As I am getting back into training one big question that always runs through my head is whether or not I’ll be able to equalize at the depths that I’m targeting this year. Every year it’s the same. I can train my legs to handle lactic burn, I can train my breath-hold, but equalization is about two major components: flexibility and technique.
To increase my flexibility I stretch my diaphragm and my intercostal muscles, which helps my chest handle the extreme pressures of depth. I do negative pressure dives in the pool and ocean to simulate the pressure of depth and to help me practice equalizing under that force.
But here’s the thing- nothing is exactly the same as hitting depth. Every year I head to Grand Cayman to train and compete and with every personal best I reach I’m learning various ways of refining my equalizing technique. And the biggest part of that? The perfect grouper call.
A grouper call, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is the colloquial name for the act of using throat muscles to bring air to your mouth when freediving. This becomes necessary when you dive head first to depth as air does not naturally rise from your chest to your head as it would if you were descending feet first.
Grouper calls initially require coordination to begin using them successfully, but once they’re employed correctly a diver can equalize to depths that may have otherwise seemed impossible. But even pros can have trouble with grouper calling past certain depths.
The problem is that at some point, grouper calling becomes impossible. For example, on my 80m/262-foot dive in Cayman last year I was only able to grouper call to 60m/200 feet. At that point I’d bring air to my mouth for the last time and “simply” have to hold it there, using that air for equalizing my ears until it ran out. But even though this seems like an easy task, there are other obstacles that begin to arise.
Once I’ve made my final grouper call my lung volume has become so small because of the compression of depth that my lungs act like a vacuum. In this situation, if I relax my throat muscles or allow my throat to open, this vacuum will suck air volume from my ears and sinuses, creating an equalization debt, which would force me to turn around, unable to equalize any further. I’ve had this happen more than once, especially if I’m trying to grouper call deeper than I know I should.
Another problem I’ve run into is that I have the bad habit of trying to sniff air from my mask at depth to use it for a last equalization. This too can be an issue, especially if you use fluid goggles and a noseclip, like I do. If I sniff against my noseclip at depth my sinuses will become overly negative, sucking my soft pallet shut, making it impossible to equalize. Once again, I’d have to turn around.
So when so many small bad habits or mistakes can put the brakes on a dive, how does anyone do it? The key is lots of practice and time at depth. I’m lucky enough to be able to train and compete in Grand Cayman every year, where we have perfect conditions, including amazing safeties at depth (both tech divers and freediving safeties). Knowing people like Kirk, Garo and Bill are there to safety me I can relax and focus on the tiny details of my dive and the specific equalization techniques that allow me to get there.
But here’s one of the most important things I’ve learned about equalizing over the years: whatever your problem, it’s usually fixable. Barring some physiological issue, like holes in your ear drums, most equalization problems are fixable with determination and practice. It can be a slow process to work through issues like these, but they are never a reason to give up hope. I don’t have amazing ears, but because I’m careful to take care of them and to equalize properly I’ve been able to take my infection-prone, scarred, squeeze-susceptible ears to 80m.
And every year I reach a new depth or obtain a new record I always come back to this one, seemingly simple technique that made it all possible- grouper calling.