Freediving asks men and women to descend as deeply as they can underwater, sustained by a single breath of air. In some cases, divers approach what is called the aphotic zone — the point at which the light can no longer penetrate the undulating waters of the ocean. Imagine being able to hold your breath for so long that you have the power to surpass sunlight. Though your lungs begin to burn and your body aches for oxygen, you have taken yourself to the depths beyond what the eye can see, and you did it without SCUBA equipment. You are without limit.
No one could possibly understand that feeling more completely than the premier Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch, also known as “the deepest man on Earth.” A multiple world record holder, Nitsch is entirely self-taught. Because he didn’t come up through the sport using traditional methods, he developed his own techniques, which are beyond innovative. Now, those methods are becoming popular among other athletes in the sport.
That’s right — Nitsch isn’t even bothering to break the rules; he ignored them to make new ones.
To put this renegade diver’s accomplishments in perspective, the light in the ocean stops at about 200 meters, or 650 feet. Nitsch set a world record in no limit free diving — one of eight disciplines in the sport — when he descended 253.2 meters (830.7 feet) on June 6, 2012.
“You’re on your own and I understand that this can be scary,” Nitsch says of the depth, “but actually it’s not, because you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I got rid of all this trouble on the surface, all this mayhem there,’ and you’re on your own, you and darkness, peace, quiet… It’s really nice.”
That’s not the only record Nitsch has set. Across all freediving disciplines, the man owns 32 world records. He can hold his breath for more than nine minutes. Most healthy people can manage about two at their very best. So, he is above average in a big, big way. This is important because the sport is punishing. Freedivers have to be in tune with their bodies because they aren’t just conserving oxygen, they are also managing the encroaching pressure of the ocean’s depths. The decompression divers go through can lead to sickness — often called the bends or caisson disease.
This is the result of nitrogen bubbles growing in tissue and entering the venous bloodstream to cause damage. It can absolutely be deadly.
Nitsch knew when decompression sickness began to set in. Wet and tired, he sat with an oxygen mask on as he always does after a dive. But, this time it was different. His right half began to go limp, his arm was numb, he was having trouble moving. That’s when he signaled his team that it was time to institute the emergency plan. In a short time, he was on a speedboat tearing through the water for the harbor. From the harbor, he was taken to the airport to fly to Athens, where he could use a decompression chamber.