Rose George

Very much like a whale

Adam Skolnik tries to fathom what makes people risk their lives in this pitiless sport

In principle, freediving is simple and perilous: divers take one breath, then dive as deep as they can, with no tanks or air, and come back up again. Watch a video of this — or Luc Besson’s 1988 film The Big Blue — and you have to hold your own breath, because it is beautiful, streamlined, pitiless: a human in the most powerful and unnatural element for humans.

The beauty of freediving is that it does not look unnatural, but pure. What Adam Skolnick conveys in One Breath is how deceptive that is, and what a dreadful toll diving takes on the human body. He does this by telling the tale of one death, but also of the small freediving community that travels the world from one deep ocean hole to another to go as deep as possible, on one breath.

His hero is Nicholas Mevoli, a charming, handsome youngster from Florida who died in 2013 at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. That the book opens with Mevoli’s death is brave and inevitable: it was widely reported, being the first death in 35,000 competitive dives. But then we go back in time to Nick’s introduction, and growing devotion, to the sport, alternating Mevoli chapters with ones focused on his surviving free-diving peers and their competitions.

Freediving, before it was formalised as a sport with competitions and prizes (not cash, though, and usually jokes), simply involved men and women diving deep for various reasons. Greeks diving for sponges; Romans to erect underwater barriers; the Japanese and Korean Ama people still freediving for oysters and pearls, as they have done for 2,000 years. Now, it has categories — Constant Weight, Constant No-Fins, Free Immersion — rules, and a governing body, Aida (the International Association for the Development of Apnea), though Skolnik is sceptical of Aida’s competence —and rightly so.

Mevoli began by diving for lobsters from his uncle’s lobster boat off the Florida coast, and he was good at it.

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