This article originally appeared on VICE France.
The small French Riviera town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is a hotspot for the professional freediving community. It was there last summer that Arnaud Jerald tried to break the world record for bi-fin freediving, aiming to reach 111 metres underwater with a single breath.
Unfortunately, both his first and second attempts were invalidated due to minor breaches of protocol. Undeterred, Jerald headed to Kalamata in Greece to try breaking the record again, only to discover that his arch-rival, Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov, had beaten him to the 111 metres just 24 hours beforehand. So Jerald raised the stakes, setting a new record of 112 metres in September of 2020.
I asked Jerald what it takes to train yourself to achieve this superhuman feat.
VICE: As a kid, did you always try to stay underwater longer than your friends?
Arnaud Jerald: It's funny, because it was never my thing. I discovered freediving with my father, who enjoyed spearfishing. The first time I went 30 metres underwater, it all clicked. I suddenly knew that’s what I wanted to do in life.
I liked the feeling of weightlessness, both physically and mentally. When you’re at the bottom, you don’t think about what’s above the surface anymore. The body imposes this state on you – you’re only focused on the present, down to the very second.
What's the secret to staying underwater for a long time?
To hold your breath, you must first learn how to breathe all over again – with your stomach, like when you're a baby. The trick is to really relax the tummy and expand your stomach when you breathe. It’s a two-stage movement: first, you breathe in with the stomach, then you open up your rib cage as much as possible.
Can you break down what happens during the dive?
At the start of the descent, there’s air in my suit and in my lungs, which makes me float to the surface, so I have to swim down. The further down I go, the more the pressure increases. The air [in me] is compressed, which means its volume decreases until it doesn’t make me float anymore. It’s at that point, around 30 metres deep, that I begin to sink or free fall. I’m in a similar position to skydivers – I just make small movements with my head to steer, and follow the rope as a guide.
At that point, I’m actually going pretty fast, between six and seven kilometres per hour. When there are only five metres left, an alarm goes off on my watch and I slow down by grabbing the rope. At the bottom, I collect a small strip of Velcro tape. Then I put my arms above my head and swim very quickly. Otherwise, I’d sink – the bottom physically pulls me down.
Do you have your eyes open while you descend?
Yes. I don’t wear a mask, because the pressure would cause it to explode. I have to keep the cable in sight to make sure I’m on the right trajectory.
What do you think about?
At first, I focus on swimming. I always have a song in my head – I listen to it 15 times on the morning of the dive and it stays with me throughout. For my world record, it was “The Look of Love” by Dusty Springfield. It’s about four minutes, just over the time it takes to dive and resurface.
When I’m in free fall, my mind is flooded with ideas and memories. One minute underwater is the emotional equivalent of a day above. What I see changes from time to time – childhood memories, images of my family, or even from The Little Prince, the first book I ever read.
Are you talking about the so-called “Martini effect”, or nitrogen narcosis, an alternate state of mind experienced by deep-divers?
Basically, it's like when you get up from the sofa too quickly and your head is spinning and your vision is blurred. During the descent, your brain works 40,000 times faster, so all your thoughts get mixed up. People say it’s like doing acid or magic mushrooms, but I don’t know because I’ve never tried either. I try to avoid this feeling. I prefer to be in control of my dive.
What does the pressure feel like?
Like your body has turned to liquid. Your lungs are the size of tennis balls. You feel like a miniature version of yourself inside your own body. You’re also really cold. Despite all of this, you kind of feel protected, like you’re being sandwiched between two feather mattresses. Plus, those few seconds are special. It’s the most extreme place on Earth for a human being.
Have you ever found weird things at the bottom of the sea?
It’s rare, but it happens. Last year, in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, I was free falling to 108 metres. At around 95 metres, I felt something pushing me so hard it threw me off course. At the time, I just swam back on track, touched the weight and went back up. On the surface, I told everyone about it and, a minute later, we saw dolphins coming up alongside the cable and doing somersaults in front of us. Surely one of them wanted to play with me.
On that same dive, I also had a scare when I reached the bottom. I saw a huge ring circling the weight. I thought I was experiencing the Martini effect, but actually there were around 100 giant yellowfin tuna swimming on the seabed. I felt like I was in Interstellar.
Another time, in Villefranche, I was diving with a monofin to 118 metres. At around 90 metres, I heard a rumbling. You can usually hear boat propellers, but not at that depth, so I knew it was coming from the bottom. The further down I went, the louder the noise became. A few months later, I found out there were submarines passing by where we’d stopped the boat.
What if something goes wrong while you’re down there?
If the people monitoring me above water see I’m in trouble, they can use a counterweight to pull me back up quickly – but it's very rare. Once you’ve retrieved the Velcro, you’re only halfway through. But in terms of oxygen, you feel more or less OK. The last few metres are the most dangerous, because you’re at risk of fainting, but there are other freedivers monitoring you.
Freediving is not like cycling – you can’t just stop by the side of the road if you’ve had enough. You have to get back up. That’s why this sport is so complicated on a mental level.