m (561ft). The dive started out smoothly, and she successfully reached her target depth. Then Mestre came to the horrifying realization that there was no air in the cylinder that was supposed to inflate her lift bag.
A rescue diver attempted to inflate the lift bag using whatever air he had in his tank, but it failed to inflate the bag fast enough. With no other choice, Mestre desperately tried to resurface on her own. If everything had gone according to plan, the entire dive should have only taken Mestre three minutes. However, she remained underwater for over eight minutes.
It was clear that the dive did not meet the normal freediving safety standards. There was a lack of safety divers, insufficient rescue equipment, no doctor at sea or shore, and the most damning mistake, no air in the lift bag air tank. Ferreras himself was supposedly in charge of filling the tank and making sure it had been charged.
When Mestre had finally been recovered to the surface after nine long minutes which seemed like an eternity to everyone involved in the dive, she still had a pulse. However, there were no doctors on the boat, and all resuscitation attempts failed. She was pronounced dead at a hospital by the shore.
Mestre’s death was mired with controversy, with much of the blame put on her husband, Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras. Many accusations were made, one of which was that Ferreras had pressured Mestre into doing this dive, and that his negligence and influence on her led to her death.
Steephen Keenan was the Chief of Security for many Vertical Blue freediving competitions and also an AIDA, EFR, and PADI instructor who was well-known in the freediving community. Keenan’s work as a safety diver was so prolific that he would almost always be seen in photographs next to freedivers who were celebrating their new record-breaking dive.
Keenan himself was also an accomplished freediver, at one point holding three Irish national freediving records in depth: 52m (170ft) CNF, 74m (243ft) FIM, and 81m (266ft) CWT. Only someone of his calibre could be relied upon to perform daring rescue attempts at over 50m (164ft) underwater.
Freediving competitions would not be possible without a team of at least four to five safety divers. Diving to depth is rarely the issue, in fact past 20m (65ft) divers will begin to freefall which helps them reach depth while conserving oxygen. Problems are more likely to arise when divers make their ascent against the negative buoyancy as their oxygen levels start to run low and their risk of blackout increases.
Thus, multiple safety divers are needed at various depths to monitor the freediver’s well-being and provide assistance if needed. This is what Keenan was known for, and he always pulled through, making him an icon in the freediving community.
On one fateful Saturday, Keenan was working as a safety diver for Alessia Zecchini, a world record holder with an impressive dive of 104m (341ft) at the prestigious Vertical Blue competition. This time, she was attempting to traverse the arch at Dahab’s Blue Hole off the coast of Egypt. Conditions weren’t great; the winds were high, visibility was low, and the currents could send any freediver off-course.
Despite this, Zecchini pushed onward trying to reach the Arch and back without fins, relying only on a custom breaststroke and Keenan’s watchful eye. Unfortunately, she became disoriented when she reached depth and her ascent was slow. Keenan took action around 50m (164ft.) and began to provide assistance.
Details are not clear regarding what happened from the time Keenan started his rescue attempt and when Zecchini reached the surface. The facts are, when Zecchini surfaced she was alone and Keenan was nowhere to be seen. A search party was immediately dispatched and Keenan was soon found floating face down and unresponsive.
It is believed that Keenan suffered a shallow water blackout (which typically occurs around a depth 10m/33ft) and drifted away from Zecchini as she was trying to resurface.
Since the two divers did not surface together, precious time had to be spent just trying to locate him. By the time life-saving measures were performed on Keenan, too much time had passed and he could not be resuscitated.
Even in the dive that claimed his life, Keenan was able to successfully rescue the distressed athlete he was monitoring. No matter who was in his charge, he was known to watch them intently and stay underwater for long periods of time, to the point that even his own breath would nearly run out. His tenacity and selflessness was put on full display in his last dive, and he was hailed as a hero.
Keenan’s unfortunate passing devastated many in the freediving community. It marked the first ever recorded death of a safety diver while performing his duty in a freediving attempt. It also put the spotlight on the safety and well-being of safety divers, since almost all of the attention is on the athlete.
People often forget that safety divers must freedive to impressive depths as well, and they are also just as likely to suffer a shallow water blackout like the athletes in the competition. Keenan’s passing was a grim reminder that no matter how accomplished a diver is, even in the role as a safety diver, no one can avoid the risk of a shallow water blackout.
Unlike Audrey Mestre who took to the waters at a young age, Natalie Molchanova did not start her freediving career until she was 40 years old. She only began in order to get her mind off of a recent divorce, after learning about the sport in a freediving magazine. With a background in competitive swimming during her college years and a love for open water swimming, she tried her hand at freediving and was soon breaking records.
