One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits – Adam Skolnick
This is the book on freediving that has long needed to be written. Structured, well researched, and focused, you must to read it if you have an interest in the sport. It is the best book by far that I, a rank outsider to freediving, have read on the subject.
Skolnick explains the development of the sport, and narrates the life of Nick Mevoli, attempting to unravel the obsession that freediving engenders in its participants. With detailed descriptions of freedving competitions, such as the Vertical Blue series of events, this is the closest I have gotten to understand the mechanics of the sport, and the impulse that drives its participants. There is no attempt to airbrush the physical toll exacted by freediving or to gloss over the dangers of the sport.
Freediving is an intriguing sport to outsiders (like me). There’s not a lot to read about it – James Nestor’s Deep is an overview of the sport (to a certain degree), but the rest of the literature is scarce and specialised. Two books – that need to be read in tandem – which you should read if you’re interested in the sport, are The Last Attempt and The Dive. They concern the love affair of Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre, which directly led to the death of Mestre during a “no limits” record attempt.
No limits freediving is a hard to fathom branch of the sport in which the diver descends – rapidly – on a weighted sled, to a specified depth. To ascend, a pressurised cannister of gas inflates a lift bag, bringing the diver back to the surface. Because of the assisted descent and ascent, the divers are able to go far deeper than the other freediving disciplines. Herbert Nitsch holds the men’s record, to 214 metres.
An ESPN documentary about Audrey Mestre, “No Limits”, is now available on Vimeo. It’s 50 minutes long – a considerable time commitment for an online viewing – but fascinating and well structured, and contains ample footage of no limits dive to satisfy your curiosity. Mestre’s record attempt was prompted in part by a dive by Tanya Streeter, who had broken both the men’s and women’s no limits record with a dive to 160 metres in 2002. The contrast between Streeter’s safety preparations and Mestre’s – arranged by their respective husbands is telling. The end of this documentary, covering Mestre’s final dive, is profoundly disturbing – watch with caution. I’ve embedded the video below.
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Can Tell Us About Ourselves – James Nestor
I was very excited to start reading this book, and wanted very much to like it. I am eternally puzzled and fascinated by freediving, a sport which seems wrapped in much mystique and mumbo jumbo by its participants, but which is appealing in its simplicity and risky to the rash. I read and enjoyed The Last Attempt and The Dive, books which for me underscored the risks inherent in the sport. I was pleased that James Nestor, who writes for Outside Magazine, had decided to tackle the subject in a less dramatic form than the Audrey Mestre tragedy.
Sadly the book didn’t live up to the promise of its cover and title, at least to me. Far from focusing on the subject of freediving, as I expected, the book does that as well as attempting to provide a tour of the entire range of ocean depths down to the very deepest parts.
The author freedives, meets freedivers, and does amateur scientific research with freedivers, all of which are fascinating things to read about, but he also takes a trip in a home made submarine, tries repeatedly to visit a research ship, visits an underwater habitat, and wanders through a variety of other oceanic themes. While each of these topics is interesting in its own right, I struggled to discern the book’s structure and point after the initial couple of chapters relating to depths that humans can penetrate without the use of machines, and this was frustrating.
