Interview: Ted Harty of Immersion Freediving

I met Ted Harty a few years back at the DEMA convention in Orlando. DEMA is a huge diving industry trade show and they had a demo pool setup inside with various events going on like equipment demos and classes. At the encouragement of other SCUBA Instructor friends, I somehow got sucked into a breath holding demo with Performance Freediving International (PFI). PFI, founded by freediving legend Kirk Krack, is the longest running Freedive Certification agency in North America and second longest world-wide.

Immersion FreedivingSince its formation in 2000, PFI instructors have taught more than 10,000 people to freedive safer, longer, and deeper. I found myself in a wetsuit in a pool with a couple other folks on camera in front of a few thousand other diving professionals. We get a few minutes of coaching on how to properly breathe and hold our breath. Then, we sink face down in the pool while they start a stopwatch. I’m underwater, holding my breath, and all kinds of crazy thoughts start going through my head. What if I embarrass myself in front of my peers? What if I drown? This is NOT natural and everyone is watching. However, my coach gets me to relax and I slowly feel more at home in the water. About three minutes later we pop up and I find out that I had completed the longest breath hold of my life. My coach says, if you can do three minutes with just a few minutes of training, imagine what you could do if you had four full days of training! My coach that day was Ted Harty and I will never forget that eye-opening experience.For those of you familiar with the world of freediving, Ted Harty needs no introduction. For those of you new to this extreme sport, Ted is the founder and owner of Immersion Freediving. He’s a full-time independent PFI Freediving Instructor in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Here are just a handful of his notable accomplishments in freediving:

April 2009: Took the very first spearfishing class taught by Sheri Daye and Daryl Wong.
May 2009: 1st place Men’s overall freediving PFI competition Breathless.
May 2010: 65M (213ft) Constant Weight Dive
May 2011: 1st place Men’s overall freediving PFI competition Deja Blue 2.
October 2011: Broke longest standing United States freediving record at the Freediving World Championship in Italy, with Dynamic Apnea swim of 170M (558ft).
October 2011: Made it to the finals and represented the United States in the Freediving World Championships in Italy.
November 2011: Trained with William Trubridge and Sarah Campbell.
December 2011-May 2012: Coached and provided training for Nicholas Mevoli on his amazing journey from a 30M diver to breaking the Men’s US Constant weight record, with an amazing 91M (299ft) dive, during Deja Blue 3.
May 2012: New personal best dive of 85M (279ft) during Deja Blue 3.
June 2012: Selected as the Team Captain for the 2012 US Freediving Team
February 2013: Attained PFI Advanced Instructor and PFI Instructor Trainer, first and only PFI independent instructor to receive this rating.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Ted over some good BBQ at his home and discuss his career and dive into the world of freediving for an evening. Here is what he had to say:

Immersion FreedivingHow did you first get into becoming a free diver and a freediving instructor?
So, I got into freediving – it’s an odd path how I got here, a lot of people got here this way – basically I first got into the water as a SCUBA instructor. I started teaching SCUBA in 2005. Living in Marathon, working at a dive shop and I was, as they say, living the dream. Working on a dive boat every day … teaching SCUBA.

