After Free-Diving Death, Can The Sport Be Made Safer?

Free diver Nicholas Mevoli of Brooklyn died after his event last week at the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas. Host Rachel Martin talks to writer James Nestor, who is writing a book on the subject and says competitions are a bad idea.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last weekend, free diver Nicholas Mevoli from Brooklyn died during the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas. He was a rising star in this sport where a diver plunges as deep as he or she can go on a single breath. Mevoli, who made it past 223 feet, was underwater for three minutes and 38 seconds and surfaced under his own power, but was later pronounced dead in the hospital. Journalist James Nestor is writing a book about free diving and is a free diver himself. He joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

JAMES NESTOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Nicholas Mevoli, he'd only been competing in free diving for less than a couple of years but had already broken some records.

NESTOR: Yeah, that's right. He was quite the talk of the competitive free-diving community because he was able to get down past 200 feet within about six months of training. And for a lot of these competitive free divers it could take years. Very impressive, but at the same time, a lot of people were saying he was just going too quick and that's how he happened upon this horrendous accident.

MARTIN: So, you do this. You are a free diver, right?

NESTOR: I am not a competitive free diver. It's something I'm quite opposed to actually. It's very dangerous and I hope that this is a wakeup call for a lot of competitive free divers out there.

MARTIN: But you have experienced what it's like to go down deep. What happens when you get down to those depths?

NESTOR: First of all, you notice that at around 40 feet gravity shifts. So, the water no longer is pulling you to the surface. It's actually dragging you down. And you float weightlessly and it's an amazing feeling. It's a beautiful thing. But after that, I don't go too much deeper than 50, 60 feet because I'm not comfortable with going any deeper than that. And if you think about if you're falling down in the ocean, you then have to kick your way back up. So, the halfway point in free diving - the end of the rope - you need at least 60 percent of your energy to come back, and that's what makes it so dangerous.

MARTIN: I understand that you swore off these kinds of competitions after attending one that was particularly gruesome. Can you tell us about that?

NESTOR: Yeah, that's right. You know, the guys that made it, it just made it look like the most beautiful thing, beautiful sport I'd ever seen. And then those that didn't - people were coming up bloody, unconscious. About 20 percent of the competitors couldn't make it up back to the surface. And some of them had to be resuscitated. And it kind of took the beauty of the sport away. And that's what I've spent the last two years trying to find the history and the beauty of this thing that these guys are trying to attain.

MARTIN: Writer James Nestor in San Francisco. His book about free diving is called "Deep." It will be out next June. Thanks so much for talking with us, James.

NESTOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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