Joshua Chaffee
Joshua Chaffee

Sep 11. 3 mins

FREEDIVING IS NO FLUKE —EQUIPMENT FASHIONED AFTER NATURE

Humans have long borrowed inspiration from observations made in the natural world. Researchers, scientists, engineers and other great minds are constantly scrambling to pinpoint the implications of various discoveries in nature. The genius that is so evident in the design of animals has led to countless groundbreaking inventions and new technologies. Robot arms based off of seahorse tails. Faster moving ships inspired by emperor penguins. Wind turbines modeled after humpback fins.

Humans are constantly trying to recreate natural mechanisms employed by animals. The world of freediving is no exception, and for good reason! We humans need all the help we can get when it comes to championing the underwater arena.

Humans Aren’t Fish

Although genetics have lent to the increased ability of nomadic sea-dwelling people such as the Bajau in Indonesia to improve their amazing freediving capabilities over time, it’s not hard to see that humans weren’t exactly made for sea dwelling.

Though our passion and experience may make it feel like it sometimes, the human body is not born to freedive, or even swim. Few things about our anatomy contribute to our success in the water. Our bodies are drastically different from sea creatures. We must train for weeks, months, years, even decades to become truly comfortable and confident under the surface. The level of discipline required is noteworthy. No wonder freediving is not for the faint of heart. As for fish, everything is effortless instinct. They have no clue what surface protocol is. They don’t keep track of their personal best, and they’ll certainly never know what it’s like to feel narked. They were designed to swim.

The question is, what can we borrow from the marvelous design of fish to prepare us for diving below the surface? What tips and tricks do our finned friends hold out for us?

Studies in the Sea

Fascinating research has been conducted by scientists such as the coincidentally named Frank E. Fish. As a Professor of Biology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Fish has coordinated countless studies on aquatic animal locomotion, including research on dolphins, manta rays, and humpback whales. His observations of the natural world have had massive implications for many industries, including that of freediving.

For example, Professor Fish recently helped crack a riddle that has puzzled scientists since the 1930’s; how can bottlenose dolphins swim SO fast? Just what exactly enables them to be such aquatic powerhouses?

The tail! The bottlenose dolphin’s key to success is their tail, known as a ‘fluke’, which is not quite a fitting name, considering that its design appears to be anything but. Because of their fluke, dolphins are able to maintain high efficiency, despite swimming at vastly impressive speeds. According to Professor Fish “The flukes are essentially wings. [They] generate a lift force that is directed forward, on both the upstroke and downstroke.”

There are a number of possibilities that could explain how the dolphin uses its tail to achieve such efficiency and speed, but what researchers do know is that the answer lays in the tail. One suggestion is that tension in the tendons of the dolphin’s tail adjust depending on the speed. Another idea Professor Fish proposes is that dolphins may have the ability to control the flexibility of their tail, stiffening or slackening it to match their speed and maximize thrust.

It is obvious that we do not currently have the technology to engineer a freediving fin that can match the bottlenose dolphin’s aquatic prowess. We won’t be beating any dolphin ‘personal bests’. Duh, we already knew that. Still, a great deal of the fins we use today, specifically monofin designs have been based off of the bottlenose dolphin’s fluke in an effort to increase thrust, speed and hydrodynamics.

The Origin of the Modern Monofin

Some of today’s best freedivers are using monofins. In fact, depth records have recently been shattered with use of a monofin. Just this year, Alessia Zecchini reached an astounding, world record shattering depth of 107 meters (over 351 feet) in the CWT discipline. She used a monofin.

It is no secret that monofin designers have taken their inspiration from the natural world. For example, inventor and engineer Ted Ciamillo came up with the Lunocet monofin based off of Professor Fish’s dolphin tail research. In an effort to mimic the dolphin fluke’s ability to adjust for speed, the Lunocet fin features a rubber spring that can be set on three different tension settings that range from flexible, for surface swimming, to rigid, for powering down into the deep.

Ciamillo had visions of his innovative monofin fostering a community of freedivers who’d want to use his fin for swimming expeditions called ‘hydrotours’, using the Lunocet to travel long-distances, even dozens of miles in a single day on coastal expeditions. They would carry with them small, waterproof packs containing a GPS and other essentials.

Amazingly, it has been reported that Lunocet users have managed to blow Michael Phelps out of the water with their speed records at 13 kilometers per hour (8 mph), swimming nearly twice as fast as the Olympic Gold Medalist. Even since its original creation, the Lunocet fin has been tested, reviewed and revised for increased performance.

The Lunocet fin does not stand alone. Many monofin engineers have made an admirable effort at reproducing the dolphin tail for human use. There are multiple components of the design of monofins that can contribute to the success of a freediver.

Take the wings, for example. As quoted earlier, Professor Fish says that dolphins have wings, so why shouldn’t we? Wings are oftentimes attached to the side of the monofin blade. The wings serve to optimize the diver’s control and increase hydrodynamics. Since the wings usually form part of the foot pocket, they allow the transition from foot to fin to be as seamless as possible. Such streamlining is also in imitation of the dolphin, whose shape contributes to their speedy dominance in the sea. It always comes back to dolphins.

Diving into the Future

When it comes to engineering and trailblazing new freediving technology, there is no inspiration more majestic than what we find in the world around us. As researchers continue to observe the sea’s expert swimmers and divers, such as dolphins, we can only wonder at the implications for advances in freediving equipment. Nature’s inspiration is by no means limited to fins. There could be future implications for masks, suits, gloves, lanyards, nose clips, etc. The options for streamlining and progression in freediving equipment design are endless. No doubt, technology will progress over time, as it always does. In the meantime, we dive.

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