Paychecks in paradise!
Paychecks in paradise. That’s what they told me. And I loved it. I was happy doing what I was doing. My introduction to freediving was, I remember these two guys walked on the boat and they had camo wetsuits on, they had fins 3 times the size of mine, they had little teeny tiny masks on. And then the tanks, I said “who are these bozos on my boat? What are you doing? I don’t get it.” Then they’re like “we’re free divers.” They definitely looked different from snorkelers because they had this crazy gear on. But I said “whatever” and we took them to the dive site, I throw them in the water and I’m watching them, watching them go in the water and I’m looking at my watch and saying “what the hell. How are they doing that ,and then I’m like “they’re punking me, they have a spare air.” I had never encountered that. I was like “wow, these free divers have been down there for a long time.” So the next dive trip I went out and said “I’m going to go freediving”. I went down with my mask and snorkel at Sombrero Reef at like 20-25 feet. I stayed down there for like ten seconds and I was like wow, freediving is awesome. I stayed down there for like 10 more seconds and I felt a massive urge to breathe. I feel like I’m going to drown. I fly up to the surface. Then I decided that freediving is totally stupid. Just wear a tank and stay down for an hour. So I just dismissed freediving in that one dive. That was that. Freediving is stupid. So I continued on my SCUBA thing. Just working on a busy dive boat you can’t get away from freediving. Someone drops their weight belt at 20 feet and you say I don’t want to put my tank on so you just go down and get the weight belt. They someone drops it at 30 feet and you go down and get it and then a month later it’s 40 feet and they drop the weight belt, six months later it’s 50 feet. Then I come up to the surface with the weight belt and the customer on the boat says, “Oh my gosh, how did you go all the way down there without a SCUBA tank? And I’m like “Yeah, I’m a free diver.” That was in essence how I became a free diver, just on the boat. Then I took a freediving course in 2008 and that ruined everything. All I wanted to do on my day off was go freediving. I didn’t want to SCUBA dive. I wanted to dive and go spearfishing and free dive – I wanted to go train. I became obsessed with it. Then in 2009 Performance Freediving offered their first instructor program. So for me that was a no brainer. I was already teaching SCUBA. It wasn’t like I went from being a Wall Street broker … I was already basically doing the same thing. So I went and did the instructor program. Kirk and Mandy liked me and hired me on the spot. I worked for them for a year and a half and got a lot of experience teaching freediving and got interested in competing. I figured I don’t want to just be Joe Blow free diver instructor I want to know what I’m doing and be good at it. I went to my first freediving competition, probably in 2009 at the time and I weighed 220-230 (an over weight out of shape SCUBA instructor) and I went from 80-90 feet to 177 feet in three weeks. It’s not because I trained super hard, because I didn’t or because I was in great shape, because I wasn’t. I always tell my students this story, because it proves my assertion that freediving is a sport where your performance is determined by your technique. I’ve got one student who weighs 270 pounds and can do a 100 foot free dive.

So in competition, you have broken National records – tell us about that.
After that first competition and I went from 80 feet to 177 feet in 3 weeks, I thought, wow what can I do if I actually trained. I started looking up all the US records and thought wow I could actually break that record, so I actually started training. There is a very specific way to do freediving training. It is very targeted. So I did some training. I was ready for the 2011 World Championships. Basically the way the World Championships work is that you train for 3 months and you fly all the way over there and you have one chance and if you mess it up in any way, you go home with nothing. You can’t redo it and you can’t try again. I had done all the training and I was confident that I could do it and I ended up breaking the US record for dynamic apnea, which is how far you can swim with one breath. I could hold my breath for 170 meters. I actually made it to the finals of the Worlds and actually did 177 meters but it did not count as a second record because I had a penalty – they have all kinds of these penalties and I made a mistake because I was new. One of my favorite parts was I changed roles from being instructor to a student. Everyone there was a world record holder or a much better diver than me. I was a new guy coming up on the scene and I learned a ton from going to the World Championships and hanging out with the world’s best freedivers.

When did you start teaching freediving full-time?
I started teaching full-time in 2009 and did that for a year and a half at Performance Freediving and then I started Immersion Freediving in 2010.

Since that time how many students would you say you have had come through your program?
Through Immersion I would say between 300 and 400.

A lot of our people don’t know what freediving is – why would someone want to take a freediving course? What’s the value in taking a freediving course? What do you learn?
There’s lot of people who see stuff about freediving in the media. A lot of people who get into it are into it certainly for the spearfishing background and now because everyone has GoPro on their gun and they see spearfishing videos and they see that’s cool want to try it. They go buy a gun and they want to be able to get in the water the hold their breath and it doesn’t work very well. So what a freediving course will do is very similar to SCUBA. If you want to get into SCUBA spear fishing, before you get all excited about spear guns you should get really good at SCUBA diving. Before you put weapons into the equation, you need to be able to SCUBA very well. It’s the same thing with freediving. If you are into freediving and want to learn to spearfish, you need to be able to dive down to a deeper depth that you can currently and you need to be able to stay down there longer so you will be more effective with the bottom time and you will be more effective as a hunter. This is all the things that will happen if you take a freediving course.

Immersion FreedivingWhat is the typical profile of who would come to take your courses. Are they already free divers? Are they already SCUBA divers or what is the typical profile they come from different walks of life?
I have two types of students. I have two main courses I teach. My entry-level course which means I basically have students with little or no freediving experience. The only requirement I have to take that course is that you are a water person. You have to be comfortable in the water. You have to want to be in the water. People who cannot swim or are terrified of the ocean, for them the course doesn’t make sense. Most of my entry-level course are water people and they have limited freediving experience, some more than others. For instance, last weekend I taught a course and I had a couple of guys who were SCUBA divers and they could free dive to 15-20 feet. After my 3-day program, all of them could hold their breath for 3 minutes and all of them did 66 foot free dives. And the average student who goes through my entry-level program, at the end does a 2 ½ – 3 1/2 minute breath hold in the pool and the average student does a 60 foot dive. I have had people come into this program who have never worn a mask and never put a fin on and still been able to do it.

