A native of New Zealand, long-time Kona resident Niki Stepanek grew up in Tauranga on the North Island’s Bay of Plenty, spending most of her time in or on the water.
“My family spent all weekends and holidays out boating and harvesting seafood from the ocean. By the time my sister and I were 6 or 7, we were jumping off the back of the boat, diving to retrieve all things–kitchen utensils! Our parents threw them in as a sort of start to our freediving training,” Niki says.
Flash forward to 2010 and Niki, then thirty-one, set a New Zealand national record in freediving without fins to a depth of 206 feet. It is a record she continues to hold to this day. Following years of traveling the world, diving in locations throughout the Red Sea, the Atlantic, and the Pacific, she landed in Hawai'i which she says has the very best year-round diving conditions in the world.
“The entire Kona-Kohala Coastline offers a number of diverse diving opportunities, and generations of those living here have been freediving for recreation and spearfishing for sustenance, as is the case in most ocean communities around the globe,” Niki says.
With a goal of giving back to her adopted home, Niki who is deeply passionate about ocean safety, founded FreeDiveSafe, a non-profit 510C(3) organization in Kailua-Kona in August 2020. The ultimate catalyst for her decision was the release of government statistics that revealed 50 percent of the state’s drowning fatalities from January to July that year were freediving related.
“Modern freediving safety training is an essential element to spearfishing practices, ensuring our divers can safely enjoy harvesting from the ocean. Modern freediving protocols have really advanced in the last 10 to 15 years, and I am dedicated to ensuring this training becomes available statewide and is integrated into the tradition of handing down sports techniques to the next generation,” Niki says.
Together with a team of freediving and spearfishing industry leaders and with grants in hand, Niki’s FreediveSafe! introduced a free community dive safety training program targeted to those 12 to 25 years of age. Currently, it is the only freediving and spearfishing safety nonprofit organization addressing this need in the Hawaiian Islands.
“As freediving and spearfishing continue to grow in popularity, it becomes more urgent to make this safety training accessible to everyone without the cost being a factor,” Niki says. In addition to grants, the organization has received a number of individual donations.
“Our training is proven to save lives, and so far 600 Hawai'i residents have taken part since the program’s beginning,” she says. “And while we do offer it to those 12 to 25 years of age, about 80 percent of our students are in the middle school to high school age group.”
It’s an age group, the team says, that is most impressionable and also an age group who needs education. In too many cases, they say, these kids go out diving alone and never come home.
FreeDiveSafe’s team of certified freediving instructors conducts a one-day 4-hour course—2.5 hours in the classroom and 2.5 hours in the water—that introduces students to proper freediving supervision, basic safety, and rescue procedures used in recreational freediving and spearfishing. These courses are offered at various times of the year in Kailua-Kona and Waimea, as well as various neighboring island locations.
“This course should be viewed as a minimum requirement for everyone participating in any form of freediving. The number one takeaway is never dive alone—always dive with a buddy who is also trained in safety protocols, including how to recognize when your partner is suffering from oxygen deprivation and critical rescue techniques,” Niki says.
The organization also offers educational presentations customized to the needs of specific groups (clubs, schools, community). Tailored to the group’s interests and age level, the presentations are 40 minutes in length with a 15-minute Q&A. The presentation covers the risks associated with breath-hold-related activities, how these risks are mitigated with formal training, and how these safety and rescue techniques can be integrated into the diving community so everyone can come home safely.
“Together, we can prevent freediving-related deaths in our ocean communities.”
For more information on this non-profit organization including details on upcoming programs, visit freedivesafe.org. To help with the cause visit the Donate page.