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Six stories under


Freediving: a form of underwater diving that relies on divers' ability to hold their breath until resurfacing, rather than on the use of scuba gear.

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READ NO.2

READ NO.2

Words by James Nestor

I can't hear anything. I can't see anything. My head throbs. The last breath I took was a minute ago and I won't be breathing again for at least another minute. The air in my lungs, shrunk to half their normal volume, is pulling my stomach inward and upwards toward my spine. The cavities inside my ears feel as though they are about to explode. Something beeps. It's my dive watch. I look down and notice I've just hit the seafloor, six stories below the surface.

Ancient cultures understood human's ability to dive and exploited them for thousands of years to harvest shells, coral and food from the deep ocean floor. Archaeological evidence of ancient freediving cultures goes back as far as ten thousand years, while Homer wrote of divers who latched themselves to heavy rocks and plunged below 100 feet to cut sponges from the seafloor. In the 1st century BC trade between the Mediterranean coast and Asia exploded, in part because of red coral, a favorite cure­-all in Chinese and Indian medicine. Most red coral grew at depths below 100 feet and could be collected only by freediving.

Then there were the pearl divers, who flourished in the Caribbean, South Pacific, Persian Gulf, and Asia for more than three thousand years. When Marco Polo visited Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the late 14th century AD, he witnessed pearl divers plummeting more than 120 feet on dives that lasted up to four minutes.

  • Free diving enthusiast speak of the deep connection they feel with the underwater ocean and its inhabitants. Image: Frederic Buyle

Free diving enthusiast speak of the
deep connection they feel with the
underwater ocean and its inhabitants.
Image: Frederic Buyle

“Freediving is freedom. You're floating weightless, in harmony with the sea. It's just so calm, so peaceful. It's an incredible experience you can have just by diving naturally into the ocean.”

Guillaume Néry

By the beginning of the 20th century, new pearl farming and fishing technologies had made freediving obsolete. Historians rejected the historical accounts of ancient freedivers as exaggerations and by the 1940s, scientists predicted that the deepest a human could dive was 100 feet. Any deeper and the lungs would suffer a fatal collapse.

A stocky Italian air force lieutenant named Raimondo Bucher decided to test that scientific theory. In 1949 he bet a friend that he could hold his breath and plummet to the seafloor of Capri, Italy, a depth of over 100 feet. Bucher won the bet, in the process becoming the world’s first ever competitive freediver.

Within a decade, freedivers were diving to depths of more than 250 feet. By the 1980s, those records were doubled. Today, the human body's potential in water appears to be practically limitless. The world record breath-­hold is 12 minutes and 10 seconds, while the deepest freedive recorded is some 700 feet.

But freediving is more than just a competition. For the millions of recreational divers around the world, diving naturally, without machines, is the most direct and intimate way to connect with the ocean and its inhabitants. For them it's a deeply transcendent underwater meditation. No one has more brilliantly demonstrated this lucubratory side of the sport than Guillaume Néry, a French diver whose otherworldly videos Free Fall and Ocean Gravity have been viewed by over 50 million people.

“Freediving is freedom,” says Néry. “You're floating weightless, in harmony with the sea.” He mentions that his dream has always been to fly in space, but realises that dream everytime he takes a breath and floats weightless in the ocean. “It's just so calm, so peaceful.” Néry hopes the videos, which he produces with his freediving wife, Julie Gautier, give non­ divers a view into the calm, alien, and limitless world of freediving. “It's an incredible experience you can have just by diving naturally into the ocean.”

Freediver Hanli Prinsloo
swimming alongside a
whale Shark

  • Freediver Hanli Prinsloo swimming alongside a whale Shark

  •  

“The greatest advantage of freediving is that you are silent, you become part of the environment. That gives you access to oceanic animals that nobody else has.”

Fred Buyle

You don't need to dive 100, 200 or 300 feet to feel this connection. Diving to just 20 feet will place you at the cusp of the calm, zero ­gravity zone that Néry highlights in his videos. Right after this depth the ocean stops tugging you to surface and starts gently pulling you towards the seafloor.

To many, this will sound terrifying. The human body may be capable of descending to incredible depths, but that's not to say it's always easy. Dozens of freedivers have died attempting world ­record dives, and hundreds more have been seriously hurt. While there has never been a fatality at an AIDA ­organised competition, enough freedivers have drowned in outside sanctioned competitions to rank freediving as the second most dangerous sport. Of the 10,000 active freedivers in the United States, about 20 will die every year... some 1 in 500. Indeed shortly before this magazine went to press, 41-time world freedive record holder Natalia Molchanova tragically failed to surface during a planned 115ft dive near Ibiza.

But freediving needn’t be dangerous says Fred Buyle, a Belgian former world­ champion freediver. He points to the Ama, a tribe of Japanese women who have freedived for food for more than twenty thousand years off the coast of Japan. In the 18th century, the Ama were considered the world's largest fishing fleet – more than 10,000 dived the Japanese coasts.

In no historical account (and there are many) was there any mention of an Ama getting injured or dying while freediving. “It's because they were responsible, they knew the ocean, and they knew their place within it,” says Buyle, who was born in Belgium and now lives in the Azores. “To me, freediving was always about exploring the ocean, being a part of it,” he says. “When competitive freediving became just another sport, I quit.”

Free diving enthusiast speak of the deep
connection they feel with the underwater
ocean and its inhabitants.
Image: Frederic Buyle

  • Free diving enthusiast speak of the deep connection they feel with the underwater ocean and its inhabitants. Image: Frederic Buyle

 

That was in 2004. Since then Buyle has become one of the world's foremost freediving photographers. He's also helped spearhead a new practice of freediving scientific research. “The greatest advantage of freediving is that you are silent, you become part of the environment,” says Buyle. “That gives you access to oceanic animals – sharks, dolphins, whales – that nobody else has.” Buyle now works with French freediving engineer, Fabrice Schnoller, on the DAREWIN project, which is using freediving research in an attempt to understand cetacean click communication. Unlike scuba, which disrupts the underwater environment and scares off oceanic animals, freediving is silent, maintains Buyle.

“Freediving is really taking us where nobody has gone before, allowing us to document cetacean (marine mammal) behaviour for the first time.” In just four years of part­ time diving, Buyle and Schnoller have captured more cetacean behaviour and communication than anyone – any institution, any organisation – in history. “We're at the beginning of some amazing discoveries,” says Buyle. “And it's all because of freediving.”

The ocean is where all life on the planet came from, and where all things will eventually end up. There's more than twice as much of it to explore than there is land to stand on. The next time you're anchored out, try cutting the motor, grabbing a mask, taking a deep breath, and diving in. That calm and meditative awareness that takes over the second you submerge in water – that's the feeling of our million-­year-old amphibious reflexes kicking in. It's your body reminding you that you've made it back home.


Six stories under


  • Six stories under

  • Free diving enthusiast speak of the deep connection they feel with the underwater ocean and its inhabitants. Image: Frederic Buyle

  • Freediver Hanli Prinsloo swimming alongside a whale Shark

  •  

  • Free diving enthusiast speak of the deep connection they feel with the underwater ocean and its inhabitants. Image: Frederic Buyle