With a foam noodle supporting his neck and another beneath his knees, his wife, Brittany, towed him into position while one of three judges decked out in bright yellow rash guards clipped him onto a rope that disappeared into the deep darkness below. The rope was there to measure depth, but it was also a lifeline. If Trubridge were to lose consciousness at a depth the safety divers couldn’t reach, officials could pull him back to the surface before it was too late. Trubridge didn’t anticipate such an emergency. Dean’s Blue Hole was his home court, after all, and Long Island was his home. He’d been training for that moment, in that hole, for months. Then again, nobody had ever tried to swim to 102 meters on one breath without fins.
Splayed like a twisted egg noodle between the frothing Atlantic Ocean and the placid Caribbean Sea, Long Island’s stubby limestone hills and plains are blanketed in thick tropical scrub rustling with wild boar and feral cats and fringed with exquisite white-sand beaches. It also has some history. Long Island was the third stop on Christopher Columbus’s signature voyage. Yet despite the fact that competitive events had been held for half a century, Dean’s wasn’t even on the free-diving map until Trubridge established the first of his 15 world records there in 2007.
Trubridge was raised on a sailboat. He and his brother Sam would entertain themselves by diving for shells in whichever Polynesian port his parents happened to dock in, until high school and university in New Zealand intervened. Never a competitive athlete, he seemed destined for a life of the mind when he got a gig as a genetic engineer in a top Auckland laboratory, but the sterility bored him, so he ditched his lab coat, grabbed a backpack and went traveling. He landed in London, where he worked in a hotel and rented a flat with a good friend who had just returned from Thailand. He regaled Trubridge with stories of free divers he saw seemingly defy human physiology and dive far deeper than scuba divers off Ko Tao.
Trubridge was intrigued. He researched online and learned that free diving wasn’t just about underwater exploration but was also a competitive sport. During depth competitions, he learned, athletes compete in three main disciplines: constant weight (in which divers dolphin-kick to depth wearing a monofin); free immersion (in which athletes pull themselves along a line to depth, then back to the surface, without fins); and, most difficult of all, constant no fins (in which competitors dive using a modified breaststroke, without fins).
Trubridge flashed to those early days underwater, shut off the computer and began to practice dry breath holds on his bed. But he knew he’d need to get back to the tropics to see if he had what it took to be a competitive free diver. He quit his job and traveled to the Bay Islands in Honduras, where he spent weeks lengthening his breath hold and diving deep. Next, he drifted to Sardinia to train with Italian free-diving legend Umberto Pelizzari. Trubridge began to compete, but a lack of accessible dive sites with consistent conditions hampered his performance. Then, in 2005, he found Dean’s Blue Hole.
Yet, by the time he clipped onto the line last December, his position at the top was tenuous. Vertical Blue 2014 drew national record holders from 19 countries. Among them was Alexey Molchanov, then 27, a Russian swim prodigy turned free diver who was already the deepest man in the sport. In September 2013 he dived to 128 meters, covering a distance greater than the height of an 80-story building and breaking his own world record in constant weight. Trubridge still owned the free-immersion world record at 121 meters and the constant-no-fins record at 101 meters, swimming a distance greater than two football fields, without fins. Yet Molchanov beat Trubridge for an overall competition title for the first time last May at the Caribbean Cup and went on to lead the Russian men to team gold at the world championships. By the time Molchanov arrived on Long Island, he looked like the best man in the field.
Friendly rivals, the two couldn’t have more different personalities. Trubridge, six feet tall and rail thin, favors yoga and a mostly vegetarian diet over weight training. He’s also an introvert, spending his downtime at his Long Island home with Brittany—a bikini model and yoga instructor—or studying his dive profiles, seldom socializing with other athletes. The ripped, five-foot-11, 180-pound Molchanov is a weight-lifting evangelist with the bulging legs of a sprint cyclist. He’s also a social animal. After his dives at Vertical Blue he’d often flirt with cute free divers and lead group ocean swims. The Russian and Eastern European divers playfully call themselves the Eastern Bloc, and Molchanov, who lives in Moscow, is their leader. Trubridge is an island.
