Freediver Pierre Frolla over the wreck of a DC3 in the Bahamas



IN 1952, A FRENCH DOCTOR, Cabarrou, conducted experiments on simulations of the human thoracic cage to predict what would happen when a person freedived below 50m. His conclusion was a stark warning to the men reaching these depths: Après, il sècrase. (Beyond, one will be crushed).
In the summer of 1961, in Ustica, the freediver Enzo Maiorca responded by taking a breath and plummeting through these fears to 51m. At the time, this depth was seen as the maximum the body could take, yet this century Annabel Briseno, a grandmother in her 50s, pulled down and back from 71m, and in 2002 Tanya Streeter dived a 160m No Limits dive, at the time deeper than any one man or woman had dived before.
The quest for depth by freedivers has been about the defiance of science and the seemingly limitless potential of the human body and spirit.
This spirit is at its most iconic in the freediving discipline known as No Limits, a literal and philosophical description of a dive that is the deepest and most dangerous form of freediving.
In a No Limits dive, a freediver holds onto a metal sled, the weight of which rockets them down until the point at which the guide rope stops, and in the darkness of the deep, they must fight narcosis and extreme pressure to fill a lift-bag from a gas canister which pulls them back to the surface.
It is the discipline that was immortalised in the Luc Besson film Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue), the discipline that sparks the interest of newspapers and gives rise to the classification of freediving as an extreme sport. Yet as every metre was added in depth, doctors were first confounded, and then amazed as they discovered the physiological changes that enabled humans to reach seemingly impossible depths.
The phenomenon known as blood shift was discovered, whereby blood migrates from the extremities to fill the space left in the lungs by the reduction of air volume. This saves the thorax from being crushed as Cabarrou had predicted, and also makes more oxygen available to the brain, heart and muscles. The heart rate and metabolic rate fall and the spleen contracts, releasing up to 10% more haemoglobin into the blood.
As our understanding of how the body adapts to pressure improves, freedivers and equipment manufacturers create the technology and techniques to take the diver deeper than before.
In No Limits diving, masks are often replaced with a nose clip and fluid goggles. These goggles are flooded and fitted with corrective lenses in order to replace the air usually present in the mask with water, removing the need to equalise the mask and thus conserve air for the equalisation of the ears.
It is painful pressure on the eardrum that is the main factor limiting freedivers, so those who practise No Limits try as many tricks as they can.
Herbert Nitsch, in his 172m No Limits world record, blew out into a balloon as he descended, sucking the air back in to equalise his ears as he got deeper. Most No Limits divers also use wet equalisation when there is no air left for their ears, a practice involving removing their nose clip and flooding their sinuses with water to push any remaining air into their ears.
When I ask my students what they think it takes to be a deep freediver, they reply with the physical attributes of big lungs, strong muscles, good ears, the accoutrements of carbon fins, an open-cell neoprene wetsuit, the mental attitude of determination and a competitive spirit. The belief is that physical and mental strength, coupled with the latest kit, are what it takes in the quest for greater depth.
Such a view, however, is only one way of looking through the kaleidoscope. By shaking it and looking again, we see a multitude of colours. No matter how much technology and technique you have at your disposal, deep diving can only come about through experience, relaxation and trust.
The more you freedive, the more flexible your ribcage and diaphragm become and the better able they are to yield to water pressure. If the body is not relaxed then equalisation will be impossible, no matter what equipment you use.
During any freedive a diver must be able to surrender their body to the dive. They must trust that their bodies will withstand and equalise the pressure, that their equipment will not fail them and that their buddy will be there in case anything does go wrong.
This trust comes from experience; the experience of warm and cold water, rough and calm conditions, and the knowledge of yourself and the water that comes with each new dive.
When you can put your life in the cradle of your experiences and buddy then a dive becomes a beautiful journey, enabling the mind to look deep into the soul and outwards into the water, seeing them as one.
In Kalymnos, I had arrived a few days before the 2005 International Diving Festival to meet with the people who would help me to set up the courses I was teaching.
The first morning I was told that three of them, spear-fishermen Gregory, Anthimos and Neofytos, would be training, so I went along to meet them.
Their English was limited and my Greek stretched only to the contents of a menu, but they showed me their guide rope and how they dived.
There was no fuss about their preparation, they just told me: Now, we relax. Taking it in turns, they floated face-down in the water, breathing silently through their snorkels until perfect duck-dives and fluid form took them gently down the line.
I was diving for the first time in Kalymnos, and with strangers, yet from the way they moved in the water and related to each other, I knew I could trust them to buddy me.
After two warm-up dives I told them, by holding up my fingers, how deep I was intending my last dive to be.
It was a sweet descent. I made my final equalisation and turned after passing one of their tags on the line. It was not as deep as I would have liked, but still a good depth, and I swam up at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sensations and infinite blue. Under water, Gregory and Neofytos met me, and they closely watched me all the way to the surface.
They asked how deep I had gone and I tried to explain that I had done less, turning just after the tag.
They looked at my dive computer, then showed it to me. I couldnt believe my eyes. I had misread their tags and gone far deeper than I had intended, a personal best by accident.
I knew then that it had been so effortless because I was so completely relaxed, and this was due to the trust I had for my fellow-divers and their experience, which showed as they moved through the water.
Equipment and techniques may change, but the relationship we have with the ocean and our buddies remains the same. Whether we freedive using our own strength to get us down and back, or the technology of the No Limits sled, we are revealing our affinity with water and one another, the trust we place in these relationships, and expressing the limitless depth of the human spirit.

ONE BREATH
One Breath: A Reflection On Freediving is British film-writer and director Emma Farrells account of how she got started in freediving in 2001, became involved in the competitive side of the sport and went on to become a leading instructor.
Included are freediving history, techniques and physiology and the art of true breathing. This is something Emma has taught many scuba-divers in her Gas Guzzler courses, in a bid to reduce air consumption and boost confidence under water.
The 112-page book is lavishly illustrated with the photographs of former world champion freediver and now freelance photo-journalist Frederic Buyle. Published by Pynto (ISBN 095423152), it costs 19.99. Find out more about Emma Farrells training courses by visiting www.emma-freediver.co.uk, or read Tim Ecotts Truly, Calmly, Deeply article on divernet.com

Pierre
Pierre Frolla on a dive during the Formula One Grand Prix in Monaco
six-discipline
six-discipline world champion Natalia Molchanova with Natalia Avseenko at the 2005 World Championship in Villefranche.
Pierre
Pierre Frolla dives a wreck in Nassau, Bahamas.
Divernet

ONE BREATH

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One Breath: A Reflection On Freediving is British film-writer and director Emma Farrells account of how she got started in freediving in 2001, became involved in the competitive side of the sport and went on to become a leading instructor.
Included are freediving history, techniques and physiology and the art of true breathing. This is something Emma has taught many scuba-divers in her Gas Guzzler courses, in a bid to reduce air consumption and boost confidence under water.

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The 112-page book is lavishly illustrated with the photographs of former world champion freediver and now freelance photo-journalist Frederic Buyle. Published by Pynto (ISBN 095423152), it costs 19.99. Find out more about Emma Farrells training courses by visiting www.emma-freediver.co.uk, or read Tim Ecotts Truly, Calmly, Deeply article on divernet.com