By Peter Buchan

Image by Umberto Pelizzari

One of the fastest-growing watersports today, freediving offers all water lovers a unique opportunity to connect mind and body. But deep down in the dark, things get more serious.

The outcome’s largely determined before you begin: what was once just an aquatic dream became intent, and that intent has morphed into action. Now it’s time to execute. A degree of (distracted) anticipation is permitted here, but not excitement; excitement is the harbinger of failure… or worse. Your breathing rhythm stabilises as you banish the world, layer by layer, until all that remains is “within”. You know you’ll be alone, and that the ocean is utterly indifferent to you, your grand plans and the demons that haunt you. It asks, demands, only this: that you flow through it with respect. A final, impossibly deep breath, then descent. Powerful fin strokes at first until your buoyancy becomes neutral, then negative, followed by the sublime, semi-consciousness of free-fall.

The pressure builds fast. At just 30m your lungs are already compressed to one-third of their size, drawing blood from your extremities into your chest cavity to prevent your ribcage from imploding. Your pulse rate plummets and your diaphragm drives upwards into your torso as the ocean probes you for weakness. As your target depth approaches a thought squirts up from the reptilian cortex of your brain: “up.” It’s come early, but you ignore it and hold on to touch the bottom marker before turning back – back toward the surface, and the rest of your life. Now for the serious part.

You’re kicking hard but somehow the weave-pattern on the shot-line appears to hardly move. You sense your diaphragm starting to tighten; Zen has left the building, the contractions are on their way. Gaining some momentum now. The surrounding gloom lightens a little, but you dare not look up. Contractions arrive in force. Close your eyes. Relax! (shh… don’t shout). Brain fires a pulse through your body, hunting for any wasteful muscular tension. Legs losing feeling from lactate-overload. Chest expanding again. Eardrums crackle… pressure easing… almost there! But you’re still a long way from home: an invisible demon lurks here – the Shallow Water Blackout – and it feeds on the hypoxic dreams of freedivers and spearfishermen. Lungs. Bursting. Need-air-NOW-you-have-to…

Breathe. It is our first and last act in life, but in between the two, the average person will breathe 30 000 times a day. It hardly warrants a thought, yet a simple breath harbours secrets with the potential to shape human mental and physical well-being. Have you ever heard of the mammalian dive reflex? Well, you have one. It is the genetic echo of a shared aquatic past.

From the marvel of aquatic cave art to the 400-year history of the Ama divers of Japan, our love affair with the deep has never strayed far from the historical narrative, and at the very edge of this love is a group of humans prepared to risk everything to see just how far into the past they can make their genes remember. This small tribe is driving human aquatic potential to unimaginable levels, while the medical fraternity anxiously bears witness from above, clipboards and defibrillators at the ready.

When Jeff Clark, a 17-year-old surfer from California, paddled out to challenge the huge waves at Mavericks (before it was widely discovered by the big-wave surfing community), it was a seminal moment in surfing history. But what made Clark’s decision extraordinary wasn’t the courage he displayed in popping the cork on a break that strikes fear into the hearts of big-wave matadors, it was that, for 15 years, he rode Mavericks’ frigid green walls of death alone. Solo endeavours like Clark’s offer visible waypoints due to the popular and extroverted nature of his chosen sport, but for the supreme benchmark I suggest we return to the previous century and the curious case of Greek sponge diver, Haggi Statti.

First, consider that as recently as the 1960s medical science held it “impossible for humans to survive submersion below 50m”. One wonders, then, what such learned men would have thought when a merchant ship lost its anchor off Karpathos in 1913 in around 80m of water. As the salvage masters debated how they might retrieve the valuable bronze, a local man approached and casually offered to go down and tie a rope to it, and then did exactly that. Statti must have seemed a circus curiosity to the slack-jawed onlookers: small in stature and mostly deaf (he had no eardrum in one ear and just a quarter left of the other), he subsequently described the surreal existence of haunting the depths where none could follow; a proto-astronaut with no-one to share his secret rapture with but the startled Mediterranean fishes.

