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Serenity at depth: childhood fascination becomes lifestyle

Sergiu Şerban is the president of Freediving Romania and a founding member of the newly established AIDA Romania. Since young he enjoyed water and still loves being underwater, even if just for a few minutes as long as a freedive lasts. Freediving was a challenge, a travail, in the beginning, as Sergiu recounts, but the deep always brings him a sense of calm and relaxation no other place on shore can bring.

Traveling intensely through the nature of his job, since a few years ago, when he retuned to Romania, Sergiu is the driving force behind the small freediving community in the country and has succeeded in crystallizing around himself a group passionate about apnea diving. Following, Sergiu tells mydive.ro how he became a freediving instructor, how you separate competitive freediving from extreme attempts and what you can learn from the masters of apnea diving. This interview is dedicated to Sergiu Şerban’s father, who has recently departed to a better world.

You’re certified as an advanced scuba diver, but you are a freediving instructor. What came first in your case, freediving or scuba diving?

Freediving, in its early form of snorkeling, came first. Talking recently to my dad, who never really enjoyed this passion of mine, he told me that since young I enjoyed water very much and had no problem learning how to swim. Maybe it had a lot to do with the way my father taught us how to swim; basically, he threw us in the swimming pool and said: “Come on, swim!” – there weren’t many other alternatives to it [laughs]. I also liked what he said, that compared to other children I enjoyed going under water. Other kids swam at the surface, I liked staying underwater and one of the first victims of this habit was a Chinese watch which I submerged, in the bath tub, to see how much I stay under and, of course, stopped working; even now I remember the watch having a seal with a ball moving continuously on its nose, like that; that watch never worked again [laughs].

So yes, it was freediving, of course in its form back then, with the Russian goggles, with the Russian fins… Later I started scuba diving, I have NAUI and PADI certifications, but I continued with freediving until around 2004-2005, when – then I also had three incidents, almost semi-accidents while freediving – I realized that by myself I take on certain risks, that there are certain limits which if crossed the risks assumed become great. I started researching more and more, later I found out there’s an entire community worldwide. Between 2004 and 2007 I had a sort of an impulse, I also had more free time to go through all the certification stages, not really with the purpose of “collecting” them, but simply as a means of learning, as there weren’t any manuals in Romanian and not even in English there weren’t a lot, even now there aren’t so many. There are a few very good manuals, you can find them online, but not even in Hungary, where I was working at the time, there wasn’t a lot of information available, so then I took advantage of trips – during that time I traveled quite a lot to Thailand, Philippines and Egypt.

In December 2004 you witnessed the tsunami in Thailand…

Yes, I was there. We were returning from Similan Islands and we came back right that evening… We were there scuba diving and freediving… But about this subject in another interview exclusively for mydive.ro!

When did you decide you want to teach others how to freedive? When did you become an instructor?

I became an instructor in 2007. The decision to become one came more from a need to further study. At that time the AIDA structure, the AIDA courses – The International Association for Apnea Development – were four, actually three plus one introductive course, so four levels which I did pretty fast. I have other certifications, two of them, as I felt a need to do something extra. So, the instructor course was naturally the next step, even though I didn’t purposely mean to train or teach others, I didn’t have a well defined market for it, especially because I was living in Hungary at the time. But well, because I was thinking in perspective that at a certain point in the future I would return to Romania, I decided to take on the instructor course, as I already had an education as a trainer, thinking that maybe at one point I would be able to do what I like to do, freediving as a day job rather than during the weekends. Of course, this never happened, as it is hard enough to earn your daily bread from scuba diving, not to mention freediving where the market is young, and especially in Romania, even though during the last two-three years it has visibly started to grow…

Do you think that a weak market is due to a lack of people being informed?

Yes, there is a lack of information that we are primarily trying to address with the founding of the association [ARDA; Freediving Romania] and with as many materials as possible and courses taught in Romanian; that is one of the reasons… And there is also a lack of instructors, a lack of endorsement. You can also notice internationally that from a very niche activity it’s starting to become mainstream, it’s starting to enter the culture, it’s starting to relate to other disciplines, mainly water sports – from surfing to scuba diving.