The best bits of Deep relate to freediving as a sport, and I would have enjoyed learning more about what it is that drives freedivers – how do they decide how deep to go, and how do they know when to turn around? Why is there so much yogic mysticism surrounding the sport? Is it simply because yoga is useful for expanding lung capacity and stilling the mind, or is there more to it? How does one reach the pinnacle of the sport? What went wrong for Herbert Nitsch, Nicholas Mevoli, and others?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is the worst movie ever made. I don’t think a worse movie could be made; I’m willing to make this prediction even if the human race continues making movies in their current form until the end of civilisation. The fact that this is an appalling film shouldn’t put you off seeing it if you live in Cape Town, however. If you’re a Halle Berry fan, you will probably also be interested in this offering, and your enjoyment will probably be enhanced by viewing the film with the sound turned off. The movie was filmed a couple of years ago in Simon’s Town (False Bay Yacht Club, Bertha’s restaurant, and the jetty outside Bertha’s all feature) and False Bay. There is brief footage at (I think – it’s dark) Miller’s Point, Boulders Beach, and a fair amount shot at Seal Island. The underwater footage looked like it was shot in a kelp forest off Duiker Island in Hout Bay. Lots of seals. There was a lot of kelp – more than I remember there being at Seal Rock near Partridge Point. It could also have been shot at Seal Island (where it purports to be) in summer, but the water is quite clean which makes me unsure. There are about six characters, most of whom are played by local actors. We are treated to a variety of accents, sometimes several different ones from a single individual. There is a lot of supposedly endearing and humourous banter between Berry and her local staff members, which I just found patronising and offensive. Halle Berry’s character, Kate, freedives with white sharks. After causing the death of her safety diver (he was eaten), she retires from shark diving and takes people on boat tours to Boulders Beach to look at penguins and to Seal Island to look at seals. She can do this all in one short trip because Boulders is on the way to Seal Island when you sail out of Simon’s Town. Right? Right! (Another interesting fact I didn’t know about the geography of False Bay is that Seal Island is a 20 minute surface swim from Miller’s Point. The abalone poachers apparently do it often, but have a “less than 50% chance” of making it back.) It was fun to see Simon’s Town on film, and to identify that Kate’s office is actually the clubhouse for the kids’ dabchick sailing school at FBYC. A wealthy man of indeterminate nationality wants to swim with white sharks outside a cage. Kate is tricked (sort of) into taking him to do so. At seal island they see a couple of sharks, but the millionaire cannot follow instructions (“stay in the cage”) and Kate discovers that her boyfriend promised him a cageless dive without consulting her. After an INORDINATE amount of shouting and screaming on the boat, Kate loses her rag and decides to take the millionaire “around the point” to “Shark Alley” where the really big great white sharks can be found, to teach him a lesson. (Readers unfamiliar with Cape Town should know that there is a place here called Shark Alley, but it’s inside False Bay and no white sharks are found there… Only sevengill cowsharks.) Despite the worsening weather they make the trip, and at this point the movie becomes a cross between The Perfect Storm and Jaws. There is a lot more shouting on the boat. Lots of people get eaten by sharks. No doubt the NSRI is called. Not many of the characters make it home. To sum up, several people die in extremely violent and gory shark attacks. The blame for all of the deaths can be laid at Berry’s character Kate’s feet. She is immature, has a bad temper, and is incapable of assessing risk. Unfortunately she survives. Some of the shark footage is nice. An alternative title for the film could be “Shouting on a Boat” or “Halle Berry in Small and/or Tight Clothing”. If either of those appeal, by all means, be my guest. I hope the Department of Environmental Affairs, FBYC and STADCO made some nice money out of issuing permits and renting facilities for this film (really). It’s great that local venues are benefiting from the international film industry. SharkLife apparently sponsored a lot of the clothing worn in the film. Their logo was everywhere. I watched the credits with greater attentiveness than I did the rest of the movie, looking for familiar names among the stunt divers, skippers, cameramen and extras who featured. I found some! You can buy the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.
The Big Blue (first released in 1988) is a fictionalised account of a rivalry between two free divers, Enzo Maiorca (renamed in the film to Enzo Molinari) and Jacques Mayol. As children, they compete diving for coins in the harbour of the small fishing village where they live, and a strong rivalry (at least in Enzo’s mind) is born. Years later, he persuades Jacques to come and compete against him at the world free diving championships.
While free diving and being the world championship seems to be all that occupies Enzo’s mind, Jacques is quieter and more philosophical, and tries to understand his connection to the ocean (he has an affinity for dolphins) and to the life he has when he’s not diving. He begins a relationship with an annoying American woman, but his immaturity and other-worldliness gives rise to frustrations when he cannot reciprocate her desire for a white picket fence with two and a half children and a dog.
The film was shot mostly in the Mediterranean, and has a beautiful soundtrack of electronic music by Eric Serra. Despite the competition between the men, it’s quite slow paced. We watched the director’s cut, which is almost three hours long. The scenery and the clarity of the water in which the men dive (and the idyllic little coastal villages where they grow up and compete) is quite bewitching.
