Brief History of Freediving

A brief History of our Beloved sport


If you would like to understand something, the best place to start is its beginning. As you may imagine freediving is older than human beings, the ancestors of homo sapiens did it and their ancestors also. It is part of our design, in our genes, no wonder we are capable to go down to such depths and hold our breath for minutes.
I have heard of past legends, freedivers that would decent to depths of 80m and more, with no mask or fins! Stories of men and women as capable as dolphins. Things I’ve read, enthusiasts I have spoken too. But for us modern day freedivers, one of the most important milestones in the sport is the introduction of meditation or yoga. Not only did freediving become safer but divers could go further and stay longer. Before this, the most common practice around 1960’s was hyperventilating before the dive, a most dangerous and counter productive approach. The mainstream freedivers did not know what we know now, according to my knowledge it was Jacques mayol who started to understand the great importance of mental techniques in apnea, researching the mammalian dive reflex and yogic breathing techniques.





From Origin to Modern Times: The Myths

In 1960, Sir Alister Hardy published a scientific theory, the Aquatic ape hypothesis. He based this on studies of human lack of fur being replaced by a layer of insulating sub skin fat, similar to that of marine mammals rather than modern apes. This theory indicates that swimming and diving was a key ingredient in the eon long development of the Homo family from before Out Of Africa to modern times. So that means that our ancestors where more aquatic than previously imagined. Well if this where true it may mean that through freediving we are re-learning what we have long lost !
The oldest archaeological evidence that would confirm human breath hold diving dates back to at least 5.400 B.C. A Scandinavian Stone Age culture called Arteriole (in some sources: “Awoken-modernized”) lived at the coasts of Denmark and Southern Sweden, and were believed to have been a culture of shellfish eating freedivers, as witnessed by large excavated kitchen middens.
Similar and plentiful archaeological proof of diving has been found in the Mesopotamia and Egyptian civilizations dating back to 4.500 and 3.200 years B.C. respectively. On the Mediterranean coast freediving was a regular practice during the classic ages, reported by plenty of myths and legends. One Hellenic myth tells about Glaucus, which could be labeled the first mythological freediver. He was named “The Green Mariner” and the myth recalls that he ate a magical herb, they say the herb may come from Malta, no joke ! ; which gave him fins and a fish’s tale.
A tale from the Greek-Persian wars tells of a Greek fisherman and his daughter Cyan who at night swam under water, cutting the anchor ropes of the Persian war ships. In another story, the antique Athenians cut the underwater wooden barriers of Syracuse.
The legendary philosopher Aristotle is the first to document the common problems associated with diving, e.g. nose bleeding and pain in the ears. Alexander the Greatused divers and even a diving bell during his military campaigns. In the Roman Empire existed a war unit called “Urniatores” with such tasks as recovering lost anchors, removing underwater barricades and other specialized sub aquatic war tasks.
In Asia, across the Middle Eastern, Indian and Pacific Oceans, the desire for pearls and other aquatic goods fueled freediving activities for centuries. Most famous of these freediving traditions is that of the Amas. Today these Japanese and Korean female divers still use a diving technique that are at least 2000 years old. Women between 17 and 50 years of age use rocks to plunge to the bottom where they pick up shells and sea weeds, while diving naked 8 to 10 hours a day in water barely over 10 degrees Celsius.

1913: The Legend
In the summer of 1913, the Italian naval flag ship “La Regina Margarita” lost its anchor off the Greek island Karpathos. A reward was offered for its retrieval, which gave way for the strongest of freediving myths: 35 year old Chatzistathis (also: Stathis Chatzi, or Italian: Haggi Statti), one of the leading sponge divers from nearby Symi, stood only 1.70 meters tall and weighed 65 kilograms; he suffered from remarkable lung emphysema, smoked tobacco extensively, and was part deaf from a life of diving without proper equalization. However, on July 16, he salvaged the anchor from estimated 88 meters depth, freediving up to three minutes at a time. He was carried down by a heavy stone, this primitive ‘Skandalopetra’ diving technique being as old as the Greek civilization itself. His reward was a sum of 5 pounds Sterling and permission to use dynamite for fishing. The legend of Chatzistathis was considered vastly exaggerated until 2001, when the Italian Navy officially confirmed most previous reports.

1949: The Year Zero
In 1949, the Hungarian-born Italian fighter pilot and avid spear fisher Raimondo Bucher founded the modern sport of freediving by announcing that he would reach a depth of 30 meters on a breath hold. Using a large rock for ballast, Bucher completed the dive outside Naples, presenting a parchment in a cylinder to a surface supported diver. Bucher later confessed to have done it all for a lavish bet of 50.000 lire with the diver waiting at the target depth, fellow Italian Ennio Falco, which two years later broke Bucher’s record.

