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Dive Industry Freediving Interviews

Kirk Krack: Writing The Book on Freediving

Words by Michael Menduno

DIVER sits down with an industry pioneer to talk the origins of modern freediving, nine-foot tall blue aliens, Tom Cruise, and the evolution of mixed gas freediving

Kirk Krack is one of the most prolific and innovative trailblazers in sport diving, yet ironically, most divers (DIVER readers excluded) have never heard of him—at least not in scuba world. However, among freedivers, he is held in near reverent esteem. For good reason. 

Over the last 20-plus years, the soft-spoken trainer and educator has developed and codified the foundations of modern freediving, including many fundamental techniques, knowledge, and safety protocols primarily through his company Performance Freediving International (PFI), the second oldest freediving training agency in the world. Today his breath-hold oeuvre serves as the underpinnings for many of the training programs on the market. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Krack is largely responsible for writing the book on freediving.

Not one to rest on his laurels, the former trimix instructor trainer is now actively engaged, almost single-handedly, in bringing mixed gas technology to the freediving community, which at first blush may seem like a contradiction in terms. Krack calls it “technical freediving.”  

Why would freedivers pre-breathe a gas mix like nitrox, instead of simply filling their lungs with atmospheric air? For the same reason that compressed gas divers from the sport, commercial, and military diving communities use mix: to reduce or eliminate the negative physiological effects induced by pressure, enabling divers to dive deeper, stay longer, and with increased relative safety. 

By promulgating tech freediving, Krack is truly taking diving where no humans have gone before. “It’s exciting to dive in and explore something completely new and innovative after more than twenty years in the business,” said Krack, who compared the situation to taking his first nitrox class in 1991.

Born in 1968 in the small town of Prince Albert, which lays along the North Saskatchewan River in the landlocked Canadian prairie, Krack found his calling when he first skin dived off the family sailboat. “I knew right then, I wanted to spend my life in the water,” he said. Beginning as a lifeguard, he was scuba certified at age 15, became an PADI Master Instructor at 19 and started leading dive trips to Cayman Islands. In 1990, at age 22, Krack purchased a dive retailer, Prairie Diving Services, and soon after acquired Salvage Divers, a local inland commercial diving company that serviced dams and added it to the mix.

Kirk instructing in Hawaii

Technical diving was just emerging in the early 1990s, and Krack was ready for new adventures. It took his first nitrox class in 1991, immediately completed his instructor course, and started teaching nitrox on the prairie. He then started his technical instructor training with the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD). Prairie Diving became the second IANTD facility in Canada, and he was appointed a director in 1994.

Realizing that his opportunities for tech in the “bread basket of Canada” were limited, Krack sold his dive shop and moved to Vancouver. In 1995 he packed up and moved to Grand Cayman, where he co-founded Cayman’s first tech facility, Divetech, with Nancy Easterbrook and Dan Hodgins. He soon completed his trimix instructor trainer and rebreather instructor trainer certifications with IANTD and Technical Diving International (TDI).

Despite his near non-stop tech teaching and diving schedule, Krack returned to his first love of freediving in his off hours. That’s when the turning point came. TDI co-founder Mitch Skaggs asked Krack if he would support legendary freediver Francisco Rodriquez, aka Pipin, on his 500-foot No-Limits “Cayman Challenge” dive. Pipin successfully conducted the dive in January 1996, and Krack never looked back. 

He became a freediver instructor in Pipin’s newly formed International Association of Freedivers (IAFD), and soon took on the task of developing training materials for IAFD, one of the first freediving curriculums. He also began training Tanya Streeter and Brett LeMaster for their national and world records.

Krack parted ways with Divetech and IAFD in late 1999, and moved back to Vancouver. In 2000, he formed PFI to develop safety and standardized education, and with the help of LeMaster, began developing and teaching freediving using the educational system he was developing. That year he founded and became president of the AIDA-affiliated Canadian Association of Freediving and Apnea (CAFA). 

He also started training Eric Fattah and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank (who he later married in 2006). All together Krack would train seven athletes who went on to win 13 world records and hundreds of national records in all freediving disciplines, as well as training magician David Blaine to hold his breath for 17 minutes on the Oprah show.

