The isle of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany, has a large history for such a small place. Napoleon spent 300 days in exile here before escaping to reclaim Paris. And in its crystal-clear seas in 1976, another man escaped the land, reclaiming mankind’s dormant connection to the ocean. Jacques Mayol dived 100m on a single breath, shattering records and expectations about his survival.
Physicians predicted the pressure at that depth would kill him. Instead, blood shifted from his extremities to his vital organs, and his heart dipped to 24 beats per minute. He was experiencing the dive reflex – a phenomenon previously only observed in dolphins.
“My father survived because humans have the same reflexes as maritime mammals,” Jean-Jacques Mayol explains. He should know: before Mayol Sr passed away in 2001, he passed his knowledge on to his son, who in turn, wants to pass it on to us.
At a bay hidden by rocks lies Mayol’s training centre. At this spot, Jean-Jacques learned freediving from his father, and it’s where he now teaches his students the art of apnoea. “I want you to go naked into the ocean,” he tells a mortified group of four, all clutching freshly purchased dive equipment.“No fins, no suit, no mask.” Gingerly, they dive down to pick up heavy stones and use the weight to perform an underwater moonwalk for as long as they can with only one breath. Half a minute later, they’re all back up, gasping for air.
Breathing calmly as you surface is vital, or you risk blacking out. This is the single greatest danger freedivers face and more commonly occurs in shallow water as pressure decreases and oxygen stores are depleted. Just an arm’s length from the surface, divers can disappear into the ocean without regaining consciousness. This is why freedivers should never operate alone and must watch out for each other. Controlling breathing patterns is also essential.
“Exhale twice as long as you inhale,” says Mayol, performing an enigmatic belly dance. Doing this, the students can double their time beneath the surface, enabling activities far more daring than the paltry lifting of stones.
Two days later, the four stand on the small beach of Pomonte, ready for their final trial – a dive to the sunken wreck of the Italian merchant ship Elviscot. “The baseline of freediving is mental discipline,” says Mayol. “Our mind behaves like a monkey; it has to be controlled.” Selecting one student, he runs through the checklist: fill the lungs with oxygen, take one last breath, equalise the ears while dropping to a depth of 8m. For the next 30m, there’s no chance to surface. “If you switch into panic mode, you’re in big trouble.”
Mayol’s son Michael, also an experienced freediver, leads the student down and into the wreck. Nearly two minutes pass. As they resurface, relaxed and without haste, Mayol grins. “It’s all about the aquatic memory,” he says. He takes a deep breath and rolls over gracefully, disappearing into the sea, never to return. Well, for at least three minutes.
Surfacing can be dangerous if you have low levels of oxygen. “Never hyperventilate,” says Mayol. “You won’t take in enough air, and this could cause you to black out.”
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