The Evolution of Freediving

The Evolution of Freediving

Instructor course handout

Scott Flory

There are 2 areas of freediving that really grab my attention. First, the history of free diving is incredible and not commonly know or even thought about among most. Second, the gear or lack thereof, that was once used and how advancements in materials enhance our ability to move through the water more efficiently and safely.

History, the roots of free diving

Let’s start by looking at some very rich history. The oldest archaeological evidence that would confirm human breath hold diving dates to at least 5.400 BC Most cultures living near or on the sea in ancient times did some form of freediving. Only it was not a sport its was a way of life to provide food for the table and harvest useful things from the sea. Such as clams, fish, muscles, and sponges. There are many stories about anchor retrievals and cutting fishing nets loose from obstructions in the water to salvage fishing gear. Although not really documented anywhere that I could find, I would like to imagine it was a skill used greatly to assist in building piers for boats or stacking rocks to form break waters for harbors.

One story that comes to mind is named “The legend” I think is so cool because of the depth reached, that later was confirmed by the release of Italian navel documents. It goes like this. The summer of 1913 An Italian naval battleship named “La Regina Margherita” lost its anchor off a Greek island by the name of Karpathos. A reward of 5lbs sterling was offered to the public for its retrieval. A 35-year-old Italian man named Haggi Stetti from nearby Symi. A local sponge diver who suffered from emphysema from smoking and mostly deaf from years of diving not using proper equalization. Standing just 1.7 meters and weighing only 65kg decided to take on this challenge. It was reported that he made multiple dives to and estimated 88 meters and for up to 3 min using large rocks to take him down and what we would today consider no fins on the for the ascent. In the end he was successful in finding the anchor and was rewarded and this marks one of the first recorded depth dives. I would imagine there are more untold stories than ones we know or can read about on the internet. See the link below for an excellent write up on more history of freediving.

The gear we use or lack thereof

When we look back in time as to what gear was available for the early divers, there was not much. Thousands of years ago there were no masks or snorkels or fins. It was just you, you breath hold and willingness or necessity to dive under the surface. The progression of technology is inspiring in many ways, as it has given us the ability to go deeper for longer and safer.


Most likely the first piece of equipment to help is in the water was the use of a snorkel. The earliest mention of one came from roughly 3000 BC and was nothing more than a hollow reed. This was used for many years and was wrote about by several famous people in history including Leonardo Da Vinci and Aristotle. Through the years there were many versions of a snorkel used but It was not till Alexander Kramarenko from Russia, files the first patent for a side-mounted snorkel. His design is basically what we use today, a tube at the side of the head, with a ball valve at the top to expel water. In 1940, Kramarenko files the same invention in the USA and is granted a patent in 1943. Now, there are many manufactures of snorkels coming in many different materials. Some better than others. Some are basic and some more complex. For free divers its best to have a basic somewhat ridged snorkel larger in diameter with no purge valve. One more fun fact is that no until 1950 was snorkel even called a snorkel. The name after the diving magazine “Skin Diver” used the spelling ‘snorkels’, Then in 1957 the British Sub-Aqua Club debated whether or not to change the term breathing tube to the American term, “snorkel”. In 1958, a British thriller film was released, called The Snorkel. Since then, the term “snorkel” has stuck.


Although it was written about in concept by Early inventors including Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Alfonso Borelli. Bingaman Franklin made one of the first set fins out of some thin wood for his feet and hands to help him swim better. There is no specific year mentioned but it is speculated that he was 11 years old and that would have been 1717. Fast forward to the early 1900s and the design really started to come to life along with different types of material, rubber and plastic being the most common, by several country including the French and US navy. If you look at the fins available on the market today. There a literally hundreds of different designs using many different materials from plastic all the way to the most advanced carbon fiber.

Diving Mask

We can look all the way back in history at diving helmets starting in the e early 1800s but lets look at the type of mask that we use as free divers. Among the first was the classic big round mask that in my opinion has a cool vintage look. The first ones of this type from the early 1900s were home made from rubber from tire tubes clamped around a piece of glass. The problem with these is that there was no way to equalize the mask as they only covered your eyes. Later in 1959 The first equalizing mask appeared in the U.S. Divers catalog in 1959 under the model name Aqua-Pressure. Things only got better from here with advancement in design for mask purging, equalization and the quality of the materials used for a good seal around you face. Today We are using low volume mask with very flexible skirting generally made from a hi quality silicone.


Diving suites dates back to the 1800s with use of diving helmets. The modern day wet suite as we know was developed in 1951 by a guy in California named Hugh Bradner. After a couple failed designs trying to provide the US navy some better options, Jack O’Neill in 1952 comes out with a suit made of neoprene. His company, called O’Neill began selling these suits in 1959 with the motto, “It’s always summer on the inside.” This company is still around today and is very popular in the surfing community. Most suites today are still relatively the same design as 60 years ago but our materials have changed to many different options. Among the 2 most popular is closed cell and open cell neoprene.


Christian Engelbrecht

Picture of the Regina Margherita

Old spear fishing picture

Old sponge diver picture

Snorkel history snorkelling /a-history-of- -scuba-diving

Fins history

Old fins picture

Mask history and picture

Suite history

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