News of Nicholas Mevoli’s death during a free-diving competition at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas earlier this week has shocked the sport’s devotees and touched many of us who spend time in the water holding our breaths. Doubtless some readers will have been puzzled as to why a young man put his life at such unnecessary risk in the first place.
Apnea or breath-hold diving is hardly a mainstream affair. Most will know of it only through the 1988 Luc Besson film, “The Big Blue,” which fictionalizes its greatest and most eccentric exponent, Jacques Mayol. By means of a weighted sled or under his own power, the free diver strives to achieve depths and breath-holding times unmatched by rivals, and having done so must surface unassisted and in good health. Like long-distance swimming, free diving is essentially an endurance art that persists at the very margins of organized sport, but unlike other extreme activities like base-jumping or big-wave surfing, it isn’t much of a spectacle and the spoils of success are modest.
This recent death is a reminder of how perilous it is to hold your breath for extended periods, regardless of physical conditioning or even professional status. When you’re milking the dregs of air in your lungs, the level of carbon dioxide quickly rises in your bloodstream. The most common “accident” involves shallow water blackout, which is when a diver returns successfully to the surface but loses consciousness soon after. If he’s not quickly revived, he’s in grave danger of cardiac arrest. Few breath-hold swimmers drown. Most, like Mr. Mevoli, die at the surface in a state of deadly passivity.
Those of us who free dive for pleasure — as spear-fishers, abalone-gatherers or simply intrepid snorkelers — are aware of the risks and challenges. They are part of the attraction.
When I began breath-hold diving off the beaches of Perth, my hometown in Western Australia, danger wasn’t the initial appeal. As a small boy I learned to snorkel in protected lagoons where the darting wrasse and the joys of weightlessness were both revelatory and addictive. One rush of adrenaline was never sufficient. Soon I was swimming to outer reefs, through kelp and coral, in search of abalone and rock lobsters.
The deeper I dived, the richer the pickings. I learned to extend my level of endurance to make longer, deeper dives. I taught myself to eke out the most from a lungful of air, to conserve energy, to glide and float instead of clawing and thrashing. With experience I could equalize the pressure building in my eardrums with a mere twitch of the jaw, releasing tiny dolphin squeaks that enabled me to swim deeper.
To overcome the involuntary resistance — the immense ache your body produces in its need to expel used air and to draw breath — I developed the kind of self-hypnosis that many athletes and artists use in order to endure or simply maintain concentration. The heart rate slows. For a while a sort of peace washes through the body as you relax beyond your initial limits. Even as the weight of water begins to squeeze your limbs and organs, your consciousness narrows until your mind feels like a hot copper wire running ever more finely through your core. The experience is both mindless and meditative, painful and pleasurable. This peculiar sensation, which is, I suppose, a kind of overcoming, was and remains addictive.
By the time I was 16, my main enthusiasm was a species of cave-diving. I liked to swim beneath narrow rock shelves and work my way along dark galleries until I saw a beam of light in the distance. The frisson of these initial swim-throughs should, by all standards, have been excitement enough for any young man, but it was never enough. I was always seeking a greater challenge and took to static breath-holding of the most reckless sort. I started crawling into limestone fractures in shallow water, inching myself along in almost complete darkness, belly on sand, back snug to the rock ceiling, breathing only when I could force a snorkel up through solution holes through which the sun piped in solid beams hardly an inch wide.
To lie in a shaft narrower than an air-conditioning duct and have to figure out how to reach a distant air hole without becoming completely wedged in the darkness is to hold your nerve as much as your breath. It’s also, for the record, pretty stupid behavior, especially solo. These days I break into a sweat at the memory.
But young people need to test themselves. In domesticated societies so bereft of wildness, they need to register the cold scorch of fear now and then in order to feel truly alive. And it’s good for people to find and exceed their limits. Humans have long survived through the willed suppression of panic. Without it there would be no hunting, no exploration, no innovation, no civility.
Whatever their age or skill level, free divers are adrenaline junkies. Why else would we suffer discomfort for fun? Paradoxically, we train ourselves to relax in order to endure — for the sake of sheer excitement. And it’s at the very edges of consciousness that we feel most brightly awake. But when the most accomplished of us dies we’re reminded that even excitement has its limits, and unchecked ambition can cloud the most disciplined mind.
Tim Winton is the author, most recently, of the novel Breath.