Fascinating insights into the world of a free-diver
BY ANJA FAHS
Diffused sun rays penetrate the blue of the ocean and dimly illuminate the outlines of a man on the brink of a deep dark hole at the sea bottom. This could be the scene of a base jump if we were not many feet deep under-water. Apnea diver Guillaume Néry gets ready for take-off and then dives as if in in slow motion, down into the black abyss of Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. He is holding his breath and so are we.
Néry does not need any apparatus such as scuba gear; his only aid is his body. The Frenchman is one of the most successful apnea divers in the world. He can hold his breath for seven to eight minutes. Diving is his obsession. He is addicted to the feeling of free falling, zero gravity, which he experiences at a depth of 20 to 30 metres, where the pressure on the body is so great and the lung volume so low that he just falls and can sink to the bottom of the sea.
“Underwater, I feel freer than I could ever be on land,” Néry describes his passion for this dangerous sport. He already holds numerous records. At the age of 20, he managed to set his first world record when he dived 87 feet deep, taking only one breath. When he was 14, he began to train his body and his spirit in particular. What is most important in free diving is attitude, relaxation and concentration. He is aware that those that want too much too soon are risking their lives. Accidents and fatalities occur time and again. Néry himself has fainted under water before; he then understood what he was getting into. After several thousand dives his body has adapted to the depth. The free-diver has learned to accept the pressure in this environment and does not feel the pain down there anymore. “Before the dive, I achieve a state of relaxation,” Néry explains. “I lie in the water and try to become a part of the element. Shortly before the dive, I inhale as much air as possible.” And that is a more than a few lungfuls. The lung capacity of a normal human being is about six litres – Guillaume’s lungs can hold ten litres. Additionally, he uses a special breathing technique to compress the air in his respiratory organ. But despite all this, he must operate as efficiently as possible with the oxygen stored inside his body.
Here, the diving reflex, which is common to all whales, dolphins and humans, comes to his aid. After the first few metres underwater, the effect can be felt: the heart beat slows down, the blood accumulates in the torso and the head, the body switches into slow burn mode, so to speak. The lowest point of his dive is also where the greatest danger lurks as gases start to dissolve in the blood that can cause nitrogen narcosis ‒ better known as rapture of the deep. Trained divers manage to keep control over their body at that point, but the risk of falling into a kind of trance and becoming disoriented, is considerably high. On top of that, the most strenuous part of the dive is still to come: the ascent. The way back to the surface is much more difficult than just falling into the depths. For now, the diver must swim upwards – which costs energy and oxygen. “The most critical point I reach is about ten meters below the surface,” says Néry. His body produces a lot of lactic acid at that stage, as if he has run a quick sprint. To remove it, the last bit of oxygen is drawn from the blood, sufficient reserves are therefore vital. It is no surprise that apnea athletes are always accompanied by a safety diver on the last 30 metres of their way up. Should a diver now lose consciousness, immediate help is assured.
What drives the diver to this adventure is incomprehensible to most people. It is an adventure – or risk – that is beyond the imagination of outsiders. For the athletes themselves it has long become an addiction. Guillaume Néry confesses that he has long surrendered to his passion. He strives to probe his own limits to see how far he can go, how far his body can be dominated, and how it can adapt underwater. It is here, where he recognises his own possibilities, where he needs to find his own speed and where he seeks to experience infinity once more. To become one with the ocean is what drives him.
But Guillaume Néry is also paid for his sport – nowadays he makes a living from it. He speaks at conferences about his experiences, advises companies, takes part in advertising shoots and sells his spectacular photos. Together with his wife Julie Gaultier, who is also a free-diver, he leads his own production company, where they make their own movies. She was the one who posted the artistic short film “Free Fall” about his base jump in Dean’s Blue Hole on the internet, where it has attracted more than 22 million views to date.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2015. Picture credit © Guillaume Néry/Julie Gaultier