The majority of people coming to us to find out more about freediving are coming usually from scuba and triathlon, for example, swimming, possibly other sports considered more or less extreme – I don’t know why people consider freediving as being an extreme sport; probably it has a certain degree of risk, but not necessarily. Those who become freedivers understand the phenomenon and that there are some risks involved, but extremely small risks, because we work very much with the self-preservation instinct, which is strong enough. The survival instinct doesn’t let you make great mistakes and freediving, because you rely on your own strengths, on your own resources, is done in small steps, especially if you practice it in a conscious way. Alright, if you jump in the water with a stone tied around your neck to see what happens [laughs], things can take a wrong turn. But once you start training and knowing, determining your limitations, not necessarily through accidents, you will realize that there aren’t any huge steps. In the beginning there are bigger steps, when you expect to hold your breath for 30 seconds and suddenly you see you can manage for 3 minutes or 6, these are huge steps. Afterwards, when you reach 6, you won’t go to 12 very fast, you advance slowly. The same with depths, once you realize that at 10 meters or 20 or 30 there’s no superhuman effort to be made, you are not „aqua man” and that basically anyone, with a bit of preparation and without a water-related phobia, can obtain results which otherwise seem pretty extraordinary. But from there things evolve slowly. That’s why, generally, accidents are very rare.

However, in the past year, there were a series of accidents which raised questions concerning one of the main freediving rules – that of not diving alone, without a buddy, and AIDA emphasized in a press release the importance of such a rule.

Last year’s accidents, and there were around three memorable ones, stem from different causes. The first was the one in Variable Weight, it happened in Greece, and it involved an instructor from United Arab Emirates. They’ve never found him… [A/N The missing athlete was Adel Abu Haliqa and the accident took place during training for the No Limits discipline]. One must differentiate between the competition disciplines and the competitive freediving and stunts. Stunts are the ones involving hydraulic equipment, mechanical, which take you down very fast, much like No Limits and Variable Weight. They complicate very much, add variable factors very difficult to control in extreme conditions, not by all means physiological factors, but hard to manage in a hostile environment given the great depths which can be reached nowadays. It’s one thing when, in the good old days, you dove to 50 meters and it seemed extraordinary; from 50 you can still come back, including using SCUBA – it’s taking it quite a bit to the limit, but it can be done. Now we talk about 100, 150, 200 meters. You don’t have any kind of safety there; you can’t do safety at 200 meters with SCUBA unless you keep those people for decompression for probably 12 hours. And at those depths a piece of gear is more predisposed to encountering major difficulties which practically would lead to malfunctions. And that’s why AIDA is now trying to at least change its standards and eventually take out some of the disciplines acknowledged by them, to stop accrediting records established in those disciplines considered very dangerous, such as Variable Weight and No Limits. Because they lost a good part of their sportive character and are sooner an effort to a stunt in which one takes part the more resources and better equipment one has. If you have a very eccentric and rich sponsor who lays at your disposal extremely sophisticated and modern equipment and I don’t know what else, and if you are also talented, you will be able to accomplish extraordinary things.

Nonetheless, such attempts don’t belong to the research field? And the pioneers of diving, be it with SCUBA or while breath-holding, weren’t considered at the time stuntmen taking on too higher risks…

Yes, but you can do it in a different way. The risks are too great. Typically, this can be done incrementally. We’ve now reached 100 meters without fins, 127 meters or 129, I think, with fins – these are great depths. But these are usually exceeded gradually, with one, two meters at a time. The limit refers to equalization rather, than to depth. Now it’s very hard to equalize and for those going down, there’s always the narcosis. The narcosis, with a single breath of air as they say, at those depths is very strong. These are the limits. Once you suddenly reach 200 meters…

Now Herbert Nitsch, who is also the current worldwide record holder with 214 meters, if I’m not mistaken, intends, during the next three or four years, to do three extremely risky things – to reach 300 meters and, I don’t recall, he calculated this in feet, the current depth is 700 feet and he will attempt to reach 800 feet (244m), 900 (275m) and 1000 (305m). Incredible, but a lot of things can go wrong and from down there nobody can bring you out.

