PICTURED: Exploring the kelp forest as a freediver. Photo by Max Mironov

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

nshaffer@timespublications.com

There’s something about the sea that calls to the deeper side of the soul. That vast, ever-changing, always moving environment seems to pulse with the rhythm of the cosmos, in sync with the moon and the planet’s orbit. If the stars above are an Earthling’s glimpse of the universe beyond, the ocean is the medium that envelopes it all around us.

Swimming, surfing, boating and scuba diving all help us connect with this primal realm. But freediving in particular allows us to breathe along with it. 

“You really have to slow your mind down and relax to drop down,” says freediving enthusiast Elizabeth “Lizzy” East, 33, of Ventura.

Mindful breathing

Free diving is, essentially, going into and under the water while holding one’s breath. Divers may or may not use fins, weights, a rope line (to travel down) or a buoyancy device (to accelerate ascent), depending on the type of freediving. Some divers see it as a competitive sport — based on length and depth of a dive — while others do it for photography or fishing purposes, and some, purely for enjoyment. 

But all rely heavily on proper breathing technique to achieve deep, full inhalations for longer breath holds underwater.

“It’s kind of like yoga breathing,” explains Matt Davidson, 41. “What that does is slow down your heart rate and bring you into yourself and the moment. You’re going to get more out of your breath hold if you relax.”

There’s a long science behind the freediving breathing technique, much of it developed and refined by oral surgeon-turned-spearfisher-and-conservationist Dr. Terry Maas. His book Blue Water Hunting and Freediving is considered a bible among fellow enthusiasts. It involves a lot of deep inhalations and long exhalations at the surface before you even submerge. Done correctly and safely (see sidebar below, “Freediving Dos and Don’ts”), it can allow freedivers to go down to depths of 30 feet or more for several minutes.

“It’s very peaceful,” says East. “You have to relax. If you can’t relax, you won’t get your breath down.”

She recalls an early dive where she was feeling nervous and stressed and “couldn’t equalize.”

“Each dive I’d get shallower and shallower,” she says.

Freedivers use a line to get to their desired depth. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth East

Finally, she just told herself to “go out and have fun, stop stressing.” Once she could let go of her anxieties, she was able to equalize and reach her target depth.

“It just goes to show — it’s all in your mind,” East says. “It really ties into everything . . . you have to be in the moment . . . Things make sense, I can focus. You look back and everything is ok.”

From surfing and scuba to spearfishing 

Davidson is the owner of Blue Tuna Spearfishing in Ventura, and has been an avid freediver and student of the sport for well over a decade. He’s explored the underwater realms of Central America, Indonesia and Polynesia as well as his home waters around the Channel Islands.

“I started out surfing,” he says. “In 2005, a friend took me to Monterey . . . I had a pole spear. I caught a perch, took it home and ate it.”

Shortly after that, Davidson took off on a long surfing and traveling excursion. In Samoa, during some downtime when the sea was calm, he’d notice people going out with spears. He realized “that’s the perfect thing to do” when catching a wave wasn’t possible.

But it was in Indonesia when he really embraced freediving — and the spearfishing opportunities that came with it. 

“I started seeing larger pelagic fish, but I couldn’t get them. I didn’t have the range.”

In Bali, he met a man named Andre who manufactured spearguns. He was also an exceptional freediver and fisherman himself. Davidson would go into Andre’s shop every day, talking to him about freediving, spearfishing, where and what to hunt. 

“He became a mentor,” Davidson affirms. “He spent all that time to help me grow and learn. I try to give that back — give people the knowledge.”

When Davidson returned to Ventura County in 2007, he became the exclusive distributor of Andre’s product line — what Davidson describes as an exceptional, high-end speargun. By 2008, he’d opened Blue Tuna Spearfishing, a full-service shop offering wetsuits, masks, snorkels and other equipment (including a variety of gear and accessories that carry Blue Tuna’s own label). Pre-COVID, Blue Tuna also offered classes (it hopes to resume these once restrictions are lifted). 

East, who grew up in Oxnard and is now Blue Tuna’s assistant manager, is much newer to the sport, but it has been a life-changing experience. 

In 2018, following a breakup, she bought a one-way ticket to Belize and got certified for scuba diving. 

“It was something that challenged me and that I thought I’d never do,” she says. “It was a bucket-list thing.”

She traveled across Central America, logging a lot of hours and eventually teaching scuba classes. Her first exposure to freediving was in Honduras.

“We came up from a 30-40-foot dive, and there was a big pod of dolphins in the water,” she recalls. Due to the need to decompress, scuba divers weren’t able to go underwater anymore  — but freedivers could. East remembers watching freedivers swim and intertwine with the marine mammals, seemingly at one with the environment. “I could never do that with a tank,” she notes. 

