Without air supply, diminishing blood flow, and with water pressure crushing onto his body, freediving world-record holder Herbert Nitsch enters a state of utter relaxation and begins exploring the depths of his soul. “I completely disconnect myself from emotions and daily worries”, he says.
Nicknamed “the deepest man on earth” after freediving to a depth of 253.2 meters in 2012, Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch can hold his breath for 9 minutes, an unsurpassed feat among his 33 world records from 8 different freediving categories.
Nitsch, started free-diving as a hobby when he was working as an airliner pilot. The self-taught diver recently retired to devote full-time into his passion – to dive with no limit.
“What drives me is the urge to explore the unknown, and the limits of my physical and mental abilities” he told The Epoch Times. “Each time I think I’ve reached a limit there’s a door, it opens, and the limit is gone.”
A journey of many dangers
Ten minutes before descending into the deep, Nitsch lies on the boat that takes him to the diving site. His eyes shut, his body in deep meditative calm, almost asleep. “At that time I’m running a “general rehearsal”, imagining the dive, with all the small details. It’s as if I am watching a movie and seeing it happen in front of my eyes, not just myself, but as if another person is doing it, then I am less excited. It’s a good thing because the excitement that benefits in many kinds of sports is detrimental in freediving. When diving to the deep you have to be cool and completely calm, like waking up on a weekend, and going back to sleep.”
“It’s a mental state that is hard to achieve. Thanks to the imagined rehearsal, when I enter the water it feels familiar, experienced, as if it’s not the first time I’m doing it.”
The sensation of free falling during the dive is wonderful. It’s like flying underwater without an airplane.
To survive, Nitsch must fill his lungs with enough oxygen to last the entire dive. He inhales deeply, using his self-taught method to compress about 15 litres of air into his lungs – an additional 7 to 9 litres of oxygen.
"Even though the doctors say it’s impossible, it is a fact, because I measured it. Swallowing air is less for the oxygen and more for equalizing the pressure in the different cavities, for example the sinuses and ears, to the water pressure outside the body. Pressure equalization is the main constraint for most divers, while the breathing length is secondary. Filling the lungs with so much air is a major challenge, because such enormous pressure can stop blood flow to the brain so you have to do it slowly and gradually.”
With his lungs filled to the brim, Nitsch sits on the edge of the boat, his body in complete tranquillity and calm. His legs attached to a giant triangular “monofin” and his hand gently holding a cable that goes deep into the ocean. The judge begins counting: one, two, three … seven, eight, nine, ten!!! Nitsch springs headfirst into the water, letting go of the cable, he dives deeper and deeper into the ocean.
"When I start diving deeper, I swim in sloppy movements. To my competitors it seems I don’t know how to swim well, but I purposely swim in a very loose manner, to remain calm and relaxed in the first 20 meters.”
Mere seconds later, his body enters a survival mode and his diving reflex kicks in: heart rate drops from 60-70 beats per minute to 30-40. Now, blood flow to his limbs slowly diminishes to concentrate in his vital organs: the lungs, heart and brain. Such naturally occurring reflex is found in humans as well as marine mammals like dolphins and whales.
Next to airplane wreck in the sea. Credit: herbertnitsch.com
"The problem is since we don’t dive very often, that reflex isn’t working that effectively. I make it kick into action by performing a few shallow dives, with emptied lungs, and that way the body is ready for the deep dive, even before I started.”
Nitsch continues diving deeper and deeper, propelled by his hands and the huge monofin as water pressure continues to crush his body. When he reaches the 40-meters depth, he experiences a unique sensation: the body begins to fall downwards as if free-falling by a powerful gravitational force that pulls him into the depths. Past that point, one can dive until the end of one’s breath without making a single movement. "It's a wonderful feeling, like flying underwater without an airplane."
The judge shouts: “60 meters”. At that depth, another survival mechanism kicks into action: the pulmonary capillaries in the lungs (the tiny blood vessels that can exchange oxygen) get filled with blood, “swollen”, making the lung walls rigid and hard. This prevents a collapse of the chest due to the enormous water pressure.
At 80 meters, the water pressure on the body becomes unbearable. The diaphragm and ribs are forcefully squeezed in, causing suffocation. Still in such nerve-wrecking state, Nitsch is still able to maintain absolute calmness.
"Sometimes, my competitors call me a robot, because of my ability during the dive to completely disconnect myself from emotions and worries.”