Competitive free diving is by no means a large universe, but it is growing, with new centers opening up wherever deep water is accessible. Rank-and-file athletes are similar to triathletes. They are extremely fit but not very young. Most are self-funded. The majority are over 30, and some are over 40. Among them are professional landscapers, electricians, software developers, architects, marine biologists and medical doctors. Michael Board, the best diver out of England, is a former Royal Marine who once patrolled the notorious and deadly Baghdad airport road as a highly paid military contractor during the Iraq war. He used that cash to open a flourishing free-dive center in Indonesia, which he runs with his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, a Kiwi national record holder and internationally known yoga instructor. Estrella Navarro Holm is a former Miss Baja California and a current national record holder in Mexico. Lena Jovanovic was an anti-Milosevic activist in Serbia who had to flee the country during the Bosnian war and now sells real estate in Orange County, California. Tomoka Fukuda was an Okinawan hairstylist who earned fame as an elite free diver in her native Japan. Jonathan Sunnex, another New Zealander and the head safety diver with a personal best of 105 meters, once earned six figures as an electrician in Australian mines before he was 25 years old, but ditched the dust to compete and teach free diving full-time.
All of them are addicted to a sport that is both an athletic quest to push the limits of the body and mind beyond what anyone thought possible, and a spiritual experience. When they overcome their fears, ignore their urge to breathe and surrender to the sea down deep, they become a speck of pure consciousness in a vast dark abyss. Time slows, and the deeper they fall, the tighter the sea seems to squeeze until they feel a merge, a total loss of self. But they like their numbers too, and each time athletes hit a new depth, they feel a new charge, a new pride. When they go to bed that night, they revel in accomplishment, and when they wake the next morning, they set a new goal, a new depth, a new number—one they have a hard time letting go of until it’s in their rearview. That’s true for beginners, and it’s especially true for competitors gunning for records.
Competitive free diving got its start in 1949 when an Italian airman, Raimondo Bucher, dived to 30 meters to win a 50,000 lira bet. Doctors at the time predicted his certain doom, but Bucher pulled it off, launching a never-ending race to become the deepest man in the world.
In 1966 the great Italian free diver Enzo Maiorca extended the record to 62 meters, only to have it eclipsed by an old U.S. Navy submariner named Bob Croft, who dived to 64 meters. Frenchman Jacques Mayol, next on the scene, introduced yoga concepts to the sport. Mayol and Maiorca traded the record back and forth through the early 1980s, their friendship and rivalry inspiring Luc Besson’s film The Big Blue.
Those were all no-limits dives, with athletes using weighted sleds to carry them down and balloons, which they’d inflate underwater, to bring them back to the surface. It wasn’t until 1978, when Stefano Makula, another Italian, swam to 50 meters with fins, that self-propulsive free-diving competitions were recorded. Italians dominated that category as well, until 1987, when Cuban Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras dived to 67 meters. No-limits free diving was still king, however, and Ferreras became the deepest man in the world in 1989 when he took a sled down to 112 meters in his native Cuba.
In 2002 Ferreras trained his wife, Audrey Mestre, for an attempt to break the no-limits record with a dive to 171 meters. She’d helped him train for years, and he often pushed her to compete, but Mestre’s attempt was underfunded. Safety protocols weren’t tight enough, and when the balloon that was supposed to bring her back to the surface failed to inflate, Mestre was doomed. She was underwater for more than eight and a half minutes and never revived. Some accused her champion husband of foul play, and her story is reportedly set to become a major motion picture starring Jennifer Lawrence.
In 2012, after two high-profile near-fatal accidents, the Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée, known as AIDA International, stopped sanctioning no-limits attempts. The quest was deemed too hazardous and was by then considered more a personal feat and less an athletic achievement than other competitive free-diving disciplines, which everyone assumed were completely safe. That’s why it was so shocking when Nicholas Mevoli, the first American to swim to 100 meters, died at Vertical Blue on November 17, 2013 while attempting to break an American constant-no-fins record with a dive to 72 meters. His was the first death in international competition, and it shook the sport.
A Nassau autopsy determined that alveolar blood vessels had hemorrhaged, filling Mevoli’s lungs with blood and plasma. Meanwhile, a still unreleased follow-up autopsy, conducted at East Carolina University and led by American free diver Kerry Hollowell, will show that Mevoli had pervasive scar tissue in his alveoli (the lungs’ air sacs). Hollowell also found a preponderance of repair cells called macrophages, which proves some of Mevoli’s injuries were recent. The most recent wound was determined to have occurred on the Friday before his last dive, when he surfaced with blood dripping from his mouth.
I happened to be there the day he died, reporting on Vertical Blue for The New York Times. After a year of investigating Mevoli’s life and death for a forthcoming book, I’ve learned that for almost two years he had been diving despite repeated lung injuries. Over and over he would tear the walls of his alveoli, an injury known as lung squeeze, and cough blood. Sometimes he would take days off; frequently he would not. He was not alone. Many athletes have done deep dives within days of a squeeze. The best dive in Molchanov’s career, when he broke his own constant-weight world record by swimming to 128 meters at the 2013 world championships, occurred just six days after the worst squeeze he’s ever had.
