Editor’s Note: The following contribution is an edited extract from the author’s book, One Breath: Death, Freediving and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits
Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas, November 17, 2013
The warm Atlantic sloshed in Nicholas Mevoli’s ears as he floated into the competition zone at Dean’s Blue Hole, the world’s deepest salt water sink hole, and the second largest underwater cavern. Only one diver, Jim King, has ever been to the bottom and made it back alive.
Nick looked calm, but appearances can be deceiving. When Vertical Blue – the annual international freediving competition — kicked off he had ambitions for a bronze medal and two more American records. Yet after a year of intense preparation and winning an overall gold in another competition only weeks earlier, plus silver at the world championship a month before that, he’d proceeded to flub every single dive that week. This was the Wimbledon of freediving, the only competition that mattered to him and most others in the sport – and Nick was out of juice. Every muscle in his body hurt. Even his lungs hurt, but he wasn’t about to give up. It was game day, and he was preparing to descend to 72 meters and back on a single breath.
“Six minutes!” announced Sam Trubridge, a theatre director from Auckland, New Zealand, and the older brother of William Trubridge, the greatest freediver of them all. Standing on the platform, Sam loomed over Nick, who lay on his back, clipped to the competition line. His eyes stayed mostly closed, but when he opened them they flashed with focus and determination. The competition zone was delineated by a set of white PVC pipes that formed a six metre square within the dark blue of the hole. Inside were a photographer, a videographer and three judges, including Grant Graves, one of the longest-tenured professionals in the sport. Also within the zone were five safety divers clad in long bifins, led by Nick’s friend, Ren Chapman, a former college baseball star from Wilmington, North Carolina. It was the safety divers’ job to meet the athletes once they reached a depth of 30 meters while ascending from their dive. That’s where pressure underwater shifts, and where lactic acid build-up and hypoxia (lack of oxygen) can begin to cause problems.
Clinging to the floating boundaries was a handful of fans, several of Nick’s rivals and friends. They were aware that Nick was hurting and they also knew that when others took breaks, he doubled down on training. While many kept a less ambitious competition schedule, Nick Mevoli took every opportunity to dive. That’s what made him the best American freediver in less than two years of competition.
But mulling over past victories wasn’t going to help him now. Frustrated, he clenched his eyes tight to silence his brainspeak, to switch off and calm down. He took a cleansing breath and leaned back, submerging his face, stimulating the nerves around his eyes and sparking the mammalian dive reflex, a physiological response that, if developed, helped an average man become Aquaman, capable of freediving to unheard-of depths for minutes at a time, without feeling any anxiety or the slightest urge to breathe.
“Four minutes!” He inhaled long and slow and exhaled twice as slow, twice as calm. Each time purging his system of negativity and carbon dioxide, the build-up of which spurs that urge to breathe and can turn a relaxed, peaceful adventure into excruciating toil. If a stray bolt of fear bloomed in his mind, he’d slow his breath down even more. That was the only way to lower his heart rate, and keep his demons at bay.
“Three minutes!” He knew them well, his demons. They’d trailed him his entire life. They fuelled him. His broken home, his feelings of inadequacy, his frustration with a society attuned to greed and waste, were what drove him into the water in the first place. On land, Nick wasn’t the fierce competitor he was on the line and beneath all of that anxiety, pain and loss, brain-chatter and seawater sloshing in his ears, he knew something else, too: he had one more dive left in him and he was going to tear that Velcro tag from the bottom plate, come up clean and claim his record.
“Two minutes!” He visualized the dive. Something his friend, William Trubridge, a 15-time world record holder and owner of Vertical Blue, taught him when they’d roomed together in Honduras the previous May, where Nick made the dive of his life and became the first American to swim to 100 meters on a single breath. He used a monofin that day. Today, he’d dive without fins, which ratcheted up the difficulty several degrees.
