Nicholas Mevoli saved money from an assortment of jobs to pay for the bottomless pursuit of holding his breath and sinking his body as far as possible into the ocean.
He practiced holding his breath in bathtubs and Brooklyn swimming pools, even seeing how far he could run with one gulp of oxygen. For roughly the past two years, free diving consumed his life, turning him from novice to national record-holder.
But on Sunday, in pursuit of another record in a championship event in a hidden cove of the Bahamas, in front of the best free divers in the world, Mr. Mevoli came to the surface — but he was not all the way back. After diving down to 68 meters, he paused and reached 72 meters before turning back. After staying under water for 3 minutes 38 seconds, Mr. Mevoli, 32, pulled off his goggles — and quickly fell into unconsciousness. He died soon after.
Mr. Mevoli’s life and death reflect both the spirit of a fast-growing niche sport and its dangers. His rise from novice to record-holder in little more than a year serves both as an inspiration and as a dire warning to an undersea world of divers whose stars rise as the depths they reach plunge.
Free diving, with ancestral roots in the ocean hunters of previous millennia, is practiced by tens of thousands of certified recreational divers tracked by a web of free-diving agencies, including AIDA, the international governing body known by its French acronym. But competitive free diving, in which athletes are not permitted to use snorkels or any oxygen supply, remains a niche sport. The AIDA calendar comprises about 20 events through March, some with nominal prize money. High-dollar sponsorships are few. Some of the top athletes teach courses on how to free dive, but few, if any, make a living as a competitor.
“I really enjoy going on this journey where other people can’t go,” said Michael Board, a British record-holder who went to compete in the Bahamas over the weekend. “The feeling of being deep under water, somewhere you’re not meant to be, and feeling this sort of mastery over your body and your mind, and it being so peaceful, and you’re not scared. It’s a real achievement.”
Kimmo Lahtinen, the president of AIDA, suggested that Mr. Mevoli’s natural talent might have pushed him to the sport’s top tier too fast, perhaps stripping him of the “important experience that is needed to stay alive in an exceptional depth.”
The organization said in a statement Monday that Mr. Mevoli’s death was the first in more than 20 years of its competitions. It planned to review the accident “to learn what we can do to prevent further serious injuries.”
On Monday, several dozen free divers who had swum with Mr. Mevoli gathered at Dean’s Blue Hole, a legendary 200-meter cavity, to remember Mr. Mevoli in the place where he attempted his last dive.
Dean’s Blue Hole is a circle of darkness in a turquoise-colored cove of Long Island, a sparsely populated splinter of an island in the Bahamas. It may be a mecca for free divers the world over, but locals have been warned by previous generations not to venture close; it was carved by the devil and will suck you into its depths.
Mr. Mevoli, like his daring friends and competitors, brushed off the danger. He loved the purity of free diving, man against water, man against himself, no snorkel or oxygen tank. Swim into the depths of the ocean until the water turns from blue to black and the light fades to dark. Down, down, down, every meter into the abyss meaning another meter back to the light.
“Water is acceptance of the unknown, of demons, of emotions, of letting go and allowing yourself to flow freely with it,” Mr. Mevoli wrote in a blog post in June. “Come to the water willing to be consumed by it but also have confidence that your ability will bring you back.”
A Diving ‘Hobo’
Mr. Mevoli lived in an apartment above a bar in Brooklyn. His door was usually open, the couch available to whichever friend was passing through the city. On his Facebook page, Mr. Mevoli — Nicholas or Nick, sometimes Nic — made jokes about being a diving “hobo.” He posted photos of himself: striking light brown eyes, lean, sometimes mustachioed, and often with fins in hand.
Raised mostly in Florida, Mr. Mevoli was described by a trove of friends as someone who was both unique and a familiar type of single man in Brooklyn. He played drums and was a fan of Thelonious Monk. He took pride in the gnocchi he prepared, along with his fish bakes. He traveled the world and was close with his grandfather, a World War II veteran.
He played kickball in McCarren Park, went to concerts with friends, wrote screenplays and acted on stage. He had a handful of odd jobs over the years, including work in a bagel shop. He was a talented BMX biker, handy with tools, often seen riding his bike while wearing a tool belt on his way to work as a prop manager.
