Joshua Chaffee
Joshua Chaffee

Nov 08. 4 mins

THE DEEP HISTORY OF FREEDIVING

My first exposure to freediving was as a young child living in the coastal redwoods of Northern California. There, I experienced a local delicacy: abalone.

My dad would bring home these mollusks with wonderfully iridescent shells. We put the meat in just about any dish we could and would keep the shells as decoration throughout our property. They were delicious, so we ended up with many. My dad didn’t get these delicacies from the store, though, they were the product of local freediving fishermen.

Today, people dive for many reasons: relaxation, meditation, exercise — and for some — the thrill. Entire industries have emerged out of freediving. It has become an internationally competitive sport with world records being made and shattered annually in both CMAS and AIDA

However, the beginnings of freediving are neither of world-record-breaking sports nor spiritual enlightenment. The fishermen who caught the abalone that my family enjoyed years ago were acting out the roots of the ancient tradition of freediving: food and survival.

The Ancient Roots of Freediving

Dry land fosters plenty of food for humanity, but, as much food as there is on land, there is a far greater variety of food below the water’s surface: crabs, turtles, mussels, and countless variations of fish as well as a supply of plant varieties.

Coastal civilizations quickly came to realize how much food could be collected, not just through traditional fishing methods, but also by going beneath the surface. Take, for instance, the ancient Chinchorro people of southern Chile and northern Peru who lived sometime between 7000 and 1000 BC.

At some point in history, the Chinchorro people were driven out of the Atacama desert by the arid climate into more coastal areas. They were known to be expert fishermen, sporting a vast toolbox of fishing implements. They must have used their maritime skills often, as 90% of their diet consisted of sea-life. They used cacti and shells to fashion fishing hooks. They used fibers wound into ropes and fastened to rocks to make fishing nets.

However — examinations of their remains reveal that surface fishing was not their only method.

“Exostosis” is a condition that can affect an individual’s ears that are repeatedly exposed to cold water. It is found in people who regularly participate in kayaking, surfing, jet skiing, sailing and, of course, diving. The remains of many ancient Chinchorro people reveal that they suffered from exostosis. Given the lack of kayaks and jet skis, it can be safely assumed that freediving is how these ancient mariners must have developed this condition.

The Chinchorro people were not the only ancient group to practice fishing through

freediving. All the way across the world in Southeast Asia live the Bajau people. This group is still active today in Indonesia. These people spend a huge amount of time (an average of five hours a day) in the water. Geneticist Melissa Ilardo states that this behavior is closer to sea otters than your typical land-dwelling human. This can be attributed to their  highly adapted bodies to sea life and diving.And no wonder, the Bajau people have been practicing their dive for over a thousand years.

Freediving in Trade

Nacre for Crafts

At some point, freedivers increased the value of their craft by moving beyond fishing. While on the ocean floor, divers would find sponges, pearls, and shells. Nacre, or mother-of-pearl, for instance, was a byproduct of many group’s fishing activities. Once these groups made contact with other, larger societies, these items became highly demanded trade items. Archeologists have found nacre used in ancient Egyptian artwork dating back thousands of years as the result of ancient freedivers.

Sponges From Greece

Around 750 B.C.E. a passage of Homer’s Odyssey says that servants are busy “washing the tables with porous sponges.” Additionally, in the Iliad, the god Hephaestus is said to clean his body with sponges. These Greek writings are the earliest known written mentions of sponges in human history. In fact, the word “sponge” even comes from the Greek “σπόγγος” (spongos).

The reason for this? The Greek freedivers of the small island Kalymnos.

Freediving for sponges is the earliest known profession of Kalymnos people. Because of these divers, the trade of local sponges exploded throughout the ancient Greek world. The Kalymnos divers would tie themselves to a 14 kg stone, and dive into the water in the nude. After collecting all they could on a single breath, they would signal to be brought back to the surface by pulling on the rope to be brought back up. These Kalymnos sponges were used as hygienic implements by royalty and Olympic athletes.

