Facing My Fears Of Freediving

underwater world in the dive park

By Gillian Gibree

Since I was an infant, I’ve had ear problems. I’ve gotten tubes in my ears, had ear surgeries, and once suffered an infection so bad my eardrum ruptured and leaked infected goo for three weeks. But still, I’ve always loved being underwater. Freediving in the kelp on the California coastline or swimming through caves on a tropical adventure is one of my favorite activities. Because of my ear history, equalizing underwater is not easy, and in all my past attempts, I haven’t been able to go deeper than 40 feet because the pain was so terrible.

The night before I left for a freediving course on Catalina, my doubts arose. It was Valentine’s Day weekend, and I was going to spend hundreds of dollars to go hang out in a tent by myself. Awesome. I hadn’t gone on a date since I got my heart broken three months prior, and the experience made me doubt myself and my intuition. I had been experiencing a lot of anxiety toward making any decisions these days to be honest. And I felt stuck.

My usually energetic personality and excitement for life had diminished. I was in a life funk.

Besides, I was worried about the possibility of blowing out my eardrums again. The pain of bursting an eardrum was not something I wanted to repeat, which is why I had been putting off getting certified in freediving for six months. But something inside me said, Just shut up and go!

Getting FII Level 1 Certified On Catalina - Gillian Gibree

Getting FII Level 1 Certified On Catalina – Gillian Gibree

When I arrived on the island, I made my way to the campsite a mile and a half out of town in a gulch at the base of a hike. I set up my tent and spent the evening hiking up the hill to watch the sunset from the top of the island. I found a nice spot to stop and meditate and enjoy the view of the boats in the Avalon marina.

The next morning, I started my Freedive level 1 course with FII instructor and spearfisherman Brandon Zeek. We would have classroom time and practice our static breath hold at the end of the day. What was amazing to me was learning about the Mammilian dive reflex—a tool we are naturally gifted with to allow us to lengthen our breath holds and dive deeper. We lose it because most of us don’t spend time underwater after leaving the womb, but our internal organs are designed to adjust to the pressure at depth. Another interesting fact: Holding your breath actually does not kill brain cells as many people might think, and even if you black out, it’s just your body going into ‘sleep mode’ to conserve oxygen. Before getting in the water, we worked on breathing techniques by holding the belly and learning to use the diaphragm, which is a far more efficient way of breathing most people forget with age and which was similar to breath work I had done in yoga.

Getting FII Level 1 Certified On Catalina - Gillian Gibree

Gillian Gibree’s Freedive level 1 course FII instructor and spearfisherman Brandon Zeek shows off a catch.

By the afternoon, the time came to work on our static breath holds in the harbor. It would start with a one-minute hold, then two minutes, and finally three minutes. (If I could.) I got through the first one minute no problem. During the second minute, I had my first contraction (the feeling to gasp for air). I knew three minutes was going to be tough. As I put my head down in the water, Brandon spoke calmly to me to relax the mind and body. As I listened to his voice—“Relax the shoulders, relax the legs, relax the arms…”—I allowed myself to fully let go in peace, presence, and complete stillness. It was the best I’d felt in a long time. I continued to give the OK sign as I hit 2:15, then 2:30, then 2:45. I was zoned out in a beautiful dreamland when I heard three minutes. Yippie! I hiked back to my campsite feeling great, cooked up some food over the fire, got cozy in my tent, and opened my freedive novel, DEEP by James Nester.

Gillian's camping setup near the site of her freediving certification course.

Gillian’s camping setup near the site of her freediving certification course.

The second day is really what made me nervous: I would test myself in the water by climbing down a rope to 66 feet. When we got to the dive park in Avalon, Brandon set up the rope and buoy. The rope had three tape markers for the four dives I would attempt, with the anchor being the final marker. I took my time at the top doing my breath work, with one hand on the buoy and the other on my stomach, reminding myself to take deep, slow, full belly breaths. I hit the first tape marker just fine and resurfaced.

The second marker was at 35 feet, and I did OK with this one as well. The third one would be the deepest I have ever gone so far—somewhere close to 45 feet. I went slow and had a contraction, but managed to make it without ear pain. This made me feel a little more confident about hitting the final marker. I took an extra long time at the top until I was in a trance-like state and floating as effortlessly as the nearby kelp.

kelp forest

kelp forest

I took a slow, deep, and full inhale from my belly, to inter-costals, fully expanding the ribcage, up to the collarbones. I pinched my nose and began crawling down the line. I went down, one hand over another, going slow and steady, pausing occasionally to equalize. After the third marker, I started to see the sandy bottom. I hit 66 feet, gave the OK sign to Brandon, and slowly crawled back up, even slower than I went down.

Being completely relaxed and fully letting go allowed me to maximize my breath hold longer than I thought was possible. When I hit the surface I was ecstatic; I couldn’t believe I had gone the maximum depth without any pain!

Gillian freedives off the California coast.

Gillian freedives off the California coast.

To me, this experience was more than hitting a certain depth or passing the course, I challenged something I was terrified of and released the surrounding fear. I felt my confidence and passion for life return, and the connection I felt to the ocean while I made these dives was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

If I could share any lesson from my experience, this is it: If you feel yourself in a funk, then do something that challenges you. Physically remove yourself from your everyday life and explore a new place. Renew your spirit by finding an intense connection in nature, and only then will you be able to find the beauty of existence once again.

Gillian freedives off her SUP board in Catalina.

Gillian freedives off her SUP board in Catalina.

“No one’s life should be rooted in fear. We are born for wonder, for joy, for hope, for love, to marvel at the mystery of existence, to be ravished by the beauty of the world, to seek truth and meaning, to acquire wisdom, and by our treatment of others to brighten the corner where we are.” —Dean Koonst


Gillian Gibree is a pro standup paddleboard racer, Roxy outdoor athlete, and one of the women responsible for bringing SUP yoga into the mainstream.

Last modified: February 28, 2018

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