What does freediving mean to you? How do you feel underwater? Does it still hold the same fascination as when you were a child?

Absolutely, the fascination is always there. When I’m not close to the water I miss it, when I’m not underwater again, I miss it very much. There’s a calm you don’t find in the air. It’s hard to explain. Probably my happiest moments, my most calm moments that I can remember, are related to diving and freediving. I can identify these moments very clearly – memories from special trips or I don’t know what else, when my child was born – I have them, but they’re not as vivid. Or, if I think about exceptionally beautiful places seen during apnea, in perfect visibility and water conditions, the degree of detailing stuck with me is very high. Practically I visualize it and, sometimes, when I want to relax, I visualize a certain place in the Philippines, for example, or an absolutely ordinary dive, however pleasant, in Dahab.

Are freedives different than dives employing SCUBA?

Yes. Even though they don’t bear comparison, because they are different. I try to avoid comparing scuba diving with freediving because even among my colleagues and friends there’s a bit of a “grudge”. Some have it, especially those who are not scuba divers as well, more those… We have a few colleagues who, in the meanwhile, have tried scuba diving after freediving and realized that there are advantages – it’s one thing to stay one minute, two or three underwater, and it’s truly another thing to stay 30 or 40 minutes.

But, I admit, since I took on freediving again and I came to enjoy it – because in the beginning it was more of a torture, until you get used to it, now it’s not a problem anymore – I find more pleasure in staying two hours in the water with repeated one minute, one minute and a half, two minute dives, than doing a 50 minute dive. And things are very similar.

Do you still practice scuba diving?

Very little, I think last time when I dove with SCUBA was two years ago. I was in Egypt on a week long liveaboard two years ago, I believe. I was mainly scuba diving. I took my monofin with me, I did some freediving too, but I realized that apart from a few very specific things such as exploring a wreck or, I don’t know, something very special, a deep canyon which requires being underwater for a very long period of time, the majority of things I can very well or even better do while freediving. For example photographing or filming, I do better pictures or movies, especially as there are no bubbles. And it’s not a matter of depth. Anyhow, recreational scuba diving is 12, 18, 30 meters, I can dive for spear fishing – that’s another older hobby of mine somehow rediscovered – I can do it very well while freediving, I mean I find it less intrusive, closer to nature, depending on what you see is different, it’s another type of quiet. The sea is never quiet, you will always hear background noises, but you hear better, than with the bubbles around you.

Did you ever have a blackout or a “samba”?

I did. During my instructor course I had only one blackout, at the surface for 2 seconds, but enough to feel it. And “samba” I had a few times, it happens. With a “samba” you are in the waiting room of losing your consciousness. When you train, you test your limits, a blackout shouldn’t happen, only in unusual conditions, it was probably the case then; “samba” is quite common. If you practice recreational freediving you shouldn’t have “samba” either, you always should work with a great margin of error, but unfortunately, when you train, sometimes it happens, when you test your limits.

Do you have a special place where you would like to dive in the future?

Yes, I’d like to go to Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas; it’s William Trubridge’s lair. I would love it there because it seems to be the best place for freediving, as a location, as a natural environment. It’s a two hundred and something meter deep hole, perfectly sealed, OK, it’s connected to the sea, but there aren’t any currents, not a very strong thermocline, basically it’s a perfect spot for deep dives.

Do you have a freediving role model, someone who inspires you?

Will Trubridge again. I also like very much a Canadian, Eric Fattah, who is not as popular, but was world champion in 2001, and was the first worldwide record holder using a monofin. He reached 86 meters in Constant Weight, is among, if not the best freediving theoretician researcher. Together with another freediver, but he is much more discreet. From Eric Fattah there’s a lot to learn because he uses his own body, this guy I think had hundreds, if not thousands of blackouts, he tried everything, including eating two kilos of garlic once to see what impact that would have on apnea. Actually, he is also an inventor, he produced a couple of freediving computers which were a complete disaster from a financial standpoint and then he switched to scuba diving and, in fact, the best technical computers are made by him, F1 and X1, they’re for technical diving. And he is indeed a special guy, from whom you have a lot to learn. He’s amongst the first to come out with new things; I mean he experiments a lot. He’s between the first to come up with the „residual volume diving” approach, to freedive without any air in your lungs.

