A very interesting New York Times article was forwarded to me recently by my own personal Times agent. I read it once, instantly attracted by the familiar topic and friendly location. But by the time I reached the last period, I’d grown uneasy. So I read it twice more. Then I followed the links. And I frowned. And decided to write about it. So here I am.
The article by John Tierney – I’ve read his stuff before, I like him – covers David Blaine‘s training for an upcoming attempt at beating the world record of oxygen aided static breath-holding, live on "Oprah". I must pause here. There are already enough trigger words in this single sentence to get me rambling for hours. Oxygen, for instance. And world record. And Blaine. And live. And definitely Oprah. So I will slow down and backtrack for a second in order to cover the basics and later, I’ll ramble.
Breath-holding, or apnea, is a trend that is probably as old as mankind. Who, as a child, hasn’t tried to push the limits of a single breath, turning red and exploding proudly after fighting the urge to breathe for as long as a kid’s mind could muster? My dad used to challenge us to hold our breath through the tunnels of the Alps. Obelix used it as a blackmailing tool. And it has very practical applications in everyday life, such as enduring particularly nasty cab rides and keeping our love of cats intact even through the toughest litter cleaning episodes.
Eventually breath-holding gets linked to going underwater. As always, we tend to forget our roots, dismiss the exploits of the past and focus on today’s achievements, as they are bound to be greater, shinier, and much better publicized. But ancients were free-diving as far back as 1000 BC and in a less remote past, many civilizations have used free-diving in incredibly dangerous – and often fatal – ways to collect pearls, sponges and coral. Of course, somewhere along the line, surface-supplied diving and later SCUBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) were invented. They instantly sank the limits of what was possible to new depths and durations, and breath-hold – or free – diving was left to adventurers, lunatics, fanatics, romantics and Obelix.
But SCUBA, while mighty amazing in itself, introduced a new set of problems associated with the necessity of breathing compressed air. To name but a couple, the dreaded "bends", or decompression sickness, and nitrogen narcosis. The former is caused by too rapid or steep an ascent from depth after breathing compressed air, which causes the nitrogen dissolved in the body to leave solution and become gaseous again, expanding as the surrounding pressure decreases and wreaking havoc in the blood stream. The latter is a consequence of nitrogen becoming dangerous at higher partial pressures and turning the most reasonable diver into a silly puppet.
So a few purists decided these risks were not only unacceptable, they were unworthy. Free-diving as an elitist activity was born. From immemorial times, mankind has attempted to push the limits of its own endurance. I guess it’s a way of showing off to the Gods, of challenging our own mortality. But the price to be paid is serious, for mortality is a bit of a moody contender. It’ll come sooner if teased, but rarely later. My problem with taking incredible risks in the name of science, honor, challenge, personal growth, ego, money, love or all of the above, is that for each extremely rare individual actually capable of understanding the necessary commitment and the risks involved, there are a hundred who will watch and stare, hypnotized, and without even trying to suffer through the pain of training and the rigors of discipline, they will believe they can do it too, and try. And die.
Our society feeds on sensationalism. The media needs it like we need air to breathe. Without those, no news, no life. But proper care is rarely taken by the media to explain how incredible and extreme such attempts are, and how they should remain the playground of a very small crowd. John Tierney’s article began bothering me when I read, smack in the middle of it, about the author’s own puerile attempt at apnea with a link provided for further investigation. The initial message was, before a bit of my brain was put to work into analysis, "Try this at home, it’s fun." Not so. It kills.
Then I became even more concerned when I read his description of Blaine’s shallow water blackout on ascent from a training dive to 100 ft. Mr. Tierney proceeds to write: "Mr. Blaine, predictably, seemed untroubled once he recovered. What’s a little blackout to a guy who was once encased in a block of ice for 63 hours? He blamed it on overconfidence (he’d kept going 20 feet deeper than planned) and on his relative inexperience with diving." Duh! What’s a little blackout? It’s the thing that will kill you if you don’t respect it. On top of that, the guy admits being overconfident and an inexperienced diver. I’m sorry to say that, to me, this makes him a walking corpse. But then again, aren’t we all?
