Free divers stay underwater for up to five minutes at a time on a single breath, said journalist Patrick Scott. These thrill seekers say descending to great depths delivers a profound euphoria and lasting inner peace.
Surrendering to the sea
THE GUINNESS WORLD Record for holding one’s breath underwater is 24 minutes and 3 seconds. Most humans, however, can barely make it a minute and a half.
For a diver, the degree of difficulty increases exponentially. Lungs shrink to half their size at a depth of 10 meters (33 feet). After about 30 seconds, blood vessels in the arms and legs constrict, redirecting red blood cells to vital organs, including the heart and brain, part of the “mammalian dive reflex.” After a minute or so, trapped carbon dioxide causes the diaphragm to spasm, signaling the brain to breathe.
Keep going, and eventually the spleen will release stores of red blood cells to keep you alive for a while longer. Below 50 meters, capillaries around the alveoli in the lungs expand to create a cushion to protect the rib cage from collapse as pressure increases on the body. Most people will shortly lose consciousness. If you’re still underwater at that point—watch out.
Free divers—a slightly mental group of thrill seekers who focus on holding their breath while descending into the open sea—have figured out how to stay underwater for three, four, or five minutes at a time. They say the key to the sport is to relax, that humans can override the urge to breathe underwater by learning to embody the energy that flows throughout the universe. They say you can stay underwater for minutes even after the first contractions of the diaphragm.
Nine meters below the surface of the Red Sea, in my mask, wet suit, and fins, I’m trying my best to do just that. But my lungs feel squeezed, as if in a vise. My arms and legs turn heavy as the blood vessels constrict. Every few seconds, my diaphragm heaves more intensely as the carbon dioxide increases. My brain feels fuzzy as the pressure in my head builds.
The payoff for this seemingly crazy stunt, I’m told, is a euphoria unlike any other. Free divers talk among themselves of being addicted to the sport. The body and mind are altered. Surface cares dissolve, replaced by a profound immersion in the present.
It sounded great back on land, in the laidback Egyptian village of Dahab on the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula. My instructor, the world-record-setting free diver Sara Campbell, teaches Yoga for Freediving, a weeklong course that promises to unlock my potential. Our training begins with yoga and meditation in a sunspeckled hut. Campbell tells us that at a certain depth, gravity will pull you down into the dark stillness and squeeze you in a loving hug. “It’s the one you have been waiting for your entire life,” she says.
Underwater, it feels more like strangulation. I’d already gotten tangled in the rope that extends from a buoy at the surface. At a depth of 9 meters, I reach neutral buoyancy—too light to sink, too heavy to rise—and I’m supposed to hang out and chill. But after a minute and 20 seconds, the convulsions are overwhelming. I stare at the white-and-red rope through my mask with only one thought: I have to get to the surface, or I’m going to die. I climb up hand over hand toward the light and emerge gasping for air.
IN ANCIENT TIMES, people dove to these sorts of depths out of necessity, to harvest shellfish, sponges, and pearls. Only after the mid-1940s did divers start competing to sink deeper. Interest in free diving rose after the 1988 movie The Big Blue, a fictionalized rivalry between two real-life European free divers. Four years later, a group of enthusiasts formed a volunteer governing body—the International Association for the Development of Apnea, or AIDA—to organize competitions and set protocols. Since the ’90s the sport has attracted a dedicated and growing number of divers who want to go underwater as deep, as long, and as far as possible on one breath. Most everyone has a 30-meter dive and a four-minute breath hold inside them, says Grant Graves, head of USA Freediving.
Russian free diver Alexey Molchanov set a men’s record for a fin-propelled free dive in October 2016, when he swam down to 129 meters and stayed under for 3 minutes and 50 seconds. “It’s like surrendering to the pressure of the ocean,” he says. “And that brings peace of mind and calmness and acceptance.”
Still, it’s a risky proposition. The enormous water pressure can cause ruptured eardrums and create lung squeeze, which can result in internal bleeding. The lack of oxygen from an extended breath hold can lead to blackout, most often just before or after resurfacing. Molchanov’s mother, Natalia, also a champion free diver, drowned after giving a lesson in August 2015 near Ibiza. She was 53.
But fatalities are rare. According to the association, there’s been only one death in an AIDA competition over 25 years and more than 40,000 dives. In the past decade the number of countries that participate in AIDA events has more than doubled, to 35, and more people join each year, says the association spokesman, Denys Rylov, by phone from his native Ukraine.
The most popular competitions are held in places such as Kalamata in Greece, Roatán in Honduras, and what many consider the best location, Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. Despite little sponsorship or prize money, new contests keep coming. This September, the Authentic Big Blue will be held on Amorgos Island, Greece; another, the Sabang International Freediving Competition & Workshop in Indonesia, begins in November.
What makes Dahab a favorite, especially among Europeans, is convenience. Sharm El Sheikh International Airport is an hour south of the town. Rooms with a sea view can be had for less than $50, and it’s hard to spend more than $25 on a three-course fish dinner. With its azure sea and jagged mountain peaks, the resort can lure visitors who arrive for a week to remain for years.