Will stood on the beach, barefoot as usual, watching Nick breathe up. Typically he stayed away from the hole when he wasn’t diving, but he didn’t miss Nick’s dives. Nobody in the history of the sport had gotten to 100 meters so fast, and Will knew he was witnessing someone special, someone capable of breaking world records one day and going deeper than any human had before.
“One minute!” As the clock ticked below thirty seconds, Nick’s breathing pattern changed and he began sipping the air, attempting to fill his lungs to the limit — from the depth of his diaphragm to those little-used air pockets between and behind the shoulder blades —and in so doing, pack as much oxygen into his system as possible. He would need it. If all went according to plan, he wouldn’t breathe again for nearly three minutes.
“Ten, nine, eight . . .” When Sam got to zero, Nick submerged, face first with his arms extended. He looked like a human arrow shooting into the darkness.
As Nick swam, he passed a rugged reef, which sprouted from sloping white sand that led to a ring of sheer limestone 10 meters below the surface. He’d reached the rim of the hole where sand spilled over the edge in a series of mesmerizing sandfalls that look exactly like a photo negative of a waterfall. Within five powerful breaststrokes, those cliff walls receded beneath a sloped ceiling where small schools of silver barracuda often hunkered in the shadows. After another few strokes and another 10-metre drop, there was a second set of cliffs and the walls receded again. Soon the hole was darker than midnight, and about twice as wide as the entire cove appears from the surface. The rim of the hole has a 35-meter diameter. Below 20 meters, the diameter is estimated at more than 150 meters. Nick had stopped swimming by then. His arms at his side, his chin tucked, he became as streamlined as possible. It was time to freefall. The part of a dive that feels like floating through outer space. He closed his eyes and surrendered to the soft, slow sink into dreamtime.
When Nick arrived on the beach on that same morning, he slipped into his wetsuit not far from a plaque bearing the names of the three women lost in 2009, and he wasn’t in great spirits. He’d been on the island since October, living in a rented house, and training with New Zealand’s Jonathan Sunnex, aka Johnny Deep. When they arrived, Johnny and Nick were equals. Johnny was also an up-and-comer and an elite diver, yet while he and Mike Board had progressed steadily, Nick had not.
Just two days before, his attempt to reach 95 meters in a different freedive discipline called Free Immersion had gone awry when he had to be assisted to the surface, blood dripping from his mouth. Furious, he screamed and cursed, certain he had blown his left eardrum, an injury similar to one that ended his competition after just one dive the year before. As he sulked on the beach afterward, he understood where he went wrong.
“I wasn’t relaxed on the way down and I lost air,” he said, “and kept going instead of turning around. I just wanted to get there. Fucking stupidity.”
Though Nick was still green enough to be prone to such rookie mistakes, he was accomplished. He’d won medals and had his one American record, but his preseason goal had been to break all the American depth records, and he hadn’t achieved it yet. Vertical Blue was the final competition of the year—his last chance—and disqualification would be a gut punch. Lucrative sponsorships in freediving are rare, and Nick, like most divers, was self-funded. A prop man in New York film and television production, he’d spent $34,000, his life’s savings, traveling and competing in 2013 alone. Right or wrong, if he didn’t manage at least one other record at Vertical Blue before diving back into months of wage labor, he would consider his entire year a failure.
He was certain the competition doctor, Barbara Jeschke of Germany, would disqualify him when she examined him later that day, but she told him that his ear was sound, and he never complained about his lungs. If she had placed her stethoscope on his back and listened to him breathe, she might have heard the rattling of edema, thanks to yet another lung squeeze—what happens when capillaries haemorrhage blood and plasma into the alveoli (the lung’s air sacs), often causing damage to the tissue. Nick had several lung squeezes over the previous two years, and like most freedivers he treated them like a nuisance that hindered training. Few took them seriously and nobody considered them fatal. After all, the alveoli aren’t one big sac, but resemble a bunch of grapes, each berry capable of oxygenating blood through its own membrane. The prevailing thought was that even if a few berries were bruised, the rest should function just fine. Which is probably why Nick never told her he’d been spitting blood all afternoon.