Shallow water blackout, poetically named "Rendez-vous syncopal des 7 mètres" by the French, is a strange contradiction for whoever doesn’t digest hyperbaric medicine papers well for breakfast. Free-divers use controlled hyperventilation to prolong their dives. They carefully decrease the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood while increasing that of oxygen. An extra bonus of oxygen might sound like a convenient commodity for a deep dive, but it’s actually the lowered CO2 that will be most helpful. Our need to breathe is not really driven by a lack of oxygen but rather by a surplus of carbon dioxide. When there’s too much of it, the brain decides it’s time to inhale. By lowering the initial level of CO2, a free-diver pushes back the moment when the need to breathe will be irresistible. However, most of these effects being driven by partial pressures, there is a very real danger zone located in the last 20 feet below the surface, where the pressure variation is the greatest; back from the depths, the CO2 might not yet have reached a level at which it would trigger the need to breathe, but the oxygen could already be so low that the hypoxic brain, sensing the danger, would just shut down the main terminal in an effort to avoid complete hard drive failure. It’s the shallow water blackout. You’re back at 20 feet, your brain is starved for air. You pass out. You might even have an unconscious inhaling reflex. It’s not good. I’d even say, it sucks.
In 2002, French free-diver Audrey Maestre, world record holder and wife of free-diving legend "Pipin" Ferrera, drowned during a dive. I can’t remember exactly what the cause of death was but I think it was shallow water blackout-related. I Googled her. Nothing. The only trustworthy link I can find is one about a subsequent world record by Grand Cayman’s own Tanya Streeter and which briefly mentions Maestre’s death. She has but vanished from official records. Was it worth it? What about him? How does one justify pushing the limits so far that they cost you what’s most precious to you?
Keith was 19 years old. A friend and colleague of my sister, he was working as a dive instructor for Unexso, in Freeport Bahamas. But he had an ego and was blinded by the proximity of masters like Cousteau and Jacques Mayol. He never came up from a free-dive on Theo’s Wreck, and the sea kept his body forever. Sure, he probably died doing what he loved most. But shouldn’t he have lived doing it? It’s so easy to mislead people into thinking that imitating the greatest is all it takes to share their success.
The greatest have one thing in common: years and years and years of practice, gradual exposure, exceptional will power and a profound respect of their craft. And it still kills them. Joe Blow has none of the above, and doesn’t even grasp the concept. But he or she will read the Times and decide it would be very cool to be like that.
Hell, even I feel a tingle in my spine when I hear about the mammalian diving reflex. Who doesn’t want to be closely related to such charming animals as dolphins. Bradycardia caused by immersion of the face in cold water. Sweet. Peripheral vasoconstriction, a shunting of blood flow to the limbs and pooling into the core to sustain basic functions. Cool. I’m a whale… What I fail to consider is that I am about as close to a whale as a mouse to an elephant, and that even the very few human mice who actually exhibit real signs of using the mammalian diving reflex are only closer to the elephant by the length of maybe a whisker.
So when Mr. Tierney sits in a warm Grand Cayman swimming pool (I’m sad to say I couldn’t identify the hotel from the picture) and dips his face in the water for 3:41 minutes, I’m not even sure he actually even involves his mammalian diving reflex which is said to be triggered by cold water face immersion and depth. Oh well, I’m sure it’s worth the price of a plane ticket. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for pushing our own limits. But let’s do so modestly and while acknowledging that those guys are taking awfully big risks. No, let me rephrase that: there should be nothing modest about our own attempts at breaking our personal barriers. Those can be pushed as far and as long as we can invent. But those barriers are our own and need not be copied from others, especially those who seem to have a slight death wish. How about beating ourselves at being the best we can? I believe there’s the real challenge.
I wish David Blaine the best of luck and I hope his world record will never become one for the strangest injury, something like being the first man ever to choke on a microphone on a TV stage while trying to catch his breath. Personally, I think that using oxygen before the event is cheating, not so different from taking a drug. It’s no longer about the inherent capabilities of the human body. And as far as his free-diving goes, I hope he donates some of his proceeds to Duke University or DAN. He might need them.