Learning to Freedive, the World’s Most Dangerous Sport

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Eric Pinon is short and narrow, with sleepy eyes, thinning hair, and a meticulously trimmed Fu Manchu mustache. On land, he walks softly, speaks with a slight stutter, and his demeanor verges on meek. But get Pinon in water and he will destroy you. He once speared an eighty-two-pound giant kingfish—stabbed it in the gut at six stories deep—chased it into a cave, rammed his hands inside its gills, and rode it to the surface like a bucking bronco. He can hold his breath for more than five minutes and dive to depths below a hundred and fifty feet.

But Pinon didn’t drive three hundred miles from his home in Miami, Florida, to a concrete-block classroom in Tampa to teach us how to kill things in the ocean. He wants to show us how to survive in it.

Thirty years ago, Pinon died. He was freediving with some friends near a pier in the Caribbean and wanted to impress the group with an extra-long breath-hold. So he dove down ten feet, grabbed a pylon, closed his eyes, and tried to stay there as long as he could. Minutes passed. Somewhere along the way, he blacked out. Eventually, his body floated to the surface; he unconsciously exhaled all the air from his lungs, and then he inhaled water and sank like a stone back down to the seafloor.

His friends were impressed when they saw him surface and then sink down again; they thought it was all part of a performance. A few more minutes passed before they realized something was very wrong. They dove down and retrieved Pinon, then dragged him to the beach. His heart had stopped; there were no signs of life. An off-duty paramedic administered CPR. Pinon’s heart started beating but soon stopped again. Fifteen minutes later, an emergency helicopter arrived and airlifted him to a hospital, where he spent eight days in a coma, then three weeks recovering. Pinon suffered permanent brain damage that he says sometimes makes it hard for him to remember things and put words together. He doesn’t want that to happen to me and other freedivers.

For the past three years, on weekends away from his job managing a fish-feed company, Pinon has traveled around Florida teaching beginning freediving and safety courses through Performance Freediving International, a freediving school based in Canada. This weekend in Tampa, PFI has rented out a one-story stucco building that looks like it once housed a fast-food restaurant.

My classmates sit in a hodgepodge of patio chairs arranged around four plastic picnic tables. There’s Ben, a stocky young guy whose gold necklace peeks out of a torn T-shirt; Josh, Ben’s soft-elbowed buddy, who sports rainbow-lens sunglasses; Lauren, a tanned southern belle; and Mohammad, a Qatari student with shaggy black hair and an enormous chrome dress watch. Other than Pinon and me, nobody here is older than twenty-three.

In a few hours, Pinon will teach us how to hold our breath underwater for at least one and a half minutes in a swimming pool right outside the classroom. Tomorrow, we’ll travel north to a freshwater swimming hole and learn how to hold our breath while diving as deep as sixty-six feet.

This morning, however, is about safety. Specifically, Pinon will teach us how to stay alive should we ever find ourselves caught in a pink cloud—a hallucination freedivers experience right before they black out.

“The pink cloud is harmless, but you are unconscious,” says the forty-four-year-old Pinon, who was born in Toulouse, France, and still has a strong accent. “If you get to the surface and breathe, you are fine. If you don’t, then .º.º.” He pauses. “Then it is not good.” Pinon means that we’ll die.
He explains that, while we’re diving tomorrow, he can take us down to any depth we want; he just can’t promise to bring us back up. Each of us is responsible for knowing his or her limits. The underwater breath-hold training today and tomorrow will give us a feel for those limits. Should we fail in our responsibility, exceed our limits, and drift off forever into the pink cloud, the six pages of release forms we’ve each signed will ensure that our loved ones can’t charge Pinon or Performance Freediving International with third-degree murder. Pinon double-checks that he has our forms. Then he clears his throat, strokes his mustache, and starts the lesson.

Of all the disciplines in freediving, static apnea, a timed breath-hold that usually takes place in a pool, is the strangest. It’s boring to watch, painful to do, and tedious to train for. And yet there is no other activity that will better prepare a freediver to handle the mental and physical stresses of deep diving.