If we are talking about your typical student, most of them come in just for the freediving aspect or what’s the breakdown between people who are spearfishing focused and people who just want to see blue water, just free dive?
It used to be 3-4 years ago, 90% of my students were spear fishermen. Now I would say it’s lowering, it’s 75%. In my 4-day intermediate program most of them are spear fishermen. But in my entry-level program, most of them are SCUBA divers and they like the idea of not having the tank, of having freedom of movement and then you get a lot of people who are just looking for a more environmentally conscious way to get in the water. More in tune with the environment, you don’t have deal with that clunky gear. When I started freediving in the Keys, I noticed immediately that the marine life acted differently. When I started freediving I noticed the fish acted differently to me. When I dive on Sombrero Reef, I literally dove there 500 times and I knew which fish were where, I even had names for them because I knew where everything was going to be. When I started freediving, I noticed the fish reacted differently to me because I was just a big fish. I didn’t have all that noisy gear. I could get closer to fish. A lot of people do it because of the interaction with the marine life. There are certain places where you can go in the world and you can’t SCUBA dive and you have to free dive and a lot of people like it because it’s a more natural way to be in the water.

Immersion Freediving Why take a formal freediving class?
There’s two reasons. First of all, if you want an immediate increase in your freediving skills, take a class. It’s kind of like golf. You probably don’t know anyone who plays golf and who is actually good at it that didn’t take lessons. You have to take golf lessons to be good at it and it’s going to take you a long time to string it together to have a good swing. The same thing is freediving. Most of the people who freedive have no formal education. Students who have been freediving for 20 years and after taking my class, and within 3-4 days they double their performance, they can hold their breath longer and dive deeper. The stuff I teach in my program is not stuff you can figure out on your own. And, like in all other sports, just like mountain climbing, just like SCUBA diving, just like sky diving there are safety issues with the sport.

The problem is, compared to SCUBA, you cannot go SCUBA diving unless you have taken some classes. You are not allowed to get on the boat. They want to see your card. You can’t get you tanks filled. Yet anyone can walk into a dive shop and buy a big spear gun, a camo wetsuit, and the little teen tiny mask and they go out the door and it’s up to them to learn the safety part. As a result, the spearfishing public is not educated about safety procedures. They do not know what they need to know in regards to safety. One of the reasons people like to take the course is because they learn the safety aspect. They always ask, “Is freediving dangerous?” My response is absolutely! It is the way most people do it because you have not had any formal education in freediving safe practices. Imagine what would happen to people if you could just buy scuba gear at the dive shop and go scuba diving without taking a course. They would be dead scuba divers popping up all over the place. Scuba courses teaches you the risks with the sports and how to easily deal with them. Freediving courses teaches you the risks with the sport and how to easily deal with them, they also turn you in a much better freediver in the process.

Immersion FreedivingSo when it comes increasing performance, what do most people get out of it?
Most students come to the course for three reasons. They want to be able to dive deeper, they want more bottom time, and they want to stay down longer and do so in a safe manner.

How is it that your students are able to hold their breath longer and dive deeper?
So this guy has been spear fishing for 15 years and can only go to 40 feet and now he can go to 100? One of the things that students learn in the program is that we spend a lot of time discussing the mammalian dive reflex. It’s a very fascinating physiological thing that all human beings have. We share many characteristics with dolphins, seals and whales. They are mammals and they are full-time residents of the water. We are mammals and we have part-time residence in the water. We have documented through many studies that we share this i mammalian dive reflex, just like dolphins and whales. For instance, take any human being on this planet, they have never seen the water, put a snorkel in their mouth and stick their face in a bowl of water and their heart rate plummets. Why, because of the mammalian dive reflex. Seals, when they stick their face in the water and their heart rate plummets because they are getting ready to dive.

