In Hawaii and many other ocean-centered cultures, freediving is a way of life. Learning to become one with the water and rely on it for sustenance — both physical and spiritual — is very much a rite of passage. But it’s also dangerous to the inexperienced or overzealous and many young lives have been lost as a result.
Freedive Safe Hawaii (FSH), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of freediving and spearfishing-related deaths in the Aloha State, is working to turn that tide and is changing lives in the process.
What is Freediving?
Freediving is a niche sport better suited for Zen Buddhists than adrenaline junkies. From recreational beginner to world-class competitor, the core of freediving is the ability to passively exist in a realm that is completely hostile to our air-breathing physiology: underwater in the ocean or a lake.
Generally, recreational freediving focuses on spearfishing or exploring without the benefit of an oxygen tank. The ability to hold one’s breath for extended periods of time is obviously a beneficial skill.
Divers practice deep breathing techniques to increase tidal volume in their lungs, as well as mental techniques to slow their heart rate. In the water, they also focus on performing as little physical exertion as possible to conserve the oxygen in their system.
It’s a lack of experience and/or proper instruction on these vital techniques that gets divers — especially beginners — into potentially deadly situations.
For reference, the record for staying underwater without oxygen is 11 minutes, 54 seconds, while the deepest anyone has gone without oxygen is a No Limits (NLT) record of 702 feet.
Those who are spearfishing, by comparison, are making multiple dives generally in less than 100 feet of water for a few minutes at a time.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.
How FSH Got Started
Although she’s been diving most of her life, the Kiwi, who now calls Kona, Hawaii, home, has been teaching diving and spearfishing safety since 2004.
Justin Lee, recently crowned national spearfishing champion and FSH instructor, told Free Range American that Stepanek’s motivation to start FSH was, quite simply, the tragic and completely avoidable deaths of young divers.
“The need came at the beginning of the pandemic,” Lee said. “The popularity of spearfishing here in Hawaii jumped tremendously during COVID. She just took a notice that there was a handful of young people dying and going missing. They were diving or spearfishing, and, weren’t coming home. Nikki kind of took it upon herself to start this nonprofit.”
Statistics show that in the competitive freediving world, one in every 50,000 dives results in a fatality. The risk climbs significantly on the recreational side to one death in every 500 dives.
One of her first objectives was to remove the largest barrier to entry: the cost of the classes.
“The class itself — the materials, instructors — usually cost $300,” Lee said. “So she started to raise money and find volunteers to help her. We all know someone who makes their living [from the ocean] or has kids that want to dive, or nieces or nephews. With the ocean giving us so much, you just gotta take it upon yourself to give back.”
The Change They Want to See
The FSH team of certified freediving instructors conducts a 4-hour course — two hours in the classroom and two hours in the pool — that introduces students to proper freediving supervision and basic safety and rescue procedures used in recreational freediving and spearfishing.
Lee said that the age group is 12 to 25, but 80% of the students are middle-school age or just starting high school — an age when kids’ aspirations tend to be greater than their common sense.
“Just diving with a buddy is the best thing you can do, but there are so many kids that just jump in the water by themselves,” Lee said. “They go out and try to fish and push it a little too hard and then don’t come home.”
This age group also tends to be the most impressionable — and plugged into social media.
“These kids get to listen to somebody that they watch their videos online and that they see on Instagram with fish,” Lee said. “It’s so cool to go to these classes and these kids are just sitting on the edge of the seat listening to what you’re saying.”
“I tell them, I’ve gotten to see parts of this world that this little Honaka’a boy probably shouldn’t have ever gotten to see,” he said. “But because spearfishing was such a big part of who I am and what I like to do, and advancing the way that I did by doing it safely — that it was my ticket around the world.”
According to Lee, the classes are already changing lives. One student even returned to let them know his FSH training saved his friend’s life while they were out spearfishing.
“He told us, ‘Because of the stuff that I learned in the class, three days after we took the class, my buddy and I [were fishing] — I saw him blowing bubbles and I knew already what was going on,’” Lee recounted. “‘I went down there and brought him to the surface and held his face out of the water. I allowed him to take his breath safely and kept his airway clear and dry, and I saved his life.’”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of an instant, positive change anywhere.
“At the end of the day, that’s all we can hope for,” Lee said. “They’re learning what to look for and learning how to be a better spear fisherman and a better partner by becoming a safer diver.”
“Yeah, the fishing is great,” he added. “The hunting is awesome and being able to hold your breath for a long time is cool. But the coolest part is being able to come home and share the catch or the stories with your family and friends.”