In 2001, the world record for static apnea, held by a Czech named Martin Štepánek, was just over eight minutes. In 2009, Stéphane Mifsud, a French diver, increased the record by 27 percent, to eleven minutes and thirty-nine seconds. As of 2013, two divers have held their breath for more than ten minutes: Mifsud and Tom Siestas, of Germany. If static divers continue at their current rate, they’ll break the fifteen-minute mark—mentioned in historical accounts of pearl and sponge divers—by around 2017.

Static apnea has its own set of fringe disciplines: breath-holds in shark tanks, under ice, in plastic bubbles. An increasingly popular variation is static with pure oxygen, which follows the same rules as regular static apnea except that divers can huff pure oxygen a half an hour before going under. Doing this supersaturates the blood with oxygen, allowing the brain and other organs to function significantly longer than they could if the diver had inhaled natural air (which contains only about 20 percent oxygen). David Blaine, the American magician and stuntman, trained with PFI and in 2008 broke the static-apnea-with-oxygen record with a breath-hold of seventeen minutes and four seconds that he performed live on Oprah. Five months later, Siestas broke Blaine’s record, and Siestas now holds the all-time record: an astounding time of twenty-two minutes and twenty-two seconds.

We won’t try anything like that in our course. To be officially certified as a freediver, each of us needs to do a static breath-hold of at least one minute and thirty seconds. Physically, it’s not much—any human in decent health is capable of hitting that mark. But mentally, it can be a challenge. There is nothing intuitive or natural about keeping your face underwater until your brain begins hallucinating and your muscles convulse. But this, I am told, is all part of going deep.

By 1:30 p.m., we’ve slipped on wetsuits and regrouped in the shallow end of the pool. PFI’s intermediate class, which is being held in an adjacent room, enters the pool too. One of two male intermediate instructors stands at the side of the pool with his shirt off. He has tattoos of fish gills running up both sides of his rib cage.

Mohammad, the quiet Qatari with the chrome watch who was seated next to me in class, agrees to act as my monitor. He’ll periodically check that I’m still conscious and will keep my body from drifting.

The sensation of spinning is common during long breath-holds, because your body loses awareness of its own boundaries. This is a hallucination, says Pinon, but nothing to worry about. While placing a hand on the back does not keep static divers from accidentally losing consciousness, it reassures them in their hallucinatory state that they aren’t suddenly sinking, floating off, or flying away.

Pinon gives a one-minute warning. I slip my mask on and start breathing a little deeper. Pinon and Mohammad chant the pre-dive breathing pattern aloud: “Inhale one, hold two, exhale two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten, hold two.” On Pinon’s command, I take four huge breaths and then sink headfirst into the water.

I can do the one-minute hold with no problem.

A few minutes later, the two-minute hold is filled with tedious agony. But, strangely, the three-minute hold goes by in a comfortable haze for me, as though I’ve crossed some invisible border. I don’t pass out, and for a few minutes afterward, I feel lightheaded, dizzy, and very high, like I’ve just huffed laughing gas. It’s great.

Feeling this good would ordinarily be damaging in some way, at a minimum killing off a few thousand brain cells. But according to dozens of studies, extended breath-holds are harmless. Neurological damage occurs when the blood in the brain carries too little oxygen or when blood flow stops completely. These conditions occur only after two minutes in a blacked-out state. In other words, as long as you’re conscious or wake up from a blackout within two minutes, there’s a very good chance you’ll suffer no damage from holding your breath. Water extends your time by shunting blood from the extremities into the brain and organs, allowing them to function with minimal oxygen for much longer than they would on land—another trigger of the Master Switch.