He was a member of Rising Sun Performance Company, where he was a performer, technician and writer. But a little more than two years ago, he curbed his acting roles to focus more on free diving. He spent tens of thousands of dollars on the sport.
Mr. Mevoli was drawn to the ocean from a young age, said his stepfather, Fred Rudzik. The two did scuba diving lessons together when Mr. Mevoli was a teenager in Florida. “He always loved water,” Mr. Rudzik said.
Two years ago, Mr. Mevoli was taking intermediate-level free-diving classes at Immersion Freediving of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In May 2012, he plunged to a depth of 91 meters in his first major competition in the “constant weight” discipline, which allows for a fin on the feet to help propel the diver.
Ted Harty, the company’s founder and a record-setting diver himself, congratulated his student on Facebook for his “amazing progress” in going from 30 meters to more than twice that depth in a matter of months.
“I can’t wait to see what he can do,” Mr. Harty wrote in the post.
Mr. Mevoli’s training in New York included swimming in still pools, his stepfather said, as well as running up and down flights of stairs holding his breath. His family said he was not surprised that he was breaking records so soon after he discovered the sport. “Maybe he pushed his body beyond where many athletes do,” Mr. Rudzik said.
In May, off the coast of Honduras, Mr. Mevoli established an American record by dropping 100 meters in the constant-weight discipline. He was under water for 2 minutes 45 seconds.
Mr. Lahtinen, the president of AIDA, said the sport’s safety record was quite strong. The organization, which is 21 years old, has a database of 35,000 dives — and he said serious accidents in organized competitions were almost never seen.
But as the popularity of free diving surges, Mr. Lahtinen said, safety is going to remain a central issue.
“Nick was an exceptional talent in this sport,” Mr. Lahtinen said. “I think this was one of the things which may have something to do with this accident.”
He added: “You are going to the limits faster and faster. When you are dealing with this kind of depth, it is something where you need a lot of experience.”
Two months ago, as Mr. Mevoli won a silver medal at the world championships in Greece, he was temporarily frustrated with his performance and mental state. In a blog on www.usfreediving.org, he told of wandering the city streets after a constant-weight dive to 75 meters, occasionally spitting blood on the sidewalk. He wondered why he was so consumed by reaching tangible depths.
“Numbers infected my head like a virus and the need to achieve became an obsession. Obsessions can kill,” he wrote.
He added: “I ask you, would you like me any less if I was only a diver who couldn’t make it past 20m?”
Pressure and Lungs
Sea creatures are made primarily of water, which is virtually incompressible. So they thrive.
But humans are full of voids — most prominently the lungs. When humans descend to greater depths, the rising pressure forces the lungs to shrink in size.
Water is almost 1,000 times denser than air, and the enormous pressure from its sheer weightiness mounts rapidly during descent. As you go down, by weight, every 10 cubic feet of seawater equals roughly one cubic foot of lead.
Francisco Ferreras-Rodriguez of Cuba, who set a world record for diving without the aid of breathing gear, plunged in 1996 to a depth of 436 feet. Studies later showed that the sea’s pressure at 400 feet compressed his chest size by more than half — lowering it from a circumference of 50 inches at the surface down to 20 inches.
Marine mammals that routinely dive deep have lungs that can collapse entirely. Some have chests built like accordions — designed to fold. Whales, seals, and other deep-diving mammals store oxygen not in their lungs but in networks of powerful muscles.
For humans, the crushing deep poses unique challenges. Scuba diving mitigates the most obvious obstacle with oxygen tanks. Casual divers typically go down no farther than about 100 feet, limiting the water pressures and lung contractions that they experience.
But as free divers descend, they experience a rapid shrinkage of the lungs and the compression of the gases inside. That enriches the bloodstream with the two main components of the air — oxygen and nitrogen.
One danger is nitrogen narcosis, or rapture of the deep, which prompts a kind of giddy stupidity that encourages risk-taking. The drunkenness is thought to arise when excess nitrogen in the bloodstream and organs prompts nerve impulses to slow. The physiological effect is thought to be similar to the action of nitrous oxide, an anesthetic that produces pleasurable sensations.