She cleared him.
“Thirty meters, thirty-five meters, forty meters.” Sam’s voice rang out as a swirling wind whipped the sixteen national flags strung above the hole. Spectators stood on the beach or clung to the floating boundaries as they listened, rooted, and hoped.
Cheers of “Come on, Nick,” and “Let’s go, Nick,” rang out as Sam squinted at his sonar feed and announced each new depth with authority.
“Fifty-five meters, sixty meters!” All was progressing smoothly until Nick hesitated at 68 meters. “Looks like he’s turning around,” Sam announced as the audience groaned. Several seconds passed, an eternity in freediving, as Sam waited for Nick to ascend. He didn’t budge, and when he did start moving, he wasn’t heading for the surface. “Wait, he’s still . . . yes he’s descending again.”
Instead of heading to the surface at the first sign of trouble, he was making the same mistake he’d made just two days before. Only this time he’d made a second questionable choice. According to footage of the dive, obtained by a GoPro camera mounted on the bottom plate adjusted to the diver’s goal depth, it appeared that Nick was having a hard time equalizing, so he reversed his body position, turned upright, and stayed at 68 meters for nearly thirty seconds. Anybody who has ever scuba dived, or simply kicked and dived down to a reef, knows the feeling of their head being squeezed in the vice grip of barometric pressure.
Scuba divers equalize by pinching and then blowing through their nose. Freedivers, especially those attempting record depths, can’t equalize that way. Instead, as their lungs shrink due to increased pressure, they move air from their lungs into their mouth. During freefall, their job is to close off their throat and keep their cheeks inflated with that air, like a chipmunk with a mouthful of acorns, so they can funnel it into the sinuses through the soft palate to equalize along the way. It’s a delicate technique that can be hard to master and especially difficult to execute under the glaring lights of international competition, when divers often attempt depths they’ve never achieved before. It’s harder still if a diver is already injured.
Yet with the clock ticking, in the midst of a record attempt, Nick managed to do it and began descending again, this time falling feet first. Within seconds, he was at the bottom plate, searching for the tag that would prove he made depth. Because of his reversed position and the pitch darkness of the hole, it took time to locate the plate, and he made subtle yet visible arm motions to tread water until he finally found it. In a flash, he ripped away one of the tags, secured it in his wetsuit, and rocketed toward the surface, swimming hard, and once again looking very much in control.
Freediving didn’t become a competitive sport until 1949, when Italian Air Force captain Raimondo Bucher dove to 30 meters in a lake on the island of Capri to win a 50,000 lira bet. He rode weights to get down, dropped them at the bottom where he handed a scuba diver a package to prove he made depth and finned to the surface.
At 30 meters, where Bucher touched down, his lungs were one-fourth of their normal volume, and scientists were certain there would be nothing to stop his rib cage from collapsing, which would cause fatal internal bleeding. Bucher proved them wrong, launching a never-ending race to become the deepest man in the world.
As the sport matured, athletes would come to learn how to maximize the mammalian dive reflex thanks to Frenchman Jacques Mayol, an early rival of Italian, Enzo Maiorca, and American, Bob Croft (both held world records at one time), who first integrated yoga practice and philosophy into freediving. As he stretched and meditated before a dive, his competitors laughed at him. They relied on their massive lungs and their fearlessness. They knew they were tempting fate and had trained their minds to blast past their fears and dive farther than anybody else. Mayol believed there was another level to mind over matter. His theory was that if he relaxed – emotionally, psychologically and physically – before the dive, he’d become even more oxygen efficient and perform better because his heart rate would be lower than normal before he ever went down. Proving his theory, Mayol would be the first to eclipse 100 meters when he touched 101 meters in 1975, and extended his record to 105 meters in 1983.
A fundamental sea change in the sport began with the publication, in 2011, of an equalization document from Eric Fattah, a former world record holder considered by Will Trubridge to be one of competitive freediving’s top innovators. He was the first to attempt a depth record with a monofin and invented fluid goggles, swim goggles adapted to withstand pressure at depth. Shortly before he set his world record, he published a document online entitled “Frenzel-Fattah Equalizing Workshop”. It spelled out the deep equalization technique, known as “three-stage mouth-fill,” in an easy and user-friendly way.