Under normal conditions, the human body has a blood-oxygen saturation of around 98 to 100 percent (the higher number being the most oxygen that the blood could possibly contain). Physical stress or sickness can decrease oxygen saturation to about 95 percent. Few healthy people will ever go below this, but during dives, expert divers have registered oxygen-saturation levels as low as 50 percent—an extraordinarily low number. Oxygen saturations below 85 percent generally causes an increased heart rate and impaired vision; 65 percent and below greatly impairs basic brain functions; 55 percent results in unconsciousness. But somehow, expert divers have not only remained conscious with oxygen saturations of 50 percent but maintained muscle control and extremely low heart rates, reportedly as low as seven beats per minute.

Back at the pool, my class is getting ready for the final breath-hold of the day, which will last four minutes, the maximum allowed for this introductory course. During the longer holds, partners have done periodic check-ins by tapping the breath-holders on the shoulder every fifteen seconds. When a diver feels the tap, he has two seconds to extend the forefinger of the submerged left hand, a way of saying, I’m still here, I’m okay. If he doesn’t respond, his partner will give him one more chance and tap again. If the second tap elicits no response, the diver’s partner will lift him from the water, yell at him to breathe, remove his goggles, and blow on his eyes.

The partners begin chanting the warm-up breathing pattern—”Inhale, exhale, hold two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten, hold two, inhale one.” The intermediate class at the deep end of the pool joins in the chant. I’m still quite high from the three-minute attempt and I’m feeling spacy as I breathe deeper. The chorus of voices echoing off the concrete walls grows louder, reverberating around the enclosed pool area like incantations in an old church. It’s hypnotizing. The course is beginning to feel like a baptism, each of us trying to be reborn in a watery world.

Then it’s one more breath, and we’re underwater again.

A minute passes, then two. Every fifteen seconds, Mohammad taps my shoulder. I extend a finger, bend it down, extend again. During the second minute, I notice sounds in the pool area that I hadn’t heard before: a gurgle in the drain, a muffled cough, a splash in the deep end. I hear Mohammad counting somewhere over me, feel his hand on the small of my back, then stop feeling much of anything. I imagine myself traveling in a train through the desert. This scene looks very real. One part of me knows that I’m still in a Tampa swimming pool, but another part seems convinced that I’ve boarded a faraway train. Both parts are equally strong, like reflections of each other. As my stomach begins to convulse, I push my mind farther into the train side, to open that door wider.

A conductor announces that we’ll be debarking in three minutes. He taps me on the left shoulder and I hand him my ticket with the index finger of my left hand. The blue fabric of the seat is soft, like silk. I stroke it with this finger. The conductor taps me on the shoulder again; I reach in my pocket to hand him the ticket, but the ticket is gone. I motion with my finger for him to wait while I look in my bag. I can’t find my bag. The cabin is too dark; the sun is gone. I hear someone nearby splashing water in a sink. The conductor taps me again on the shoulder. I point to the door and ask if I can get off. You can do this, he says. You can do this.

I come to, my head still in water, and I’m staring through my mask at the pool’s white concrete bottom. It feels like someone has filled my lungs with mustard gas. “Three forty-five. Almost there,” Mohammad says. I put my hands on the side of pool to stop myself from sinking, from falling down into what feels like a deep, dark hole.

“Breathe!” says Pinon. I lift my head. “Breathe! Breathe!” says Pinon. The room spins. I try to exhale my lungful of air, but I’ve lost some muscle control and can’t. I push harder to force it out, to get a breath of fresh air in. A puff of air squeaks out, then my throat opens. I exhale completely and take a long inhale. With every intake of breath, my pinhole vision grows larger and larger, like the opening sequence of a James Bond movie. The room is blurry and covered in what looks like TV static for a moment, then everything comes into focus.

The instructor with gills tattooed on his ribs swims over and pats me on the back. “Good job, man,” he says. I’m the only one in our class who completed the four-minute breath-hold.


  Excerpted from DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), released June 24, 2014. 


The next day our class meets about a hundred miles inland from Tampa in a dirt parking lot outside the town of Ocala. Across the lot, in the shade of candleberry trees, is a dent in the ground that looks like it’s been punched by a giant, angry fist. At the bottom of the hole is a pool of bright green water known as the 40 Fathom Grotto. As the name suggests, it plummets down more than 240 feet.