The discipline in which the two men compete is No Limit, the same as that practiced by Audrey Mestre, Pipin Ferreras and Carlos Serra, protagonists of The Last Attempt and The Dive. The diver descends on a weighted sled (in The Big Blue, to 130-odd metres, which is far shallower than current records) and ascends with the assistance of a balloon or inflatable jacket. It is considered to be one of the most dangerous free diving disciplines (HerbertNitsch, one of the greatest living free divers, has recently had a bit of a speed wobble trying to extend the record to 244 metres).
It’s interesting to compare Nitsch’s highly experimental arrangement with the somewhat primitive-looking sled shown in the film. The concerns of the doctors, that the men are reaching depths beyond which it is physiologically impossible to descend, are still echoed each time a new record is set. The frequency of DCS and other neurological disturbances in divers who push the limits, however, makes me wonder whether we are in fact approaching some kind of threshold. Since many of these divers are genetic abberations (in a good way), it’s hard to generalise, but I watch developments in the sport with interest.
This is a beautifully filmed, engrossing piece of cinematography, and a classic ocean film that deals with some universal questions (not least, why do some women insist on falling pregnant without first discussing it with their partner?).
The DVD is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. The soundtrack, which is sublime, is available here for South Africans, and here otherwise.
Veteran war correspondent (and veteran scuba diver) Al J. Venter has written over 35 books – chiefly about the various conflicts and wars he has covered, but also several about diving. Where to Dive, The Ultimate Handbook on Diving in Southern Africa, and The South African Handbook for Divers are long out of print, but his most recent volume, Dive South Africa, was published in 2009 and is available in many dive shops. I have a feeling I picked up my copy at Lightley’s Houseboats in Knysna. I read it just after I started diving, and I fear it gave me a rather skewed view of what scuba diving can be about. I reread it recently, with a little more knowledge and slightly higher expectations of the sport, and humans in general.
This book is basically about overgrown boys shooting stuff and looting things. An aggressive, macho diving culture is portrayed here, and many beautiful reefs are described in terms of what you can find there to kill with your speargun (and, presumably, feel terribly manly afterwards). FIST BUMP! Women are not mentioned without the qualifier “pretty” or “attractive” – no other attribute apparently matters. Sharks are uniformly referred to as “beasts”, “monsters” or “brutes”.
Venter covers dive locations such as Port Elizabeth, Durban, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Arniston, East London, Port Alfred, the Mossel Bay area and a number of other destinations with good diving. These destinations sometimes get poor exposure – local divingmagazines are particularly guilty of this – at the expense of Sodwana and Aliwal Shoal (which also feature in some detail). A lot of the focus – in the coverage of all these locations – is on where to go to shoot big fish, but these are somewhat useful chapters for divers who want to go off the beaten track a little bit, and experience even more of the diving that South Africa has to offer. Use of this book as a reference – perhaps in conjunction with the Atlas of Dive Sites of Southern Africa and Mozambique is probably ideal for the explorer at heart. It is the chapters on particular destinations – some of them off the beaten track and even lacking dive centres within a hundred kilometres – that are the most useful part of this book. There is even a chapter on diving a wreck in Mozambican waters, with the attendant difficulties of operating in what was then a guerilla state.
A seasoned wreck diver, Venter devotes several chapters to important wrecks in South African waters. An entire chapter – with atmospheric photographs – is dedicated to the wreck of the Maori. Chapters are also devoted to the Colebrooke, the Klipfontein, and the City of Hankow in Saldanha. Much mention is made of the Birkenhead near Arniston. Venter has an interest both in the wrecks as they are now, and the stories behind their sinking and the rescue of their crew and passengers (if that took place). Some of the wrecks are not permitted to be dived any more, so the oral histories recorded here of what the condition of the wrecks are (and even their location) are important. The extensive looting of many of the shipwrecks Venter describes (many in False Bay and Table Bay), however, would make an archaeologist (a proper one) tear his hair out. SAHRA, the body meant to regulate these activities, doesn’t seem to care, and actually didn’t exist when a lot of the plunder and pilfering took place.
