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.
Time is vital to the usefulness of a chamber and travel wasn’t the only thing that delayed treatment. Early tests measured his blood saturation values incorrectly, and doctors stopped his treatment early. “It was a big mistake,” he states, “because any decompression doctor or even most divers know that decompression treatment has to be as soon as possible to unblock the blood flow in the vital organs. If you wait longer, it’s not a matter of hours, it’s a matter of minutes. In my case, they waited another 12 hours, which was insane.”
The world class freediver spent a week coming in and out of a coma before being taken to Bruno, Germany for further treatment. Eventually, he landed in a rehabilitation center confined to a wheelchair.
“My brain was gone.” Nitsch comments. “I could hardly speak and I had a memory like a goldfish. I didn’t know what was the day at the beginning. I had to find my way back. I didn’t even know my best friends’ names and so on.”
The doctors told Nitsch that he would remain in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life and they advised him to learn to cope with that reality. Rejecting the prognosis, he determined he could figure out how to recover on his own. Innovation and analysis are the hallmark of Nitsch’s diving approach and he applied them to his recuperation. Listening to his body and focusing on the weakest link, he addressed issues until there was an overall improvement. Though diving wasn’t part of his rehab, it wasn’t long after he achieved some level of stability that he flew to Tahiti to reconnect with the ocean.
In a supreme irony, the water righted his remaining problems with articulation, balance, and coordination. The sea proved to truly be the diver’s element.
Now, Nitsch isn’t striving to be a competition beast. He stopped chasing records a long time ago. In part, he was rightfully cautious about the risks he faces post-decompression sickness. And, he had tired of all the rules associated with competing. Besides, his status as an elite athlete is well-cemented.
“Stopping records doesn’t mean stopping freediving.” Nitsch reminds us. “That’s something totally different, and freediving is the main part. Records were always a small part. I can take a camera and just capture the moment, what’s happening underwater, the marine life, just the mysterious setting of a shipwreck or a cave or just interacting with dolphins or turtles or whales or sharks.”
It’s unlikely most of us will have the lung capacity to free dive to the place where the ocean goes black. But, we can look to the deepest man on Earth and follow his example. When limits are placed upon us, we can take in what we need to sustain us, carry it with us into the dark, and use it to help buoy us back to the light.
And, when that seems hard, we only need to innovate and find our own way to make it all possible. To live without limits.