Such befuddlement, experts say, may have prompted Mr. Mevoli to disregard symptoms of danger and suddenly renew his quest to dive deeper. He paused and seemed to turn back toward the surface at 68 meters, or 223 feet, but then turned around and proceeded to dive deeper.
Medical experts say deadly problems can arise as a diver goes ever downward and pressures from the water keep rising.
“There’s a limit to lung compression when you dive deep,” said Dr. Paul J. Ponganis, a practicing anesthesiologist and a physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. “This sport is always pushing that limit.”
Blood from the legs and arms gets forced into the heart and chest cavity, which in humans is kept from total collapse by the bony rib cage and other chest structures. Typically, the body of an adult male holds roughly five liters of blood, and studies have shown that the outer pressure on divers can send up to one liter of excess blood flowing into the chest cavity.
At first, that pooling of blood around the heart and lungs is a good thing, supplying the diver with life-giving oxygen.
But as the pressures rise, the fragile human body gets transformed into a kind of pressure cooker that is squeezed hard on all sides — by extreme water pressure on the outside and blood pressure on the inside.
Dr. Ponganis said the added pressure in the circulatory system radiated through the lungs and could force blood vessels and capillaries in the lungs to burst and bleed — in the worst case, slowly filling the lungs with blood.
“Everything in the chest is getting squeezed,” he said. “Capillaries are being distended. Blood vessels in the lungs distend and rupture. Even the pulmonary vessels become engorged.”
Athletes in free-diving competitions often return to the surface with bloody noses. But Dr. Ponganis said that the cardiovascular dysfunctions in Mr. Mevoli’s fatal dive appeared to have been much worse.
Dr. Ponganis said Mr. Mevoli probably suffocated, his lungs unable to absorb the oxygen in the air. But he cautioned that only an autopsy would be able to detail the likely cause of death.
“It’s a sad case,” he said. “To me, it’s a very dangerous sport. It pushes your physiology to the limits.”
Best Place to Free Dive
Free divers consider Dean’s Blue Hole the best place in the world to free dive — a seemingly bottomless pit (actually, more than 200 meters deep) of limestone. Last weekend, it was the scene of Vertical Blue, the sport’s crowning event, with 35 athletes representing 16 countries.
But at 11:10 a.m. local time Monday, a crowd of 80 mourners gathered on the crescent-shaped beach. Some came with flowers and began passing them around. Three women linked arms beneath a parasol. A Shins song crooned from the public-address system used to announce dives during the competition.
All other traces of the competition were gone, including the platform where attempts were made to revive Mr. Mevoli the day before.
The free divers gathered were among the world’s best and most experienced, but they acknowledged that they knew relatively little about their sport’s safety protocol.
“Because there is so little proper medical information on lung squeezes, we only think we know the risks,” said Mr. Board, the British record-holder. “We go into dives, going on feeling.”
One by one, those in the free-diving fraternity stepped forward to offer their own grace notes.
“He always wanted to hold his breath and dive,” said Ren Chapman, Mr. Mevoli’s training partner. “That was his life.”
William Trubridge, a world-record-holder and organizer of Vertical Blue, recalled a day when he and Mr. Mevoli were snorkeling in Honduras. Mr. Trubridge saw a turtle and began to take pictures. Mr. Mevoli took the camera away and told Mr. Trubridge to enjoy the moment, to swim with the turtle.
At the ceremony’s end, mourners swam together to the center of the blue hole and formed a circle over the shadowy depths below their feet. They took a collective breath and dived under the water.
“When we have a new national record or world record, the tradition is to splash the hell out of them,” Grant Graves, the lead judge at Vertical Blue, said. “Let’s celebrate his life, like we celebrated his record in Honduras. So let’s splash it out for him.”
The group batted and kicked the water in celebration. Some gritted their teeth in anger; others laughed. The hole foamed and frothed.
John Branch reported from Novato, Calif., Mary Pilon and William J. Broad reported from New York, and Adam Skolnick reported from Long Island, Bahamas. Steve Eder contributed reporting from New York. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.