Free Spirit

The adventure and appeal of free diving.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Shawn Parkin


f the thought of being one with the ocean in stillness and silence is appealing, free diving might just be for you.

It shares some similarities with its fellow watersports, scuba diving and snorkeling, in that it takes its participants into the ocean depths to see all the glory of the underwater realm up close and personal. But free diving is a very different animal. It relies on greater physical conditioning, mindful breathing and particular attention to safety. But for those who take the time to learn the ins and outs of the sport, the rewards are great.

“Sometimes on my descent, I’ll just shut my eyes for a second . . . and just reset my body,” says Matt Davidson, owner of Blue Tuna Spearfishing in Ventura and an avid free diver with over 10 years of experience.

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 free diving. 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,” Davidson explains. “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 may not be an air tank involved, but equipment for free diving — particularly in cooler water like that which surrounds the Channel Islands — is highly specialized. Blue Tuna Spearfishing is a local supplier of free-diving gear and equipment, including Davidson’s own line.

“The focus is on efficiency of equipment,” he says, “minimizing drag and maximizing flexibility and comfort.” To that end, open-cell wetsuits (warmer and more flexible than a scuba suit), longer fins (for better propulsion) and streamlined masks (lower volume for improved equalization and visibility) are de rigueur for an efficient dive.

Of course, a quiet dive is also highly valued in the free-diving world — and the key to the sport’s advantage and appeal. Without the bubbles and noises inherent in scuba, the free diver is nearly as silent as the fish themselves. It makes for an unparalleled opportunity to encounter ocean creatures in their habitat, unperturbed by or oblivious to human presence. It can be a surreal and memorable experience.

“You feel like you’re in this outer space world,” Davidson says of the silence and remoteness of free diving, which allows him to appreciate the beauty and solitude of the sea in a way other watersports can’t match.

“It’s very relaxing . . . disconnecting me from my crazy rat-race life,” concurs Mike Lyons, a free diver from Ventura with two young children at home and a grueling commute to Los Angeles for work. “Get gone, shut the cell phone down and not be bothered.”

Lyons is a friend of Davidson and learned how to free dive from him as well. Once an avid surfer, he says now that “It’s taken over everything. I don’t ever really surf anymore. I’d just rather go free diving.”

Both Davidson and Lyons praise the beauty of the marine environment. But Lyons also loves the sense of adventure and the opportunity to spearfish. As any hunter knows, being quiet is a major benefit, and if there’s one advantage free diving offers, it’s a relatively soundless existence underwater.

“The main thing is the satisfaction of bringing home fish to the family. It’s awesome!” exclaims Lyons. “It’s a great, sustainable sport. If you enjoy eating fish . . . free diving is a great way to sustain the ocean environment.” He notes that unlike net fishing, which will capture an entire school of fish, free divers usually just get a few on a single outing. And a large fish — such as the 40-pound white seabass Lyons once caught — will feed a small family for weeks.

“It’s a testament to California’s fish management — we don’t have a single endangered species here,” Davidson says. “That fish is just really clean, too. In California, we’re particularly lucky. Our reefs are so healthy.”

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 durado and yellowtail tuna. The highly prized California spiny lobster is in season from October through March. (And, yes — 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.) But one of the most appealing things about free diving is the element of surprise.

“You’re out in the wild,” Davidson says. “You don’t know what you’ll see.”

Whether it’s spearfishing, underwater photography, a fitness challenge or just a new way to experience the beauty off the California coast, free diving delivers it all . . . and then some.

“It’s good for my mental health,” Davidson says of his time underwater and his mindful breathing necessitated by free diving. “That’s the real goal — just to relax.”


• DO NOT attempt free diving on your own. Free diving 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 offers Freediving Intructors International Level 1 classes on a regular basis, and private lessons are also available.

• Never free dive alone. Shallow-water blackout, getting tangled in kelp, shark bites 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 preprogrammed 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.

Blue Tuna Spearfishing
1302 Tower Square, Unit 4, Ventura
805.826.DIVE or
Free-diving gear, classes and advice. Blue Tuna does not book trips, but can connect customers with local clubs and boating outfits.

Neptonics Ventura
2361 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura
Based in Florida, this retailer of spearfishing products recently opened a location in Ventura.

Peace Dive Boat
1691 Spinnaker Drive, G Dock, Ventura Harbor
805.650.DIVE or
Offering excursions to the Channel Islands, including single-day and multiday trips specifically for free divers.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Fishing regulations, licenses and Lobster Report Cards

Silence is golden for free diver Matt Lyons (above), who attempts a stealthy descent for spearfishing, lobster hunting or just appreciating the beauty of the marine environment.

Topside (above right) he holds aloft a California spiny lobster, one of the greatest culinary treasures (when in season) found in our local waters.

A bright orange garibaldi (right) is observed swimming among sea urchins and coral in a picturesque kelp bed near Anacapa Island.

Matt Lyons hovers in the quiet, Zen-like stillness for which free diving is known.


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