Want to try freediving?
James Nestor takes a freediving lesson.
“The rules are there to make freediving safe, measurable, and comparable,” says CarlaSue Hanson, the media spokesperson for AIDA. “They are set up to ensure that, through the whole dive, the diver is in full control. That’s what competitive freediving is all about: control.” As long as you’re in control, it’s all right if (as sometimes happens) blood vessels burst in your nose and you come out looking like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. “The judges don’t care how someone looks,” Hanson says. “Blood? That’s nothing. As far as the rules go, blood is OK.”
AFTER AN HOUR, Georgoulis ties up to the flotilla. In the distance, a motorboat cuts a white line from the shore to deliver the first competitors to the site. There are no fans present. Only officials, divers, coaches, and a handful of staff are allowed out here, a group numbering about 15 today.
The divers show up wearing hooded wetsuits and insectoid goggles, each moving with syrupy-slow steps as they warm up on the sailboat, staring with wide, lucid eyes lost in meditation. One, two, three—they slide like otters into the sea, then lie back, looking semi-comatose as their coaches slowly float them over to one of three lines dangling from the flotilla. A judge issues a one-minute warning, and then the competition begins.
Freediving is broken down into multiple disciplines: today’s is called constant weight no fins, abbreviated as CNF. In CNF, divers go down using their lungs, bodies, and an optional weight that, if used, must be brought back to the surface. Of the six areas in competitive freediving—which include everything from depth disciplines like free immersion (the diver can use the guide rope to propel himself up and down) to pool disciplines like static apnea (simple breath holding)—CNF is considered the purest. Its reigning king is Trubridge, who broke the world record in December 2010 with a 331-foot dive. Today he’s trying for 305 feet, a conservative figure for him but the deepest attempt on the schedule. Before he arrives, a dozen other divers kick things off.
An official on line one counts down from ten, announces “official top,” and begins counting up: “One, two, three, four, five…” The first diver, Wendy Timmermans of the Netherlands, has until 30 to go. She inhales a few last mouthfuls of air, ducks her head beneath the water, and descends. As her body sinks into the shadows of the Mediterranean, the monitoring official announces her depth every few seconds. Two minutes later, after reaching 171 feet, Timmermans emerges and passes the surface protocol, setting a new national record. Another diver goes down on line two; another preps on three.
The diver on three takes one last breath, descends 200 feet, touches down, and, after three painfully long minutes, resurfaces. “Breathe!” his coach yells. He smiles, gulps, then breathes. His face is white. He tries to take off his mask, but his hands are cramped and shaking. Lack of oxygen has sapped his muscle control, and he just floats there, with blank eyes and an idiotic grin on his face, probably with no idea where he is.
Behind him another diver resurfaces. “Breathe! Breathe!” a safety diver yells. The man’s face is blue, and he isn’t breathing. “Breathe!” another yells. Finally he coughs, jiggles his head, and makes a tiny squeaking sound like a dolphin.
For the next half-hour, as divers come and go, these scenes repeat. I stand in the sailboat with my stomach tightening, wondering if this is the norm—and if it is, how the hell any of it could be allowed. All the competitors sign waivers acknowledging that heart attacks, blackouts, oxygen toxicity, and drowning may be part of the price. But I have a feeling that competitive freediving’s continued existence has more to do with the fact that the local authorities don’t know what really goes on out here.