The ocean is a majestic and wondrous place that most people, sadly, never really experience properly. We’d strongly recommend swimming in the ocean and experiencing the beauty of its depths at least once in your lifetime, and whilst snorkeling is a fantastic gateway into exploring the depths, in order to get the most out of a trip into the ocean, you really need to go a little deeper.
The question then becomes, however – how do you go deeper? Do you strap an oxygen tank on and take your time exploring the seabed as a scuba diver? Or do you eschew almost all equipment and commit to a calmer, more serene (albeit briefer) experience as a freediver? Scuba diving or freediving – which is better for you?
Both approaches have their merits and drawbacks, so it’s important to carefully weigh up both options before making a decision on which is the best for you. With that in mind… let’s explore whether scuba diving or freediving sound more fun to you.
What Are the Differences Between Scuba Diving and Freediving?
Although both scuba diving and freediving involve exploring the ocean, the two take very different approaches to how they go about this. Let’s take a look.
How You Breathe
The biggest and most obvious difference between scuba diving and freediving is that the former requires you to breathe through a regulator, drawing from a tank on your back, and the latter is simply about holding your breath!
If simply holding your breath and diving dozens of meters under the surface of the sea sounds daunting, don’t worry! Straight out of the gate we, as mammals, have an innate reflex that specifically helps us to regulate our breathing and heartbeat underwater, known as the ‘mammalian diving reflex’. This reflex is what allows whales and dolphins to stay underwater for prolonged periods of time, and whilst it’s much less pronounced in human beings, it’s nevertheless massively useful in slowing down our heartrate and making sure that the limited oxygen we do have whilst underwater is preferentially sent to the heart and brain.
On top of that, it’s possible to increase the amount of time you’re able to hold your breath through practice and training. Using two ‘tables’ – one for carbon dioxide and one for oxygen – freedivers are able to increase their resistance to CO2 buildup in their system, and also increase how long they can hold their breath for. By working on both of these things, freedivers are eventually able to hold their breath for longer than five minutes – and some up to ten minutes. In fact, the longest a human being has ever held a single breath in is almost 25 minutes! (It’s worth nothing, though, that this was ‘static’ (no movement at all) and that pure oxygen had been breathed in prior to the attempt.)
Scuba diving is much simpler than this – you just strap on a tank and go, right? Not quite. Though requiring nowhere near as much breathing practice as freediving, scuba divers must still be careful to regulate their breathing with slow, deep breaths. This makes their air supply last much longer, ensuring that they don’t have to end their dive early because they depleted their tank too quickly.
What You See – and How You See it
Another glaring difference between freedivers and scuba divers is the equipment they have – which, in the case of the former, is simply a mask and fins. Scuba divers need a lot of bulky equipment, and that regulator and all the bubbles it produces make quite a lot of noise. What does this mean? It means that a lot of skittish sea life is going to skedaddle when it hears a scuba diver coming – all that noise is terrifying to a lot of smaller critters!
Freedivers don’t need to worry about this – they are the ninjas of the diving community, able to slip in and out without so much as a whisper. As they’re not breathing at all, they’re not producing bubbles and are therefore unlikely to disturb ocean fauna. Their lack of bulky equipment also makes it easier for them to weave in and out of shipwrecks and caves without getting caught or not being able to fit.
But that’s not to say that Scuba diving doesn’t have its advantages. It goes without saying that Scuba divers can stay down for much longer than freedivers; this means that they can explore more freely, as they do not need to be so careful with their oxygen levels and they also don’t need to worry about ensuring a clear route back to the surface as much.
Furthermore, a scuba diver’s eyes will respond to the lower light level due to the length of time they spend at the bottom of the ocean, making them more able to make out details in the murky depths as their pupils dilate. Freedivers are not down long enough for this to happen, and so they won’t be able to see what’s going on quite as well.
Both freediving and scuba diving are very sociable activities, and the communities for both are very tight-knit, both on- and offline. However, freediving allows for almost-immediate feedback in a way that’s simply not possible with scuba diving. Consider that your average freedive will last a matter of minutes – five minutes at most – and it’s easy to see that you’ll spend a fair amount of time on the surface, chatting with your dive buddy about what you just saw. Scuba divers cannot engage in such dynamic feedback – or at least, not until they’ve completed their dive, which may take 45 minutes to an hour.
In addition, although scuba divers often have dive buddies for safety reasons, freedivers absolutely must have a dive buddy. This is someone who, depending on the type of dive, may descend with you or may simply stay on the surface and observe before descending to meet you at a predetermined depth.
A dive buddy is extremely important in freediving, as it can be a dangerous activity. Any number of mishaps can occur, from leg/arm cramps to more serious incidents such as blackouts or barotraumas (injuries caused by a change in air pressure).