Within a year she had set her first Russian record in the pool discipline. She achieved a 9:02 breath-hold in static apnea (holding one’s breath for as long as possible without moving). Another feat Molchanova could accomplish was staying underwater for three and a half minutes while continuously swimming. With such an impressive breath-hold capacity, she felt that a freediver should move from the pool and freedive in open water.
Over the next 13 years, she would set record after record, eventually claiming 41 world records, making her one of the most accomplished female freedivers. People began to give her monikers like “The Queen” or “The Machine” in recognition of her dominance in the sport as well as superhuman endurance. Molchanova liked to break world records on her birthday in defiance of the idea that her old age is preventing her from being the top athlete.
One unsuspecting day, two miles west of La Savina port on Formentera, Molchanova was giving a private freediving lesson. She attempted a planned dive to 35m (115ft), which is quite a deep dive especially without fins, however her personal best in this discipline is 70m (232ft). Furthermore, the conditions that day allowed for over 65 feet of visibility, so theoretically a safety diver could have kept watch from a distance.
However, being the only experienced diver in the group and the one who would be attempting the dive, nobody was watching her back. Molchanova would dive down and never resurface again. Soon the local coast guard as well as the Guardia Civil were alerted by Molchanova’s friends and a large scale search was conducted.
Unfortunately, it is believed that Molchanova had 6kg (13lbs) of dive weights on her, so if she had lost consciousness she most likely would have remained underwater due to the negative buoyancy. The possibility that Molchanova would be floating by the surface was ruled out. Thus, an extensive underwater search was conducted, however the area where Molchanova disappeared reached depths of 80m (262ft) which complicated matters.
Search efforts yielded nothing and eventually was suspended. Molchanova’s body was never recovered, and she is presumed dead. The disappearance of Molchanova shocked the freediving community.
How could such an accomplished diver who was attempting a dive that was, by her standards, quite easy to do, fail to resurface? It is believed that Molchanova was swept away by an underwater current that sent her hundreds of meters away from her original location, which could explain why the search party could not find her.
Loïc Leferme was one of three people who founded l’Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (a.k.a. AIDA International). In addition to that, he was a world record competitive freediver who once held the world record in the No-Limits discipline for his 171m (531ft) dive until Herbert Nitsch took the record with a 183m (600ft) dive.
On April 11th, 2007, Leferme was training to take back the No-Limits record from NItch outside Nice bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer. He attempted a training dive to 171m (531ft), which was the same depth as his old world record.
After two and a half minutes underwater, Leferme reached depth and started up the anti-ballast which eventually suffered a malfunction 80m (262ft) from the surface. The surface team eventually realized something was wrong but could not pull him to the surface, and it appears no back-up system was utilized.
After Leferme had been submerged underwater for approximately six and a half minutes until the SCUBA team found him floating at about 20m (65ft) and brought him to the surface. He was suffering from a cardiac arrest and all attempts to resuscitate him failed.
Furthermore, the cause of the equipment malfunction could not be determined because all of the equipment was cut and dropped. Could the anti-ballast have failed due to an entanglement, perhaps the bearings failed? Unfortunately, only speculations can be made.
Four years prior, French freediver Audrey Mestre passed away under eerily similar circumstances. She was attempting a 171m (531ft) dive when her sled also failed to rise and she could not be rescued in time.
Leferme was 36 years old and is survived by his wife and two children. He was planning to break Nistch’s record in July 2007.
How Dangerous is Freediving Exactly?
We’ve been throwing around a lot of statistics and any activity comes with its share of risks, so the question you might be wondering is “is freediving safe?” After all, even accomplished freedivers have lost their lives to this sport that they love.
The answer of course is not a simple “yes” or “no”. There are many factors such as whether you have an existing medical condition or not, know the safety guidelines, have the right gear and know how to use them, have a diving buddy, and so on.
If you know you are missing something crucial to the dive you are willingly putting yourself at risk, then you are basically gambling your life away. If the weather conditions aren’t optimal or you are diving alone, an accident will almost certainly be fatal.
It’s up to you to do the proper research or hire an instructor to teach you, because the ocean doesn’t care whether you’re a pro or a first-timer. One slip-up can easily send you to a watery grave.
Hopefully in the future, as freediving becomes more well-known, there will be more advanced freediving equipment injury prevention methods to keep loss of life to a minimum.
Until then, always err on the side of caution. Use the right equipment, train with a safety diver, train diligently, and don’t let pride be your downfall when trying to set new personal records.