The Best Freedive
in the World
That’s one bold claim, but MARCUS GREATWOOD, while pointing out that such experiences aren’t for everyone, stands by his claim that what Menorca can offer adventurous freedivers is hard to beat
I’ll start with a caveat. What I’m about to describe are adventure freedives: exploring oceans and lakes on a single breath. If you consider freediving simply a competitive sport, or to be done only on a rope, these might not fulfil your criteria for best freedive locations.
I have been freediving for more than 20 years. My interest in “how long?” or “how deep?” waned after a few years, and I started to travel with the primary objective of exploration through freediving.
Since its inception, NoTanx Freedive club has had this purpose at its heart. More recently, we have started training members to access more of the hidden locations, such as underground lakes, that we have discovered or been invited to dive.
Dive-sites such as in Iceland and the quarries of Wales have become regular destinations for our NTX Adventure team. The pinnacle of our expeditions came in 2017 when we abseiled into a cenote in Greece to discover a massive swim-through into a hidden chamber of breathable air.
The crystal water had already made this a favourite site for us, but our accidental discovery of “Mika’s Magical Mansion” elevated it to near-mythical status among those skilled (and lucky) enough to freedive there.
It fulfilled our three criteria for a good dive-site: spectacular location; interesting access (not a tourist beach with a car park); and an objective requiring a certain level of skills to reach.
It then carried on to meet the criteria for an amazing site: exceptional beauty, and being unique.
I thought it would take a long time to find its equal, and didn’t even contemplate the possibility of a better site – until we dived the Biblioteca in Menorca.
We had been invited to dive with Freedive Menorca, a school set up on the Balearic island by an NTX instructor (and exceptionally good friend), Adam De La Mare, and his partner Valeria Olives this July.
We took 12 NoTanx adventurers to the island on the promise of exceptional diving in gin-clear waters, huge numbers of fish and the opportunity to help Adam explore beyond his regular teaching spots.
On day one he showed us the famous Swiss Cheese cave-system. On scuba itineraries for a few years now, it offers amazing light penetrating its large main chambers, making it a favourite of cave-photographers and newbie overhead-environment divers.
The few freedivers on the island have explored the network of tunnels and entrances, most of them too small for our bubble-blowing cousins to penetrate.
The joy of Swiss Cheese is the range of diving difficulty. Any overhead dive should be considered only by experienced freedivers, and in the Cheese an experienced guide is imperative, because of the real possibility of disorientation and getting lost. It took us at least four sessions over the week to appreciate the numerous options offered by the site.
The Standard Entrance sits between two rocks at about 12m, reachable with a decent duck-dive followed by a couple of efficient fin-strokes.
Entering the darkness, you think: “This was all a wind-up, with nothing but a dark dead end awaiting!” But this thought is fleeting, as you drop into a first chamber lit by brilliant blue light entering on three sides.
Dropping to the sandy floor, the Short Swim-through dominates your senses, leading off to the right through a canyon of rock to the open ocean. If the initial sight fails to take your breath away, staying a bit longer you become aware of the Main Chamber, looming in front though a tangle of tunnels. It’s longer than it looks!
For those who enjoy shorter, more technical dives, the Chimney (chimneys, if you look closely) offers fantastic dives.
It has a total length of 12m with an obscured lower entry, making first ascents awkward to find and first descents nerve-wracking.
But after a few trips with a guide, sinking (or floating up) through a tunnel no more than 50cm wide is a joy that has to be repeated.
To complete the selection of levels, trips such as entering Adam’s Far Entrance through to the main chamber, or from Hipster’s Hole to the Eyes, offer technical and challenging dives for even the most accomplished overhead apneist.
Adam uses Swiss Cheese as a testing site as well as a training-ground for new divers. He needs to be 100% confident in their abilities before moving on to more specialist sites.
CONCLUSION: A great training arena and a chance to use skills developed in training, but always have a guide and a dive-plan.
Appeared in DIVER November 2019
After a beautiful second day’s diving in the island’s marine reserve, we got back to the adventure diving with an introduction to the Funnels, aka Millenium Falcon. Parking on a nondescript coastal road, we clambered across volcanic rocks more reminiscent of the Moon than a Spanish island until we came across a small hole some 30m from the sea.
I was very excited. Having spent years searching for unique dive-sites, the prospect of diving in a land-locked hole leading to the ocean gave me goose-bumps.
Dubbed Menorca’s only cenote, it was a very small hole. I was told that scoobies dive there, though I can’t imagine carrying heavy gear across the razor-sharp rocks, let alone more than one person being able to kit up in a hole no bigger than your average bathroom.
I gleefully threw my wetsuit into the water from the edge of the hole before climbing the 4-5m down to the cool, clear water with my fins and mask.
This dive is technical, if not dangerous – there are no warm-up dives, or opportunity to check the route before plunging in. Our training is based on a philosophy of honesty over ego. When asked: “Are you up for this dive?” there is no option to say: “I think I can make it”, or blow out your chest and say: “Yeah, of course I can” if there is a shred of doubt.
“Not today, guys,” should be a regular and accepted reply. Even so, we set up a safety system, running through it again in the water before we dived.
As photographer I was in the third group to go through, so I saw my friends (and daughter Freya) take a final breath before sinking into the darkness below.
The size of the underwater entrance forced us to sit in very specific places to breathe up, while allowing us to maintain the agreed order.
It was surreal waiting as the number of companions dwindled to two. As I did my final preparation breaths, I had to keep a check on my excitement. Adrenaline or nerves can increase heart-rate, spelling disaster on a dive.
After an initial drop into a tunnel beneath the entrance hole, we had to turn 90° in total darkness before we could see the exit.
