As far as extreme sports go, free diving is among the most challenging. Divers push the limits of human evolution by descending hundreds of meters below the surface, fighting massive levels of water pressure and minutes without oxygen. Patrick Musimu, a leading figure and eventual victim of freediving, rejected the term “extreme sport,” calling it an adventure.
The 50 meter mark was first breached in 1962 by Enzo Maiorca; his rival Jacques Mayol hit 100 meters 14 years later. As the sport developed and gained popularity, divers began incorporating fins, weights, inflatable balloons and diving sleds, going ever deeper. In 1992, the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) was established to set global standards and verify free diving records.
In no limit free diving, the diver uses a weight sled to descend to a predetermined depth, at which point he or she activates an inflatable balloon to return to the surface. If this seems like cheating, think about the fact that to descend to the current deepest mark of 214 meters, Herbert Nitsch went 4 minutes, 24 seconds without taking a breath. This is not a sport for the weak of heart, or lungs. In the last decade, free diving has reached new depths, but the risks involved have become more manifest than ever.
These five amazing dives all set world records, but not every diver made it back to the surface.
The Cuban Ferreras began free diving in the 1980s. His rivalry with Italian diver Umberto Pelizzari pushed each to set a series of world records, but Ferreras came out on top, hitting 162 meters in 2000, which was 12 meters deeper than Pelizzari ever reached.
Audrey Metre married Pipin Ferreras in 1999, and the couple became the most famous in the free diving world. In 2002, Metstre attempted to break the record for both genders (the women’s record today stands at 160 meters) by diving to 171 meters. The dive ended in tragedy when Metre’s balloon failed to inflate properly; she had gone more than eight minutes without oxygen before she was brought to the surface.
Much of the blame for Metre’s death fell on Ferreras, who was accused of pushing her too far and not taking proper precautions. The failed dive was acknowledged as the world record in honor of Mestre.
Almost exactly three years after Mestre’s deadly dive, Herbert Nitsch surpassed her record by safely diving to 172 meters. It was his first no limit record dive (he had already set 14 different records in other diving disciplines), but not his last.
At 200 meters below the ocean’s surface, there are no plants; sunlight cannot penetrate that far. Belgian diver Patrick Musimu was the first to break that boundary. Musimu viewed free diving as an act of meditation rather than competition, writing:
Musimu’s 209.6 meter dive was never an official record; he refused to have anyone verify the accomplishment. But it was widely acknowledged in the free diving world as the best ever. Musimu died in July while training alone in his pool.
A part time pilot, Nitsch cemented his status as the Deepest Man on Earth in 2007 with a new world record. No one has yet surpassed 214 meters, but there is no doubt that daring souls will continue to descend into the depths of the ocean, and the record won’t stand for long. For an idea of what that will take, watch Nitsch set the current record:
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