In its adolescence, competitive freediving rested on two principles: go deep and (hopefully) survive. But once science started peering under the veil of human aquatic capacity, distinct competitive disciplines began to emerge. Derived from a rather flexible consensus regarding how much external assistance a diver should receive, the first fork in the river came about regarding the use of a weighted sled versus human propulsion alone. These branches would ultimately split and be redefined again to arrive at today’s freediving menu.

THE SUPER-APNOEISTS

The sport of freediving continued to grow as a result of intense rivalries between extraordinary individuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jaques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca taunted oblivion as they smashed through the medically-decreed impossible 50m barrier and then kept going down until Mayol gazed up from the darkness below 100m in 1976. It was also Mayol who had the vision to seek and import yogic relaxation and breathing techniques from the East.

The next great rivalry followed in the 1990s between the Cuban giant, Pipin Ferreras, and the charismatic Italian, Umberto Pelizzari. Though their extraordinary achievements have been superseded by today’s super-aponeists, the Ferreras-Pelizzari standoff was pivotal  in that it provoked a broader reassessment of the sport’s underlying philosophies. Their differences in style and approach saw Ferreras employ drainpipe-like Eustachian tubes to drive the no-limits record to an astonishing 162m in 2000. In contrast, Pelizzari, a multiple record-holder across many disciplines, elected instead to go in search of a state of mind and body that his mentor Jaques Mayol described as Homo Delphinus (roughly translated as the human dolphin). If you have not yet seen it, then Bob Talbot’s classic Imax movie, Oceanmen, will confirm that this is exactly what Pelizzari found.

While the classic rivalries shattered our concept of what was medially possible, modern sports science and updated training techniques would open the way for a new generation of athletes, and the next big rivalry: Austrian Herbert Nitsch versus William Trubridge from New Zealand. Nitsch, widely considered as the most naturally-gifted apnoeist yet, dominated every depth discipline but one from the mid-2000s, setting 33 world records until electing to retire from competitive apnoea after suffering a serious injury in a mind-numbing, no-limits dive to 258m in 2012. Trubridge made history by breaking the 100m barrier in the newest, purest and most difficult discipline of the sport – the “constant weight no fins” category where divers are only permitted to use breaststroke. Maximum performances have been equally extreme in the swimming pool, with Serbian Branko Petrovic driving the unofficial static breath-hold mark past 12 minutes in 2014.

Natalia Molchanova, a Russian freediver is redefining our understanding of physiological and mental boundaries in the  sport today as she holds over 40 world deep- and pool-diving records. Tanya Streeter from the Cayman Islands is another force to be reckoned with, as she set the absolute depth mark at 160m in 2002. In a sport where the mental component exceeds that of 70%, we should not be surprised to find that human aquatic potential amongst genders is comparable.

A SOUTH AFRICAN RENAISSANCE?

South Africa has much to feel proud about, considering the ocean conditions and non-existent sponsorship environment our athletes face. Faced with the prospect of 3m swells in the strong Mozambique Current and frigid stormy seas in the Cape, South African apnoeists have largely eschewed competition in favour of the hunt, generating a world-wide reputation for steely-nerved spearfishers and legendary survival tales along the way. Even so, athletes like Trevor Hutton, Bevan Dewar and Hanli Prinsloo have managed to “notch down” performances that established South Africa in the mid-to-upper echelons of the sport, and in June this year our local scene received a long-awaited boost with the hosting of the first South African championship event in over a decade (in Port Elizabeth).

Freediving’s “extreme sport” reputation is not only misdirected,  but false – as anyone that has ever received just a few hours’ basic instruction will tell you. Knowledge equals safety and fun, and as a result, freediving is experiencing a global surge in interest as word spreads about its potential to improve general mental and physical well-being through the benefits that its breathing and training principles can impart to stressed-out urban life. These principles are beneficial to scuba diving in particular too.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering about what it might feel like to truly become one with water, take a moment to remember the dolphin inside.