The dangerous art of the freedive – Financial Times

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What is it about being completely trapped, inches from death and unable to escape that so fascinates us? These are my thoughts as I watch The Deepest Breath, a Netflix documentary on freediving, which has been called one of the world’s deadliest extreme sports. “It’s black. It’s dark. You feel locked inside,” says the film’s protagonist, Alessia Zecchini, an Italian freediving champion. “You can see things that don’t exist.”

I’m watching the film while travelling along the French coast to Marseille, the Mediterranean Sea shimmering under a bright September sun. As I reach the historic old harbour, dusty pink facades bathed in afternoon light, I clock the island prison of Château d’If in the distance, one of the cornerstones of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.

This time tomorrow I will be in that water, taking a freediving course courtesy of the Swiss watch brand Tudor — which has been supplying diving watches to navies around the globe since the 1950s — and its ambassador Morgan Bourc’his. The three-time world champion hosts freediving masterclasses in the south of France (, including yoga, relaxation and breathing sessions to prepare for holding one’s breath in a pool and ocean.

The author and Morgan Bourc’his by the practice pool
The author and Morgan Bourc’his by the practice pool © Icaros.raw

Super-lean and athletic, Bourc’his is casual in flip-flops as he greets us poolside. There’s something intimidating about a man who has reached depths of 109m. Capable of holding his breath beyond seven minutes, in freediving circles Bourc’his is known as “Mr Perfect”.

“When you freedive you put your body and mind into an abnormal situation — you immerse yourself and hold your breath,” Bourc’his says, his chiselled face all the more intense when he looks at you. “The breath is very intimate. It’s an autonomous function in the body, like the cardiac, digestive and excretory functions. But this is the only one which you can take control of with your will — until it takes the control back,” he says, somewhat ominously. “Freediving is a game between your will and this autonomous function.”

He talks about softness and slowness, economy and energy conservation, and repeatedly tells us to “take your time”. During a yoga class to “unlock the body” we focus on our sensations. Next is a breathing session with Jerome, who teaches in a school for scuba, freediving and whale-watching in Antibes. Jerome is Bourc’his’s opposite: bearded and teddy-bear-like, part surfer dude, part guru. He has us practise several mental and breathing exercises, such as counting as we inhale, then exhaling for double that time. “You will see that in just a few minutes, day after day, you can relax quickly and efficiently,” says Jerome in his singsong voice. “It’s a good tool to help you relax, not just for freediving.”

The author practising breathing techniques with the group
The author practising breathing techniques with the group © Icaros.raw
The Tudor Pelagos 39
The Tudor Pelagos 39 © Icaros.raw

Armed with new techniques to maximise our oxygen capacity, we change into wetsuits. My apnoea — the term for “not breathing” that has roots in the ancient Greek word for breathless — is only a measly 35 seconds. But underwater it feels like aeons.

Bourc’his has us do it again, following a science pep talk. Apparently all of us can hold our breath for three to four minutes without any training, he promises. He conjures up images of us in utero, when we were submerged in amniotic fluid — and tells us about the mammalian diving reflex. This is essentially a kind of automatic power-saving mode that is triggered in all mammals when the body, and face, hits water. The heart slows — to as little as five beats per minute, he says — and oxygen is conserved. There are a host of ancillary health benefits too, such as lowered anxiety and inflammation: the same science that’s been pounced on by “The Iceman” Wim Hof, whose method is similarly rooted in breathing and controlled exposure.

Holding onto the edge of the pool, I immerse myself in thoughts of the mammalian diving reflex and, trying to relax, reach a full minute underwater, then 1:40, finally 2:25. I’m baffled — feeling rather pleased with myself.

The boat heads out of Marseille into open water
The boat heads out of Marseille into open water © Icaros.raw

It’s shortlived. We depart Marseille on a speedboat and anchor off a rocky coast of limestone cliffs. In the ocean, temperatures are nippier and the waters much choppier. There’s a rope to aid our descent, but salt water counteracts that by making us more buoyant, and there’s the water pressure to add into the mix. As a scuba diver, I’m no stranger to equalisation — a technique of popping your ears to match the pressure around you. “Free” of diving equipment and struggling not to exhale, however, the task feels Herculean.

But all this pales in comparison to what I find the most disorientating: depth. As I pull myself down the rope — one metre, one equalisation at a time — I’m thrown into a panic. Seawater is heavy stuff (840 times more dense than air at sea level). I can’t stop visualising the wall of water building up above me. Every metre down is every metre up on the return. The mammalian diving reflex is no solace: I’m only below the surface for 30 seconds but already my legs feel weak, my head is about to explode and my diaphragm is convulsing. It’s terrifying. Back at the surface, I ask Jerome about the jerking diaphragm. He says it’s simply a reaction, the body signalling that I have excess carbon dioxide; divers often experience multiple convulsions. I should take that merely as information — and lean in to the experience. “When you scuba-dive you explore the environment. When you freedive you explore your mind and body,” he reminds me.

The author underwater, wearing the Tudor Pelagos 39
The author underwater, wearing the Tudor Pelagos 39 © Estublierproduction

I eventually reach 8m. We each discover what works for us as individuals. For me, that’s closing my eyes, which I find blocks out the “information” from my body.

In the early morning the Mediterranean’s azure waters are noticeably calmer, the city of Marseille just beginning to stir. The night before, mimicking an actual freediving championship, we declared the depth we intended to reach in competition. I want to get to 10m. That’s only two more pulls down the rope, two more equalisations, and then a blissful return to the surface.

Competition protocol dictates that divers must conclude their dives with three sequential tasks: nose and mouth remaining out of the water, they must remove their mask, signal an OK hand sign, and then say, “I am OK.” For competing pros surfacing off the back of minutes-long dives at triple-digit depths, that protocol is hardly straightforward; there’s tons of footage in The Deepest Breath where failing leads to disqualification.

Eyes closed, I begin my descent, pausing with each pull down the rope to equalise, waiting for that tiny squeak in the ear. A barely audible noise but my signal to continue. Descending without proper equalisation is a real danger and can cause permanent damage. My head is bursting, my body is fighting to return to the surface, but I open my eyes to glimpse the rope. The silence is totally engulfing. The diaphragm jerks. Pull, equalise. Pull, equalise . . . Somewhere around 8m, I can’t equalise. My final target is just in sight but my body spasms. I shut my eyes, willing it to pass. I push air into my ears again. A faint peep on one side. I pull down again, repeat, equalise, grab my tag at 10m and furiously swing my fins round. I start my ascent, slow and soft, but my mind in terror. I arrive at the surface and exhale forcefully. Clenching the buoy, I compose myself. Mask, signal, “I am OK.” I’ve only done 10m but I feel confused and discombobulated.

Surfacing from a dive
Surfacing from a dive © Estublierproduction

I’m not sure I have the kind of obsession to venture deeper in the water. But I do know something’s changed. “By holding your breath, you get to understand a lot about yourself,” Zecchini says in the documentary. In freediving, mental and breathing exercises elevate relaxation to an international sport; there is also that penetrating focus on a goal, not to mention the challenge to lean into something so disorientating. These, I realise, are tools for everyday life.

Back on terra firma, it’s our last evening and we take photographs with Bourc’his, beaming with our certificates. Bourc’his retired from competing professionally when his daughter was born (“I can’t fail now, I’m a father”), but the sport still permeates his life. “It influences how I function — how I relate to people and face situations,” he says. It’s something I hope to use in my future too, Bourc’his’s advice to “take your time” forever ringing in my ears.

Ming Liu travelled as a guest of Tudor Watches

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