From 2002-2005, Krack served as AIDA’s Vice President Americas and executive board member, and was instrumental in developing AIDA’s first “Safety Protocols for Competitions and Records.” Krack was the primary organizer for the 4th Annual AIDA Freediving Competition held in Vancouver in 2004, where he pioneered the use of first bottom-to-surface cameras with underwater communications.

In 2009, Kirk launched PFI’s annual international freediving competition based in Grand Cayman, dubbed “Deja Blue”. That year the documentary The Cove was released, featuring Cruickshank as freediver, and Krack as a cameraman, which was the start of his extensive film work. The following year, Krack launched PFI’s Breath-Hold Surf Survival Course, and soon acquired sponsorship from Red Bull and Oakley. He also developed a successful breath-hold survival course for military special forces as well as public safety divers.

Krack’s movie career evolved from freediving cameraman (The Cove, Whale Fantasia, Racing Extinction), to freediving safety, training, and educational consultant over the next decade. He trained Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible, Margo Robbie for Suicide Squad (in which he performed as Batman in a stunt scene), and most recently trained Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslett, and others for James Cameron’s Avatar
. He also produced classic freediving shorts like Defending The Vandenberg and the Water Born series.

This last summer (2019), Krack introduced PFI’s long awaited “technical freediving” program aimed at “working” freedivers, and sold his nearly 20-year old company to International Training International (ITI), the parent of TDI, SDI and ERDI training agencies, after nearly a year of negotiation. 

DIVER caught up with Krack, who’s been regular columnist for the magazine since 2016…

Kirk Krack. Photo: Goh Iromoto

DIVER: First of all, congratulations on joining the TDI-SDI-ERDI family. I imagine this will have a big impact on getting your ideas out there.

Kirk Krack: Yes, absolutely. The TDI brand is the industry leader, not only in market share but in the development and quality of their programs, and their vision and the adherence to standards. It very much parallels PFI, not in terms of market share, but certainly from the quality of the programs and the adherence to standards. So, it’s a really good thing for us. 

It removes the headaches of administration, and enables us to get out the programs and changes in programs that I’ve wanted to make but have been too busy. We now have a full marketing team, product development team, and a full customer service team that can take PFI, put it on steroids and take it to a market of over a million certified ITI members and 15,000 professional members. Most importantly, we’ll still get to have that say in the quality of the educational process and the future of the program. 

I can’t help thinking that joining up with TDI is also going to give a huge boost to “technical freediving.” I mean, most tekkies would likely consider it perfectly reasonable to breath-up on nitrox to extend their breath-hold dive.

Absolutely. You’ll have technical divers who will get into freediving just for the fun and experience of the tech freediving aspect of it. Of course, they’re still going to have to learn to become a fully competent freediver without the technical side and then move into the technical side of it.

I’m guessing that most people don’t realize that you were an extremely active trimix instructor back in the early to mid-1990s.  You started teaching nitrox in 1992 at your shop in the middle of the Canadian prairies before moving to the Cayman Islands and co-founding Divetech, just as tech diving was taking off. 

[Krack smiles] On Cayman we had the equivalent of eight technical setups; doubles, stage bottles, equipment, everything you needed to do up to trimix. We also had this massive blending system. Most of my customers were the instructors on the island. 

I wasn’t just a weekend warrior. One day I would literally have four advanced nitrox people. The next day I’d have three technical nitrox people. The day after that I’d have a trimix class. And this went on from Monday to Sunday. There were weeks when I was jumping between teaching technical nitrox and trimix every day, and I would go back to my condo with a 90 ft³ cylinder of 100% oxygen (O2) and I’d read a book for the next four hours breathing O2 to zero out my tissues before the next day of teaching.

You were doing recreational instruction too? You were busy!

