BEIRUT: Samir Akil took one deep breath and dove 20 meters underwater, knowing fully well that half of that depth alone could spell the end for a novice diver.
Lebanon is home to a flourishing, but small, community of apnea – or free – divers, some of whom rely on sponge fishing, an age-old form of hunting native to the region, to hone their underwater skills. Unlike scuba diving, where the diver is supported with a oxygen tank, free diving is an ancient activity.
The oldest archeological evidence of free-dive fishing in the region dates back to 4,500 and 3,200 B.C. Along the Mediterranean coast free diving was a regular practice. Today, the tradition is carried on by some fishermen and aspiring athletes.
Akil has been training since 2010 and practices yoga and meditates as part of his regiment. He maintains the two are essential because free diving is “95 percent a mental sport.”
“Before I take the dive I have to relax, I have to tell myself this will be my last breath,” he said.
Apnea is a state in which one stops breathing. When a free diver is submerged, physiologically, his or her respiratory system is still hard at work, causing an intense urge to breathe. As a result of physical activity and raised underwater pressure, pulmonary respiration accelerates, shortening the apnea. The length of apnea depends on an individual’s lung capacity, however. Expanding breathing potential is the aim of the free diver’s training.
A lover of extreme sports, Akil says he is addicted to the adrenaline of free diving and in the last three years he’s managed to hold his breath for two extra minutes longer under water. “Static, I can do 6 minutes, 35 seconds, when I started I was at 4 minutes,” he says.
Static refers to the amount of time a diver can remain submerged underwater, whereas dynamic time refers to the amount of time an individual can hold their breath while diving. Akil’s dynamic personal record is about two minutes.
“A lot of factors get in the way when its dynamic, when you are actually diving,” he explained the difference, “You start to think too much sometimes.”
To practice, Akil says he and his team have taken up traditional apnea fishing as a hobby.
“It’s very good for training,” he said, “because you dive down and focus on the fish, and mentally this takes your attention away from the breath.”
He hopes that next year there will be a national Lebanese free-diving team, a hope that Annette al-Khoury, the co-director of this year’s Lebanon Water Festival, is working to realize.
Gathered in three vessels off the shore of Enfeh, Lebanese divers held their first national competition. Divers, decked out in full-body gear and fins, float peacefully on the water’s surface before taking a rapid plunge, some as much as 40 meters deep.
The location selected was called the Blue Hole, a crevice about 96 meters deep off the coast but relatively close to the shore. The aim was twofold as Khoury sees it; the divers get a chance to compete with one another and a chance to test international competition standards.
“This is the first time in their life that they’ve had to literally sit under international rules,” she said.
Describing free diving as one of the most developed sports in Lebanon, she says, “What we are trying to do is get them into a situation where we can help them learn about safety measures so we can get them into the international level and promote them outside the country.”
Khoury believes free diving is endemic to Lebanon because as a practice, it dates back for centuries.
“Lebanese have always done apnea, they say in the Phoenician days we used to do apnea and go looking for sea sponges.”
“These guys,” she points to the group of divers, resting from the morning’s competition, “all go out looking for sea bass, if they were scuba divers they couldn’t do it, because the bottle doesn’t allow you to go up and down as much, but with free diving there’s more flexibility.”
“And that’s a bit of a hobby they’ve developed,” Khoury says. “They don’t go out looking for sponges anymore, but they do go out looking for fish – that’s how they practice for the big leagues.”