Life And Death In One Breath
Until a few years ago, not many people paid much attention to the extreme sport of free diving. That's where a swimmer packs as much air as they can into their lungs and plunges as deep as they possibly can into the sea - no oxygen tank, just that one breath to keep them going. But in November of 2013, a tragedy brought free diving into the spotlight when Nicholas Mevoli from Brooklyn died while attempting a record-breaking plunge in the Bahamas. Writer Adam Skolnick was there to cover that event, and Mevoli's death brought him inside this sport in a way he never expected. His new book is called "One Breath: Freediving, Death, And The Quest To Shatter Human Limits." Adam Skolnick joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the show, Adam.
Life and Death in One Breath
SKOLNICK: When an athlete prepares to dive, the first thing they'll do is they'll do a breathe-up. And they'll make sure that they're as relaxed as possible. So their heart rate gets as low as possible. And that way, they become more efficient with the oxygen they do take with them. And then they'll do a peak inhalation. They'll breathe their lungs to the absolute maximum. In fact, they'll pack their lungs up and above what their total lung volume would be.
SKOLNICK: And so when they take that breath, that is their oxygen tank. They - their body goes through all these changes. Their veins and arteries and arms and legs constrict. That blood gets shifted to their core. Their heart rate drops to half their resting limit. And that's something called a mammalian dive reflex. And it's the same things dolphins and seals and sea lions go through when they go as deep as they can.
SKOLNICK: I mean, Nick was just a one-of-a-kind soul. You know, he was - when he was 1 and a half years old, the family dog pushed him into the pool. His grandmother was out by the pool kind of hanging laundry and lost track of him. By the time she figured out what happened, she looked down. And there he was with these big, brown eyes looking back at her and just so comfortable underwater. And by the time he was 10 years old, he's holding his breath for almost three minutes.
SKOLNICK: Yeah. So in the weeks leading up to the dive, he was pushing really hard. And so he had a series of lung squeezes. And the lung squeezes for him started from his very first competition. And they continued through his two years competing. He was kind of depressed from overtraining. He wasn't right in his mind. And he was physically hurt, but he went for it anyway. And on the dive itself, he - it took a minute longer than planned because it didn't go smoothly. But he still came up under his own power, broke the surface. And he was - looked like to be breathing on his own for about a minute after the dive. And that's when he fell back and blacked out. And it's one thing if he'd blacked out right away. But what they saw was an athlete who seemed to be breathing for almost a minute and then fell back. And so that was something they'd never seen before. And so it was important to find out what happened. He was also the first death. And so one diver in particular, Dr. Kerry Hollowell, happened to be a doctor and was friends with Nick. She kind of took it upon herself to look into what happened to him and how his lung injuries were related to what happened that day.
SKOLNICK: Lots. I think it was like 19 or something like that. I don't know. But, you know, it's funny because I am an ocean person. Like, I go to a quarter-mile, a half-mile offshore. And I'll swim a mile or two miles at a time. And I'll do that in Malibu. And where I go, there's a reef. And we do some dives along the reef, the group of us that go do that - and to about 40, 50 feet maximum there. So I was - I'm comfortable in the ocean. And I thought free diving wouldn't be too hard for me. I'm an experienced scuba diver, a tech diver. But, you know, it's different when you go - when you're diving on a line, you're free diving. It's just - you have to do things differently. And so it took me a long time to get comfortable with the pressure, as I went down, on my lungs, with just the whole idea of feeling like you have to breathe and then still going down anyway.
SKOLNICK: Not panicky. So even for me, who's really comfortable in the water, it took a lot - a long time. Maybe I'm more neurotic than most. But it took a long time for me to get comfy. But then I had this one moment where it clicked for me. And I was down at about 20 meters, about 66 feet. And I didn't have any urge to breathe. And all around me was this beautiful blue world. And I came up, and I felt so relaxed. And for that whole day, like, I'd close my eyes and I would just see that blue world. It was just something that was in my head. And I woke up the next morning just wanting to do it again. And I eventually got to a hundred feet, or 30 meters, during that course. And - but that's something that stays with you. And that's just me, an entry-level - that's a level 2 free diver. I think that the effects are even greater. I know that they are even greater for these athletes that go to 100 meters. I mean, I can't even imagine that. But they get to a place - it's like part athletic, part spiritual. And it's definitely addictive 'cause it's so beautiful.
How long can you hold your breath? One minute? Two? Five? For freedivers, this calculation is a matter of life and death. If you are relying solely on one breath, your window to explore underwater landscapes is bound by your lung capacity. On the flip side, you are unencumbered by the weight, noise, and constraints of scuba gear.
Julie Gautier: I was born on Reunion Island, and my father was a spearfisher. So, from 11 years old I've been spearfishing. I was using my breath to catch fish and to eat well. But I started pure freediving when I was 18. I discovered that it was a real discipline of sport, a competitive sport. So, of course, I tried it. And because I believed I was quite good at it, I started doing competitions. Eventually I broke three French records. And yeah, I went all around the world with Guillaume to do competitions.
GN: It was a constant evolution. I discovered early on that going in the deep on breath hold was something extraordinary and was a very pure way to access the unknown. And what was at the beginning just a game to push my limits became then a real adventure in a new place. So with my capacities, I realized that I could be able to dive and to discover the underwater world, and on my own, I could dive where people normally use tanks to dive. And I was fascinated by this idea that if I train my body and my mind just with my natural skills, I can go where almost nobody can go.
JG: We just started filming on breath hold, and we found out that it was making our images special because, of course, also I'm so free in the water. I can go so fast. I can follow Guillaume wherever he goes. He asked me to do this quite amazing shot in Freefall where I start behind him and I go in front and I turn around; that's impossible to do with the scuba.
GN: The breath hold time is really an issue because when you're filming like that, you're not focused on being relaxed and saving energy. You are dedicated to the shots you want to get, so there's a lot of tension, using a lot of energy. Julie's using a lot of energy because she has to be very steady to get steady shots. I need to dive using mostly empty lungs. I need to do some actions, like running, climbing, so I'm using a lot of oxygen. And sometimes, you forget about the breath hold because you really want to get the perfect shots.
JG: We saw that it was magical to be able to work in freediving because we could approach the animals a lot more easily, a lot more quietly. And, which is why we were able to film this amazing image of the sperm whales sleeping vertically in the water and having Guillaume just swimming behind them and me filming in front and they didn't wake up. Why? Just because we came very quietly. I was going down just on breath holds, using my fins, not making sound, not making bubbles, being very efficient.
JG: I think it's time for us now to get involved into making people understand that we are living a quite extreme period of our human life and that it's time to act and to be responsible for what is happening. You don't have to go all around the world and to crowd the planet to see beautiful things. So we would love to try for the next one to maybe do something around Nice. And knowing the Mediterranean Sea, there's a lot of things to see, a lot of nice, underwater landscapes, there are many mammals possible. And we would like to show that we can make a movie without traveling, without taking planes.
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