Jacques Mayol

Wednesday 09 January 2002 01:00

Jacques Mayol, freediver: born Shanghai 1927; died Elba, Italy 23 December 2001.

In 1976 the freediver Jacques Mayol was the first man to dive below 100 metres on a single breath, defying physiologists who had predicted that his lungs would collapse. He was a romantic figure known to many as the "Dolphin Man", and his famous rivalry with the Sicilian diver Enzo Maiorca inspired Luc Besson's cult film Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue, 1988), which starred Jean-Marc Barr as Mayol and Jean Reno as Maiorca. More than any other individual diver, Mayol helped to introduce the little-known, élitist sport of freediving into the mainstream.

Born in 1927 to an expatriate French family living in Shanghai, he developed a passion for the underwater world. The boy's love of the sea – and a taste for the nomadic life – was instilled on long steamship voyages to and from France. His obsession with the marine world was not quelled by the death of his father in a diving accident while Mayol was still young. Much of his early adulthood was spent wandering the globe, working variously as a writer, miner, pianist and diver. During the Second World War he served as an interpreter.

Mayol's fascination with dolphins began during a stint as a commercial diver at an aquarium in Miami, Florida. There, he formed a close bond with a female dolphin named Clown and flouted the aquarium's rules by climbing into the pool to swim with her during his lunch breaks. Imitating Clown, Mayol learned how to hold his breath, moving with grace and ease in the water. It was the best training a freediver could have wished for, and afforded insights that would help establish Mayol as the ultimate diver of his era.

He was already a highly regarded freediver when the Sicilian Maiorca appeared on the scene, claiming the world record with a dive to 49m in 1960 and pushing the limit to 54m in 1965. Mayol was not overtly competitive by nature, but stole the Sicilian's thunder by diving to 60m off the Bahamas the following year. A friendly rivalry ensued, with each diver carrying out increasingly daring dives throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies. Their most famous records were set in the "no limits" category, in which divers are permitted to use weighted sleds to descend and air balloons for an equally speedy ascent. Mayol was eight times "no limits" world champion between 1966 and 1983. In 1981, Mayol also set a world record of 61m in the "constant weight" discipline, using the power of his fins to dive and then return to the surface.

His iconic status was sealed in 1976, when he broke the magical 100m barrier with a "no limits" dive to 101m off Elba, Italy. Tests showed that Mayol's heart rate had slowed from 60 to 27 beats per minute during the dive, a mammalian reflex shared with seals and dolphins. With Maiorca retired from competitive diving, there was no one capable of matching Mayol's preternatural ability. He stamped his authority on the sport with one last deep dive in 1983 when, at the age of 56, he reached 105m.

Mayol was not blessed with the typical athletic physique associated with champion freedivers and swimmers. To compensate, he incorporated yoga techniques learned from his childhood in China into his training, achieving a spiritual union with the marine environment that has become a key aspect of modern freediving. "To hold your breath effectively, even though it seems paradoxical, it's best not to think about holding it," he once said. "You need to become part of the act of non-breathing itself."

This philosophy was outlined in his book L'Homo Delphinus (1983, published in English as Homo Delphinus – the dolphin within man), in which Mayol expounded his theories about man's relationship with the sea. He was fond of pointing out that human babies spend their first months in the liquid environment of the womb, and argued that people should try to reconcile themselves with their aquatic beginnings. For him, the "Homo Delphinus" is an individual who has a love of the ocean and recognises the importance of protecting it. He believed that human beings would never be able literally to inhabit the oceans, but predicted that, within a couple of generations, some people will be able to dive to 200m and hold their breath for up to 10 minutes. Today, the no-limits record stands at 156m, and is held by one of Mayol's acolytes, the Italian freediver Umberto Pelizzari.

Mayol enjoyed a fresh wave of celebrity in 1988, with the release of the film The Big Blue. At the time, the film was the most successful ever French production, and a new generation of freedivers was inspired by the tale, which focused primarily on the rivalry between Mayol and Maiorca. While the film brought him widespread fame, Mayol grew frustrated at the public's seeming inability to recognise the differences between himself and the fantasy freediver depicted on screen. In any case, Mayol had by then turned his back on freediving as a competitive sport, and was promoting the activity as a means of interacting with the marine world. He made frequent appearances at dive shows and other public events, but in conversation he would often seek to distance himself from the film that had given him enduring celebrity.

Based on the island of Elba and the Caicos Islands in the West Indies, Mayol kept diving into his seventies, routinely descending to 40 or 50 metres. The onset of old age brought him spells of depression, however, and he admitted to feelings of loneliness when speaking to Pelizzari two months before his death. Mayol was found hanged at his home on Elba; he left a note which requested that he be cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea. His son, Jean Jacques Mayol, is also a freediver.

Simon Rogerson

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