In April, during this year's Vertical Blue contest — the world's most competitive free-diving event — William Trubridge shattered his own record for deepest dive (397 feet). But rather than being elated with the feat, Trubridge was miffed. The 35-year-old New Zealander had managed to extend his record an extra three feet, but he'd fumbled while retrieving a tag to verify his depth, losing precious seconds. "I wasn't in the right frame of mind," he says. "It wasn't a perfect ending." So he tried again two days later. This time, over the course of four minutes and 34 breathless seconds, Trubridge upped the record by another six feet.
In the world of free-diving — which includes disciplines like free immersion (diving with no aid), constant weight (diving while wearing fins), and constant weight without fins — Trubridge is king. He earned his first world record after a constant no-fins dive to 265 feet in 2007, and then broke that record 10 times in the next three years. He holds 18 world records and is often referred to as "the human fish."
Trubridge, who founded Vertical Blue, has been attracted to water since childhood. From age two to 11, he lived on a boat, and his family sailed from their native England to New Zealand, where Trubridge was raised. "We were always snorkeling, so when I heard about free-dive, it drew me in," he says.
The sport emerged in 1949, when an Italian air force captain took a bet and dived 98 feet into a lake on Capri. Free-diving has taken off since, but it's still practiced by just a few daring souls. This year's Vertical Blue event, which was held in the Bahamas, lured 35 divers, up from 23 the year before. "There's something really nice about losing the noise, the fray, the distractions, and being so internally focused," says diver and judge Francesca Koe. "You both lose yourself and find yourself in the ocean."
At a Vertical Blue match in 2013, American diver Nick Mevoli tried for a record but died when his blood vessels hemorrhaged. This year's contest was nearly disastrous as well. Israeli diver Yaron Hoory blacked out on the second dive of the competition and didn't come to for five minutes. But it turned out to be a big weekend for more than just Trubridge. Female diver Sayuri Kinoshita of Japan obliterated the no-fins record with a dive to 196 feet in two and a half minutes, and Brit Dean Chaouche set two U.K. records: 242 feet with no fins and 328 feet with, each in about three minutes. For all three, further records await at the year's remaining events.
The Dangers of Free-Diving, by the Numbers
The short history of free-diving is riddled with horror stories. Just last year, 53-year-old free-diving legend Natalia Molchanova disappeared off the coast of Ibiza, never to be found. The payoff isn't so great, either.
Number of competitive free-divers who have died since 2002: six
Depth in feet where lungs shrink to the size of oranges and the heart beats at half the normal rate: 300
Number of divers, of 35 total, who suffered lung injuries in 2016's Vertical Blue contest: four
Cash prize, in dollars, at Vertical Blue (the only competition that offers one): $1,500