Bookshelf: Deep

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?

Perhaps I have read too many books of this type (author inserts him/herself into unfamiliar environment; drama and factual information ensues). Don’t not read the book because I struggled to apprehend its overarching purpose. Rather check out reviews of the book at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Independent, and Scientific American, as well as what may be a pertinent review by one of the book’s subjects on They all enjoyed it far more than I did. You can read extracts from the book here, here and here.

Finally, watch William Trubridge dive to 101 metres and back without fins, and then tell me this sport isn’t beguiling in some deep way:

HECTOMETER – World Record from Matty Brown on Vimeo.

You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.