Down, down, deeper, and down

To be a champion freediver, you have to get about 150m out of your depth. Simon Rogerson discovers that those who head for the deep on a single breath of air are a breed apart
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The Independent Online

Take a very deep breath, hold it, and read on... Picture the scene: a group of scuba divers is swimming along a drop-off at 40 metres, close to the depth limits of recreational scuba. Then, without warning, a streamlined figure streaks past them, heading deeper.

Take a very deep breath, hold it, and read on... Picture the scene: a group of scuba divers is swimming along a drop-off at 40 metres, close to the depth limits of recreational scuba. Then, without warning, a streamlined figure streaks past them, heading deeper.

The mystery diver has huge fins and a broad grin, which is clearly visible because he is not using any breathing apparatus. With a cheery wave, he arches his body and continues his descent. Instead of relying on a bulky set of scuba equipment, he only needs the gulp of air he took at the surface. Welcome to freediving.

The freediving world is at present abuzz with talk of the latest record set at the World Freediving Championships, which took place in Ibiza two weeks ago. The Austrian Herbert Nitsch, 30, finned his way to 86m in the constant weight category (diving as deep as you can, then ascending with the same weight you went down with) – but given the sport's ultra-competitive nature, his achievement will almost certainly be eclipsed in the next few months. The other principal freediving categories are no-limits (going down on a weighted sled and coming up with the assistance of an air bag); dynamic apnea (swimming underwater in a pool, not at depth) and static apnea (holding your breath while staying still in a pool). The latter may not appear quite as dramatic as no-limits, but any readers still holding their breath may be appreciating the discipline.

This year, the men's team prize went to Italy, with France second and Sweden third. In the women's section, Canada came first, the United States second and Italy third. The men's result was no surprise. For the past decade, the legendary Italian freediver Umberto Pelizzari has dominated the sport. An enigmatic figure who meditates as part of his training, Pelizzari was in part driven by a rivalry with the pugnacious Cuban diver Pipin Fererras. This rivalry is so intense that they refuse to appear at the same events. (A new, big-budget IMAX film, Ocean Men, focuses on their determination to out-do each other, but the production was fraught with logistical difficulties, because the stars refused to appear together.)

It's all been seen before. In the 1960s, a legendary rivalry developed between the freedivers Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca, which was later fictionalised for Luc Besson's cult film The Big Blue (1988). Many freedivers groan at the mention of it, but privately admit that the film has done the sport a lot of good. And the Big Blue stereotype often holds true: many freedivers are mysterious, enigmatic (though some go to considerable pains to cultivate the image) and beautiful.

But now, the older generation is making way. A new crop of freedivers is developing, with exercise programmes as exacting as any carried out by mainstream athletes. Pelizzari may have broken the near-mystical 150m barrier for no-limits freediving last year, but "the deepest man in the world" is now Loic Leferme of France, who pushed the record to 154m just before this year's championships.

One of the new standard-bearers for the sport is Tanya Streeter, 28, a joint US-UK citizen who grew up in the Cayman Islands. In 1998, she created a storm by taking the world record for constant-weight diving in fresh water. Her dive to 57m in 2min 10sec made her the first woman ever to set a world freediving record for both men and women. Streeter is confident that women freedivers will soon begin to match the performances of the men, and could eclipse them. "Women have higher pain thresholds and greater lung capacity," she says. "So there's no physiological reason why we can't perform at the same level."

As with all extreme sports, freediving carries risks. The biggest threat to freedivers comes in the form of shallow-water blackouts – a sudden loss of consciousness caused by oxygen starvation during the diver's ascent. It is most likely to occur within five metres of the surface when expanding lungs, desperate for air, drain oxygen from the diver's blood. It's for this reason that competitive free-divers surround themselves with support and rescue teams. To date, there has been no serious research into the long-term effects of freedivers regularly depriving their bodies of oxygen.

Freediving has come a long way since the halcyon days of Mayol and Majorca. The sport's stars are increasingly running their own schools; thus, there are ever more committed freedivers likely to smash records. And Streeter has struck up a sponsorship deal with Red Bull that is indicative of the serious money now beginning to enter the sport. The sport is in a state of transition, but some things stay the same. "People still say there is an absolute point when we just won't be able to go any deeper," Streeter says. "But whenever a scientist tries to set that limit, a freediver comes along and breaks it. The truth is that we are redefining our limits every day."

Still holding your breath? Reading at a brisk pace, it would take about four or five minutes to get through this article. The current record for static apnea is held by Martin Stephaneck, 24, of Czechoslovakia, who can hold his breath for eight minutes and six seconds. He'd be able to read it twice.

The body

The no-limits world record is 154m – that's five Nelson's Columns stacked on top of each other. Just before descending, freedivers take a series of deep breaths to oxygenate their bodies. As the diver descends, blood ceases flowing to the extremities and accumulates in the chest cavity. This prevents the chest and lungs from collapsing with the increased pressure, and rations the supply of oxygenated blood to vital organs such as the brain and the heart. During a free-dive, the spleen is said to shrink, causing a release of extra blood cells. This change, similar to one observed in diving dolphins, may improve the delivery of oxygen to critical tissues.

By the time the diver reaches 150m, the gulp of air he took at the surface will have been reduced to one-sixteenth of its original volume by the pressure of the water. This gradually expands again as the diver ascends. Safety divers attend in case the free-diver blacks out during the ascent, and there's a team of paramedics at the surface.

The facts

The world's governing body for freedivers is the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), based in France. For information: e-mail CLAUDE.CHAPUIS@wanadoo.fr. Or check out the website www.multimania.com/aidafrance/Home_eng.htm.

In Britain, contact Howard Jones, former British freediving team captain, who runs a freediving school based in Plymouth. Beginners are welcome. Jones is also editor of Freediver magazine, AIDA's official journal. For information: 01752 480763, www.freediver.co.uk

Simon Rogerson is assistant editor of 'Dive' magazine

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