In high school I fell in love with the sport of free diving because of the US version of the movie The Big Blue. The movie played endlessly in my bedroom due to the magic of an auto-rewinding and restarting VHS player. (Young kids coming to this comment being like… auto-rewinding what? Pay it no mind, but it was glorious.) I quickly began following the sport and really enjoyed hearing about the exploits of these records continuously falling as individuals, men and women, kept free diving deeper and deeper.
Which is where The Deepest Breath comes in. Netflix’s documentary, The Deepest Breath, manages to detail out the excitement and glory of the sport and, oh, by the way, also the tragedy and despair as well.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet – some are likening it to Free Solo, but I think I would more appropriately categorize it in the world of The Alpinist. (If you’ve seen the two, that will make sense to you immediately.) And similarly, it should be abundantly clear where this documentary is going about five minutes in. All the right tropes are there. The hero. The maiden. The dragon that is determined to devour them both. And the only question as the movie starts is… exactly how does it happen?
The Tragedy of The Deepest Breath
You definitely should skip this bit if you haven’t seen the film yet. But I want to actually call out both the world of free diving, as well as the Netflix film producers that even thought that making a movie on this topic would be a good idea. The main reason is because the current rules and the resultant records that have been achieved are horribly dangerous to attempt now.
(CWT means constant weight with fins, CNF means constant weight without fins.)
I mean, 429 and 404 feet? That’s absurd. And what is funny about all this is that free diving is attempting to get a spot in the Olympics! But just the act of competing puts these competitor’s lives at risk. As this movie makes abundantly clear. Regularly, divers seize up, pass out, and require interventions on the way back up. Think about it, in order to grab the tag, and head up with the record in your hand, you are doing math, at the half way point… making a bet, that you can make it back to the top … alive. Oh, I feel good, I don’t think I’ll die on the way back. I’m going for it. It’s a broken model. If there were oxygen stations along the way, from the top to the bottom… okay, maybe. But there aren’t. And while the death rate during competitions is extraordinarily low, the number of deaths that this sport encourages… is somewhere around 1 in 500 dives.
The heartbreaking reality of what happened to Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan on that fateful day off the coast of Egypt is pretty riveting. These two people, a woman intent on breaking the female free diving records, and a man who was determined to protect these divers, collide in a wild death spiral. The duo met, even began to fall in love, and then an accident struck. Alessia, heading back up from a record-breaking dive attempt, suffers a failure. She blacked out. And Stephen, at the outer limits of what he is capable of as a safety diver, and being the lowest diver to assist, decides he is going to go after her. He gets her to the surface, but in the melee of helping Alessia, he drops under the water and isn’t saved himself. It’s a very tragic story.
The sport is beautiful. There is nothing like it. And I’m still 100% in favor of free diving – I just think the chase for endless records becomes a sort of communal suicide pact. It’s just a self-defeating sport in my opinion. Sure, it’s safe in that there are medical professionals on the surface, and multiple safety divers all the way up and down the line. But really? I’m also against free climbing too – why? So at least in this ONE area of my life I’ve figured out how to be consistent. hahah.