AIDA judges and event doctors have improved their screening processes since Mevoli’s death and become more vigilant in detecting lung injury. Still, prior to Trubridge’s record attempt at Vertical Blue in 2014, a few divers who passed an oxygen-saturation test designed to detect lung squeezes had hidden their symptoms and were cleared to dive.
“At the surface you have to accept that you might die,” said Samo Jeranko, a Slovenian record holder and one of the deepest men in the world, after his 107-meter dive. “You must have no fear.”
When he arrived on Long Island in mid-November, Molchanov was entering his prime. “I won’t try to win,” he told me playfully. “I will win.” Meanwhile, Trubridge’s pre-competition training had been hit-and-miss. A week before the event he enjoyed a clean dive to 100 meters. A few days later he blacked out on the surface after attempting 93 meters.
Nobody knew what to expect on December 2 when Trubridge’s dive would be televised live to millions in his native New Zealand, thanks to their national beer brand Steinlager, his main sponsor. The company paid him six figures to shoot a riveting commercial and make the whole country proud.
For nearly six minutes Trubridge lay on his back, face up, and appeared to be in a deep trance. He was working to lower his heart rate, which would help conserve oxygen. Behind him a Steinlager banner hung from the bluffs. Seventy athletes and fans, including Molchanov, surrounded the competition zone. With 20 seconds to go, Trubridge built toward peak inhalation, filling his belly and then his chest with air before funneling it into the subclavian air pockets beneath his shoulder blades. Next he began to pack his lungs by slurping air, using his tongue as a piston to stuff each mouthful down. Forty packs later, he flipped and slipped below.
Within three elegant strokes he had passed a rugged reef on sloping sand that dropped off at the edge of the hole, rimmed with limestone cliffs at 10 meters. He was now at neutral buoyancy. After three more strokes and another 10-meter drop there was a second set of cliffs, and the walls receded. Now the blue hole was dark as a moonless night and about twice as wide as the cove appeared from the surface. Negatively buoyant, Trubridge stopped swimming and became as streamlined as possible. He closed his eyes and let gravity do the rest. It was time to go deep.
As Trubridge’s descent intensified and the increased atmospheric pressure compressed his lungs, the blood vessels in his arms and legs constricted, shunting blood to his core. The blood vessels in his heart and brain dilated, flooding them with oxygen, and his spleen contracted, distributing a fresh supply of red blood cells and increasing his available oxygen. By the second minute, his pulse had dropped to less than half his resting heart rate on land. Put it all together and you have the mammalian dive reflex, a term coined by scientists who documented a similar response in dolphins and seals. All humans have the capacity to trigger the dive reflex, but athletes like Trubridge have learned to maximize it for peak oxygen efficiency, which allows them to swim deeper and stay down longer than any humans have before.
Although Trubridge had been underwater for two minutes, his body didn’t register an oxygen shortage as he approached 102 meters, because with each additional atmosphere of pressure, which occurs every 10 meters, the partial pressure of oxygen increases. His system held less oxygen than when he began, but the percentage of oxygen in his blood was more than adequate to sustain consciousness. As he began to swim back against the pressure, however, a buildup of carbon dioxide signaled to his brain’s respiratory-reflex center that something wasn’t right. His intercostal muscles responded with violent contractions—every 10 seconds another gut punch—while lactic acid lit his legs on fire. He rose higher with each stroke, but that meant a continuous drop in partial pressure of oxygen. Hypoxia clouded his brain.
At 35 meters, two safety divers—who were also free divers—were waiting to escort him to the surface. As he approached 10 meters the mammalian dive reflex had already flipped; the blood was leaving his brain and core and was headed to his extremities. Starved of oxygen, his lips had turned blue, but that halo of turquoise light was getting closer by the second. His record, and a fresh breath, was still within reach.
When I landed at Dean’s Blue Hole in 2013, I didn’t set out to become a free diver, but the sport gripped me: the way the athletes meticulously prepared for more than an hour for their three to four minutes underwater; the way they moved with rhythm, elegance and daring; the suspense at the surface while everyone waited, wondering what was happening to the divers below, and the deep peace the divers felt after they rose up clean. You could see that buzz in their eyes. It looked a lot like bliss. I was there for the sport’s darkest moment, and for an entire free-dive season afterward I watched dozens of athletes black out or come up spitting blood, and still I needed to know what it felt like to keep diving when every impulse I had told me to come up. I wanted that buzz, so I sought out arguably the best free-diving instructor on earth. “This is not some spa vacation. This is gonna be action-packed.” Kirk Krack, 46, the boyishly handsome owner and lead instructor of Performance Freediving International, stood at the front of the room. “We’re here for performance,” he said, “to get you your best depth.”