To give you an idea, I’d come out of the water after having done a 300-foot [91m] trimix dive and I’d scarf down lunch, because my staff booked me into a Discover Scuba class that afternoon with four people. I’d have the staff blend me a 50% [nitrox] mix and I’d go and decompress while doing a Discover Scuba class. Oh, and then there would be four people booked for a night dive. It was tough. I mean it wasn’t your one dive-a-day Florida type thing. We’re working in the Caribbean doing three-to four dives a day, and your first dive was a 300-footer [91m]!

Kirk receiving the Rolex Diver of the Year Award

You also did your share of personal deep diving like mapping a cross-section of the Cayman Wall down to 500-feet (150m)—on open circuit!

Overall, I did a more than a dozen in the 500 to 550-foot [150 tp 165m] range and probably 50 dives in the 400-foot plus [120m+] range. At that time in the late nineties, 500 foot [150m] was big. I mean there was probably only ten of us in the world doing 500-foot [150m] dives. Yeah, the wall mapping project was for my ex-girlfriend’s thesis in oceanography. We were never written about or acknowledged for all the things we were doing in Cayman, though some of it was pretty cool stuff. We were just under the radar. 

I know you provided support for Pipin’s 500-foot (150m) no-limits “Cayman Challenge” dive back in 1996. Was that your starting point?

Actually no. I was already freediving, but at the time I just thought of it as deep snorkeling or deep skin diving. I didn’t know anything about competitive freediving, which was still in its infancy. There was an Italian guy on his honeymoon, who was part of an apnea club. That was the first time I heard the word apnea in relation to diving. He wanted to get his 30-metre [110ft] badge and have us support him. 

We couldn’t find any rules on the pre-Google internet. So, I ended up writing a one-and-a-half-page plan how we were going to document and safety his record, with two depth gauges and video etc., and we go out and successfully do the dive. Not long after that Technical Diving International (TDI) co-founder Mitch Skaggs comes down and approached me about providing support for Pipin’s no-limits dive to 500 feet [150m].

That must have been exciting!

It was. I set up all the safety systems. We had divers and a deep sub at 500-feet [150m]. It was a two-breath record. Pipin was to go down halfway, take a breath off a small cylinder with light trimix, and then complete the dive. It was quite a story. He got a neurological hit on the first attempt, got treated locally, and after some drama with the Cayman authorities, came back and successfully made the dive a week later off the Cayman Aggressor.

So that led to your introduction to IAFD?

That’s right. Pipin came back to Cayman several months later with his partner Audrey Mestre. He had started an association called International Association of Freedivers (IAFD) and was going to give us a paid, three-day instructor course. At that point the whole association consisted of a big banner with the IAFD logo. There was only one other training organization out there and that was Umberto Pelizzari’s Apnea Academy. They had a banner, too. Not much else.

You mean there were no manuals or course materials? 

There was nothing. So we start the first day of class and Pipin starts talking about the mammalian dive reflex and how breathing can cure cancer. I’m on my computer taking notes and he asked me, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m taking notes.” And he said OK so I kept on writing, and later we went out and did a couple of dives.

The next day he had booked a half-day “experience” course for about a dozen people. Among the group is Tanya Streeter, who I later ended up training for a world record. Pipin introduces himself and then says “Oh, Kirk is going to teach you the rest!” I was like, “What?” I was totally unprepared for that. 

We’re out in the water for an hour and a half or so, and I look around and I don’t see Pipin or Audrey. Long story short, I get to the dive shop, and found out they had left for the airport. So, the next day, we call him. He said, “I had pressing business and had to get back. You’re all good. You’re all instructors. I’ll send you your cards.” I was, oh yeah, great. Ok.

Pipin did not talk about safety at all. We were never told what a blackout was, what hypoxia was, and or how to take care of it. It was like, if you had a blackout, it was like admitting you had contracted a venereal disease. It was kind of like decompression sickness in the tech community back in the early days. 

PFI meets TDI – Kirk and Brian shake on the deal

Your shop became the world headquarters for IAFD. You trained Tanya Streeter for her No-limits world record in 1998, and then Brett LeMaster for the Constant Ballast world record in 1999, and you started writing freediving manuals!