1950’s – 1960’s: The Masters
Bucher’s Italy became the nourishing site for early competitive freediving, seeing freedivers like Alberto Novelli and Brazilian Americo Santarelli surpassing the depths of Bucher and Falco. By 1962, one of the greatest freedivers of all time emerged on the scene, as Enzo Maiorca prompted the first major development of the then obscure sport of deep freediving, which he dominated for the next 25 years. Maiorca was the first to reach and breach the fateful 50 meters barrier in 1962, despite predictions from scientists that beyond 50 meters, the human lungs would collapse from the pressure. Maiorca kept increasing his depths virtually unchallenged, this until FrenchmanJacques Mayol was introduced in 1966. Born in Shanghai, China, Jacques Mayol revolutionized freediving with his use of Eastern yoga and meditation traditions, as opposed to the previous norm of heavy hyperventilation. Maiorca achieved a fantastic record career that included no less than seventeen world records. Mayol was not far behind with his eleven world records, while also being the first to breach 100 meters.
Also introduced at this time was what is possibly the most influential freediver to date. Despite mere three logged deep dives in the late 1960’s, American Robert “Bob” Croft revolutionized the science of freediving extensively. Having worked 22 years in the United States Navy, Croft was training submarine personnel at a 36 meter deep training tank in Connecticut, when fellow instructors urged him to test his limits. For the next 18 months, Croft’s achievements competed with the best of Enzo Maiorca and Jacques Mayol in Europe. Croft was the first to freedive beyond 70 meters, and his achievements were key in establishing most modern scientific conclusions about freediving, among them the mammalian diving reflex and the blood shift phenomenon. Bob Croft was also the first record breaker to use lung packing, the Glossopharyngeal Breathing Technique, in his last breath before his dives.
Croft retired early, but both Mayol, reaching 100 meters depth with his sled in 1976, and Maiorca continued deep diving well into their fifties, both having passed 100 meters by the 1980’s, and they subsequently found world fame with Luc Besson’s 1988 motion picture The Big Blue. This beautiful, albeit heavily fictionalized depiction of Mayol and Maiorca’s 20 year long sportive rivalry, is still considered the best visual representation of the “Zen” of freediving. At this time, there were very few freedivers in the world; the 1943 invention of the aqualung had lead scuba diving to overrun freediving both professionally and leisurely, but the success of Besson’s movie brought a renewed global interest to the age-old activity.

1960’s – 1980’s: The New Amas
By the 1980’s, female freedivers had developed to a point, where they claimed a bigger place in the annals of apnea. Already in the mid 1960’s, women such as Giliana Treleani (Italy) and Evelyn Patterson (Great Britain) had gone beyond 30 meters depth. The discipline later known as Constant Weight Apnea was fashioned by women such as Italians Francesca Borra and Hedy Roessler long before taken on by fellow countryman Stefano Makula in 1978. But it wasn’t until two of Enzo Maiorca’s daughters Patrizia and Rossana Maiorca took up records in the late 1970’s, that female competitive freediving finally took off. Later, athletes like Italian Angela Bandiniand in particular Cuban Deborah Andollo took female achievements deeper and deeper into the oceans. Bandini caused a sensation in 1989, when she reached 107 meters of depth with Jacques Mayol’s now classic freediving sled, hereby going two meters deeper than Mayol’s then world record, making her the deepest human being in history at the time.

1980’s – 1990’s: New Kids on the Block
By this time, Mayol and Maiorca had withdrawn from competitive freediving and others were to take their place. Fully equipped with modern tools and equipment that had progressed fast in the 30 years preceding them, a new fierce rivalry was born; the new actors were Italian Umberto Pelizzari and Cuban Francisco Rodriguez, better known as Pipin Ferreras, both emerging around 1990. These two freedivers excelled in the category now called No Limit, a term made necessary by the appearance of new deep diving disciplines such as Variable Weight Apnea and Constant Weight. Neck to neck for the remains of the decade, Pipin and Pelizzari took No Limit into the meters 110, 120, 130 and beyond, while further developing the design of the diving sleds used.

And now,,these are the current world records:


World records

World records
Constant Weight Apnea Without Fins (CNF)

101 m
Name: William TRUBRIDGE (NZL)
Date: 2010-12-16
Place: Long Island, Bahamas 70 m
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2014-05-15
Place: Dahab, Egypt

Constant Weight Apnea (CWT)

128 m
Name: Alexey MOLCHANOV (RUS)
Date: 2013-09-19
Place: Kalamata, Greece 101 m
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2011-09-23
Place: Kalamata, Greece

Dynamic Apnea Without Fins (DNF)

226 m
Name: Mateusz MALINA (POL)
Date: 2014-11-09
Place: Brno, Czech Republic 182 m
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2013-06-27
Place: Belgrade, Serbia

Dynamic Apnea (DYN)

281 m
Name: Goran ČOLAK (CRO)
Date: 2013-06-28
Place: Belgrade, Serbia 237 m
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2014-09-26
Place: Sardinia, Italy

Static Apnea (STA)

11 min 35 sec
Name: Stéphane MIFSUD (FRA)
Date: 2009-06-08
Place: Hyères, France 9 min 02 sec
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2013-06-29
Place: Belgrade, Serbia

Free Immersion Apnea (FIM)

121 m
Name: William TRUBRIDGE (NZL)
Date: 2011-04-10
Place: Long Island, Bahamas 91 m
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2013-09-21
Place: Kalamata, Greece

Variable Weight Apnea (VWT)

145 m
Name: William WINRAM (CAN)
Date: 2013-09-03
Place: Sharm el Sheik, Egypt 127 m
Name: Natalia MOLCHANOVA (RUS)
Date: 2012-06-06
Place: Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

No Limits Apnea (NLT)

214 m
Name: Herbert NITSCH (AUT)
Date: 2007-06-14
Place: Spetses, Greece 160 m
Name: Tanya STREETER (USA)
Date: 2002-08-17
Place: Turks & Caicos




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