It was day one of PFI’s four-day intermediate free-diving course in Kona, Hawaii, and I could already see why Krack is so esteemed. He has trained everyone from Navy SEALs (including members of SEAL Team 6) to Red Bull–sponsored big-wave surfers Mark Healey and John John Florence to magician David Blaine (whom he helped through an oxygen-assisted breath hold of more than 17 minutes) and even Tiger Woods. They all come to him, a kid from the Saskatchewan prairie, because he has coached dozens of athletes—including his wife, Mandy—to 23 world and hundreds of national records.
Once a tech diving instructor and scuba-shop owner in the Cayman Islands, he loves teaching new blood so much that he’d flown to Hawaii’s Big Island direct from a film set in London, where he’d been acting as a technical advisor, to lecture 13 newbies in a cramped scuba-shop classroom in a mini mall. “You’re all gonna have a little hill to climb, a little hump to get over,” he said, “but by the end you’ll be doing things you never thought possible.”
I nodded, well acquainted with my mental mountain. An avid open-ocean swimmer, I thought the sport would be easy for me. I’d spent the previous November on Long Island, picking up bits and pieces from athletes who’d dive with me to make me feel comfortable. I didn’t. At first I couldn’t equalize. Then the pressure below 10 meters would become so intense, I’d bolt for the surface. I felt the pain but not the fun. After several attempts I managed to get to 19 meters and back. Afterward free-diving photographer Daan Verhoeven swam over and said, “That’s some of the least-relaxed free diving I’ve ever seen.” Not a compliment.
Relaxation is the key to efficient free diving because relaxed muscles use five times less oxygen than tense ones. Which is why at the end of day one, Krack guided the class through a relaxing breath exercise as we lined the edge of the pool behind Jack’s Diving Locker. He reminded us to breathe from the belly and exhale for 10 seconds. Longer exhales lower the heart rate. Soon we were holding our breath, facedown in the pool, for one minute, then two, then three and four. We were practicing a free-diving discipline known as static apnea. One of the sport’s three pool disciplines, it’s also an effective training tool. Krack told us that those who could hold their breath for three minutes in static could hold their breath half that long while swimming. If diving to depth takes one meter per second, that means a three-minute static translates to a 45-meter dive.
One AIDA judge describes static this way: “It’s like putting your balls in a drawer and slamming it shut over and over again.” On my last attempt, I made it to three minutes 20 seconds but came up after one drawer slam. As my breathing normalized, I looked around and watched as several of my classmates fought their own nature. Some trembled and shuddered as the drawer kept slamming and the urge to breathe became overwhelming. It did not look fun. The best student got to five minutes 45 seconds before gasping for air and nearly blacking out. By then I’d seen dozens of athletes black out at competitions and get revived moments later, and that wasn’t an experience I was looking for. I wasn’t in Kona to push my limits that hard, I told myself. I just wanted to go a bit deeper and feel comfortable enough underwater that when I surfaced I’d have that buzz I’d seen in the gaze of so many athletes. Also, if you’re writing a book about free diving, you probably shouldn’t suck at it.
The Kona coast does not suck. Dry and rugged, it’s blessed with coffee plantations, lava flows, horse ranches and a checkerboard coastline of white- and black-sand beaches. In the winter, humpbacks breed and breach offshore, their haunting song audible underwater, and on clear days you can see Maui floating in the distance. Free divers love it because there’s deep water a short swim from the beach at Honaunau, a slender cerulean bay framed by two lava headlands. Divers call it Two Step, for its rocky entryway to the blue. South of the bay is Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, both a national historic site and a sacred spot for native Hawaiians, with a collection of traditional temples among the palms.
Krack and his team of instructors set up their rig of four lines dangling with weighted bottom plates. We started with free-immersion dives and then moved into kick cycles. Counting kicks helps divers track their depth. With extra-long free-dive fins offering more thrust than the scuba variety, it should take roughly six strong kick cycles to get to 10 meters and then six softer kick cycles to get to 20 meters.