That’s right. I was one of the first to write a freediving specific manual. There was a short pamphlet by Jan Neil [Mastering Breath-hold Diving published by NAUI in 1997] that covered some of the physics and physiology but it was very rudimentary. Their reference to shallow water blackout was very cursory and the book didn’t address technique. There was also an important hard cover book by Dave Sipperly and Terry Maas titled Bluewater Hunting and Freediving that came out in 1998 but it really more about spearfishing than anything else.  Both books were informational; they did not present a “how to” system, 

I wrote the manuals, standards and procedures for IAFD and also shot videos. But they were pretty raw, and didn’t have a ton of technique. We did start to figure out hook and recovery breathing working with Tanya and Brett based on what felt good to get through their records, but they were still being developed. It wasn’t until Brett and I started teaching our own programs under the PFI banner that we really started to make leaps and bounds forward.

That was in 2000?

Yes, I parted ways with IAFD in summer of 1999 and later that year left Divetech and moved back to Vancouver. I was starting to specialize in freediving and develop a [training] system. Various groups were asking us to do a freediving program for them, so I started PFI with Brett’s help. I put together our standards and procedures and a manual and we held our first program in February 2000 in Vancouver to about a dozen people that Mandy [Mandy-Rae Cruickshank] organized. [Editor’s note: Krack began training Cruickshank that year and she went on to win seven world records and 13 Canadian national records.] 

So that’s when you really starting refining your techniques?

That’s right. We start refining what has been working based on trial and error and trying to understand the ‘why.’ Then once we start doing courses we realized that we had to come up with rules of thumb and protocols and standardize what we were doing. I was also during this time that I started running a 12-week Advanced Freediving Research Program through Simon Fraser University for seven years, as well as developing the counter-balance safety system which is used almost exclusively world wide in deep training and competitions.

You mentioned hook breathing for recovery (the diver exhales during the last few minutes of ascent and upon surfacing does a rapid inhale and holds it for three-seconds and repeats). How did you decide on that about? I was told, it mimics a pilot’s pressurized suit to prevent blackouts… 

That’s right. Brett and I first started doing it because it felt good. We didn’t know exactly why we doing it. Then we started thinking, who else experiences blackouts? Pilots. What do they do? So we started thinking about how flight suits work. The suit pressurizes the body from the outside to protect the pilot from blacking out. What we were doing was pressurizing the diver from the inside. The hook breath squeezes the blood vessels in the lungs to prevent them from over-dilating and stealing the blood flow to the brain which could result in a blackout. 

James Cameron and Kirk Krack on the set of Avatar 2. Photo courtesy: Lightstorm Entertainment / Disney

Physically elevating the PO2, clever! Then you created a protocol for it? 

Yes. Initially, Brett would just kind of do it until he felt like he had recovered. Whereas to teach it to groups of people you had to be definite. You just couldn’t say, well, do it until you feel good. So we refined it. Ok, you’re holding the hook breath for three seconds and then repeating it three times. Then we follow with three cleansing breaths [A quick inhale with a forcible exhale to get rid of the CO2]. Then we added a memory phrase, “Three hook breaths, three cleansing breaths” so people could remember the protocol.

So everyone is on the same page!

Exactly. The whole idea our system of training, is that an instructor in, say, Australia is going to teach someone there and then they’ll be able to come dive with me here in Canada and speak the same freediving language and protocols. “Ok, we’re going to do one up, one down. You’ll wait 30 seconds, while the recovering diver does their hook breaths.” And so on. 

So that’s how you gradually developed protocols and procedures that are used in PFI and many freediving programs today; weighting to be neutral at 33 feet (10m), “one up, one down” supervision, breath-ups, hook and recovery breathing, equalization, “blow, tap and touch” (to revive an unconscious diver) etc. 

That’s right!

PFI just introduced its “technical freediving” course aimed at professionals like safety divers and instructors. The idea of course, just like in scuba, is to breath a nitrox mix and or pure oxygen, before, during or after the freedive in order to improve a diver’s safety and performance, enabling them to go deeper and or stay down longer and reduce the risk of hypoxia. What’s the response been?

