My flirtation with death begins in the shallow end. Floating facedown in three feet of water in a Miami pool, I have been holding my breath for a minute and 45 seconds, or about a minute longer than I've ever held it before. As the sun warms the back of my wet suit I stare at the blue cement bottom through my mask and listen to my heart's sluggish ba-dum…ba-dum reverberating in my ears. This is a good sign, as it means my ticker is slowing down and my body is decreasing its demand for oxygen. It's just the first of several involuntary reactions that my free-dive instructor, Kirk Krack, is encouraging me to embrace in order to revive my vestigial "mammalian dive reflex." Eventually, Krack will teach me to harness these reactions to plunge 100 feet below the ocean surface and to swim among turtles and manta rays without the aid of a scuba tank. Right now, though, he simply wants me to get comfortable pushing myself to the brink of seizure and blackout.
I feel a poke: "Two minutes." It's Alex, the burly, short-tempered mechanic, my designated "buddy" who periodically taps my shoulder and checks for signs of life. I raise my right index finger to signal I'm still conscious. Then my legs start to tingle. This apparently is another part of the reflex. Sensing that my oxygen supply is dropping, the arteries in my extremities are constricting to divert blood to more vital regions like my torso and head.
Another poke: "Two minutes, 30." Suddenly my diaphragm jumps into the act. With the CO2 in my blood rising, my brain has signalled this shelf of muscle below my lungs to start spasming. It's like an invisible hand is gripping the diaphragm and yanking down on it like on a bicycle pump handle to force more air into the cylinder. I try to ride the spasms out, but then it happens again. And again.
"Three minutes," barks Alex. "One more minute. You can do it." By now my diaphragm is ricocheting between my lungs and intestines. My esophagus quakes violently. A clammy chill creeps into my extremities. I wonder: Is this rigor mortis? Then it starts: My left thigh twitches. Then my right. Seconds later, I'm convulsing from head to toe. I am, no doubt, nearer to the grave than I've ever been. But I've suffered for this long, and each additional second earns me, well, another second.
"Three minutes, 15 seconds." Now a concern more urgent than death is screaming at me, from my entrails, the only part of me feeling relaxed. Dangerously relaxed. Bubbles emerge from my wet suit. I place my feet on the bottom, and my hands on the poolside, leaving my face in the water for a few last seconds. "Keep going, you can do it!" taunts Alex. I lift my head, take six glorious breaths of air, and flash an okay sign. The convulsions stop. "Three minutes, 19."
When I regain my senses, I see that all of the other bodies in the pool are still horizontal. I'm the class loser. Most beat four minutes, some five. When their faces do emerge, however, they're a shabby sight: blue lips, convulsions, giddiness. A couple of heads get pulled, momentarily unconscious, from the water.
And, to think, in two days we'll be putting all this to use in the Gulf Stream.
Kirk Krack (pronounced "krock") is pacing now in front of a classroom crammed with expectant free-divers and spearfishermen. He wears flip-flops, shorts, and a golf shirt advertising his dive team, Performance Freediving International. The acrid smell of musty wet suits stings our nostrils. In six years Krack has seen his classes double in size as free-diving has suddenly emerged as the fastest-growing segment of the dive market. And it's no longer just gonzo underwater hunters eager to harpoon bigger grouper who are checking it out. The Jessica Alba movie Into the Blue has only added to the allure, as more average scuba enthusiasts like me are drawn by the out-of-body experience you purportedly get plumbing the ocean depths completely and utterly under your own steam.
"For millions of years we've been evolving out of the ocean," Krack tells us. His voice is calm but vaguely maniacal. "At some point we just flopped out on our fins, looked around, and thought, ‘You know? It's pretty lush and green out here. There are too many things trying to eat my ass in the water. I think I'm going to check this out for a while.' And we stayed. But we never lost those ingrained reflexes. In this course, we'll teach you how to reconnect with your inner dolphin."
His words might sound like New Age hooey if it weren't for Martin Stepanek, half-man, half-Flipper, who lurks, arms akimbo, in a far corner. Five years ago, Stepanek was a recent Czech immigrant struggling to get by as a cook and groundskeeper in Key West. Within a year of enrolling in Krack's first seminar, Stepanek had broken the world record for the longest underwater breath-hold, staying submerged for an astounding eight minutes and six seconds. Of the eight competitive free-diving categories (depending on whether you're going for depth, distance, or duration, and on the method of propulsion, such as finning, pulling down a rope, or frog-kicking barefoot), he has set records in five of them, descending to depths where the pressures are so intense that they ripple your skin, concave your midsection, and crush your lungs like a paper bag.