Freediving for Pearls

In the region of Southern India and Sri Lanka, ancient, large-scale oyster harvesting sites with huge mounds of leftover shells have been discovered. These oysters were likely harvested for food. Occasionally, rare pearls would be found hidden within these delicacies.

The Sri Lankans are credited as being the first people to discover natural pearls. These pearls became a valuable trade item in the region, but, it was much later that the pearl industry was vigorously pursued. Around 200 B.C.E. the Han Dynasty started extensive pearl hunting operations for trade in the South China Sea. Within this region were the “boat people,” that is, the Tankas. These Tanka people were known as such because they lived most their lives at sea on boats. Living such an aquatic life made diving for pearls second nature.

The Hanyeo women of Jeju Island, being surrounded by agriculturally difficult land, have resorted to freediving to collect food as early as 434 C.E. These Jeju divers continue their tradition down to this day.

“Frogmen” — Freedivers at War

Food and trade is a good start, but those aren’t the only things that took humans beneath the waves. Warfare has propelled civilizations to come up with new and ingenious applications and adaptations of previous skills. Warfare led to the invention of the internet, GPS, canned food and the modern “frogman.”

Frogmen are a form of special forces that specialize in diving. The term “frogmen” originates only from the 1800’s, but the roots of this type of warfare stretch back thousands of years, again, to the Greeks.

The first mention of a wartime diver is in 425 B.C.E. during the Peloponnesian war of an Athenian siege against the Spartans. The siege took place on the small island of Sphacteria. The Spartans were unable to get much-needed supplies by ship to the island. Pressed by war, the generator of ingenuity that it is, the Spartans devised a way for divers to bring submerged packs of supplies underwater through enemy lines. Ten years later, the Athenians found another use of divers during the war. The Syracusans of Sicily had protected their ports by installing large, wooden poles beneath the water’s surface. These poles prevented Athenian galleys from entering. To subvert these protections, the Athenians employed combat divers to swim down to these poles and disable them with saws, all while tied to large stones.

In 332 B.C.E., during Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre (of Biblical fame), Alexander’s ships worked at tearing down the walls of Tyre by lassoing boulders of the walls and pulling them out. The Tyrian soldiers fought back by diving beneath anchored ships and cutting these cables. This halted Alexander’s efforts for a time, but the Tyrians were eventually thwarted by replacing the ropes with chains. No matter how skilled these divers were, this was simply a challenge they could not overcome.

Freediving Today

Many of these ancient traditions of freediving that we’ve looked at are still going on today, though, fewer people dive in the nude. Today, the number of these traditional divers are dwindling. For example, the Hanyeo mentioned earlier, have drastically dwindled in number. Despite the declining rate of these traditions, freediving is not leaving us. With inventions that came about in the middle of the 1900’s such as “swimming propellers” (the ancestor to our modern swimming fins) and the neoprene “wetsuit” (both being inventions of warfare), freediving has been given a new breath of life. Different individuals — some military, others SCUBA instructors — started breaking new world records. Names such as Robert Croft, Enzo Majorca, Jacques Mayol, Alessia Zecchini, and others donned the pages of apnea record books the world over.

Roughly around the 1990’s, freediving became a professional, competitive sport. This has become a wide genre of competitive activities including aquathlon (underwater wrestling), competitive spearfishing, octopush (underwater hockey), underwater football, synchronized swimming and of course, various apnea disciplines.

The world of freediving continues to develop from its ancient roots. Whether it’s been fighting back Alexander the Great, providing food for Peruvian villages or decorating my yard with abalone shells, the practical reasons for freediving throughout the millennia have been numerous. Though many today dive for these same reasons, many more do so for the intangible, quixotic sense of adventure, peace, and competition. Whatever your reason, know that you are carrying on a tradition nearly as old as humanity itself.

Happy diving.

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