That’s what happened with Campbell. On vacation from her high-stress life in London almost 13 years ago, she had an epiphany: While on horseback on the shore at sunrise, a voice inside her said, “You’re home.” She returned to England, wound down her public-relations consulting company, and moved to Dahab to teach yoga.
It’s a popular spot for divers because of its storied Blue Hole, a large opening in a reef offshore that drops 91 meters. Locals call it a divers’ cemetery, because scuba divers can get lured in too far. But for free divers, who descend and rise quickly, the conditions are perfect: The water is deep, clear, and warm, and has very little current.
Campbell took up free diving a year into her new life, and after nine months of training, she broke three world records at the Blue Hole, including diving to 90 meters using a monofin, which looks like a mermaid’s tail.
After Campbell set another record in 2009, with a dive to 96 meters, others began to seek her out as a guru. She credits her success to the relaxation and breathing techniques she learned through yoga and chanting. Campbell began teaching private sessions and weeklong courses, among them Yoga for Freediving, which I joined with four others in May.
In our first session, we practice pulling ourselves headfirst down the rope extended from the buoy, a discipline called free immersion. “Whether you are on the surface or going down, you are letting the ocean move you, and this becomes your first teacher,” Campbell says.
Don’t let the Zen-speak fool you: Free divers, including Campbell, can be as fixated on numbers as any other extreme sportsmen or -women, and quests for personal bests are always right below the surface. “Every time we say we do free diving, that’s the first question,” says Bart Denys, 48, a physiotherapist from Belgium and one of my course mates. “‘How deep do you go? How long can you hold your breath?’ I’m more interested in ‘How relaxed are you?’”
Kerry Hollowell, 41, a member of the U.S. Freediving team and an emergency-medicine doctor in North Carolina, is the most advanced diver in our group. She’s preparing for her goal of an 85-meter monofin dive, 10 meters deeper than her personal best, in the AIDA world championships this summer in Honduras.
Free diving, she says, “helped me find my authentic self. And when I’m in a stressful situation and a patient is dying in front of me, I don’t freak out. There is a bigger energy, a bigger sense of purpose.”
I WAS CURIOUS to see how I’d fare in the undersea world. I’ve been a swimmer most of my life, and in a one-day basic certification before the course, I surprised myself by kicking with fins down to almost 18 meters. So I set a 30-meter target for the course.
After that first panicky day, the revelations come easier. I find I can expand my lungs to a greater degree by breathing into my belly first and then up into my chest. I learn that a hooded wet suit helps me stay warm and lead weights help me to descend. And I discover the point after neutral buoyancy where gravity takes over and pulls you down in a free fall. “Flying in the sea” is how one classmate puts it.
The second day is full of breakthroughs. My dives begin to improve, because I slip down into the water like a seal, going in backward as I pull on the rope, instead of face first. I also learn to crouch and descend slowly, bending my knees to release tension, instead of rushing down.
I dive to 21 meters and stay under for 2 minutes and 26 seconds. But I keep forgetting to equalize on the way down; when my ears ache, I pinch my nose and blow too hard, causing “mask squeeze”—bright red blotches in the whites of my eyes from ruptured blood vessels. After that, I mostly use a noseclip instead of a mask.
After five days of training, I still haven’t reached 30 meters. On the roof of a divers’ hangout overlooking the Blue Hole, Campbell tells us to forget about the numbers—they’re a projection of our ego. “You have to let go of the outcome and be in the present moment, and then what it is you want to achieve comes naturally,” she says. “Just let your inner dolphin out to play.”
The sea that day is unsettled, and I bob on my back as choppy waves splash my face. Hollowell resurfaces after a 70-meter dive, flailing her head and shoulders in a “samba,” the term divers use when lack of oxygen briefly causes a loss of motor control. Campbell and Denys pat her face and call her name, and she’s soon alert, but it’s disconcerting.
I breathe deeply and slip into the silence, reaching along the rope as if raising a flag on a pole. At 20 meters, I find enough air to equalize and continue the free fall headfirst. But the pain in my ears makes me stop again, and in a moment, I decide the number isn’t worth bursting my eardrums. I pull back up from a depth of 26 meters.
Coming out of the water, I tell Campbell I want one more shot the next morning. “It’s not about the number, Patrick,” she says. But of course it is.
On my final dive, the urge to breathe doesn’t hit until after a minute. I welcome the first contractions as I look up at the divers’ dangling flippers, like frog legs at the surface. At a minute and a half, I feel the weight in my chest and arms increasing, but I’m able to shake my hips and relax the back of my knees.
At two minutes, I picture my spleen releasing oxygen-filled blood to my core as my arms tingle. I wiggle my neck to release tension and still feel in command. At 2:30, my arms start to quiver, and my head feels lighter, squeezed harder. The contractions are coming faster and stronger.
I pull back up the rope and feel a new reserve of air. My lungs and sinuses enlarge, giving me the sensation of being inflated with pure oxygen. It’s the closest I’ve come to that famous euphoria. And I don’t even know how deep I went. I pop up out of the water, catch my breath, and look at my watch: 2 minutes and 57 seconds. A personal best.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek. Reprinted with permission. ■