Nick Pelios Freediver, Creator
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Guillaume Néry is considered to be one of the pioneers of freediving for a good reason. During an inspiring Ted Talk he went into great detail about the biological and emotional effects of water pressure, the silence of the depths, and the science of breath hold. Dive in!

The Last Breath Above The Sea

A dive is a journey, a journey between two breaths. A journey that takes place between two breaths, the last one before diving into the water,  and the first one, coming back to the surface. That dive is a journey to the very limits of human possibility, a journey into the unknown. But it's also, and above all, an inner journey, where a number of things happen, physiologically as well as mentally. And today, I want to share my journey with you and take you along with me. 

That last breath in is slow, deep, and intense. It ends with a special technique called the carp, which allows me to store one to two extra liters of air in my lungs by compressing it. When I leave the surface, I have about 10 liters of air in my lungs. As soon as I leave the surface the first mechanism kicks in, the diving reflex. The first thing the diving reflex does is make your heart rate drop. My heart beat will drop from about 60-70 per minute to about 30-40 beats per minute in a matter of seconds; almost immediately. Next, the diving reflex causes peripheral vasoconstriction, which means that the blood flow will leave the body's extremities to feed the most important organs: the lungs, the heart, and the brain. This mechanism is innate. I cannot control it. If you go underwater, even if you've never done it before, you'll experience the exact same effects. All human beings share this characteristic. And what's extraordinary is that we share this instinct with marine mammals, all marine mammals: dolphins, whales, sea lions, etc. When they dive deep into the ocean, these mechanisms become activated, but to a greater extent. And, of course, it works much better for them. It's absolutely fascinating.


Right as I leave the surface, nature gives me a push in the right direction, allowing me to descend with confidence. So as I dive deeper into the blue, the pressure slowly starts to squeeze my lungs. And since it's the amount of air in my lungs that makes me float, the farther down I go, the more pressure there is on my lungs, the less air they contain, and the easier it is for my body to fall. And at one point, around 35 or 40 meters down, I don't even need to swim. My body is dense and heavy enough to fall into the depths by itself, and I enter what's called the freefall phase.

The freefall phase is the best part of the dive. It's the reason I still dive. Because it feels like you're being pulled down and you don't need to do anything. I can go from 35 meters to 123 meters without making a single movement. I let myself be pulled by the depths, and it feels like I'm flying underwater. It's truly an amazing feeling -- an extraordinary feeling of freedom. And so I slowly continue sliding to the bottom. And between 50 and 60 meters, a second physiological response kicks in. My lungs reach residual volume, below which they're not supposed to be compressed, in theory. And this second response is called blood shift, or "pulmonary erection" in French.

So blood shift, how does it work?  The capillaries in the lungs become engorged with blood, which is caused by the suction, so the lungs can harden and protect the whole chest cavity from being crushed. It prevents the two walls of the lungs from collapsing, sticking together, and caving in. Thanks to this phenomenon, which we also share with marine mammals, I'm able to continue with my dive, because the pressure is crushing my body more and more. Below 80 meters, the pressure becomes a lot stronger, and I start to feel it physically. I really start to feel the suffocation. You can see what it looks like -- not pretty at all. The diaphragm is completely collapsed, the rib cage is squeezed in, and mentally, there is something going on as well. You may be thinking, "This doesn't look enjoyable. How do you do it?" If I relied on my earthly reflexes, what do we do above water when there's a problem? We resist, we go against it. We fight. Underwater, that doesn't work. If you try that underwater, you might tear your lungs, spit up blood, and develop edema and you'll have to stop diving for a good amount of time.

The Mental Game 

So what you need to do, mentally, is to tell yourself that nature and the elements are stronger than you. And so I let the water crush me. I accept the pressure and go with it. At this point, my body receives this information, and my lungs start relaxing. I relinquish all control and relax completely. The pressure starts crushing me, and it doesn't feel bad at all. I even feel like I'm in a cocoon, protected. And the dive continues.

In every sport, it's a magic number. For swimmers and athletes and also for us, freedivers, it's a number everyone dreams of. Everyone wishes one day to be able to get to 100 meters. And it's a symbolic number for us, because, in the 1970s, doctors and physiologists did their math, and predicted that the human body would not be able to go below 100 meters. Below that, they said, the human body would implode. And then the Frenchman, Jacques Mayol, you all know him as the hero in "The Big Blue", came along and dived down to 100 meters. He even reached 105 meters. At that time, he was doing "no limits".  He'd use weights to descend faster and come back up with a balloon, just like in the movie. Today, we go down 200 meters in no-limit free diving. I can do 123 meters by simply using muscle strength. And in a way, it's all thanks to him, because he challenged known facts, and with a sweep of his hand, got rid of the theoretical beliefs and all the mental limits that we like to impose on ourselves. He showed us that the human body has an infinite ability to adapt.

Floating In The Middle Of The Cosmos

The bottom is getting closer. I'm at the bottom. And now, I'd like to ask you to join me and put yourself in my place. Close your eyes. Imagine you get to 123 meters. The surface is far, far away. You're alone. There's hardly any light. It's cold, freezing cold. The pressure is crushing you completely. And I know what you're thinking: "This is horrible. What the hell am I doing here? He's insane." But no. That's not what I think when I'm down there. When I'm at the bottom, I feel good. I get this extraordinary feeling of well-being. Maybe it's because I've completely released all tensions and let myself go. I feel great, without the need to breathe. Although you'd agree, I should be worried.