We, as human beings, we stick out face in the water and our heart rate plummets because we have that same reflex. I know how to trigger that mammalian dive reflex. In fact, it’s a series of many well-known and well documented psychological responses. I know how to make your spleen contract. The spleen is a reservoir for red blood cells, that puts more red blood cells in the system, which allows you to hold your breath longer, if you have more hemoglobin, it transfer more oxygen. There is this idea of blood shunting, where the blood vessels in your fingers and toes constrict and that puts more blood in the core. By the way that’s why you have the urge to pee when you go SCUBA diving and freediving, this idea of blood shunting. There are a lot of psychological responses that I know how to trigger that allow you to hold your breath, so you can dive so much deeper than you can do on your own. I always tell students that I know how to push all the buttons, turn all the knobs and adjust the dials so that allow you to do what your body, in fact, knows how to do. I just know how to let that happen.

What you do to discourage someone from freediving, what are the common misconceptions? Why would you not go free diving?
There is a misconception that you have to be this amazing athlete to free dive. In fact, in my classes, most of my students have a lower resting heart rate, lower body fat, pretty much in any way would be categorized as in better shape than I am, yet I can dive better than them. You don’t have to be an amazing athlete., but you have to have a reasonable amount of fitness.

Immersion FreedivingWhat are the common misconceptions about free diving?
Whether it’s the spear fishing side or the recreational side or underwater photography, freediving is exploding right now. People see a video on YouTube and think “Wow, that looks cool but I’m too old. I’m too out of shape and I can never do that.” And absolutely at this moment in time, you can’t. However, when you go to a freediving course you are going to learn all those things. If Joe Blow off the street holds his breath for a minute, in the end he will be out of breath and he will try to convince me that he almost died. Because his body is not used to not breathing and in the end he will feel like he almost died. And in fact, with a minimal amount of training, anyone can hold their breath for 2-3 minutes. So Wes here, who I would categorize as a water person, SCUBA instructor, with no freediving experience. He showed up to a trade show and I did a breath hold demonstration. I had 8 people, all with no freediving experience. I asked then all to hold their breath as long as they could. The longest one was 49 seconds. At the end that person was gasping for air and saying they did not want to hold their breath anymore. I spent 15 minutes with this group of people and after 15 minutes, 6 of the 8 people did 3 minute breath hold. Which proves my assertion that this is a sport that is based on technique. All of these techniques are unintuitive. That is why I have people who have been freediving for 20-30 years take course and have massive increases in performance. I take what I’ve learned from the competitive side of freediving and apply the techniques to recreational freediving.

What kind of gear do you need? People are all gear heads, what is the minimum gear you would need to take to class?
The gear that you need to take a class, in essence, is pretty minimal. You will need to have a mask, a set of fins, a wet suit, weights, a weight belt and a snorkel. If you show up at my class, I don’t care if that’s all the stuff that you have for SCUBA diving. During the class you are going to learn that every piece you have for SCUBA diving, there is a freediving version. There is a freediving mask versus a SCUBA mask. In the course of the class you are going to learn what the difference is, and why you should care. There is a freediving wet suit versus a SCUBA wet suit and there is a difference and why you should care. There are freediving fins which are much longer, there are snorkeling fins and SCUBA fins. There are fiberglass fins for freediving which are better than the plastic ones and then there are carbon fiber fins which are the best you can buy, but you don’t need any of that stuff to take a class. You just need a basic set of gear and you will learn in the program in a lot more detail, the ins and outs of the type of gear, that way, when you go to buy gear, you are going to be a much more educated customer. Unfortunately when you go into a typical SCUBA shop or dive shop to buy freediving gear, you are going to be talking to a SCUBA diver or SCUBA instructor who has very little to no experience with freediving and they are going to recommend that you buy whatever they sell.

What is the coolest place that you have had a chance to freediving? You mentioned going to the World Championships, where was that?
The coolest place that I have ever free dove is definitely in Grand Cayman. Every year I go to freediving competition in Grand Cayman and it’s the International Competition. It’s a lot of fun. When I go there I am definitely focused.

AUTHOR

Wes Gruver

Wes will head up our Training section of MOTUS. A member of the US Naval Academy Class of 1989, he has worked at NMITC, the Naval Special Warfare Group 1, and served aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. Wes is an accomplished diver as well as a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, NAUI Scuba Instructor, and SDI Open Water and Solo Diving Instructor. When not underwater, you can find Wes teaching at the range. He is a NRA Certified Firearms Instructor, NROI Certified Range Officer, and is both and member and competitor in the USPSA, IDPA, and NSCA. His specific expertise in weapons systems include the M16/M4 and its variants, the M9, MK25, M1911A1 as well various and non-issue weapon systems such as the Glock family of handguns. He is known for his ability to communicate complex processes in simple ways to a wide audience.

All stories by: Wes Gruver

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