A competitive underwater swimmer since childhood, Stepanek follows an elaborate training regimen. He has expanded the maximum volume of his lungs to nearly twice that of a normal guy his size and has whittled his body fat to less than 2 percent. Through repeated breath-hold exercises and "stretching" drills he can now effortlessly suck in his stomach so far you can place your hand up under his ribs and feel his heart beating through his diaphragm. Aside from enabling him to hide a cantaloupe under his shirt, this flexibility is crucial to withstanding the bizarre contortions at depth. For most of us, these would be excruciating, but for Stepanek they're as second-nature as bouncing down into a split is for a gymnast.
And he is just one of Krack's freak-show creations. Krack has also coached Tanya Streeter, Brett LeMaster, and many of the sport's other best-known record holders. In addition to elite athletes, Krack trains hundreds of novices like myself each year, and has helped spawn a cult of lawyers, executives, and big-name sports celebrities for whom free-diving and its even more hardcore cousin, spearfishing, are passions so intense they're putting a strain on marriages. When Krack's disciples are not communing tankless with Mother Ocean, or dodging sharks to wrestle giant trophy fish to the surface, they spend hours prepping their bodies to get by without air. They ride the subway breathing only at the stations. One student ended up with 27 stitches in his head doing a breath-hold exercise while cooking. Another, Matthew Charlton, an Ottawa mailman who has since graduated to the competitive ranks and is one of our instructors in Miami, had to train by challenging himself to deliver as much mail as possible on a single breath, until he woke up on a lawn with a day's worth of letters strewn about.
Competitive free-diving suffered its biggest black eye in 2002, when Audrey Mestre, the French wife of Cuban diving legend Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras, attempted a record in the "no limits" category, in which you ride down on a weighted sled, then rocket back to the surface using a lift bag you fill from a compressed air bottle. After reaching 561 feet, Mestre opened the valve on her bottle (in effect, the only parachute she had), only to find that the bag wouldn't inflate.
Krack, who was friends with Mestre and Pipin, took the tragedy hard. But you get the sense he's also a little frustrated with the pair's disregard of recognized safety procedures and with the impact it's had on his own efforts to change public perceptions of free-diving. "To the layperson, a blackout might look bad," he says. "But at the competitive level, a blackout is the equivalent of when a guy gets tackled so hard in football that he's winded and on the ground for 15 seconds. It just happens to be part of our sport."
Krack spends hours trying to indoctrinate us in the free-dive equivalent of proper ball-carrying techniques. We learn to use our throat and tongue like a piston to "pack" our lungs with more air. We discover how to avoid tracheal tears with proper neck positioning, and how to avoid something called alternobaric vertigo ("It's like someone takes your head and spins it, and you can't tell up from down") by forcing air into the middle ears to equalize them with the outside water pressure.
What we never get to do is head into the open ocean and really let the dolphins out. A nor'easter parked off the Miami coast has been kicking up seas too rough for diving. After filling the four days with intensive pool and class work, Krack finally calls an end to the clinic. Part of me is relieved, but Krack extends a magnanimous offer: Taking responsibility for the weather, he announces we can re-enroll in any of his courses around the world, for free.
Back in New York my ears remain clogged for a week. The blood in my spittle suggests I've sustained a small tracheal tear. When that heals, though, I sign up for Krack's clinic in Grand Cayman. I soon catch myself walking through my Brooklyn neighborhood holding my breath. If I can't climb to my fourth-floor apartment without replenishing my lungs, how will I swim down five floors? I become obsessed. Picking up the dry-cleaning, heading to the café, I choose a distant fire hydrant as the site of my next breath. In my office, I log on to a secret website that coaches me through lengthy breath-holds, shouting, "Wake up!" if I nod off and fail to tap the space bar when prompted.
My flight into Cayman gets in late at night. The next morning I'm still bleary-eyed, waiting for Krack in the parking lot, admiring my first glimpse of the turquoise Caribbean, when a white minivan zips into a nearby space. Krack hops out of the front. Then the side door slides open, and the van disgorges a blonde, blue-eyed beauty with a ravishing body that flawlessly stretches a white tank top. She flashes an easy smile.
