The niche sport of free-diving is an unusual but increasingly popular pursuit that attracts competitors world-wide to try their luck at gaining recognition for plunging to the depths of the ocean on a single breath. Free-diving as a competitive sport is internationally governed by AIDA, a French non-government body, and as many as twenty competitive events per month take place world-wide. AIDA indicates on their website that unlike scuba diving, free-diving does not involve the use of breathing apparatus or air cylinders. Fins are optional as divers “exploit their bodies’ diving adaptations” to reach depths of over 200 metres. Training involves learning to feel comfortable with holding one’s breath for extended periods of time underwater, and learning propulsion from minimum effort through oxygen conservation. As Fairfax reported, training courses allow learners to escalate from beginner to record-holder in as little as a year, as there is no limit on the depths that inexperienced divers can travel to. The most recent free-diving competition in the Bahamas last month saw a frightening and unexpected death, and serves as a warning of the inherent dangers of the sport. 32-year-old Nicholas Mevoli had been competing in free-diving competitions for the past two years, and as CNN reported he had admitted to becoming “obsessive” about his achievements, and was harsh on himself when he did not meet his own high – or should we say deep – expectations.

As is the case for many professional sportspeople, the endless desire to achieve greater and greater results is not uncommon, and in mainstream sports such as soccer, swimming and tennis, the risks associated with setting record achievements are generally not life-threatening. However, as an extreme sport, record-breaking in freediving imposes an increasing risk on the body, as water pressure increases with the depths the diver travels. This increasing pressure can cause cardiovascular dysfunctions, as lung cavities compress and blood vessels shrink to accommodate the force of the ocean at depth. Decompression sickness, which involves a blackout resulting from such cardiovascular dysfunction, occurs in roughly one out of every ten freedivers during a competition just before or upon reaching the water’s surface.

However Mr Mevoli was reportedly fully conscious upon returning to the water’s surface from his 72 metre dive, but shortly after blacked out and sadly did not regain consciousness. While freedivers recognise the inherent risk of pushing their body to its limits underwater, as long-time freediver William Trubridge told CNN, “the joy of being in the water...at that depth...is incredible”. Mr Mevoli’s life was honoured by the event organiser, Vertical Blue, with a celebration of his many achievements in the sport.