[This is a preview of an article to appear in our August issue]
The real tragedy of free diving record attempts is that the only people who are interested are other free divers. The export manager of Cressi once told me that although the company had spent a fortune sponsoring freedivers, it was not a spectator sport, and the world at large was simply not interested. Unless somebody dies.
I was a freediver. There’s something wonderful about gliding through the underwater environment unencumbered by tanks or other equipment. But then I became interested in recording images of what I saw down there and decided to perfect my craft as an underwater photographer. And so, I learned to scuba dive at the rather late age of 32.
There is a new, well-reviewed Netflix freediving documentary — The Deepest Breath — and it’s not about that sort of freediving. Filmmaker Laura McGann meticulously puts her 106-minute documentary together using actual footage recorded at the time. She explains that the film captures “The beauty and the brutality of life and love.”
Italian Alessia Zecchini starts off quite young with the same intentions as most freedivers, but she gets involved in breath-hold diving competitions. Watching the documentary Free Solo where rock climber Alex Honnold makes the first free solo scramble up the famed Yosemite’s El Capitan’s 3000-foot vertical rock face in 2017, we wait with bated breath for him to fall and die. Similarly, in this movie we witness freedivers cheat hypoxia as they see how deep they can go on a single breath. The difference between the two is that Honnold doesn’t fall from the rock face, but The Deepest Breath reveals in graphic detail that many freedivers die temporarily from hypoxia or shallow water blackout. They are routinely brought back to life by their freediving safety divers, who administer expired air resuscitation and even CPR. Because the extreme pressure of depth squeezed their lungs to a small size, a doctor stands by to determine how badly they have been scarred. It’s a strange sport to see how close to death you can get — an extreme example of hubris.
Irish ex-pat Stephen Keenan earns a considerable reputation as a safety diver at these events after he manages to salvage the life of Alexey Molchanova at the Bahamas’ Vertical Blue competition. Alexey is the son of Russian Natalia Molchanova, the famous free diving record-setter who disappeared into the depths while give a freediving lesson in Spain.
Zecchini is a controversial figure among her peers. She is too emotional, and her short temper hampers her attempts to compete successfully at Vertical Blue until she develops a relationship with Keenan, who becomes her coach. It’s inevitably a love story as she later joins Keenan at his freediving school in Dahab, Egypt, the site of the infamous Blue Hole. We know a tragedy awaits us.
I know the Blue Hole. It’s a very deep lagoon surrounded by a reef wall with an arch that offers a beautiful blue window to the ocean beyond. I scuba-dived through the arch in my thirties on a single tank of air. Many said afterward I was foolish to do so because it’s too deep for a safe air dive. In my logbook, I recorded a depth of 184 feet and a 20-minute dive time. Later I watched in awe as Umberto Pelizzari swam through it on a single held breath.
Here is where Keenan set up his freediving school. The cliff face on the shoreline is peppered with commemorative plaques recording the names of people (mainly scuba divers) who have lost their lives in its deep water. Inevitably Zecchini wants to free-dive the arch in the Blue Hole. A technical diver will record it.
The plan is for Zecchini to exit the hole and ascend a carefully positioned rope, but exiting the wide arch is not like exiting a tube. (I found myself so emotionally involved in the film at this point that I shouted at the TV screen at the stupidity of it.) The reef overhang makes locating the rope in the open ocean almost impossible. It’s no surprise Zecchini swims off in the wrong direction, and there’s nothing the technical diver, encumbered with multiple tanks and a video camera, can do other than record the moment.
By now, Zecchini’s blood is very low on oxygen. Keenan, who delays his breath-holding descent by twenty seconds, arrives after she exits. He chases and eventually catches her, bringing her safely to the surface before suffering himself from shallow water blackout and drowning. It’s a pointless but inevitable tragedy in which we, as viewers, have become unwittingly part.
I asked Umberto Pelizzari (Maximum depth 490-feet in the No Limits category with a weighted sled) why he gave up breath hold record attempts. He replied drily that he wanted to stay alive. Wise words. Zecchini has since set a new world record of 351 feet, which required her to hold breath for three minutes and twenty-six seconds. At a time when many young people in another part of the world are risking their lives to free their country from a brutal invader, you could be forgiven for thinking that risking your life in this way is both pointless and nothing short of madness. Freediving depth record holders are a dying breed.
The Deepest Breath is available on Netflix. It’s a beautifully constructed documentary and compelling viewing, but for all the wrong reasons.