Inhale. Take in as much air as you can and hold it until I tell you to stop. This is a story about how deep a single breath can take you.
The idea that we as humans don’t yet fully understand where our limits lie is an enticing one, and one that binds freedivers together. For his recent book One Breath, Adam Skolnick interviewed most of the world’s best. “I learned that humans have these capabilities that we’re not tapping into,” he tells me. “That’s what freedivers love to do: tap into this reservoir of human ability that most people don’t even approach.”
At some point during my first freediving lesson I found myself sinking through clear water with weights attached to my neck and hips, like a corpse dumped by mobsters. I was trying not to think about the phrase ‘he sleeps with the fishes’. I was trying not to think about anything at all. The first thing you have to learn is not to panic.
When you’ve been holding your breath for a while soon enough a thought will cross your mind: ‘I wonder how long that’s been?’ Just after that your muscles will start to tense up. There are sensors called chemoreceptors in your heart and skull and they’ve clocked there’s too much carbon dioxide building up in your system. Your body’s natural alarm is screaming at you to breathe. Ignore it. This is just your internal ‘20% battery remaining’ warning. Despite how it feels you still have oxygen left, so tell yourself to relax.
The other thing I was trying not to think about is how dangerous freediving can be even for those at the very top of the sport. Last August, one of the world’s best freedivers Natalia Molchanova died off the coast of Formentera in the Mediterranean. She lost touch with her group and never resurfaced. It wasn’t the first freediving tragedy. In November 2013, another diver named Nick Mevoli died while competing in the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas when fluid filled his lungs. These are not good things to dwell on while ten foot underwater
Okay, take a breath now. Did you notice what you just did? You exhaled for a long time before breathing in. This is your body flushing out the carbon dioxide. It’s a natural reaction, but it’s also bad news because what you need is to get oxygen into your system. Freedivers learn to perform just a short exhale, then a smooth inhale when they surface. This is important, because if you’re spending a long time underwater it’s often when you come back up that you can blackout or have what freedivers refer to, with a certain dark humour, as a ‘samba’. The medical term for this is an LMC (loss of motor control) and it’s marked by violent convulsions of your head, arms and legs. You know, like dancing a samba.
Because of the dangers of blacking out or drowning, you should always freedive with a buddy. Fortunately for me my buddy is Liv Philip, the British women’s freedive champion six times over and a woman capable of diving 65 metres (213ft) on a single breath.
Philip teaches freediving at a pool in Richmond, and she tells me that the sport is now attracting a broad swathe of people with different motivations, from triathletes who want to improve their ability in the water to high-flying city types just looking for a way to switch off. That’s one of the things about freediving: for an extreme sport, it’s remarkably zen. Becoming a serious freediver requires the ability to lower your heart rate and clear your mind of distractions.
“There’s a lot in the media at the moment about mindfulness and we get quite a few people coming at it from that angle,” explains Philip. “It’s about not trying to do something, but just being in the moment.”
As well as being responsible for attaching those weights to me, Philip also takes me through the basics of freedive breathing. She teaches me to prepare for a dive by fully exhaling for eight seconds, inhaling for four, and then repeating the process three times over. The difference is notable. My first time under the water I barely last sixty seconds, using her methods I can stay down for more than two minutes. Try it for yourself, it will be easier than last time.
The speed at which it’s possible to tap into potential you didn’t realise you had is a big draw for new freedivers, especially when you realise it’s actually possible to dive deeper than most scuba divers. Beyond around 60 metres, breathing in air is lethal. Freedivers can go deeper.
How much deeper nobody really knows. Records are being broken all the time. In the 1950s, scientists believed that the deepest a human could dive was about 30 metres (100 ft). After that, it was assumed the pressure would crush your ribcage and kill you.
The reason the pressure doesn’t kill you is thanks to an evolutionary trait known as the ‘mammalian dive reflex’. You have more in common with your average sea otter than you might think. As soon as you enter cold water, your body naturally lowers your heart rate and moves blood from your extremities into your core to protect your vital organs. This is why you’ll find you’re able to hold your breath much longer underwater than you could on land.
Freedivers never listened to the scientists anyway, and have gone on to beat their predicted maximum depth many times over. Some, like “the deepest man on earth” Herbert Nitsch, use a watersled to dive and a balloon to surface, allowing him to reach a staggering 831 feet in June 2012. Others, like Aleix Segura, inhale pure oxygen from cans before they go underwater. He smashed the Guinness World Record for the longest underwater breath-hold this February with a time of 24 minutes 3 seconds.
However, most purist freedivers eschew the use of oxygen canisters or watersleds. One of the appeals of the sport is that it can be done without any equipment at all.
William Trubridge is the current world record holder for the deepest dive without equipment or fins, having reached a depth of 101 metres (331 ft) in December 2010. “It’s an idyllic sport because it’s a pure expression of human potential,” he tells me when I ask what spurs him to keep breaking records. “We’re exploring our own depths and the depths of the planet. Being a part of that process is exciting. There aren’t too many frontiers left on our planet, so if you’re part of that discovery of human limits it’s actually a really privileged place to be.”
For all the dangers, it’s that plunge into the unknown that keeps pushing freedivers deeper.
WHAT EXTREME DEPTHS DO TO YOUR BODY
As soon as you so much as put your face into cold water, receptors on your skin instigate the mammalian dive reflex, the same reflex found in otters and dolphins. The first effect is to lower your heart rate, which means less oxygen is required in your bloodstream.
Fingers and toes
As you continue to dive, capillaries in your extremities start to close, stopping blood circulation to the furthest reaches of your body. This starts in your fingers and toes, then hands and feet, and eventually even arms and legs. It will give you cramp, but it also leaves more oxygen for where it’s most needed: your heart and brain.
Eventually, you will experience something known as ‘blood shift’. The blood from your extremities is now rushing into your core to support your lungs and prevent your chest from collapsing under the increased pressure.
For the first few metres of your dive, you’ll have had to paddle down because your air-filled lungs will be buoyant, and trying to pull you towards the surface. At the 10 metre mark (33ft) the pressure on your body doubles and the contracting air shrinks your lungs to half their normal size. At 12 metres (40ft), you hit ‘negative buoyancy’ and will be able to fall without paddling.
Remarkably, your brain appears to survive this process unscathed. Freedivers below 30 metres (100ft) have recorded heart rates as low as 14 beats per minute, which is roughly a third of that of a person in a coma yet, thanks to the mammalian dive reflex, they’ve remained conscious and kept swimming.