There are several chapters about sharks, including a lengthy one about Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, a veteran baited shark dive operator. Bernardis describes in detail the process for doing baited dives with large sharks such as tigers and bull (Zambezi) sharks, as well as an incident in 2006 when he himself was bitten. Strong respect and awe for the sharks is clearly present in both Venter and Bernardis, but the feeling I was left with after reading the chapter on baited tiger shark dives was that it’s a completely stupid idea, and extremely dangerous – both to the divers and to the sharks. Pictures such as the horrible one in this blog post, depicting sharks hurting themselves on the mechanisms used to chum – often involving steel cable and washing machine drums – show that this exploitation cannot be good for the sharks. It is purely a money-making racket and there is very little actual regard for the animals themselves.
Moreover, there are just too many caveats – dive briefings must take HOURS – and the sharks are not in a state that is conducive to calm interaction, which is not good for the divers’ peace of mind either. Venter’s endorsement of Bernardis’ practice of riding the sharks is disappointing, but shouldn’t surprise me I suppose! It has been extremely lucky, thus far, that no one has been badly injured by a shark in – understandably – a frustrated feeding frenzy. There have been incidents, and recently, but the practice continues and is extremely lucrative for the often completely unethical and fame-hungry operators that offer it.
Beautiful colour photographs by Peter Pinnock, Andrew Woodburn and others appear in plates in three sections of the book. Throughout the rest of the book, black and white images taken both above and below the water are featured. There is a brief chapter on underwater photography in which Venter interviews some of the more renowned practitioners of the art, and Thomas Peschak gets a mention.
The book has no index, which makes finding a piece of information after the fact – such as the chapter on diving in Knysna in preparation for our second visit there – completely impossible.
Venter has clearly led a rich, full life and enjoyed a variety of thrilling and hair-raising experiences underwater. His knowledge of our coastline is top notch. For the information on diving conditions and locations around our coast it’s a far more useful reference, however, than The Dive Spots of Southern Africa, for example, even if the information (depths, distances, etc) is slightly less comprehensive. It should NOT be the first book on South African diving that you read (purely from the perspective of the outdated “dive culture” that it presents), but it WILL expand your knowledge – of both facts and the origins of South African diving culture – if you do decide to add it to your library.
Sharks are cool. Even three year olds know that. They’re charismatic, beautiful, and images of these creatures in their natural element generate a certain frisson of excitement in even the most jaded shark watcher. Sharks are also in mortal danger, worldwide. Populations of all kinds of sharks are in decline, and – being slow growing, late-reproducing creatures – they are in no position to recover without some assistance.
Enter the “shark activist”, “shark conservationist”, “shark advocate” or “shark [dramatic, Chuck Norris type noun]”. They may work alone, or be part of a “worldwide network”. The ones you’ve heard of probably have a website full of photos and videos of themselves with sharks, often accompanied by embarrassingly self-congratulatory text proclaiming how “highly successful” they are, how they have achieved “major success”, and, of course, their “efforts are recognised worldwide”. They are strident, and constantly inserting themselves into situations that might bring them (not necessarily sharks) publicity.
The “shark activist” probably has a naff nickname – like (I made this one up, for Julius Malema) “Shark Comrade” – which may be branded onto the side of their expensive and trendy recent-model motor vehicle. (Their website will of course also mention how hard it is to be a “shark activist” and how many sacrifices have to be made… Such as choosing the manual model over the automatic? Foregoing metallic paint?) The “shark activist” also has enemies, and there may be a strange subtext to much of their self-promotional material alleging political manoeuvrings and other mysterious unseen forces working against their selfless efforts to improve the lives of sharks.
This is all good and well – I have no objection to anyone else’s rich fantasy life, or to anyone’s efforts to deal with self-esteem issues by frantically blowing their own trumpet to all who will listen. I can always choose not to pay attention.
What I do object to is the exploitation of sharks in all of this. Yes, there is “exploitation” in a general and harmless sense – these “activists” adopt sharks as an icon, design cute logos featuring sharks in profile, and brand themselves and their gear until there’s no free space left… This is innocuous and offends no one. No one owns the shark as a trademark, and no one is harmed here.