And what an exit! A long, stunningly bright slot leading out to the open ocean at the other end of a dark, smooth cave. Its resemblance to the famous Star Wars spaceship was instantly apparent.
The common misconceptions about freediving that centre on how long you can hold your breath or how deep you can dive were amply demonstrated at Millenium Falcon.
It was not particularly deep or long, but it was so jaw-droppingly spectacular that every second felt like an eternity.
I tried to stretch each fin-kick to take in more of the beauty of the dive as well as the enormity of what we were doing, while banishing any thought of distance left to go. Pure enjoyment. Pure fulfilment. Justification for the hours of training. That single dive, lasting a matter of minutes for all of us, was worth the trip to Menorca alone.
The rest of the group had entered the sea a little way along the shore, and now we faced the prospect of freediving back into the Millenium Falcon effectively blind into darkness, because the light would now be behind us.
As it turned out, the return journey was almost as awe-inspiring as the first, albeit with a different aesthetic, definitely helped by our knowledge of the distance and of the exit location.
After a rest, Hipster Matt felt it necessary to do the dive NoFins, to not only repeat it but to slow down enough to fully appreciate its beauty, and it was my pleasure to be his safety diver.
CONCLUSION: A fantastic dive for those with the skills, guide and opportunity to attempt it.
On day 4 the wind switched to easterly, making the west coast available, including the Biblioteca (the Library). I had seen some sketchy photos but couldn’t believe that it existed, let alone that we might freedive it.
Menorca is only 30 miles long, but its diverse flora and fauna led it to be named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1993.
The southern region is dominated by limestone rock, sandy beaches and pine trees, while the north is predominantly red sandstone. This makes the marine environment and the look of the coastline significantly different.
Pont d’en Gil lies on the west coast, just within the limestone belt, and I get excited by the prospect of caves, especially well-decorated limestone ones.
Adam led us to a typical NoTanx kitting-up area – rocky, hard to reach, isolated and random. The entry/exit point allowed for only one person at a time, so an efficient chain formed as people jumped off the rocks, suit in hand, and climbed back out with suit donned.
Sightseers moving close to the cliff-edge to get Instagram shots of the famous sea-arch must have been surprised to see our antics metres below them.
The group again split in two. The less-experienced toured some of the amazing sights and swim-throughs that the site has to offer, a joy in itself but with the intended bonus of building their experience for future trips.
We started our dive with a 100m surface-swim through the massive sea-arch with the orange dive-buoy divers are required to use – and very sensible too, with boat-users inclined to race through the arch with total abandon.
We entered a huge sea-cave, extending at least 10m beneath the surface and towering 30m overhead. I thought this must be an hors d’oeuvre, but it turned out to be the main event.
A 20m-wide cave below us was the entrance to the Biblioteca. Adam went through the safety protocols again and explained the dive-plan.
Duck-dive here in the open cave, drop perhaps 9m and swim into the submerged cave. After a few metres to clear the sloping roof a small hole at the rear would be visible – this was our target.
I say “visible” – as an air-pocket in a dark cave, it merely shimmers when lit with a torch.
Bringing up the rear, I had the advantage of being able to follow my companions already in the main gallery, but it was a technically challenging dive with lots of uncertainty, both under water or on surfacing.
My buddies performed flawlessly, aiming their torches along the surface to the walls of the chamber as the rules of phreatic or cave-freediving dictate.
That eased my worries of overhangs on entry to the chamber.
It was on surfacing that I couldn’t breathe – not because of bad air (tiny air cracks to the surface keep it fresh) but because of the chamber’s beauty.
I have been a keen caver (dry caves and pot-holes) for several years, but I have never seen so much decoration before. Speleotherms were everywhere. Huge towers of rock reached up from the floor, and sheets of white stone adorned every wall in the massive cavern.
Usually stalactites are white, the natural colour of calcium carbonate, and can become dull grey if touched, or brown if there is significant mud present in the cave ceiling.
These were golden in colour. Every wall was covered, even below the waterline.
We stared in wonder for a few minutes before realising that the cave ran off to the right – into a dark corridor. We use high-quality torches on these expeditions, because our lives depend on them, and
I have to thank Anchor Dive Lights for its amazing equipment.
We swam into the darkness, noting the sandy floor some 8m below – a good sign that the cave continued for some way.
The Biblioteca consists of three separate chambers edged by a corridor of sea water some 200m long. The sandy bottom rises slowly to a depth of 2m before an amazing white wall drops to cut off progress. A small tunnel leads off under water to another air-filled chamber, though I can’t recommend swimming this extra section, because of the tight nature of the end chamber.
The tunnel is amazingly decorated and well worth a look, however, simply by ducking some 50cm under the surface.
This challenging dive was a dream come true, an amazing cave reachable only by diving, and preferably freediving, that rewards with its beautiful decoration and goes and goes!
We spent at least an hour marvelling at the speleotherms’ intricacy and the range of colours, from the initial golden through grey to crystal white on the back walls, before admitting that our 3mm wetsuits were not well-suited to the cave’s cold air.
The cave had one more surprise in store for us. The water level started to rise – quickly and steadily.
This increased the pressure in the chamber, the water instantly vapourising into a fine mist. It was a phenomenon we had experienced before, but never in such a quick and unexpected way. It felt as if the ocean was reminding us of its awesome power.
The wave subsided, and after a few seconds the air cleared before a few smaller waves squeezed us. A big boat must have passed outside, but our first thought had been far more sinister.
Back in the first chamber, we were greeted by a glowing blue underbelly as our eyes, now accustomed to the blackness beyond the reach of our torches, could see the light penetrating from the open ocean.
The swim out was easier, though by no means simple. The fresh air was incredible, as was the warmth in contrast to the chilly damp cave.