The response so far has generally been one of excitement and interest. There has been some push back from some lead members in other organizations, as was expected, but in time and with some experience they’ll also eventually see the benefits for working freedivers where the ‘best tool for the job’ may step outside the purist’s idea of what freediving is. It can definitely enhance safety.

You have been using oxygen as a recovery gas for training and world record attempts since 2001, and also incorporated nitrox and oxygen use for safety divers for PFI’s annual “Deja Blue” competition. Do you think others will follow PFI’s lead?

Over the next five years I think there will be the obvious areas where it will be fully integrated, like for safety divers and as a recovery gas for competitive freedive training and competitions. The use by safety freedivers is a no-brainer. It gives them an extra reserve to wait for an athlete that’s running behind and also the breath-hold to swim a diver to the surface if needed.

You’d think at some point, organizers of competitions may have to provide nitrox and O2 for safety divers or risk being considered an unsafe workplace, a matter of best practices. I mean what safety diver wouldn’t want to use nitrox? I understand PFI also uses nitrox to support instructors.

Absolutely! We have instructors use 32% [nitrox 32] on the surface in intermediate classes, especially in Hawaii, and for advanced classes. We’ll be in day four of an intermediate class and you have four to six students diving in the 30-40m [100-130ft] range. So the instructor will likely be doing 50 plus dives in that range during the session, on a surface interval of less than four minutes. They have to keep a visual on each student and be able to affect a rescue and then be give them each feedback on their dive during the surface interval. For advanced classes to 60m [200ft], we also use scooters because its unrealistic to think that an instructor is going to be able to supervise five or six students who are all going between 40 and 60m [130 and 200ft]. The PFI instructor is definitely the hardest working freediver out there!

You have also put ‘mix technology’ to work in your film projects… 

Yeah, for sure. And my goal in each one of them, besides The Cove, has been to expose freediving to the world; getting people to appreciate the underwater world. Yes, mixed gas has been essential. When we did Water Born, there was an episode where I chased Liz Parkinson around a shipwreck. I mean we did over 100 freedives a day for three days. We were using nitrox 36 at the surface and our average time two to three and a half minutes so we had to accelerate our surface interval and do some long repetitive breath-holds. I don’t think there was any other way to have done that.

I am assuming that you also used it for Mission Impossible Rogue Nation with Tom Cruise doing that four-minute breath-hold.

That was really the first Hollywood movie where I brought tech freediving into play, and for all the same reasons: short surface intervals, lengthened breath-holds, and to combat fatigue. Interestingly, we used 50% [50% oxygen, 50% nitrogen] but it was a fight to get it. I was up against a very determined anti-nitrox/O2 for breath-hold dive sentiment, simply because of the fear of the unknown and lack of understanding. Ultimately, we won out. 

Tom Cruise would routinely do four minutes. I mean by the time we would get down on the scene, get set up, cameras rolling, shoot the scene and finish, it was three to four minutes breath-holds day in day out. The guy’s an absolute athlete and an amazing student to work with. He actually did a 6.5-minute dry breath-hold on air.

Wow. May I ask you a question about your latest film work as a freediving safety, training and educational consultant on Avatar 2, or would you have to shoot me with a Na’vi hunting bow?


Technical freediving?

We’ve done well over a couple hundred thousand freedives shooting Avatar these past two and a half years with a whole host of different ages, body types, fitness, and experience levels. Since using technical freediving we’ve had no issues or hypoxic episodes. We have pulled off some very hard breath-holds that would put even the best through their paces. So any apprehension about nitrox breath-holds in the movie business should be fully dispelled and its use widely accepted after Avatar.

Do you think Avatar 2 will inspire people to become freedivers the way the old Cousteau movies inspired people to take up scuba?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, Avatar 2 will be the biggest freediving movie ever produced. It just happens in the future on another planet with aliens. But what people are going to see is “wet for wet,” meaning we shot it wet. This isn’t Aquaman, where it’s supposed to be underwater but he’s actually hanging from wires with a fan in his hair. It isn’t dry for wet. It is also going to pretty amazing to see how it’s done, and the behind the scenes is just going to blow people away.

I see you Kirk. Thank you. 

Discover Water Born TV here

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