Scuba Diving vs Freediving: Should You Go Tankless?

Centuries ago, before anybody had invented any sort of diving equipment, people used to explore the ocean by merely using a single breath of air and diving. Nowadays, even with modern scuba equipment being available everywhere, more and more people are taking part in freediving, or holding their breath while diving. Freediving has become increasingly popular lately. Many scuba divers have even started engaging in freediving because they’ve realized the benefits of the activity.

Should you go tankless? Even if you are an active scuba diver, you should try freediving because it offers ample benefits for scuba divers. The benefits of freediving include:

  • Freediving can teach scuba divers how to breathe better.
  • Freediving can teach scuba divers how to move better under the water.
  • Freediving equipment can help you add an edge of efficiency to your diving activities. 

Since there isn’t much information available on the Internet today discussing why you should consider freediving, we created this article to help you out. If you’re wondering why anybody would want to free dive when they could use a tank to stay under the water longer, you need to learn more about the benefits of freediving. Below we’ll discuss the similarities and differences between scuba diving and freediving. Then we’ll cover why you should consider freediving to improve your scuba diving capabilities. 

Scuba Diving vs. Freediving: Differences

When it comes to the differences between scuba diving and freediving, also known as tank diving, there are a few differences to cover first. We’ll discuss those differences in more detail below.

  1. Breathing
  2. Observing Abilities
  3. Equipment
  4. Exploring Underwater
  5. The Purpose
  6. Social Aspects

Difference #1: Breathing

Breathing is one of the most significant differences between scuba diving and freediving, and it’s also probably an obvious comparison. Scuba divers don’t need to learn much about holding their breath underwater since there is a possibility of lung overexpansion if you attempt this. However, that’s not the case for free-divers. Free-divers learn how to hold their breath for long periods, typically throughout their whole dive. 

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Since a free-diver cannot take in any extra air when underwater, the volume of air in the free-diver’s lungs is never more than what it was on the surface. That decreases the challenge of lung overexpansion. That means lung overexpansion is never a problem for free-divers. 

Recreational free-divers have far fewer worries compared to regular scuba divers. For example, unlike scuba divers, free-divers don’t need to worry about things like:

  • Safe ascent rates
  • No-decompression limits
  • Making safety stops

Free-divers don’t need to worry about the traditional concerns of scuba divers because the free-diver’s body doesn’t take in as much nitrogen while underwater. However, if you are going to perform free dives that are over one hundred feet deep repetitively, you may experience decompression sickness, also known as DCS. 

Difference #2: Observing Abilities

Free-divers are able to move around more easily underwater compared to scuba divers. That’s because free-divers don’t use a tank, so they are uninhibited and unrestricted while moving underwater. By ditching the tank, free-divers can move much faster and watch rapidly moving fish. Also, by holding his or her breath, the free-diver doesn’t create the typical bubbles that scare away marine life. So, if you are freediving, it becomes much easier to swim up to various fish without scattering them. 

On the other hand, scuba divers are able to stay under water longer because they have their tanks. That does give them a lot of time to watch the marine life that’s within their vision. By being able to stay underwater for longer, scuba divers do get the benefit of longer observation times. That’s not the case with freediving. 

As divers drop down into the ocean, the light levels lessen. Our eyes then respond by enlarging the iris so we can see more light. So, if you are free diving, you typically aren’t looking downward long enough for your iris to become larger (YouTube) like you would when scuba diving. That means the same reef can have a completely different appearance to a scuba diver compared to a free-diver. 

So, if you’ve been scuba diving and you’ve never tried freediving, freediving would be an opportunity for you to expand the way you see the underwater world. 

Difference #3: Equipment

There is a major difference between scuba diving and freediving when it comes to equipment. Freediving doesn’t depend on equipment as much as scuba diving. Some free-divers do use equipment like:

  • Masks
  • Snorkels
  • Fins
  • Wetsuits

However, none of that type of equipment is necessarily mandatory for freediving. Free-divers never use tanks, which is a standard piece of equipment for scuba divers. So, freediving feels more natural and seems more personalized to many divers that enjoy experiencing the underwater world. 