I feel like a tiny dot, a little drop of water, floating in the middle of the ocean. And each time, I picture the same image. Do you know what it is? It's planet Earth. Planet Earth, photographed by the Voyager probe, from 4 billion kilometers away. And it shows that our home is that small dot over there, floating in the middle of nothing. That's how I feel when I'm at the bottom, at 123 meters. I feel like a small dot, a speck of dust, stardust, floating in the middle of the cosmos, in the middle of nothing, in the immensity of space.

It's a fascinating sensation because when I look up, down, left, right, in front, and behind, I see the same thing: the infinite deep blue. Nowhere else on Earth you can experience this, looking all around you, and seeing the same thing. It's extraordinary. And at that moment, I still get that feeling each time, building up inside of me, the feeling of humility. Looking at this picture, I feel very humble, just like when I'm all the way down at the bottom because I'm nothing, I'm a little speck of nothingness lost in all of time and space. And it still is absolutely fascinating.

Going Up

I decide to go back to the surface because this is not where I belong. I belong up there, on the surface. So I start heading back up. I get something of a shock at the very moment when I decide to go up. First, it takes a huge effort to tear yourself away from the bottom. It pulled you down on the way in, and will do the same on the way up. You have to swim twice as hard.

Then, I'm hit with another phenomenon known as narcosis. I don't know if you've heard of that. It's called nitrogen narcosis. It's something that happens to scuba divers, but it can happen to freedivers. It's caused by nitrogen dissolving in the blood, which causes confusion between the conscious and unconscious mind. A flurry of thoughts goes spinning through your head. You can't control them, and you shouldn't try to, you have to let it happen. The more you try to control it, the harder it is to manage.

Then, a third thing happens, the desire to breathe. I'm not a fish, I'm a human being, and the desire to breathe reminds me of that fact. Around 60, 70 meters, you start to feel the need to breathe. And with everything else that's going on, you can very easily lose your ground and start to panic. When that happens, you think, "Where's the surface? I want to go up. I want to breathe now." You should not do that. Never look up to the surface, not with your eyes, or your mind. You should never picture yourself up there. You have to stay in the present.

I look at the rope right in front of me, leading me back to the surface. And I focus on that, on the present moment. Because if I think about the surface, I panic. And if I panic, it's over. Time goes faster this way. And at 30 meters:  deliverance. I'm not alone anymore. The safety divers, my guardian angels, join me. They leave the surface, we meet at 30 meters, and they escort me for the final few meters, where potential problems could arise. Every time I see  "It's thanks to you." It's thanks to them, my team, that I'm here. It brings back a sense of humility. Without my team, without all the people around me, the adventure into the deep would be impossible. A journey into the deep is above all a group effort. So I'm happy to finish my journey with them because I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them.

My lungs slowly return to their normal volume. Buoyancy pushes me up to the surface. Five meters below the surface, I start to breathe out, so that as soon as I get to the surface all I do is breathe in. And so I arrive at the surface. Air floods into my lungs. It's like being born again, a relief. It feels good. Though the journey was extraordinary, I do need to feel those small oxygen molecules fueling my body. It's an extraordinary sensation, but at the same time, it's traumatizing. It's a shock to the system, as you can you imagine.

I go from complete darkness to the light of day, from the near-silence of the depths to the commotion up top. In terms of touch, I go from the soft, velvety feeling of the water, to air rubbing across my face. In terms of smell, there is air rushing into my lungs. And in return, my lungs open up. They were completely squashed just 90 seconds ago, and now, they've opened up again. So all of this affects quite a lot of things. I need a few seconds to come back, and to feel "all there" again. But that needs to happen quickly, because the judges are there to verify my performance; I need to show them I'm in perfect physical condition. Once at the surface, I have 15 seconds to take off my nose clip, give this signal and say "I am OK." Once the protocol is completed, the judges show me a white card, and that's when the joy starts. I can finally celebrate what has just happened. 

White Freediving Is More Than Records & Numbers

So, the journey I've just described to you is a more extreme version of freediving. Luckily, it's far from just that. For the past few years, I've been trying to show another side of freediving, because the media mainly talks about competitions and records. But freediving is more than just that. It's about being at ease in the water. It's extremely beautiful, very poetic, and artistic. So my wife and I decided to film it and try to show another side of it, mostly to make people want to go into the water. I'd like you to know that if one day you try to stop breathing, you'll realize that when you stop breathing, you stop thinking, too. It calms your mind.

Today, in the 21st century, we're under so much pressure. Our minds are overworked, we think at a million miles an hour, and we're always stressed. Being able to freedive lets you, just for a moment, relax your mind. Holding your breath underwater means giving yourself the chance to experience weightlessness. It means being underwater, floating, with your body completely relaxed, and letting go of all your tensions. This is our plight in the 21st century: our backs hurt, our necks hurt, everything hurts, because we're stressed and tense all the time. But when you're in the water, you let yourself float, as if you were in space. You let yourself go completely. It's an extraordinary feeling. You can finally get in touch with your body, mind, and spirit. Everything feels better, all at once.

Learning how to freedive is also about learning to breathe correctly. We breathe with our first breath at birth, up until our last one. Breathing gives rhythm to our lives. Learning how to breathe better is learning how to live better. Holding your breath in the sea, not necessarily at 100 meters, but maybe at two or three, putting on your goggles, and a pair of flippers means you can go see another world, another universe, completely magical. You can see little fish, seaweed, the flora and fauna, you can watch it all discreetly, sliding underwater, looking around, and coming back to the surface, leaving no trace. It's an amazing feeling to become one with nature like that. And if I may say one more thing, holding your breath, being in the water, finding this underwater world, it's all about connecting with yourself. You heard me talk a lot about the body's memory that dates back millions of years, to our marine origins. The day you get back into the water, when you hold your breath for a few seconds, you will reconnect with those origins. And I guarantee it's absolute magic. I encourage you to try it out.

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