Nautilus

The Impossible Physiology of the Free Diver

In 2011, Hanli Prinsloo decided she wanted to break the woman’s world record in free diving. She would need to dive to 213 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea and hold her breath for about four minutes. Until the 1960s, scientists believed it was not humanly possible. The increased water pressure at that depth, they argued, would crush her lungs.

The then-33-year-old, South African, former acting student knew the feat would require rigorous training and commitment. But Prinsloo felt at home in the water. She’d grown up on a dusty, 200-hectare horse farm outside Pretoria, chasing her sister from dam to stream to swimming pool and back and dreaming of becoming a mermaid. So in the spring of 2011, Prinsloo packed a bag and traveled to an ashram in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. She spent a month meditating and practicing Vinyasa Yoga.

After six weeks, it was off to Dahab, Egypt, an isolated Bedouin Village hemmed in on one side by the Red Sea, and the Sinai Mountains on the others. On dive days, Prinsloo and fellow diver Yaniv Keinan hopped in a 4x4 and bounced past tourists on camels down a rutted desert track until they reached the water. They waded 50 feet through knee-high water out to the edge of a sinkhole, about 400 feet deep, known as the “Blue Hole.”

As Prinsloo floated on her back above the hole and prepared to dive, the mood was every bit as solemn as at that Ashram back in India. Quiet and still, Prinsloo focused on the oxygen moving in and out of her lungs, becoming aware of her heartbeat, trying not to think. When she moved, she did so in exaggerated slow motion, as if in a trance.

At a depth of 200 feet, she opened her eyes in the translucent water. “It was like a blue glow,” she said. “The way light would look to a moth.”

Prinsloo’s slow, deep breaths ensured the maximum oxygenation of her blood, and the opening up of any constriction in the airways of her lungs. She needed her lungs loose and relaxed, able to expand to store the maximum amount of oxygen when she dived. After five minutes, Prinsloo reached a deeply meditative state. “As you drop down, the perfect dive is where you don’t have a single thought,” she said.

Prinsloo dove with her eyes closed, alternatively

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