Freediving/Freedive Safety,How to

Back to Basics The Descent


In the last issue of USM, we covered the basics on how to perfect the duck dive. In this issue we will be covering the descent. We will teach you the correct way of getting from the surface, to the depths of the ocean.

Spearfishing is slightly different to general freediving, where the diver “bounce” dives to a point and then returns. The spear fisherman generally dives shallower and often wants to maximise his time in the hunting zone, which could either be the mid water or the bottom. However, the basic disciplines are the same and we focus on being streamlined, keeping calm and conserving our oxygen. In this article we will cover physical finning, streamlining, efficiency and the mental part of the descent.

Once you have completed your duck dive and are starting to fin down, it is important to be conscious of the amount of energy you are using and how much this will increase your heart rate. It is pointless charging to the bottom in a hurry as it will only increase your heart rate, burn oxygen and probably scare away any fish that are in the area. Likewise, finning down too slowly will take too long and you will just be fighting your buoyancy for longer.

The key is to use sufficient energy to get you through the first 10m (which is when you are the most buoyant) without using too much energy. It must be noted that the amount of weights you have will dramatically affect this critical part of the dive (See Back to Basics vol 12). The heavier you are, the easier it will be to descend, but then you will have to swim the weight back to the surface again. Conversely, the lighter you are, the harder it will be to get to the point where you are negatively buoyant, but then it will be easier to return to the surface. The general rule is to use heavy weights when diving shallow and light weights when diving deep. Many beginners make the mistake of being too heavy, as this assists them in getting down. It is better to rather perfect the way you dive and dive lighter as it’s safer and will ultimately give you the ability to dive deeper.

To illustrate the next few points, lets use a dive to 18m (60ft), which is a practical depth in good conditions. Depending on the thickness of your wetsuit, you will need to set your weights to be neutrally buoyant at approximately 10m. This means that from about 11m, you should be negatively buoyant and start to sink. If you are shorediving, being neutral at 10m is going to be a serious problem. Any diving you do in less than 10m is going to be very difficult and you will not be able to stay on the bottom, as you will be positively buoyant. A good solution is to have a drop weight that has an elastic strap to hold it in place on your weight belt. With this, you can weight yourself to be neutral at a shallower depth, while in the shallows. If you land up in deeper water, you can take the weight off and clip it onto your buoy. The idea is to swim down with just enough force to get to the 10m mark, where gravity will then take over. Someone once told me to fin at 60% and for some reason it seems to work. Once you have completed your duck dive and your momentum has pushed you and your fins below the surface, you will start to fin. Remember to stay calm and relaxed. Get into a smooth, steady and comfortable rhythm. When you become negatively buoyant, you can tap off to a gentle kick just to keep your momentum up.

Eventually, you should not have to kick at all and you will glide down. This will give you an opportunity to relax and conserve energy. This brings us to the next point. Being streamlined and swimming vertically down is probably what guys battle with the most. You should always swim down as vertically as possible. If you don’t, you are swimming a lot further than you need to, as you are going down at an angle, taking up more time and energy. You will also not be streamlined and won’t be able to take full advantage of gravity pulling you down. There are a number of things that can cause this, but the primary one is bending your neck and looking at where you are going. This arches your back, causing you to swim at an angle as well as creating extra drag. You will need to streamline your body by keeping your back, neck and head straight and in line. The best way to understand this is to stand straight with your shoulders back and relaxed, looking forward to the horizon. It is also important at this stage to take note of the positioning of your arms. Your one hand will always need to be available to help equalie.

While standing, place your hand over your nose as if you were going to equalise, taking note of where your elbow

  1. Your elbow should be relaxed and tucked against your side. Many divers neglect this important detail and have their elbow out to the side, which will cause drag. A good way to remember to do this right is to always keep your elbow to your chest. That will force you to bring your nose to your hand to equalise. Your other hand will need to be holding your speargun.

This is the position you will need to be in when you are upside down and diving down. This can be very strange at first, but it will become more natural after a while. Don’t worry about swimming into the reef. You should see the reef approaching even though you are looking horizontally out, at which time you can glance down. This will automatically level you out for a gentle landing. Your hand and elbow positioning will help you keep your head straight. Be careful not to drop your chin onto your chest, as this will cause you to arch inwards and you will land up swimming at an angle again, except this time it will be upside down. If you get this right, you should descend vertically and more streamlined than before. You will notice that by making small adjustments to your body positioning, you will either speed up or slow down as you descend. 

Now, what do you do with your gun when diving down? Most guys point their gun in front of them as they dive. This is streamlined, but it is very difficult to make sure that the gun is pointing down vertically. The gun can easily track to one side, and you will land up going where your gun is pointing. It is better to pull the gun back, next to your body and use your body to control the dive. With short guns, it is easy to hold the gun upside down by the handle.

With longer guns, you might have to hold the gun by the barrel in front the handle. Make sure that the spear tip is pointing past your head at all times. This will make you very streamlined and you will be able to glide easily. Having your gun at your side also reduces your body profile, making you a little bit smaller. This gives you the ability to flare out in almost any direction, without having to pull your gun back in to change direction. Having your gun out in front of you will mean that you will need to retract it first before changing direction.

The last big tip is about your leg positioning. Many spearos think that pointing their toes with their legs straight out is best. This would be true if you did not have fins on. Your feet don’t point all the way back and this means that with your fins on, the fin blades will be out at an angle and cause drag. Added to that, is the strain of trying to keep your legs straight and your toes pointed. To overcome this problem, relax your knees and feet. Bend your knees slightly and you will notice your fan blades will straighten out. This will not only help you relax but you will be amazed how much faster you glide.

The best way to perfect these techniques is to put them into practice when you are diving. Make subtle changes to your body positioning in the last part of your dive and you will feel the acceleration when you are doing things right. Also, get a dive buddy to watch you and let you know where you are going wrong. Better yet, try to get someone to film you.

If you’ve tried out all these tips and still battle to dive down vertically, try diving down a flasher line or weighted rope. I often still use the flasher line as a reference to help me dive vertically down.

Enjoy the glide.


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