For the past forty years, emergency rescue workers have used the grotto for advanced scuba training. Before that, the locals used it as a public dump. It’s still filled with all manner of junk: rusty motorcycles, satellite dishes, a 1965 Corvette, a few Chevys, an Oldsmobile, innumerable bottles and cans. On one ledge, about forty feet down, is Gnome City, a collection of plaster gnomes and gnome castles placed there by divers; it’s set against a limestone wall covered in the fossilized remnants of fifty-million-year-old sand dollars. Even this water hole, fifty miles from the coast, was once part of the ocean.

At ten o’clock, Pinon swims two floats out to the middle of the grotto and connects them with a yellow rope. Our class pulls on wetsuits, masks, snorkels, and fins, and we slip in. In the hazy morning light, the water is a dull sapphire green with poor visibility, maybe twenty feet. The depths below that look black and brooding. We swim out to the floats and clutch the rope, dangling in single file like socks on a clothesline. We’ll be here for the next four hours attempting to freedive to sixty-six feet.

“Our first dive will be down to five meters,” Pinon says. “This is an easy dive, just to get warmed up.” Because the grotto is filled with fresh water, which is less dense than salt water, we’ll be about 2.5 percent less buoyant than we would be at sea. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but for freedivers, it’s a significant difference. We’ll sink faster and will have to exert a bit more energy during our ascents.

The human body in its natural form—with little or no clothing—has the ideal density for freediving; no weights are necessary to aid its descent. However, the thick wetsuits we’re all wearing throw off this balance, requiring each of us to wear about twelve pounds of weights in fresh water to compensate for the extra float.

The key to a successful deep dive is making oneself as hydrodynamic as possible. Loose clothing, extended limbs, or oversize masks can create drag, which will slow the descent and decrease depth and “down time”—freediver lingo for being underwater. When seals dive deep, they collapse their lungs, extend their spines, and often exhale air to reduce drag and gain depth faster and more easily. Freedivers do the same. “You put your arms to the side, head down, make yourself like a missile,” says Pinon.

Sinking is relatively easy, especially after the first ten or so feet; ascending is less so, which is why freediving can be so dangerous. As with mountaineering, you need to know your exact halfway point and have at least 60 percent of your energy and oxygen reserves left to make the return trip.

During the ascents, we’ll need to exhale all the air we’ve been holding at about seven feet below the surface. This allows us to immediately inhale much-needed fresh air at the surface without taking time to exhale, and it also helps protect against shallow-water blackouts. A few seconds could mean the difference between a successful dive and a samba or blackout. In freediving, success (in this case, remaining conscious) is measured not in feet or minutes but in inches and seconds.

As Pinon discusses the diving strategy, I notice a small group of scuba divers on a wooden float set up on the other side of the grotto. They are festooned head to toe with masks tubes, tanks, vests, belts, and other equipment. They can barely walk on land and can only lumber gracelessly through the water. Their movements are extravagant because they can afford to be. From where I’m floating, it looks awkward and wasteful. But then again, those divers never have to worry about imploding their lungs or blacking out.

Ben dives first. We watch through our masks as he breathes up, submerges, and pulls himself down along the rope until he reaches a weighted plate around fifteen feet. He taps the plate, pulls himself back up, resurfaces, and goes to the end of the line. Lauren, Josh, and Mohammad, one after the other, go next. They all make the dive without much effort. I follow but resurface after hitting just ten feet or so, my head throbbing.
“That’s natural,” Pinon says. “It takes a little time. Try it again next dive.”

I ask Ben how he was able to descend and ascend so quickly. He mentions that he, Josh, and Lauren have been spearfishing for years. He assures me I’ll figure it out.

