Thoughts about a tragedy.

Posted on Nov 20, 2013 |


A few days ago a freediver died during a freediving competition. it was the first time in freediving competition’s history that such a tragic event occurred. In the past there were deaths but in sled assisted dives, where freediving becomes almost a “power sport” with it’s potential mechanical failures.


Having been around what I name affectuously the Freediving Circus for more than 20 years now, I could see evolutions in the sport. Good evolutions and bad evolutions.


The good evolutions are of course the development of a governing body, AIDA in 1992, and most important, people practicing and sharing experiences about freediving.


My generation of freedivers, those who started competing between 1996, date of the first ever official freediving competition and 2005, where all passionate about the Ocean. Most of them had a spearfishing or a strong water related background. We were trying to dive deeper, to develop training method starting from scratch.


That was helping us becoming the best in competition but it was extremely rewarding in our regular freediving practice, back to the essence of freediving: exploring the ocean.


During these years, the progression was much slower than nowadays. It was taking years and years to get to depth that look ridiculously shallow today. Why is that? Simply because everything was to be invented. Somehow that preserved us even if we often came very close to accidents, the fact we were spending a lot of time in the water and that year after year helped us to work on the adaptation of our bodies to the depth.


Since I stopped competing in 2004, I stayed close to the competitive freediving world as a photographer. I’ve spend lots of time on records attempts and competition to document the sport. From the late 2000′, I could see that the sport was changing.


First, and that’s very paradoxical, the public side of the sport literally went down the drain….


Let me explain: from the early 90’s to 2001, the organizational’s side of the sport was growing fast. There were big individual record attempts where the athletes had corporate sponsors and large media coverage, people like Umberto Pelizzari, Pipin, Tanya Streeter etc could make a decent living and were mainstream. A dozen other freedivers could live from sponsorship. The competitions were attracting lots of media and film crews, the organizers had sponsors, AIDA had big sponsors etc etc.


Then, it started to fall appart, we had less and less mainstream media, the competitions were getting smaller in visibility even if there were the same numbers of athletes or sometimes more than before. It seemed that the sport was shrinking on itself.


I can’t find one answer for that but I’d say that it was a combination of a new generation of freedivers who were more performance and self orientated and a kind of self-sufficient way of functioning for the community developed and soon got its own codes and jargon that was excluding other people who could have been truly  interested from it.  Quite scary I think.


At some point I started to be woried that a serious accident could happen.


Amongst the “old timers” we were shocked to see how the “young guns”were progressing, how fast they were reaching depths that took us 10 or 15 years to achieve. Of course like in every other sport, the new generation capitalize on the assets from the older generation and then has a faster learning curve because they don’t have to go through the testing phase and that is a good thing. But…


The problem happened when freedivers, thanks to new techniques, could start to by-pass the adaptation phase to go deep.


In our days, we were working on adaptation at depth by doing lots of repetitions of our dives, we were working on flexibility very very slowly to give the body the time to have a better response for deep dives.


The new techniques allow you to go very deep quickly but you skip the adaptation phase and then you expose yourself to complications.


What pops up in my mind is of course the lung squeeze. It was almost never happening and when it did it was usually a very mild one and people were stopping all freediving activity for weeks! Nowadays, you see people squeezing and who don’t seem more bothered than that, sometimes I even have the impression that it’s part of the process! If amongst the community the freedivers don’t seem shocked by someone who squeeze, then the new comers will integrate that in their progression as well. It’s a very vicious circle.


During the 2011 world’s championships, we were very very close to a major accident when a freediver, who didn’t train much that year, suffered from a lung squeeze on a deep dive. He blacked out at the surface and couldn’t get back after the safety team pulled him out of the water because the squeeze was affecting the gas exchanges and the oxygen couldn’t be delivered properly. I was part of the scene and at some point with some others we were sure we were about to assist to the first death on a competition. It was a hard experience I must say.


But as far as I know, not much was done to have a better monitoring of the diver pre-comp’s history that could help preventing that to happen again.


An accident can always happen. We had them of course. Until 2001 it was mostly black outs due to the way we were diving and the use of hyperventilation.


Blackouts can be spectacular but it’s just a safety switch from the body and if there is someone to keep your airways out of the water when you are back to consciousness, everything is fine. Then later came some sled accidents mostly due to mechanical failures, some were tragic, some ended well.


I found that definition of accident on the web: happening resulting in injury that is in no way the fault of the injured person. It says it all. Is diving to a depth near to your max the day or a couple of days after suffering from a lung squeeze is acceptable? For me it’s not.


Suffering of a life threatening injury or even worse in that case has to be considered as an accident?


For me the answer is no, it’s looking deliberately for trouble.


Here the freediver who passed away is not fully responsible even if he made the decision to do that dive.


All the others and the officials are responsible of a kind of “social pressure”, a “norm”: everyone is doing the same, when you ask your fellow freedivers they’ll say that sometimes they have a squeezed and it’s not a big deal…


When I’m teaching freediving I often have people asking me to teach them the “mouth fill” or “packing” to get to 30, 40, 50 or 60m…


I decline and get them to work on their gradual  adaptation to depth by spending more time in the water, working slowly on the stretching, gain little by little, take breaks in the progression. Then they understand that it’s possible to go deep without these techniques.


Did Pelizzari or Streeter were using the mouth fill to go to 150m or more? No. On a personal level, I reached 100m on a sled back in 1999 with a mask an no mouthfil,  it just  took me 10 years or more of adaptation to the depth.


The point here is the furthest away from blaming the freediver who passed away in these tragic circumstances which shocked the whole community.


The point is that we are all responsible of his death by not saying he was doing something wrong. All of us are responsible for wrong practices amongst a community.


We all have a responsibility to make freediving safe and learn from our mistakes.

The best competitive freedivers have to be role models and their behavior during competitions and training have to be impeccable to help the new generation to be even better and the most important, safer freedivers.

We have the chance that freedivers are always sharing their knowledge with each other, it doens’t happen in many other sports.

The role of governing bodies to back that up is crucial. They should focus on rules discouraging depth related injuries. We should now work on the hidden side of the iceberg and educate people.
Technique such as mouthfill and packing should be removed and banned from the normal freediving courses otherwise they are perceived as armless even if they are well thought.

We should never forget that freediving is an adaptation sport like mountain climbing, your body needs to adapt and it has to be induced gradually and wisely.

We all have responsability in showing that freediving is not a dare-devil extreme sport. It takes so long to build up a safe image and it only takes one mistake to knock years of effort down.

My thoughts are for all the freedivers that were on site, it’s always so hard to loose a friend at Sea. Could his loss make all of us better freedivers, I mean safer freedivers.