It’s fair to say that Herbert Nitsch is a big name among free divers. In fact, the Austrian’s accomplishments in the sport have earned him the moniker “the deepest man on earth.” But Nitsch’s success certainly hasn’t come without difficulties. While setting a world record in 2012, for instance, things went horrifically wrong. As the diver rose to the surface, he ended up in an incredibly dangerous situation – and it had a massive impact on his entire life.
While free diving has many fans, it’s also an extremely dangerous sport. It involves descending as far as you can underwater – on just one breath. The risks are numerous: a free diver could easily fall unconscious and drown, for one thing. In addition, this type of diving also poses the risks of oxygen toxicity and cardiac arrests.
Essentially, free diving involves fighting against your own body as you descend into the ocean. Whenever you go underwater, you see, your lungs will serve as natural buoys that lift you upwards. But a free diver needs to ignore that pull and keep going down. And at a depth of around 30 feet, the pressure on a free diver’s lungs will cause the organs to shrink in volume by about 50 percent.
According to free diving champion William Trubridge, the initial 30 feet take a big toll on the free diver. “This is where you use up to 15 percent of your energy,” he explained to Outside Online in 2012. But if you want to secure the title of champion, as Nitsch indeed has, you have to push yourself even further.
Some free divers are able to descend to below 150 feet, in fact – and this is where things become even more difficult. The human body has problems handling such large amounts of pressure, and you start to feel the bizarre effects of the high levels of nitrogen and carbon dioxide that your blood now contains. Then, upon reaching depths of around 300 feet, your heartbeat will have slowed to 50 per cent of its typical speed, and your motor skills will begin to fail you.
“Most of the blood in your arms and legs has flooded to your body’s core as the vessels in your extremities constrict,” Outside Online noted about this particular point of the free diving experience. “Vessels in your lungs swell to several times their normal size so they won’t be crushed by the incredible pressure.”
Who, then, would voluntarily put themselves through something so painful? Well, quite a few people, as it turns out. It’s a competitive sport in which many individuals compete around the world, in fact. And then there’s the simple lure of the ocean and the serenity that comes with being underwater for any length of time. This is apparently still a big draw to the activity – even with all the risks attached to it.
Proof of this can be found in the figure of Herbert Nitsch. Interestingly, he became involved in free diving by accident, and yet it eventually came to define his life. Nitsch first came across the sport due to a common mishap: the airline with which he was traveling mislaid his bags. And unfortunately, this included all the gear that he was planning to use for a scuba expedition.
But Nitsch didn’t want to waste the trip, so he simply went diving without the equipment. And in the process, he found himself unwittingly partaking in a whole new form of underwater risk-taking. “[I] unknowingly trained for free diving without knowing that this sport existed,” Nitsch told Just Wanderlust in February 2019.
As it turned out, Nitsch was a natural at free diving. “A friend of my father then noticed how long I can stay down, and he was quite fascinated and tried to persuade me to set an Austrian record,” Nitsch explained. And remarkably, the record in question was only around six feet below a dive that Nitsch had already done. “In the end, I set up my first free diving record one year later at an international competition,” he said.
Moreover, one of Nitsch’s previous jobs helped him a lot when it came to taking up free diving. “In the past, I flew as a pilot for an Austrian airline. And in this profession, you are taught to think analytically and always have a way out,” Nitsch told Just Wanderlust. “At the crucial moment, one must not think twice but must retrieve the plan immediately.”
“Because of my work as an airline captain, and because I lived in a land-locked country – Austria – I had very little time to free dive and train in the ocean,” Nitsch told Adrex in 2016. “But I did have time to think about training and free diving in the most efficient way. So, I developed my own free dive training, consisting mainly of ‘dry training.’”
And Nitsch’s training regime is truly remarkable, particularly when it comes to the taxing skills that he has to practice. “Packing is a technique where I go sip by sip. I compress extra air in my lungs, probably twice as much as normal,” he informed entertainment website UPROXX in 2017. But of course, this is something that took Nitsch a lot of effort to perfect – as is usually the case when a person pushes the boundaries of their body.
