Dean Fredericks, who currently lives and works in Taipei, is a keen freediver. Many of his experiences he records on video and publishes to YouTube. Here he describes why freediving is such a challenging sport, and gives a personal view on the local Taiwan freediving scene.
By Stuart Hill
SH: How did you originally get into freediving?
DF: Back in 2010, I was driving along Taiwan’s north-east coast, near Keelung on a hot summers’ day. I spotted some locals swimming in the ocean down below. The place was called ‘WaiMuShan’ (外木山), right next to one of Taiwan’s nuclear power stations. I stopped my scooter, and headed down to investigate. On the side of the road, a vendor was selling cheap kiddies masks and snorkels – I bought a pair and jumped in the water. I was instantly surprised by all the colourful fish swimming around.
Throughout the summer holidays, I revisited WaiMuShan and started snorkelling further and further out until I could no longer see the bottom. I wanted to go down into the depths, but how? Shortly afterwards I learned of freediving through TV and the Internet. and I thought this would be a great way to take my snorkelling interest further.
The ocean was pretty much a new frontier for me, I knew nothing much about it – but I could see it was beautiful and mysterious.
Common perception says that to explore this underwater environment a human would need a lot of heavy equipment. Yet freedivers challenge this norm, diving with ease and efficiency with nothing but a mask and snorkel. This creates a sense of mystery around freedivers; how do they do what they do? It’s from here where my interest in freediving grew.
SH: Comparing freedivers to scuba divers, is there much difference between the kinds of people involved in each? Could you explain the differences?
DF: Freediving versus scuba is just like skateboarding versus BMX, skiing versus snowboarding, bodyboarding versus surfing. Scuba to me seems more of the old-school, and freedivers are the new kids on the block. Freedivers tend to be a lot more competitive in nature. It is in fact a highly competitive sport, with records and competitions, etc.
Even if we are just enjoying the ocean diving for fun – it’s still about pushing our personal limits to enjoy the ocean as much as possible. For those into viewing and examining the underwater world, scuba undoubtedly offers a longer, uninterrupted, bottom time, without the time pressure of having to return to the surface repeatedly for air, as freedivers do. On the flip side though, when a scuba diver’s tank is running low, they need to get out the water – freedivers however can stay in the water indefinitely.
SH: How does freediving in Taiwan compare to other places you’ve dived?
DF: Green Island and Orchid Island on the south-east coast of Taiwan offer the chance to do some world-class diving. Green Island is a personal favorite of mine, as it offers great visibility and many easy shore dives. The more remote Orchid Island offers exceptional visibility and a pristine ocean environment. However booking travel to Orchid Island can be quite difficult, as hotels, flights and boats are often booked out long in advance.
In terms of Taipei, along Taiwan’s north-east coast, the possibility to dive only exists for a few months during summer. And during this time, typhoons often arrive, wrecking any dive plans. The dive sites are also rather bland and the visibility poor. However it’s popular, as it’s the most convenient place to dive for those of us living in Taipei.
(One of Dean’s YouTube videos taken off Taiwan’s Green Island)
The south of Taiwan is far more consistent, with places like Kenting offering almost all-year diving The quality of the dive sites are reasonably good for the casual diver. Kenting was actually where I spotted my first sea turtle.
If I had to compare Taiwan’s underwater environment to other countries I’ve dived in – I think Taiwan has a serious overfishing problem, and it’s clearly had an impact on the life in the ocean. I never realised this until I dived in Japan, only a few hundred kilometers away – and I was amazed at the size and quantity of the marine life they had. The ocean in Taiwan felt comparatively empty to me. It’s not to say there is nothing to see in Taiwan…but there is definitely a difference.
SH: How would someone get started, if they were interested in freediving — are there freediving groups in Taiwan?
DF: To get started I would suggest joining the Facebook group called 自由潛水. This group contains pretty much all the freedivers in Taiwan. From within the group its possible to meet others and organize dives. The Taiwan Freediving Association offers freediving courses for those looking to get certified in the sport. Courses are not cheap, and start at around NT$12000 for the AIDA 2-star free diving certification.
SH: What tips can you provide to others who are just starting in the sport?