Just when things can't any get more interesting, out pops a man with mocha skin and teeth the color of snow. Slender but ripped, he wears a white biking jersey and shorts and dark-blue flip-flops — each bearing the Nike swoosh.
I do a double take. Then I watch dumbfounded as Tiger Woods spits, adjusts his shades, and heads toward the sea.
Minutes later, we file into a tiny classroom at the Cobalt Coast Resort. Tiger, his wife Elin, and their retinue — consisting of his personal assistant, his Kiwi divemaster, and the divemaster's girlfriend, who also happens to be a pal of Elin's — squeeze into the last row. At the front, Krack paces back and forth, yammering on about nothing in particular, delaying the inevitable.
"Okay," he finally says, "let's introduce ourselves." For five minutes it's the usual free-dive salutations — "Hi, I'm Aaron Parker from Santa Cruz, California. I've never blacked out. I've tried with spotters, but it hurts too much to go over the edge. This time I'm ready to try harder" — until we get to the whale shark in the back row.
"Tiger Woods," he mumbles in his O.C. California twang. He pauses and glances slyly. "My whole deal is to go deeper and longer so I can shoot bigger fish." The class erupts in laughter, despite the absence of a joke. "I've got into free-diving a bit. I thoroughly enjoy shooting fish and catching lobster on the free-dives. But I want to go after yellowfin tuna. So I need to stay down a little longer."
His wife is next: "My name is Elin," says the Swedish former nanny. "And I'm trying to keep up with him," she says, pointing her thumb at her man. More laughter. "We've been doing a lot of diving but I can't hold my breath very long at all. So that's my goal."
"So are you going to shoot big yellowfin also?" Stepanek asks.
"Yeah, bigger than him!"
After class, we hit the pool for the breath-hold exercise. Tiger pairs off with his assistant, Elin with her pal, and I get Tiger's divemaster. At first, I'm concerned the hubbub will divert my focus, but my around-the-bend training in Brooklyn seems to have paid off. Although I break my Miami record of 3:19 by only three seconds, this time it's done in an unheated pool so frigid that I shiver in my wet suit.
After just one morning of classroom time, Tiger nails the four-minute mark on his first series of tries. But he's not the best in the class. As the drill winds down, he gathers with the rest of us around the facedown body of the 48-year-old Canadian a few of us soon elect "Most Likely to Die." The man bags 6:16.
That afternoon, we hit the open water for the first of our drills on finning and pulling ourselves along a line. There's a lot to get used to. Free-diving is completely different from scuba. Here, you're vertical almost constantly, half that time upside down. This is highly disorienting. But the biggest challenge is what happens when your diaphragm revolts, as it inevitably does. It's not like in the pool, where you can just lift your head and breathe.
Not surprisingly, Tiger makes a smooth adjustment. By day two he's crossing over into some of the higher-order free-dive states that as yet have eluded me. "It's the weirdest, trippiest feeling when you hit that point where all of a sudden you start picking up speed," he says.
On day three he decides to set a personal record. He asks Krack to follow him to 75 feet. But, not much for waiting around, he bolts before Krack is ready. Struggling to catch up, the instructor fails to put his mask on correctly, and it floods with water, making it nearly impossible to see. "I thought you were going to have to rescue me," he says later.
As the days progress, Tiger blends in as just another member of the Krack cult. His wife proves a cheerful companion for me at the bottom of the class. ("I think it's because we have small lungs," she confides.) On the dive boat, Tiger banters about gear and dive sites, and expounds on his ambitions to kill 50-pound pelagics. "I usually cheat when I'm spearfishing; I use scuba instead of free-diving. But on scuba, the big tuna hear your bubbles and bolt."
At one point, Krack teaches us apnea walking, an exercise where you hold your breath and walk as far as you can before fainting. "No walking down the fairway on national television doing this, Tiger," Krack jokes.
Tiger doesn't seem to get it. "Why not?" he asks earnestly, obviously unaware of the curious case of the prostrate mailman.