French deep-diver Guillome Neri eloquently describes in a Ted-talk, how he handles water pressure at those body-crushing depths: “In everyday life, when we feel pressure, we may resist it with force, fight against it, but underwater, this doesn’t work, applying resistance to water pressure may cause lung rupture or edema. So I completely give up control, and I enter a fully lax state. The water pressure is crushing me, but it doesn’t feel bad, quite the opposite, I feel enclosed and protected like a cocoon.”
The judge pronounces: 200 meters, and Nitsch is at the end of the cable, at a freezing cold depth impenetrable by sunlight, where pressure is 13 times more than that of sea level.
How do you feel when you’re in such depths?
“For me, it is like visiting magical worlds. When I’m there I feel I am part of this wondrous world. When I dive for pleasure, not in a record-setting contest, it is even more magical and feels like in a dream, to meet all the life under the water. When I enter caves in the ocean depths, it sometimes feels weird and frightening, but passing by a coral colony or a school of tuna fish, I feel like a child in a candy store”.
New accomplishment . Credit: herbertnitsch.com
And french Neri adds: “I look every where and all I see is the deep blue of the ocean floor, and within that huge expanse, I feel myself to be only a teeny tiny dot, like a speck of stardust travelling through the cosmos, and I am filled with a strong humbling feeling. I am a grain of nothing, lost in time and space.”
The way back up is equally challenging. It isn’t easy to simply rip yourself from the freedom and calm of the deep to return smoothly to the surface. Swimming your way up requires twice the effort as the same force that pulled the body down, is still acting on the body. Besides the muscles feel fatigue due to oxygen deficiency.
“Each time I think I’ve reached a limit there’s a door, it opens, and the limit is gone.”
“I feel I am at the end of my strength, but somehow I still manage to continue”, says Nitsch.
And Neri adds: “on the way up, an excess of nitrogen that builds up in the tissues causes a strange phenomenon of confusion in which the mind is filled with a torrent of thoughts, from the consciousness and subconsciousness. The only way to handle them is like before, not to resist and not to control, just let them pass. Then the next challenge arises: at 70 meters below the surface the body gets a strong urge to breathe and one can easily panic, looking up hoping that the water surface is close now, but this panic is dangerous, in that state you must not look up searching for the water level with eyes or imagination. You must stay focused at the place where you’re at.”
A Challenge for an Expert
Nitsch became world champion by practicing alone, without the supervision of any professional instructor.
Why did you prefer to practice alone?
“When I just got interested in this field, I was a pilot, and had no time to practice with an instructor inside the water like others, so I developed my own methods to practice. I keep an ongoing year-long practice, consisting of fitness and endurance exercises, along with special stretching movements to further the flexibility of my lungs and diaphragm, so that they could better withstand the pressure underwater. About a week before a tournament or a new record attempt, I practice holding my breath on the sofa in front of the television.”
Do you think following others’ methods would have held you back from world championship?
“Yes, quite likely. Following the path of another, you can only be as good as he is, not better, and my practice method is very much different than others. I practiced at most 10% of the time they had.”
What are the claims of scientific research? How deep can one dive?
“In 1961, Enzo Maiorca, the famous italian freediver was told by doctors that the human body can never go deeper than 50 meters. Maiorca believed in his body and dove to a depth of 100 meters, and today he’s over 80 years old.”
What about the limitation to the human body?
“There are limitations, but the scientists don’t yet know enough about them. I am certain further depths can be achieved, but it is very dangerous and better safety measures are needed, which are also much more expensive.”
When you dove the 253 meters, you surfaced too soon, and lost consciousness.
“Yes, first it’s important to know that when you’re a pioneer, the knowledge base is lacking, so you make mistakes as well. The problem was overconfidence in myself, and I devoted so much time, effort and money and didn’t want to delay the dive. The weather might not have been the best or perhaps I haven’t prepared myself well enough.”
On the way up. Credit: herbertnitsch.com
“After they drew me out of the water, I experienced a series of brain strokes and the doctors told me I’ll spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. But I refused to accept their diagnosis, from that same place of trusting myself, like in freediving. I knew that every athlete knows his body better than any doctor. And like in freediving, each time I took a small step forward, focusing on the body’s amazing ability to heal itself. Confuting the advice from doctors, friends and family, I left the hospital, riding 10 kilometers on bicycle, because I couldn’t walk yet, and started treating myself at home, until I recovered completely. So if someone tells you there is a limit to what you can do with your body, don’t believe him.”
Translated from The Epoch Times Israel
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