If the weather is nice, expect to find Danyar Khaiboulin somewhere on, in or under the water. Born and raised in Anna Maria Island, water is something that has always been a integral part of his life. It wasn’t until later, though, did he realize that holding one’s breath while plunging to deeper depths has a technical term: free diving. “I got into free diving and spearfishing over a decade ago and immediately knew that this was my type of fun,” he shares. Upon learning the basics in his home waters, he took his skills to places like Louisiana, Key West and beyond. But the Gulf of Mexico remains his stomping grounds where he spends most of his free time chasing grouper and mangrove snapper around shallow structures and reefs. His proficiency for spearfishing large game has led him on commercial diving trips where he’s shot miraculously big fish. “I focused on honing my craft, which turned into a lifestyle—allowing me to meet some incredible people and travel to remarkable places.” Khaiboulin has since started Danyar Diving school, becoming a personal instructor and guide with the ability to endure static breath holds of six minutes and three minutes of active swimming underwater. Without scuba gear, he’s been to depths of 150 to 200 feet. He is now called upon by local dive shops such as Scuba Quest—having recently hosted a series of free free-diving seminars for curious beginners. His presentations include tips/techniques on how to increase your breath-holding, safety concerns, equipment needs and what goes into getting your Level 1 Certification Course to properly free dive. “I prefer the challenge of spearfishing on breath-hold as it is a more primitive, sustainable way to harvest the freshest-caught seafood. One dive, one shot, one fish, and I haven’t bought seafood since,” he states. Khaiboulin has a strong group of fellow divers who avidly jump on the boat with him—adamant about watching each other’s backs while hunting out in the elements. And it’s no secret that his favorite time of the year to go spearfishing is in the winter when fish school up and move inshore, the water becomes clearer and the boat traffic subsides due to the cooler temps. “I love this city and am grateful to be able to experience everything that the local gulf waters have to offer year-round,” he says. “I will always be drawn to the sea, and as the years pass, I realize what Jacques Cousteau meant when he wrote, ‘The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.’” —  B. MATTIE    Free-Diving Instructor and Fishing Guide, @danyar_diving, 

Favorite Spots to Free Dive + Spearfish

On calm days when seas are flat, I often find myself pointing the bow west and heading offshore. The Gulf of Mexico has incredible fisheries and many mesmerizing dive sites to choose from. My favorite spots to dive tend to be old wrecks. These sunken vessels attract a plethora of diverse marine life. It is common to see clouds of baitfish, barracudas, groupers, snappers, cobia and massive goliath groupers on a single-breath-hold dive.

If it is too rough to go offshore, Sarasota Bay becomes my playground. The first gag grouper I ever speared was at New Pass, now over a decade ago. I still remember the exact rock he was under and how delicious the meal turned out to be. There are numerous artificial reefs scattered throughout the bay, which all hold fish, including snappers, sheepshead, grouper and occasionally even stone crabs.

Traveling south on Siesta Key down to Crescent Beach you will run into a hidden gem called Point of Rocks. This area is full of large picturesque boulders and flat moss-covered rocks adjacent to the beach. Growing up, I would frequent this easily accessible spot and it seldom disappointed. Shore dives can be tricky and one must learn how to time the tides to avoid diving in murky waters.

Fitness + Training Tips

The absolute best way to train for free diving and spearfishing is to go free diving and spearfishing as much as you can. Additionally, I try to stay consistent on my dry-apnea training and dive the freshwater springs here in Florida when I can’t get offshore. Stretching and staying hydrated is essential. Pairing free diving with spearfishing allows me to selectively harvest and provide fresh seafood for my family and friends. If you think you have what it takes to take the plunge, then come take a free-diving class with your local instructor and fathom the ocean on a deeper level.

Beginner Tips

There are many resources online to get started. YouTube is a great platform to learn and discover virtually. Some of my favorite channels to watch include YBS Youngbloods, Adam Freediver, Daniel Mann and Back2Basics Adventures. Additionally, there are local Facebook groups that you can join, learn from and network. I am an active member of the Tampa Freedive Spearfishing group and the Tampa Bay Spearfishing group.

Free diving and spearfishing are team sports. The iron-clad rule is that one should never dive alone. The local diving community is a tightly knit group, but most good divers are generous with their knowledge. If you put in the effort and show respect, you will find new dive buddies and perhaps lifelong friends. The etiquette is pretty simple: show up prepared on time, bring ice, chip in for boat fuel and never leave without helping to wash the boat or fillet the day’s catch.

Arguably the fastest and easiest way to get into this sport is to take a class. A good instructor can shorten your learning curve tenfold. Breaking bad habits is tough, especially with free diving. Taking a free-diving class will teach you to dive safer, deeper and longer. You will learn about crucial safety protocols, how to “deep” breathe effectively, specific stretches, diaphragm control, efficient finning techniques, proper buoyancy, effective relaxation, dive physiology, peak inhalations, O2/CO2 tolerances, Frenzel equalization and much more.

Nourishment + Snackage

With all your freediving gear packed, it is time to load the cooler with ice and get some lunch essentials. Staying hydrated is very important while you dive. On most days, I will try to finish a gallon jug of water.  For lunch, I like to pack fruit, stone crab claws (when in season) and make homemade snapper ceviche. Ceviche is a South American seafood dish made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices, topped with fresh peppers, onions, tomatoes, mangos, cilantro and jalapeños. It is light and packed full of nutrients to keep me diving well throughout the day.

Top Gear

Keeping your gear organized and maintained is crucial to having a successful day in the water. Long-blade fins are a must, along with a comfortable mask, snorkel, weight belt, an underwater timer/watch and a full body wetsuit for the winter months. Sarasota Scuba Quest supplies me on all my diving adventures and has all the essential gear with quality brands that one would need to get started in free diving. We have teamed up to bring the best aquatic experience possible to anyone interested in free diving.

Aqua Lung i200C dive computer watch. Mares mask star liquidskin mask Omer open-cell mix 3D wetsuit Deep See aqua glide fins Hammerhead proteus spearguns Riffe rubber weight belt  Scuba Quest, 1055 South Tamiami Trl., Sarasota, 941-366-1530, @sarasotascubaquest, and 3318 Manatee Ave. W, Bradenton, 941-745-2511, @bradentonscubaquest