In May 2019, she came back to Ventura and continued to teach scuba diving. That fall, she spent a few months in Central America and Mexico and took a freediving course in Tulum. Shortly after returning home, the pandemic hit.

“So I just started freediving with friends near Malibu,” East says. “I just really loved it. In February 2020, I was going three or four times a week. I was hooked at that point.” 

That spring she purchased her first speargun. 

“I think it’s pretty cool to go out and harvest your own food,” she says of spearfishing. “It’s the most environmentally friendly and sustainable way to get it, in my opinion.” 

Today, she’s cut way back on the amount of meat or purchased fish she eats, and is starting to transition to consuming only the fish she catches herself. She credits the freediving experience with bringing her down that path.

“It changes your perspective,” she says.

Simplicity, discovery, community

Davidson and East have fully embraced the spearfishing opportunities that freediving affords. But they both acknowledge that the sport is about more than the day’s catch.

Without the sounds or bubbles inherent in scuba and snorkeling, freediving is exceptionally quiet; nearly as silent as the fish themselves. It makes for an unparalleled opportunity to

Spearfishing off Santa Cruz Island. Photo courtesy of Matt Davidson

encounter ocean creatures in their habitat, unperturbed by or oblivious to the diver’s presence. 

“Because you’re not as noisy, things are behaving as they would normally. It’s like they don’t know you’re there,” says Davidson.

East agrees, noting, “You get so close to the fish. I have a whole new respect for the ocean.”

Both also praise the simplicity of the practice. While there is a variety of gear one can acquire — particularly for diving deep or hunting large pelagic fish — a mask, some fins and a wetsuit will get you pretty far. 

“If one of my friends called right now, I could pick up my stuff and get in the water in 20 minutes,” East says. 

She’s also found a community through the SoCal Dive Babes, a spearfishing and freediving group made up exclusively of women who share tips, go on trips together and mentor each other. 

“A year ago, I didn’t have any of that in my life,” East says.

Davidson loves that freediving allows him unlimited access to the water. Unlike scuba, which is curtailed by the amount of air in the tank and the need to decompress, “I can stay out there from morning until night,” he notes.

For him, every dive is a revelation.

“It’s not always about going deep. It’s about discovering every reef and every part of the coastline and building that map in your mind . . . It’s always changing and it’s neat to see that change.”

On top of all of this, of course, is the sheer serenity that comes from being one with the ocean environment: quiet, immersed, in harmony with the water and the creatures that live in it.

As East says, “Freediving is this amazing sport that gives you this zen feeling.”


Freediving Dos and Don’ts

  • The most important tip Davidson offers: do not attempt freediving on your own. Freediving is a potentially dangerous activity, and should never be undertaken without extensive training. “I don’t advise that people do it themselves,” Davidson cautions. “Go learn it from A to Z — especially the deep diving stuff.” Blue Tuna Spearfishing intends to resume classes once pandemic restrictions are lifted.
  • Never freedive alone. Shallow-water blackout, getting tangled in kelp and other accidents happen, even to experienced divers. A second set of eyes and hands can mean the difference between life and death.
  • Remember the surface interval, or time spent at the surface between dives. Generally, surface intervals at a minimum should be double the dive time.
  • Consider using a recovery vest, which can be pre-programmed for a certain depth and length of time to get the diver to the surface face-up in case of emergency.
  • Spearfishers must have valid fishing licenses before embarking; licenses are not provided by boat concessionaires or outfitters.
  • Don’t free dive on a big meal and wait at least a few hours after eating.

Fish Facts

Fish commonly caught in the waters off the Central Coast include halibut, calico bass and seabass. Blue water hunting in deeper waters (think 30-50 feet) can yield pelagic species such as dorado and yellowtail tuna. California spiny lobster is in season from October through March. 

Spearfishers must have a valid fishing license issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as an Ocean Enhancement Stamp. Lobster hunters also require a Lobster Report Card.

Always be sure to acquire the necessary licenses before embarking; licenses are not provided by boat concessionaires or outfitters.


RESOURCES

Blue Tuna Spearfishing
1302 Tower Square, Unit 4, Ventura
805-826-3483 or bluetunaspearfishing.com
Gear, advice and classes (once pandemic restrictions are lifted). Blue Tuna does not book trips, but can connect customers with local clubs and boating outfits.

Peace Dive Boat
1691 Spinnaker Drive, E Dock, Ventura Harbor
949-247-1106 or peaceboat.com
Offering diving excursions to the Channel Islands, including single-day and multi-day trips specifically for freedivers. 

Ventura Dive & Sport
1559 Spinnaker Dr, Suite 108, Ventura
805-650-6500 or www.venturadive.com

California Department of Fish and Wildlife
www.wildlife.ca.gov
888-773-8450
Fishing regulations, licenses and Lobster Report Cards