The problem for me, and for most beginners, is equalizing. The optimal rate of descent for a freediver is three feet per second, which requires equalization in sinus cavities (making the ears pop) about once a second, otherwise you’ll risk serious injury to the ear. Each pop must be complete; if it isn’t, Pinon instructed us to immediately stop, back up, and try it again.

Pinon lowers the plate to thirty feet, then forty-five. Others easily make these depths, but I can’t make it past fifteen feet.

At around two o’clock, it’s time for our last dive attempt. The plate is now sixty-six feet down—the lowest depth allowed for beginners. It’s invisible from the surface. All we can see going down is a yellow rope disappearing into hazy, dark green water.

It’s a frightening prospect to dive down into water not knowing where you’ll be when the rope ends or when you’ll take your next breath. Everything I know about surviving in the ocean tells me this is a bad idea. But I start breathing up anyway and prepare to go deep.

Ben leads the group. He inhales one last time, then disappears. Forty-five seconds pass and we see no sign of him. Then, through the haze, he reemerges, pulling himself up the rope. He slowly resurfaces, breathes up, then goes to the back of the line. He made it down to sixty-six feet, seemingly without much effort. Lauren and Josh follow, all making the dive. Mohammad, a first-time freediver, makes it to about fifty feet, a commendable depth.

By the time it’s my turn, the pressure is on. I try not to look down at the disappearing rope as I inhale my last breaths. Big breath in, bigger breath out. Repeat.

Pinon pulls himself around the float so that he’s right beside me. “You need to make this dive. Say, ‘James is going to make this dive,'” he tells me. I nod, inhale, duck my head under the water, and climb down the rope.

With every pull of my right arm, I retract my right hand, pinch my nose, blow air into my ears, and try to equalize. It starts to work. I keep pulling, hand over hand, like Jack and the Beanstalk in reverse, until I feel the pressure of deeper water tightening around me like a closing fist. To make my body more hydrodynamic, I’ve placed my head down, so that I’m looking horizontally across the water, like I would if I were walking. Pinon, who is following me on the other side of the rope, stares through his mask. He is watching carefully to make sure I don’t exhale, start twitching, or black out.

I stare back and we hold each other’s gaze as we both sink. The water around us grows darker, then darker still. A strange sensation grabs at my shoulders. It feels like a large hand is pulling at me. I loosen my grip on the rope and notice that I’m no longer drifting downwards. Every direction is washed in the same pale green fog, as if I’m trapped in an enormous marble. I wouldn’t know which way was up or down if I weren’t holding the rope.
Across the rope, Pinon is looking at me and shrugging. He puts his right hand in front of my mask and points down. He wants me to go deeper, I think. I shake my head no but he keeps pointing down. I notice that neither of us is holding the rope.

We’re just suspended here, two middle-aged men floating upside down, staring at each other, shaking our heads in the shadowy depths of a freshwater former dump in central Florida.

Then it occurs to me that maybe down is really up, and that maybe Pinon is signaling for me to get back to the surface. Maybe something is wrong. Is this what it feels like in the pink cloud?

I snap out of it, but now I really want to breathe. A cough right now could sap my body of the oxygen I need to make it back to the surface conscious. This thought fills me with fear. I feel an unyielding urge to return to the surface, to inhale fresh air. I quickly turn my body around on the rope like a baton and begin pulling back up. Pinon follows close behind. With each pull, the water grows slightly brighter and brighter until I can see, about fifteen feet above me, rows of dangling fins between two floats. They look like upside-down birds on a telephone wire. I exhale all my air at what feels like seven feet, then resurface.

I learn later that I made it about halfway down the rope, to about thirty feet. Not awful, but not great either. This wasn’t the doorway to the deep, but I was edging closer, starting to wipe my feet on the welcome mat. The tug of neutral buoyancy I felt just before I started back up the rope meant I was about ten feet away. For better or worse, the residual fear of being down there remained with me.

And days later, as I’m in the airport on my way home, I’m still shaking with excitement and looking around before I cough.


  Excerpted from DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), released June 24, 2014. 

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