But there is also exploitation in one very specific and, to my mind, harmful sense. Sharks are wild animals, and we are guests in their realm. Holding onto them, hitching a ride on their dorsal fins, or any other physical contact not initiated by the shark (i.e. not a bite!) is exploiting the creature in order to feed one’s own ego. I don’t care if it’s “safe” or “safe only to very experienced shark activists”. I don’t care if you feel such passion for the creatures that you simply cannot keep your hands off them, and every time you go in for a grope a photographer “happens” to be there pointing his Ikelite housing in your direction. I don’t care if you need a new image for the front page of your website or a new facebook profile picture. It is exploitation and abuse. It draws attention away from sharks. At worst, it chases sharks away from places that they would otherwise frequent, and robs respectful ocean users of the opportunity to enjoy them too. It modifies sharks’ behaviour towards humans. At best it encourages other foolish, less experienced and less cautious divers to attempt the same kind of exploits. When one of those sheep gets bitten, the party is over for everyone.
He’s so brave and strong! What a manly man! (Swoon!)
Phwoaaaar! She’s so hot! What a sexy lady!
And, most of the time, that is probably what people do think. Having a large number of male fans (if you’re a lady shark hugger) or female fans (if you’re a male shark hugger) doesn’t mean – at all – that you’re doing a good job for sharks. It means you’re doing a good job of self-promotion, and probably nothing at all for sharks.
Cape Town divers – those who respect the ocean and love its creatures – know not to try to touch the sevengill cowsharks when they dive with them, because it will modify their behaviour towards humans (as, indeed, it already has – those who have been diving with the cowsharks for many years can attest that they are far more confident, curious, and even aggressive towards divers at times than they were ten or fifteen years ago). Why should standards be different because the shark is at Aliwal Shoal, in the Bahamas, or anywhere else?
Photographers such as Tony Wu and (I think) Thomas Peschak are able to photograph marine animals in their natural habitat without touching them or allowing their human photographic subjects – if any – to mount the creatures like quad bikes. I enjoyed this photo gallery of free divers with sharks – not touching them. But I’m almost scared to dig into the body of work of some of the underwater photographers whose skill I admire, in case I find images like the ones I am describing here. (Researching this article got me so riled up and then so disappointed that Tony had to talk me down from a parlous mental state.) Has anyone taken a stand against riding sharks for publicity (or any other purpose)? Please, please let me know if they have!
I suspect that the real “shark activists” are the ones I’ve never heard of, never seen a photo of, and (thank goodness) never had the misfortune to see in a swimsuit. They are the ones who actually DO things, make a difference, speak to government and industry bodies, help draft proposals and bills, write letters, and get their hands dirty behind the scenes. They are far too busy helping sharks to be photographed. Prove me wrong.
This is mostly a collection of photographs – there’s very little text, but what there is is very informative and packed with nuggets of information despite its brevity.
South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, and Tanzania are represented well. His photographs of the skeleton coast of Namibia, which I first read about in Lawrence G. Green’s books, are magnificent and desolate. The Cape is well-represented, and Peschak finds and appreciates the rich, bright colours of our rocky reefs and kelp forest inhabitants.
Tony disapproved of several photographs showing free divers touching and holding on to tiger sharks at Aliwal Shoal. These sharks are quite “tame” (as far as that’s possible), but it’s not that much different from holding onto a turtle’s shell (except that the shark doesn’t have to surface to breathe), something of which I strongly disapprove. It would only take one unfortunate incident involving a freediver and some sharp teeth to shut down the shark diving industry (outside cages) in South Africa. Why take a chance?
At the end of the book, Peschak explains how he took each photo, what equipment he uses (he’s a Nikon man!) and other context material. This section is wonderful, especially for the aspiring underwater photographer. Unfortunately I will never be as good as him – he picks the shot he wants, and is prepared to wait ages for it… I take more of a scatter-gun approach and photograph any- and everything I find interesting. While I am prolific, he’s brilliant!
Peschak loves split shots, and he explains that he finds this a very effective method to relate land and ocean. His comments on composition – especially for this type of photograph – are very useful. He also loves his fisheye lens… I don’t blame him! About half the photos were taken on scuba, and half free diving.