My frustration bloomed immediately. I had trouble equalizing below 12 meters and had that familiar urge to breathe again, which felt like claustrophobia. Meanwhile, the rest of my group—Keoki, a Honolulu surfboard shaper turned investment advisor; and Drew and Joe, two pot farmers from Santa Cruz—hit every plate. On day two Krack saw a hitch in my approach. I was tucking my chin too much while breathing up at the surface and sucking water into my snorkel, which made it impossible to relax and get the deepest breath possible before I started to dive. On my free-immersion rope descents, I was moving too fast. He demonstrated a slow-motion pull technique that would lengthen the dive but require less energy. His demonstration was so slow it looked like torture waiting to happen. To make matters worse, the wind was strong and the swell rough. As I was tossed in the tides, my brain-speak was on full blast, broadcasting all manner of excuses.
The weather gods want you to fail.
Your wet suit is too tight. You drink too much beer.
You have the lung capacity of a pygmy chimpanzee.
Krack calls that noise self-talk. On the first day he said, “If I could unplug your brain, you’d hold your breath for six minutes and dive to 60 meters. That’s your physiological capacity.” What gets in the way is stress—some of it real, some of it imagined. He meant that if I let it, the rollicking sea, my neurotic mind and the effort to assimilate new techniques into fluid habits would cause my heart rate to rise, my muscles to tense and my brain to confirm that yes, I suck at free diving.
After failing to reach the plate on the first four dives of the second day, all free-immersion dives, I’d had enough. For months I’d been stopping short. It was time to kill the devil on my shoulder and push through discomfort. This time, I decided to make five more pulls after the point of discomfort. On my third pull, I glimpsed the 15-meter mark on the line and decided to press on. Soon I hit 20 meters, a depth I’d long aspired to. Krack hovered beside me as I looked down at a shimmering white-sand bottom. My urge to breathe was gone. I wanted to keep going down, not up. I hung on the line for 20 seconds, enjoying every bit of it. Later that day, I kicked down to 23 meters and back without the faintest struggle.
The next morning was our final open-water session. For the first time as an aspiring free diver I approached the water relaxed and confident. My goal in the course was to hit 30 meters, or 100 feet, and I was ready. Ten warm-up dives later I’d have my opportunity. I prepared by breathing up slowly and calmly while watching Keoki kick down. A strong surfer, he’d been a star throughout class, but this time he surfaced hypoxic and blacked out. He came around right away thanks to Drew, who employed the safety techniques we’d learned like a seasoned pro, but it was still alarming. One hundred feet sounds deep to a layman, but it was nothing compared with the depths I’d seen divers hit in competition. In fact, I hadn’t known it was possible to black out at that depth, especially with fins.
After my second kick cycle I stopped moving altogether. The seconds ticked on, but time stretched out as I enjoyed my entry-level 10-meter free fall. I hit the plate, turned and dolphin-kicked to the surface. At the 10-meter line I stopped kicking hard and simply floated up. It felt good to take my time. At the surface a deep calm suffused my brain.
Many of Krack’s students have told him he changed their lives by proving to them they can do more than they’d ever imagined. By pushing to go deeper, past my own discomfort, I’d uncovered my most subversive limiting factor of all: my negative self-talk. I indulge it far too often, and not just in the water. Too frequently my autopilot bleats out messages explaining why I can’t, which gets in the way of believing that yes, I fucking can.
My goals were to not suck at free diving and to feel that post-dive buzz. I’d achieved both, but I gained much more. As a kid, I’d dreamed of floating through outer space; when I became an avid scuba and tech diver, I experienced the next best thing by exploring another world right here on planet Earth. Now I’d ditched the gear entirely, yet I was still capable of floating through space, because I’d learned to conquer the final frontier: not the ocean—nobody can conquer nature—but that infinite sea of mystery, ability and doubt that lies within.
Perhaps that’s why athletes such as Trubridge and Molchanov, as well as recreational free divers everywhere, feel the pull to go deep and then deeper still. On each successful dive they learn more about themselves. It strips away limitations, inspires confidence that they can do and be more. Of course, at the competitive level that drive can become an obsession, which can be extremely dangerous. Fatal, even.
Trubridge didn’t get his world record. He blacked out just below the surface, but the safety divers brought him up and he came around quickly. He left the beach that day despondent, but he had two more dives to go and needed to hit both to get on the podium.
A win seemed out of the question the next day as Molchanov prepared for his no-fins dive to 95 meters. “I expected him to get it,” said Trubridge. When he didn’t, Trubridge saw an opening and won the competition with back-to-back dives of 120 meters in free immersion and 117 meters in constant weight. A lesser competitor might have been consumed with doubt after a high-profile failure and perhaps hedged a bit on depth, considering he’d just blacked out. The buzz within the free-dive community suggested that diving again so soon might be dangerous and that he was setting the wrong example. Trubridge didn’t listen. For better or worse, he believed, and thanks to a clutch performance, he was still on top.