What’s more, Nitsch told UPROXX that his new abilities didn’t come to him overnight. “It’s something I’ve practiced,” he revealed. But it’s also worth noting that packing is not always considered to be a positive technique in the free diving community. Those who oppose the method claim that it causes a diver’s body to become tense, boosts their heart rate and makes them more buoyant.
In fact, even Nitsch himself admits that his diving processes are “different to the norm.” He spoke about the subject with Adrex in 2016. “To date, my methods are still considered controversial in the free diving scene,” he said. “However, 33 world records later, they have proven to be very effective.” And it’s hard to argue with that.
However, Nitsch thinks that the most vital part of free diving lies in your mental state. “Most free divers are a bit older, because then you’re mentally stronger. And this is the key factor of free diving – that you stay very calm,” he told UPROXX. The pressure doesn’t just come from the ocean, though, but also from having the spotlight on you as a sportsperson.
“Imagine the situation that you are there on the dive rope, setting your record, and you have all the eyes on you – the media, the judges, the safety divers,” Nitsch explained to UPROXX. “And you have to be in a mode like waking up on a lazy Sunday and turning back around in bed. Because if you are not relaxed – really relaxed – you need so much more oxygen.”
And yet it’s probably fair to say that most people couldn’t begin to imagine being relaxed in such a situation. After all, people have died while in the pursuit of free diving titles. Take, for instance, Natalia Molchanova – once considered to be the planet’s finest woman free diver – who was never seen again after embarking upon a fairly routine descent. Although Molchanova’s body hasn’t ever been found, it’s been assumed that she passed away under the water.
Before the tragic accident, Molchanova held many world records in her sport. One of them was for what’s known as static apnea, which involves submerging your face in water without breathing. Remarkably, Molchanova’s record time for the activity was a little over nine minutes. And she also boasted the women’s world record in an impressive seven out of eight official free diving events.
Molchanova’s disappearance – shocking as it was – triggered various kinds of responses. After the news broke, Philip Gourevitch, who is a journalist with The New Yorker, wrote on Twitter: “Natalia Molchanova, Champion Free Diver, presumed dead… because free diving is a ‘sport’ like Russian roulette is.”
Perhaps inevitably, however, some people took issue with Gourevitch’s comment, and they let the writer know how they felt. “You should be ashamed of yourself. How disrespectful. Learn about the sport before you post such sensationalist rubbish,” commented one Twitter user. “Comparing free diving to Russian roulette is cheap, shabby and inaccurate journalism,” another commenter said.
In the wake of Molchanova’s passing, the BBC interviewed some of the world’s top free divers about the allure of the sport. “Free divers go to incredible depths, they do incredible distances underwater, [and] they hold their breath for seemingly inhuman amounts of time,” said Stephen Whelan, who manages a diving website. “But free diving is a very peaceful and relaxing sport.”
“If you watch free divers before they go under, it’s about deep breathing. It’s about getting into a calm mental state and staying calm throughout the dive,” Whelan continued. “And it’s a very introspective sport. The divers have to shut out the outside world. It’s a sport of two extremes: you go to extreme depths, but you also have to go deep into yourself to do it.”
William Trubridge also spoke to the BBC. “When you stop breathing, you suspend the body’s natural metronome, which it uses to count out time,” he explained. “So, holding your breath is almost like suspending time itself. A free dive is like a journey outside of yourself and outside of time.”
And yet some never return from that journey. “It is not common that these accidents happen,” the president of the International Association for the Development of Apnea, Kimmo Lahtinen, told the BBC. “When they do happen, they can happen to the most experienced divers, because these are the people who are pushing the limits. That’s what they do.”
In fact, Nitsch himself suffered one of these uncommon accidents back in 2012. In June of that year, he went to Greece to compete in the “No Limits” field of free diving. And his goal was to descend to 801 feet. In the end, though, the distance that the diver reached underwater was even more impressive: 831 feet. But said achievement came at a heavy price.
