Forty Emiratis have so far taken the plunge and signed up to help create the UAE’s first freediving team.
Organisers are aiming for a pool of at least 100 candidates from which the best six will be selected and trained to a level allowing them to compete in events by AIDA International, the worldwide federation for breath-hold diving.
They will join Ahmed Khoori, the UAE National Champion and, currently, the UAE’s sole representative in AIDA events.
“In 2015 we want to send the first UAE national freediving team to the AIDA Team World Championships. To achieve this goal we need to train 6 Emiratis to reach 60 metres in 6 months,” said Alex Boulting, owner and co-founder of Freediving UAE, which is behind the initiative.
In contrast to scuba diving, where participants are provided oxygen by breathing apparatus all the time, freedivers rely on a single breath before submerging.
Being able to go deep requires excellent swimming skills, an ability to use oxygen as efficiently as possible and to sustain high levels of carbon dioxide in the body. Mental qualities such as the ability to relax are also very important.
Saeed Al Hammadi is among the 40 men who have already signed up.
“I am interested in swimming, fishing and going at sea,” said the 27-year-old who works for the shipping arm of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. “I love water and my family was born near the sea.
I want to see what is underwater. I feel I can do it because my health is very good, my fitness is very good and I exercise every day.”
Mr Al Hammadi, as with all the candidates, will be evaluated for basic fitness and swimming techniques, his ability to hold his breath and to equalise the pressure in his ears as he descends to depths.
The latter is important to prevent ear and sinus injuries while practicing the sport.
Each would-be diver will also be assessed in terms of their diving reflex — the response of their respiratory and cardiovascular system to immersion under water. Experienced divers are able to slow down their heart rate while holding their breath, which allows for the more efficient use of oxygen.
Those selected will be asked to commit to training three evenings a week, involving theory work, sessions in a swimming pool and eventually open water training to reach a depth of at least 32 metres.
“I am hoping to do all of that within three months,” said Mr Boulting.
The 30-metre mark is the first major benchmark for anyone serious about the sport. At that depth, the volume of a diver’s lungs is about a quarter of what it is at the surface, making it impossible to use air stored in the lungs to equalise ear pressure. Equalising at this depth requires freedivers to master a different technique by storing air in the cheeks and mouth at the surface.
“Some people learn it easily but many take a long time,” said Mr Boulting. “It takes a lot of practice.”
Mr Boulting is hoping that once the team reaches depths of 30 metres, they will be able to double the depth in another three month’s time. He is hoping to secure sponsors for the athletes at this point as the preparation will require the help of international competitors and training at locations such as Egypt, which offers more favourable sea conditions than the UAE, he said.
Sixty metres is “reasonable competition depth”, said Mr Boulting, adding it will also be a milestone for the UAE.
“No Emirati has ever been to 60 metres,” he said.
Mr Khoori holds the current UAE national record at 46 metres in a discipline called free immersion and 45 metres for diving with a constant weight. The world record in the constant weight discipline is 128 metres and belongs to Alexey Molchanov from Russia.
The UAE team is expected to continue the legacy of freediving pioneer Adel Abu Haliqa, who first represented the country internationally in the sport. Mr Abu Haliqa went missing during training in Greece in June 2011.