Another hot afternoon, he sneaks onto the dive boat's bridge and pours cold water down on Elin, who gasps and nearly jumps out of her wet suit. But there are limits to the locker-room bonhomie. At the end of a long day I find myself alone at the back of the boat with Tiger. Running out of spearfishing fish to talk about, I ask him about his favorite Caribbean destinations, where he's off to next. He gives the shortest possible answers. Switching tactics, I attempt the philosophical: "So, really, why free-diving?" There's an awkward silence. He surveys the horizon as if scoping out a tee shot. I get the message.
My eyes fall to the word embroidered on the plush red towel around his shoulders: Privacy. It's the same word you see emblazoned on the bags, shirts, and hats of his entourage. It's also the name of his $57 million, 155-foot yacht anchored just offshore, where, every afternoon after diving, a speedboat zips him and his friends off for the night.
Finally, the big out-to-deep-water day arrives: when the drilling ends and the serious free-diving begins. Under a lapis and cotton-ball sky, we cruise into the Caribbean. As schools of flying fish skitter alongside the boat, Krack gives us one last pep talk: "Today's the day to have fun. The plate is at 115 feet, but don't put an expectation on yourself. Live in the moment, and you'll look at your computer and find out, ‘Holy crap, I just did a personal best!' "
Minutes later completely forgetting Krack's advice, I jump in and with some trepidation knock back the biggest breath of my life. Then I drive myself under.
The water cloaks me in silence. I'm enfolded by a world the hue of a twilight desert sky. Light filters through, illuminating the white plankton. As I reach 30 feet, I look behind me, and the surface glows turbulent and backlit, like molten silver. The warm water glides past, pressing against my body. By 45 feet, my wet suit compresses so much I'm no longer buoyant and I start picking up speed. I'm suddenly flooded with that trippy feeling Tiger talked about, a sustained version of the weightlessness you experience driving over a hill too fast. I fade into slow motion. My lungs compressed, I lose even the urge to breathe.
By 60 feet, I've been down for about 45 blissful seconds. Then suddenly, my mask sucks tightly around my eyes. I've been having too much fun, and I haven't equalized the pressure in a while. I try in vain to piston air into my mask through my nose. Instead, my throat contracts. I'm choking. My diaphragm protests. "It's a lying bastard," I remember Krack saying. "You're not out of air." Another contraction. I ache for oxygen, which by now is seven stories away. The pounding in my ears booms louder, and my muscles tighten. I calm myself — there's no other choice — and curl my torso forward, circling upward.
The turn feels great, and after a few kicks the rapture returns. Eight more solid kicks, then my buddy meets me at 30 feet to usher me through the blackout zone. I'm buoyant again, and I shuttle toward the sun, picking up speed like a submerged cork. Finally I thrust back into the atmosphere, rocketing out up to my belly. I inhale and flash the okay sign. I haven't exactly dethroned Martin Stepanek, but for more than a minute and a half, I've been one with my inner dolphin.
While I'm recovering, Tiger pops through the surface and flashes a toothy smile. He just set a new personal best of his own: 100 feet. The bastard.
On the way back to shore, we stop at the Doc Poulson, a sunken cable ship stranded at 60 feet. It's here that Stepanek and Krack finally get to show off the extent of their aquatic prowess. Each slips into a monofin, which whacks the water like a whale tail as it breaks the surface, and they head for the wreck.
Bobbing on the swells, we watch through the pane-clear sea as the pair thrusts their glistening silver tails from the abdomen, sweeping themselves along in sleek, powerful S curves. They fin the length of the rust-eaten ship, exploring the haunted ambience of barnacles and feathery green sea slime. A few curious bar jacks emerge and glance sidelong at these exotic, masked marine mammals. Stepanek and Krack fin right past and arc through the cabin, pausing to let a scuba diver snap a few photos. With another set of vigorous kicks, they soar aft and then to the bow and back again. They're like gilled creatures, perfectly at home at 60 feet. Three minutes pass before they think about angling upward to take another breath.
In the midst of this, I catch a glimpse of Tiger. With Elin at his side, he hovers facedown, breathing through his snorkel and staring at the spectacle below. I can tell he's a bit in awe of the solitude, the privacy to be had when you surmount humankind's primordial constraints. Just then he kicks one leg into the air, dissolves below the surface, and drops toward the wreck. In his young life he has already mastered so many of earth's terrestrial challenges. Now he longs to conquer the aquatic medium, to pass through to the other side of the looking glass. Tiger Woods, too, yearns to cross the species barrier.