It’s important to note, however, that Nitsch had taken a great many safety precautions before the dive. He had undergone years of training for such an event, after all, and at the time, he was the holder of the 700-feet record. Even his sled – the device that free divers use in order to descend as far as possible – had apparently been designed so that almost nothing could go wrong. Unfortunately for Nitsch, though, it did.
That’s because Nitsch suddenly became unconscious while he was under the water as a result of the high levels of nitrogen in his blood. He consequently failed to take the required underwater decompression stop – a precaution that prevents the serious problem of decompression sickness from developing. Seeing him unresponsive, then, the safety divers removed Nitsch from his sled and brought him back to consciousness. But the biggest crisis was still to come.
Nitsch descended again to around 30 feet underwater and took in pure oxygen. But this didn’t have the desired results. Instead, severe decompression sickness – caused by the aforementioned nitrogen in Nitsch’s blood – was taking over. He was losing feeling in one side of his body, and he was beginning to feel severely disorientated.
Decompression sickness is not something to be taken lightly; in fact, it can easily kill. And as a result, Nitsch was rushed to a hospital in Athens, Greece, where he was placed in a decompression chamber. But once he was out of it, the news wasn’t terribly positive for Nitsch. The doctors said he had DCS-type 2, as the nitrogen in his blood had led to him suffering strokes.
Unfortunately, this meant that Nitsch had suffered severe neurological damage. Following the diver’s treatment in Greece, he was moved first to Germany before being taken to his native Austria in order to begin his recovery. And it would certainly be a long process. Nitsch’s vision and balance were impaired, after all, and he was informed by doctors that he would be confined to a wheelchair permanently.
At his lowest point, in fact, Nitsch wasn’t even able to recall the name of his closest friend, because his brain had been so badly affected. Unsurprisingly, as he went through rehab, he became more and more depressed. Yet the free diver’s willpower – the determination that had gotten him so far in the first place – still remained. And so, Nitsch vowed that one way or another he would get back to his former self again.
Nitsch left the rehab facility and began working on putting his body right, sometimes even ignoring instructions from his caregivers. For instance, he started eating “super foods” and partaking in physical exercise. And gradually, Nitsch’s weakened limbs began regaining strength. Doctors were amazed, in fact, although they put it down to his fitness and athleticism prior to the accident.
And exactly one year after the traumatic event, Nitsch released a statement on social media. “On June 6, 2012, I almost lost my life while pursuing a new world record,” he wrote. “First and foremost, I would like to thank all those who believed in me and supported me since the record. It played a big role in my wellbeing, and I can’t thank you enough for the concern – the care you gave to me.”
“I am doing well now,” Nitsch continued. “There are still some physical challenges to deal with related to coordination and speech, which are typical consequences of neurological damage. But from what I hear, those who have no idea of my condition do not really notice these limitations, which is a rather positive sign.”
Next, Nitsch revealed that he’d even returned to practicing the sport that he loves. “In January and February of 2013, I went with my father for a month trip in the South Pacific, where I lectured onboard a luxurious cruise liner and started free diving again. It felt great to be back in the water,” he wrote. “In May I went back to Palau for free diving, and it made me realize once more that there is so much yet to explore in the deep blue.”
What’s more, in a November 2017 interview with UPROXX, Nitsch went into more detail about how he’d pushed himself after the accident and managed to defy all the odds in the end. “I thought, ‘[Diving] will always be part of me,’ even though [the doctors] said, ‘You should never, ever dive again,’” Nitsch explained, “I said, ‘Okay, see ya,’ and I did some diving again.”
“My motivation before and after June 6, 2012, has not changed,” Nitsch told Adrex in 2016. “Ninety percent of my free diving had always been for fun and still is. The championships and records were a small part of the whole free diving experience only because I was intrigued to see how far I could push my body and mind.”
Even though Nitsch’s body and mind have been pushed far beyond the capabilities of most people, he is still up, about and free diving. He now also works for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, trying to prevent pollution of the oceans that he loves so much. Plus, he’s the only person to this day to have held world records in each of the eight types of free diving. And although said achievement came at a price, it seems that it was one that Nitsch was willing to pay.