DF: I would advise anyone who’s tried freediving a few times and enjoyed it, to take the initiative to get certified. The certification sets a basic level of ability for diving, safety and rescue. Without being certified, you are a risk to yourself and the people you dive with.
(Some of Dean’s freediving tips published on YouTube)
SH: With an online community of freedivers in Taiwan, do you do a lot of diving together or is it less organized than that? What other activities do you participate in together?
DF: Freediving events in Taiwan are almost always informal. In winter, people meet at the Songshan swimming pool in Taipei. In summer people often meet along the north-east coast for some real diving. However, at the events, there is often no leader, or ‘dive master’. The ability and experience of the group members is mixed. Diving in a group can give a false sense of security – you think somebody’s watching you, but actually they’re chatting with their mates, while you are 30 meters below. So don’t count on people you don’t know for safety.
SH: Is freediving a competitive sport? What are some of the key challenges — for example, mental and physical — that you typically face and need to overcome?
DF: Freediving is indeed a competitive sport. Divers compete in various disciplines including depth, and distance (swimming pool lengths). Divers compete for both national and international records. In my view the sport has become more about setting new records than actually running competitions. Taiwan is struggling to get proper competitions and record attempts set up. There have been some attempts to set up competitions over the last couple years, but lack of interest and politics are holding it back.
SH: What is the most dangerous situation you have encountered when freediving?
DF: I was training in a deep quarry, trying to set a personal best depth of 40 meters. All my warm up dives where fine, I did a 36 meter dive with no problem. But on my last attempt to 40m, I reached the bottom of the quarry unexpectedly (I didn’t know the quarry was only 40m deep). I also noticed some junk and ropes on the quarry floor, got a bit panicked, and on the way up at around 20 meters I could feel I wasn’t going to make it back to the surface. Just as I was about to surface, I blacked out. My dive buddy held onto me, and kept my head above water. After a few seconds I came to, coughing blood (pressure related lung injury), and was disoriented. That was the end of diving for the day. Not a great experience.
(Dean describes his blackout experience on YouTube)
SH: What would you like to see happen in the freediving community in Taiwan to develop the sport? Is there a role for industry or government to get involved?
DF: Some people are looking to the sport to see how they can make money from it, through teaching courses, and selling gear, etc, but forgetting about developing the actual diving scene. It’s kinda like “I did the course, I bought the gear, now what?” There needs to be a more holistic approach before the sport can really boom.
SH: You do a lot of recording of your underwater experiences, and also create informative videos to share information about diving techniques — which you share by posting to YouTube. Why do you do that? What has been the response to your videos online?
DF: It’s very hard to show your friends what freedivers do, since all the action takes place underwater, in a place where most people can’t see. My YouTube channel started as a way for me to show my friends and family, firstly what freediving is, and secondly, to introduce them to the underwater world.
(Video of how to warm up before holding your breath, by Dean Fredericks)
My videos on YouTube slowly gained a growing audience, with many people from around the world watching, commenting, and requesting new videos. In April 2012, I made my first Green Island video, and it became an instant hit in Taiwan. It gained many views and shares within the Taiwan diving community, both scuba and freedivers alike. It really boosted my YouTube channel (viewership). After the Green Island video, my views where up from maybe 10 a day, to over a few hundred a day.
Since I’m working full-time, I can’t get to the ocean as often as I’d like. To fill the gaps between dive videos, I started making tutorial videos for people to watch. The videos aren’t aimed at teaching freediving, but rather just to get viewers interested with some safety tips and techniques which they can experiment with at home, like for example, holding their breath. These videos have become somewhat popular – and they are often a point of first contact for people wanting to get involved in freediving.
After watching and experimenting with the techniques – viewers hopefully get interested to go out and do a proper freediving course and get into diving.
SH: When and where is your next free dive? What are you expecting from it?
DF: November 28th I’ll be heading to The Philippines. Its going to be a relatively deep wreck dive. So hopefully the next video will be an exciting one. Fingers crossed that the weather and sea conditions will be good.
For more information:
- Dean Fredericks’ Freediver HD channel on YouTube
- Taiwan Freediving Association
- About the sport of freediving on Wikipedia