Difference #4: Exploring Underwater

When it comes to exploring the underwater world, caves and canyons can be some of the most interesting items to assess. While doing this is equally fun whether you are scuba diving or freediving, scuba diving probably provides better opportunities for this type of adventure. Scuba diving provides a larger opportunity range when it comes to exploring the underwater world because of the extra time. 

Since you can stay underwater longer with scuba diving, you’re also going to be able to swim at a greater distance. Plus, you can stay deeper underwater for longer and you have far less risk than doing this scuba diving than you would if you were freediving. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t some benefits to this category when using freediving.

Keep in mind that free-divers tend to move better than scuba divers because free-divers aren’t as restricted by their equipment. Free-divers also don’t need to worry about decompression sickness, and they can move easily in and out of caves. That’s because free-divers have more flexibility with their use of less equipment. 

Plus, if you want to learn how to free dive, it’s quite easy. With a simple beginner’s class in freediving, you’d be qualified to free dive all over the ocean and explore whatever caves you’d like. On the other hand, scuba divers have to pass a specialty course, which takes more time and training. 

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Difference #5: The Purpose

There is also a major difference between freediving and scuba diving when it comes to the purpose, or reason, for undertaking the activity. People that scuba dive usually enjoy the activity as a leisure hobby that allows them to familiarize themselves with the underwater world and enjoy the marine life around them. 

However, freediving is performed with several different goals in mind, which means you get a larger range of activities. With freediving, you can:

  • Get closer to marine life 
  • Connect more deeply to the ocean
  • Experience some inner exploration

Freediving allows some introspection since you can use the activity to challenge yourself and push yourself past your own limits as a diver

Difference #6: Social Aspects

Free-divers always have to take a friend along with them to pursue their activity. The idea behind this practice is to provide safety to both free-divers. However, performing an enjoyable hobby like this with a friend or loved one makes it a very rewarding experience when compared to scuba diving. 

Most free-divers only spend a few minutes at a time under the water, and then they resurface again with their diving partner. When this resurfacing happens, there is plenty of time for social interaction between both divers to discuss what they saw. Free-divers tend to be supportive, open individuals that enjoy guiding and helping each other. So, it isn’t uncommon to see free-divers giving each other tips and pointers to try to improve the diving experience overall. 

With scuba diving, you typically spend a lot more time underwater, and that’s a consistent experience for most scuba divers. Therefore, there often isn’t a similar experience to share and talk, even when you are scuba diving with a friend or loved one.

Scuba Diving vs. Freediving: Similarities

While there are differences between scuba diving and freediving, the two actually share quite a bit in common, too. If you are an active scuba diver, you might discover that you’re very prepared already for freediving. That’s also true for free-divers that want to try scuba diving. Since there are several of the same skills that both scuba divers and free-divers have to master, the two activities do have much in common.

  1. Comfort in the Water
  2. Pressure Equalization
  3. Respiration Techniques

Similarity #1: Comfort in the Water

Both scuba divers and free-divers need to feel confident while diving under water. Being able to feel relaxed so that you can move freely and calmly is imperative to diving. Free-divers do this so they can make the most use out of their oxygen. Scuba divers need to stay relaxed so that they don’t experience anything like strain or panic attacks. 

Similarity #2: Pressure Equalization

Pressure equalization is another factor that’s similar in both freediving and scuba diving. Free-divers have to adjust to the pressure in their ears, noses, and also mask while going underwater so they don’t experience barotraumas. Similarly, scuba divers must do this while descending underwater, too. Free-divers experience faster descents, so they typically learn more efficient equalization techniques compared to scuba divers. 

Similarity #3: Respiration Techniques

There are many respiration techniques used in freediving that helps free-divers to extend their dives. These techniques that are used by free-divers also help when scuba diving, too. Learning how to use relaxation techniques before dives can decrease how much air the diver consumes during the dive. 

As you can see from our list of similarities, there are several benefits for scuba divers that want to learn how to free dive. We’ll discuss those benefits in more detail below.

