Underwater Daredevils

Divers compete to see who can go deepest on just one breath -- and who can survive the yet-more-perilous ascent to air.

ONE mile off the coast of Miami, Alejandro Ravelo, a small, unshaven man, perches quietly at the edge of a floating white platform, his neoprene-clad torso swaying without resistance to the ocean's uneven rhythms. His submerged feet sport three-foot-long fins. A heavy-duty clip clamps his nostrils closed.

Ravelo's breathing is slow and deep. His eyes are shut. By calming his mind he will, he hopes, slow his body and quell its thirst for oxygen as he attempts to reclaim his place as the world's deepest breath-holding diver, unaided by breathing equipment -- a title that the Italian Umberto Pelizzari took in 1992. In his category of breath-hold, or "free," diving, called constant-weight, Pelizzari descended 236 feet on a single breath of air. Ravelo aims to descend ten feet farther, looking for a "confirmation tag" attached to a blood-red guide rope that has already been laid deep beneath the platform. If he grabs the tag, the time he took to reach it -- probably about a minute -- will not be the most impressive part of his oxygenless excursion: he set a world record in 1993 by holding his breath for six minutes and forty-one seconds while lying motionless at the bottom of a hotel pool. The true feat is the tremendous exertion required to return to the surface. With his arms extended above him in a hydrodynamic Superman pose, Ravelo must kick against gravity the equivalent of nineteen stories back to air.

Around Ravelo's platform the faces of six scuba divers -- white ovals emerging from dark wet suits -- bob on the Atlantic's steely swells, waiting for Ravelo's move. Stationed at ten-meter intervals, the divers, who will later be joined by breath-hold divers, are ready to serve as links in Ravelo's underwater lifeline. If he passes out, no one of the safety divers can rush him to the surface: they will be anchored to their assigned depths by the perils of the bends, which threaten divers who breathe compressed air and ascend too rapidly. Instead they will pass his unconscious body back to the surface like a baton.

Spectator boats drift away; their engines must not taint the air. Momentarily lapsing from his trance, Ravelo signals to his manager, Rudi Castineyra, among the scuba divers. Castineyra extends his arm into the air and gives a thumbs-down sign -- diver-speak not for "bad" but for "descend." Air hisses out of their buoyancy vests as the divers sink like paratroopers into the clouds. Ravelo's black form remains alone under the gray sky as he prepares his underwater pas seul.

In 1992, in Cuba, Ravelo set the world record for constant-weight free diving at 230 feet -- the record Pelizzari broke only a few months later in Italy, where free divers are celebrated as fervently as bullfighters are in Spain. When Ravelo tried to regain his title in 1993, Cuban security officials refused him a boat, fearing that he would sail for America. Their refusal drove him to flee to Miami.

Ravelo's upper body grows larger and then smaller: his ribs are bowing outward from the pressure of his lungs as he breathes deeply, stretching their capacity for a gigantic last gasp. He makes the puh-puh-puh sounds of a bicycle pump as he swallows air into his digestive system, like a child wanting to burp. This may save Ravelo's life: on the way back up he will belch the gaseous discharge into his lungs. His twenty minutes of breathing techniques complete, a tingling in his fingertips tells him that his body is fully oxygenated. He blows off carbon dioxide with four hard exhales and gasps once. The water accepts him silently.

With a flutter of powerful fin kicks Ravelo propels himself downward. At fifty feet the increasing water pressure compresses the air-filled cavities in his body to a density sufficient for him to sink without effort. He stops kicking, and the force of gravity slices him through the water like an arrow surging toward its target.

RINO Gamba, of the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS), has been verifying free-diving records, including Ravelo's, since 1967. "They aren't trying to beat nature," he says of the divers. "They have a deep love of the sea. You cannot understand the strength of their passion."

Gamba points out that human beings have long braved the sea unaided by gadgets. In 1913, thirty years before Jacques Yves Cousteau and Emil Gagnan perfected the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), a Greek sponge diver, Stotti Geroghios, dove 200 feet without so much as fins and tied a line to the lost anchor of an Italian battleship. Archaeological digs have unearthed widespread evidence of breath-hold diving in seaside cultures. Mother of pearl, for example, harvested from the deep, adorns carved ornaments that date from 3200 B.C. in Thebes and 4500 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Today in Japan female divers known as amas scavenge the ocean floor for pearls and coral at depths of as much as 145 feet for up to three hours a day, returning to the surface as many as ninety times for air. Scuba divers at those depths for this duration would suffer decompression sickness. The ama practice of whistling before a plunge seemed only a custom until scientists discovered that whistling increases air pressure in the lungs, forcing blood out and leaving more volume for the next breath.

Rural peoples of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean buy the daily catch of local spearfishers who hold their breath as they dive. Ravelo himself, before becoming the youngest-ever member of the Cuban national spearfishing team, helped his father support the family by spearfishing. With his spear gun attached by rope to a buoy on the surface, he searched beneath underwater rocks and in caves for groupers, which can be as large as 140 pounds. Once the fish was speared, a buddy at the surface gathered in the line while Ravelo, fresh air in his lungs, returned to untangle the line from rocks or sometimes to fight his catch hand to fin. Today spearfishing has become a sport for thousands around the world. At international championships judges tally points for each fish caught and for their weights; the record for a bluefin tuna caught with a spear gun stands at 398 pounds.

Presented by

Colin Beavan is the author, most recently, of No Impact Man, the executive director of the No Impact Project and a former Green Party candidate for U.S. Congress from central Brooklyn.

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