Though such incidents are unlikely, assuming proper training, your close relationship with your dive buddy will mean that you will make some lifelong friends when freediving – and you’ll always have plenty to talk about with each other!
The Skills You Need
Both scuba diving and freediving require training in a number of skills, and indeed a lot of these skills are mutually transferrable – for instance, regulating your breathing and exercising due diligence underwater are skills needed in both activities.
However, while you can argue that scuba diving skills are largely static and self-contained (much like your apparatus!), freediving skills can have a broader application. As champion freediver Umberto Pelizzari once put it: “the scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.”
Freediving is about challenging one’s limits, and this means much more than simply diving as deep as you can handle. The breathing techniques you’ll learn will make you not just a better freediver but a better scuba diver and more relaxed, less stressed person in general. They are useful in meditative techniques (and these techniques, in turn, are useful in freediving) and will help you become healthier, as the more in shape you are, the deeper and longer you’ll be able to dive.
Your Level of Physical Fitness
There’s no way around this – freedivers require, generally, a much higher level of physical fitness than scuba divers if they are to enjoy the sport to its maximum potential. Your level of fitness affects everything in freediving, from how long you can hold your breath (one of the most important – if not the most important – aspect of freediving) to how long you can dive before you get tired.
Conversely, you can go scuba diving even if you’re a little overweight or you’re a 20-a-day smoker, and you’ll likely be fine (although staying healthy should of course be a priority if you want to go scuba diving). Scuba diving is more about keeping an eye on your gauges and monitoring your equipment, and you can control your depth using your BCD (buoyancy control device) and the weight belt you’ll be wearing. In theory, you don’t even need to be able to swim in order to scuba dive (although this is not advisable).
This is not to say that you cannot freedive if you’re not a 20-year-old Olympian – it just means that the depth to which you’ll dive (and how long you’ll be able to hold your breath) will be necessarily limited.
The Level of Certification Needed for Scuba Diving vs Freediving
Whilst it’s important to be properly trained for both scuba diving and freediving, the fact of the matter is that scuba diving is necessarily more intensive at a beginner, and you can expect to be doing a 4-5 day course in order to become qualified as an open-water diver. There is a lot of equipment needed when scuba diving, and you’ll be expected to demonstrate sufficient understanding of it before you’ll become certified. After all, a huge risk of scuba diving (and less so in freediving) is decompression sickness, due to the fact that you’ll be breathing compressed air at increasingly lower depths. Scuba divers need to know how to avoid this becoming a risk.
Freedivers require much less training to get started at a beginner level – about 15 hours spaced, typically, over 3 days. Freediving is something that’s been done for thousands of years, after all, and requires nothing more than a pair of lungs and the desire to swim downwards! That said, it is important to freedive safely, and so it is strongly recommended that you do a course in preparation for it.
The Equipment (and Associated Cost) of Freediving vs Scuba Diving
Whilst certification for scuba diving or freediving costs roughly the same – about $300-400 for your course – the same cannot be said for the equipment.
Scuba diving requires a whole host of equipment in order to do properly – a tank, regulator, backup regulator, fins, mask, wetsuit, weight belt and dive computer are all musts, and can run easily into thousands of dollars. This equipment can be rented, of course, but this still isn’t cheap when compared to freediving.
Freediving requires relatively little in comparison – a mask, fins, wetsuit, and weight belt (in order to offset the positive buoyancy caused by the fins and wetsuit) are enough to get started. This equipment can be purchased for under $500, and will also require far less in maintenance costs than the more complicated equipment used in scuba diving. A good freediving watch, while not obligatory, is also a handy thing to have, but can cost quite a lot ($500-1000). Unless you’re planning on renting one, a freediving buoy and line is essential too, both for resting between dives and providing visibility to boats on the surface.
Which Is Better For You: Freediving or Scuba Diving?
This is not an easy question to answer – and, if we’re being honest, it’s a question that’s best answered yourself! If you’re interested in a longer-lasting, more technically intensive underwater experience that allows you to explore the seabed in great depth and doesn’t require too much in the way of physical exertion, then scuba diving may be for you. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in something that gets you ‘closer to nature’, so to speak, and that tests you on not just a physical but a mental level, then you’d be well advised to consider the serene and physically challenging world of freediving.
It’s also worth considering how much time and money you have on your hands – are you looking for something you can get into without spending a fortune on gear and necessitating a length training course? Freediving may be for you, in that instance. If you’re willing, on the other hand, to put a good chunk of time and cash into your hobbies, then scuba diving is a rewarding hobby that will give you experiences like nothing else!
No matter which you opt for, you’re in for a great time exploring the world beneath the waves. Whether scuba diving or freediving, you’re in for a whole new world under the sea!