Want to try freediving?
James Nestor takes a freediving lesson.
JUNKO KITAHAMA’S FACE is pale blue, her mouth agape, her head craned back like a dead bird’s. Through her swim mask, her eyes are wide and unblinking, staring at the sun. She isn’t breathing.
“Blow on her face!” yells a man swimming next to her. Another man grabs her head from behind and pushes her chin out of the water. “Breathe!” he yells. Someone from the deck of a boat yells for oxygen. “Breathe!” the man repeats. But Kitahama, who just surfaced from a breath-hold dive 180 feet below the surface of the ocean, doesn’t breathe. She doesn’t move. Kitahama looks dead.
Moments later, she coughs, jerks, twitches her shoulders, flutters her lips. Her face softens as she comes to. “I was swimming and…” She laughs and continues. “Then I just started dreaming!” Two men slowly float her over to an oxygen tank sitting on a raft. While she recovers behind a surgical mask, another freediver takes her place and prepares to plunge even deeper.
Kitahama, a female competitor from Japan, is one of more than 130 freedivers from 31 countries who have gathered here—one mile off the coast of Kalamata, Greece, in the deep, mouthwash blue waters of Messinian Bay—for the 2011 Individual Freediving Depth World Championships, the largest competition ever held for the sport. Over the next week, in an event organized by the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), they’ll test themselves and each other to see who can swim the deepest on a single lungful of air without passing out, losing muscle control, or drowning. The winners get a medal.
How deep can they go? Nobody knows. Competitive freediving is a relatively new sport, and since the first world championships were held in 1996, records have been broken every year, sometimes every few months. Fifty years ago, scientists believed that the deepest a human could freedive was about 160 feet. Recently, freedivers have routinely doubled and tripled that mark. In 2007, Herbert Nitsch, a 41-year-old Austrian, dove more than 700 feet—assisted by a watersled on the way down and an air bladder to pull him to the surface—to claim a new world record for absolute depth. Nitsch, who didn’t compete in Greece, plans to dive 800 feet in June, deeper than two football fields are long.
Nobody has ever drowned at an organized freediving event, but enough people have died outside of competition that freediving ranks as the second-most-dangerous adventure sport, right after BASE jumping. The statistics are a bit murky: some deaths go unreported, and the numbers that are kept include people who freedive as part of other activities, like spearfishing. But one estimate of worldwide freediving-related fatalities revealed a nearly threefold increase, from 21 deaths in 2005 to 60 in 2008.
Only a few of these fatalities have been widely publicized. The famed French freediver Audrey Mestre—wife of freediving pioneer Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras—died in 2002 during a weight-aided descent to 561 feet, leading to controversy that continues still about whether Ferreras, who managed safety for the attempt, did his job properly. More recently, just three months before the 2011 world championships, Adel Abu Haliqa, a 40-year-old founding member of a freediving club in the United Arab Emirates, drowned in Santorini, Greece, during a 230-foot attempt. His body still hasn’t been found. A month later, Patrick Musimu, a former world-record holder from Belgium, drowned while training alone in a pool in Brussels.
Competitive freedivers blame such deaths on carelessness, arguing that each dead diver was going it alone or relying on machines to assist the dives—both very high-risk pursuits. “Competitive freediving is a safe sport. It’s all very regulated, very controlled,” says William Trubridge, a 31-year-old world-record freediver from New Zealand. “I would never do it if it wasn’t.” He points out that, during some 39,000 competition freedives over the past 12 years, there has never been a fatality.