There are two schools which are not by all means exclusive: one is the freediving school where you use all possible resources, including “packing” – where through a practically mechanical method you take more air with you to have more resources; and there’s another school, newer and much more unrealistic, at least at a first sight, where you dive exactly as aquatic mammals such as the sea otter, the seal, the sea lion do – all breathe out before a dive, hence you exhale before you dive. Now, not a lot of people know that many oxygen resources in your body are not contained in the air inside your lungs, but they’re already in your blood stream, you have them in your blood which, if it’s well oxygenated, provides a lot of energy, and the air inside your chest, if it’s in great quantities, sometimes becomes a disadvantage, you have more buoyancy, it’s harder to submerge yourself, the narcosis appears faster, especially at great depths.

The same as Sebastien Murat, another very interesting guy, he started promoting these methods, they did them. People thought “God, have you gone mad? How can you go without air in your lungs? How do you equalize? How…”. If you get over the initial inconveniences, you also need a lot of patience and preparation, it seems there are a lot of advantages. At the moment the world records are done “in full” [laughs].

Do you prefer one system over the other?

I haven’t done many dives in “empty” as they say, without air, especially not at depth, no, it’s fairly difficult. You need an intensive training; the rib cage must be very flexible; if you don’t live close to the seaside and don’t dive very often, it’s difficult. For me, to train, to come to the swimming pool once per week, to dive at 5 meters, is very tough. You can do it if you exhale all the air in your lungs and you go to 5 meters, you can do it; basically you mimic an open water dive at 30-40 meters. But it’s still not enough.

But what I can say is that in my own pool distance records in which I’ve accomplished my results I was using techniques somewhat related to this “half lung”, “empty lungs” techniques; why, because it provokes a strong dive reflex, mammalian diving reflex, in fact a defense mechanism kicks in, a mechanism to conserve energy, resources. It has a lot to do with the contact of certain stimuli, especially on the face, with cold water, but it’s a reflex generated as a precaution measure.

The people theorizing this say: the more you get scared, the stronger the reflex is; then, what are you trying to do if you want to trigger a reflex? To get scared, to frighten your body to such an extent as to enter completely in a state of shock, it automatically starts a preservation process and it really works. It’s really not pleasant at all. Of course, if you do this as a regular training it doesn’t work, but for a record or for a competition you can try such a technique… And it’s never a good idea to try something for the first time in a competition… You can try it once a month, seldom – in my case this technique worked very well. The thermal shock is very important, the moment you enter cold water the reflex is very strong, the same if you don’t prepare yourself beforehand; if you do a lot of laps in the pool and you raise the number in increments – you do 50, 75, 100, after which you try a record, it doesn’t work; better you warm up possibly on land, after which you give it your best without any warm-up underwater, you do 100 meters, again, in my case it worked.

It’s an advanced method, not really to talk about on forums, even in my courses I don’t describe it, except to the very advanced, because you don’t have limits and you always must do it under supervision. It’s a technique in which, supervised by others (it would be something if you would do it for the first time, but others have done it and it is proven that this preservation instinct is extremely strong) certain mechanisms you don’t usually use, with the purpose of preserving your resources, are triggered, these cease abruptly, after which you take small portions of these resources, very small drops. And from what you are used to, you know your usual limits, you succeed to do 100 meters. And when you employ this technique you might manage to do 150 meters, 130 meters, which is huge. Anyway, an increase of 20-25% I wouldn’t recommend, if you were always at the top limit, for example 125, you will probably go home with a blackout.

I find these gentlemen very interesting, as theoreticians and researchers. As an athlete, I find Will Trubridge absolutely special. He’s also a very OK guy, very friendly, he answers you. Just a few days ago he answered me on a public forum in English on an everyday matter, related to how much a package sent by Orca via post could weigh, and he answered 1kg. He’s OK, you expect the world champion to be different…

*Note: The techniques briefly described in this article are given as a reference and are not to be tried on your own, without proper specialized supervision, taking into consideration the possible risks involved.

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