At first, Eric’s document largely benefited only elite athletes because experienced teachers knew not to share the Frenzel-Fattah technique with new students until they were better adapted to pressure. Even Will Trubridge and his main rival, world record holder Alexey Molchanov of Russia, progressed deliberately. It took Alexey two years to get to 80 metres and another three years to get to 100. Will dove to 40 metres in 2004 and to 89 metres in 2008. But soon something would go terribly wrong.
Marco Consentino, an Italian freediving instructor in Rome and safety diver at Dean’s Blue Hole, can pinpoint the year the freediving community lost perspective. “There is a kind of line from what was [competitive] freediving in 2011 and what [competitive] freediving became after that point,” he said. “Until then people who were competing had adapted to the depths. They were people with a lot of experience, with hours of depth behind their shoulders. So everything was much more under control. Since then I’ve seen lots of newcomers doing incredible depths without any knowledge about their physiology and how it adapts.”
For decades, the limiting factor separating the deepest freedivers from the rest was almost always equalization, which took patience and dedication to master. After 2011, there was a new limiting factor in the sport: the lung squeeze [when the lungs and thoracic cavity are squeezed by underwater pressure, causing a potentially fatal bleed]. Nick Mevoli took his first formal freediving course in 2011.
Defying the odds, Nick shot to the surface, under his own power, after a dive of three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, nearly a minute longer than planned. He flashed the okay sign and attempted to complete the surface protocol that would make his attempt official by saying the words, “I am okay.” Unfortunately, his words were garbled, and he never removed his nose clip. He’d fumbled the protocol so his dive was nullified, but he didn’t black out, at least not right away. For nearly a minute he clung to the line with both hands, still conscious, laboring to breathe, before falling back into Ren’s arms. Ren held him and called his name, hoping to keep him alert and connected to this world.
Ren and Nick had trained together and even sailed together to Jamaica and Cuba on Ren’s boat, Nila Girl. Ren’s safety team, all of whom were certified in life-support techniques, closed in around him. They included an Australian paramedic, Joe Knight. Ren and Joe hefted Nick onto the nearby platform, where he faded into unconsciousness. Dr. Jeschke moved in to try and revive him. That’s when the scene turned nightmarish. “There’s a problem with his lung,” shouted Marco Consentino, one of the safety divers. The team turned Nick onto his side and blood seeped from his mouth, pooling on the platform before dissipating into the sea. Will jumped into the water and swam over to join the effort. Their attempts to revive their friend included three shots of adrenaline, but nothing worked.
After about twenty minutes, Ren and the others transported Nick by body board from the platform to the beach, and lifted him into a Honda station wagon, the event’s de facto ambulance. It was a ten-minute ride to the Vid Simms Memorial Health Centre, a rugged and remote 2,000-square-foot clinic founded by American missionaries and set on a promontory.
With water-stained ceiling tiles and rusted air-conditioning vents, Long Island’s clinic is equipped to handle general illnesses and trauma common to the island’s 3,000 residents. It’s not the emergency room you’d hope for in a matter of life and death. By the time Nick arrived there, he had no vital signs, but his friends kept fighting for his life. Ren, Joe, Will, and Dr. Jeschke took turns continuing CPR, in the Honda and in the clinic, where they were joined by a local physician, Yvette Carter, who declared him dead at 1:44 p.m. According to AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea), the governing body of the sport, that’s when Nicholas Mevoli became the first athlete to die in an international freediving competition.
Within minutes of his arrival at the clinic, athletes and their families began converging on the hilltop. A tight-knit group in the best of times, most sat on a patch of grass under a young jacaranda tree, the boiling sea visible in the distance. Some joined hands in prayer. Others embraced. A light rain fell. A rainbow bloomed.