How Freediving Can Benefit Scuba Divers

Freediving can benefit scuba divers in many ways, including:

  • Learning how to free dive can help scuba divers breathe better
  • Learning how to free dive can help scuba divers learn how to move better
  • Freediving equipment tends to work more efficiently

Freediving is also much easier to learn than scuba diving, since scuba diving requires a lot more education and training. However, free-divers have to train well and practice correct form. By learning how to free dive, you can add an edge to your scuba diving hobby. We’ll cover that in more detail below. 

  1. Efficient Breathing Skills
  2. Better Movement from Streamlining 
  3. Gear Efficiency

Technique #1: More Efficient Breathing Skills

Free-divers don’t use tanks like scuba divers do. Instead, a free-diver would consider his or her lungs the “tank.” In freediving, it’s much more important to monitor and comprehend air consumption. When you free-dive, the amount of air you’ve taken in stays the same, but the quality is decreasing as you move. So, you know you have a limited amount of time before you have to come back up, and there’s no gauge to measure how much time you have left before you need to return to the surface for air. 

So, to learn how to better manage your freediving “tank,” or your lungs, you really need to understand better techniques for breathing. If you take a freediving class, they’ll talk to you about why proper breathing techniques are so important, and why hyperventilation can harm your diving performance. 

By comparison, when you scuba dive, you have a particular amount of air, and usually that’s coming from an eight-cubic feet tank. That means when you scuba dive, you’ll have about thirty minutes to an hour or so of time to dive using your tank. That’s where using freediving breathing techniques when scuba diving can help you. If you learn better freediving breathing techniques, you’ll be able to stay under water for longer even when you scuba dive

Correct Breathing

Many newbie scuba divers eventually feel that they need to learn how to breathe better so that they can stay down underwater for longer. However, instead of learning how to breathe correctly live a free-diver would, they’ll try to breathe less. That’s a terrible approach to preserving your air. If you do this, you’ll improve your air consumption but also build up the CO2 in your lungs. When you do that, you’ll wind up with a horrible headache. 

However, if you took the time to learn how to breathe like a free-diver, then you’ll learn how to breathe less but you’ll still receive the oxygen you need while getting rid of the CO2 in your lungs. That means you won’t need to worry about experiencing any horrible headaches. 

Technique #2: Better Movement from Streamlining

Most scuba divers use a lot of equipment, including things like:

  • A wetsuit
  • Gloves
  • A surface marker buoy
  • Pressure gauges
  • Noisemakers
  • Inflator hoses
  • Knives
  • Lights

And that’s not even the full list—those are just a few examples of the types of equipment you’ll find on a scuba diver. Now let’s compare that with the equipment we typically see on a free-diver:

  • Mask
  • Wetsuit
  • Snorkel
  • Long fins
  • Weight belt

So, the list for the free-diver is much shorter when compared to what the scuba diver uses. While the scuba diver can stay down under the water for longer, they have a harder time moving underwater because of the extra equipment. 

For example, if a large animal swims by a scuba diver, that scuba diver will likely be weighed down by so much equipment, he or she will have difficulty keeping up with the animal. However, the free-diver will be able to swim right alongside the creature and take photographs or video easily, because of the streamlined use of equipment. 

Practicing some freediving can help you become a better, stronger swimmer overall, too, and that can certainly help increase your efficiency as a scuba diver. By partaking in both worlds, you’ll learn how the crossovers will benefit your swimming skills

Technique #3: Gear Efficiency

If we take some pointers from freediving, you can learn to become a more efficient scuba diver. For example, long fins tend to provide more efficiency when diving. However, scuba divers aren’t as streamlined as free-divers, so using long fins won’t help them as much as a free-diver. Regardless, scuba divers can take a few pointers from free-divers to learn how to become more efficient with their gear. Scuba divers can learn better head position by taking a freediving class.

Divers are taught to think about their heads like umbrellas in wind storms. If you’ve got a larger umbrella, you’ll get more wind and that will make things more difficult since you’ll move slowly. That’s true with a mask, too. So, free-divers are often kicked forward in the water and push against their masks, working a type of resistance. However, a diver can learn to lessen this issue by looking down. 

By looking down instead of ahead, the water will quickly move around your neck as you kick. Now you won’t need as much effort to push down since you’re experiencing less resistance. If you want to help with this issue, even more, purchase a small, low volume mask that has a short profile, making you far more streamlined


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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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