The ocean is not a place made for mankind. Under the glittering surface of even the calmest seas, plummeting temperatures and crushing pressure pile on extremities to an environment where man is already robbed of the very essence of life – breath.
Yet, this is where Guillaume Nery, World Record Freediver, feels most at home. Since he was a young boy, he has always been drawn to the sea and the tests of its depths. He free dives – without breathing apparatus like scuba tanks and regulators – and relies solely on his lungs and their ability to hold a single breath to break depths as deep as 126m.
At the peak of his competitive career, he dived to 139m at the 2015 French Freediving Championship in Cyprus, but a miscalculation on the organiser’s end rendered this new record – what would have been his fifth in a row – unvalidated. A blackout just a few metres from the surface left him with lung barotrauma and he decided to retire from competitive freediving.
For someone who always had the ocean calling to him since he can remember, it was expected that he couldn’t stay away. He was back in the water mere days after the accident, and returned to the sea a week after. However, it would be three years before he was mentally ready to return to the depths of 100m or more.
“I have started again one or two years ago but not as much as it was before,” he shares of the sport that has made and almost broken him. “My main focus now branches out from deep diving. I’m doing many other projects – but I’m still training to go deep.”
Humankind’s special link with water
Long before the accident, Nery has had countless hours upon days upon weeks underwater. He doesn’t see his time underwater as just a sport; it is an art.
With his partner Julie Gautier-Nery, he has written, directed and starred in short films like Free Fall, where he swam into Dean’s Blue Hole in The Bahamas, Narcosis, Ocean Gravity and Haven that was shot in one of the biggest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, off the coast of the Genoa. He has also appeared in the works of other directors like Attention – A Life in Extremes, a documentary about extreme sports.
He has written a book about his life and career and is currently writing a second one on the many lessons from the sea that he felt blessed enough to be privy to, despite and in spite of the many secrets and limits it pushes upon the human endurance.
“I have learnt so many things from the ocean,” he shares. “I’m trying to understand all that I’ve learnt from diving and share my study of the relationship that humans have with water, through my experience. It’s not just the deep – it starts with the lessons of the deep because that’s something that I apply to my everyday life – but it’s about how and why we have this special link with water.”
Despite the less than friendly environments of the sea, humans and the ocean share a very important connection.
“If you look into the history of water and life, you’ll understand that life cannot exist without water,” Nery tells. “Life started with water. Every form of life needs water. Our body is 71% water. We spend the first 9 months of our life completely in water. We have this special link – water really makes humans reconnect with nature, with the elements, with ourselves. This is what I discover with free diving.”
More importantly, Nery is on a mission to highlight how this connection between humans and the water is in danger. “I want to use this opportunity with the book to raise awareness about how fragile is the ocean and if people understand more the link we have with the water, I hope that we can help achieve a better knowledge and awareness of the danger and fragility of it.”
It hurts Nery on a very deep level to see the toll that the sea is taking with human activities like pollution and, on a bigger scale, the subsequent global warming.
“When I saw that, it made me realise it wasn’t just me,” he divulges. “It applies to everybody. The water can bring happiness to everyone. You don’t need to be a good swimmer, you don’t need to be a diver. You just need to leave your mental limitations. A lot of people think they’re scared of the water, that the ocean is full of dangerous sea creatures. With my book, I explore the link and possibilities and closeness that I’ve always had with water. I want to share this special connection and keep this link with water alive.”
The calling and lessons of the sea
No one knows the ocean and its spirit as well as freedivers. Every dive they take and every breath they hold in the womb of the sea literally immerses them in a whole separate world not made for oxygen-breathing, land-walking mammals. Yet they do it. In these impossible environments, freedivers have felt humbled, stretched, stripped, and reborn each time they break through the surface again.
Nery has had countless lessons from his many years in the sea but he counts three as his most prominent.
The first is patience. “One of the greatest lessons that diving has taught me is the relation with time in terms of patience. We’re living in a world where we’ve been asked to do things as quick as possible, we’re more and more in a hurry because we’re always bombarded by different tools to speed up our everyday life. Free diving taught me that you can only really get great results in the long term if you take time time to learn and improve, if you take time to slowly adapt to the situation. When I’m diving deep, it’s an extreme environment with huge pressure, and to survive in this kind of environment, I really have to improve slowly and not rush the process.”
It has also taught him the importance of letting go. “The deep ocean taught me that sometimes we know that to get results and improve, you have to train and give your everything. But when you’re only in that mindset, you’re constantly fighting. Sometimes you have to learn to accept as well that some things cannot be changed. We can lose a lot of energy in many different ways when we fight to change things that are out of our control. This I learnt when I dive deep.”
“When I feel the pressure getting bigger on my lungs, on my chest, sometimes I want to resist and protect and go against this pressure – but it won’t work and I will fail because the pressure and the water will always be stronger than me. The only way I can go deeper is to stop fighting and let go. I accept and be comfortable with all the pressure taking my body. Likewise, in life it’s good to stop and think whether a problem is something that I can do about? If I have to accept it, let me conserve my energy and accept that things are as they are. But if this is something I can change, let me put all my energy into it.”
The biggest lesson is humility. “When you’re diving, you’re very small in the middle of the big ocean. Even when you break world records, you still feel humbled because it’s so vast. In nature and in water, you are nothing. When I’m underwater, I really feel very small so this is very important.”
“I always say that the perfect dive is this idea of harmony. That means interdependence between a lot of different things that are involved and respecting that interdependence knowing that we are all part of a big picture.”
Learn more about Guillaume Nery, his work and his partnership with his official watch sponsor Panerai at the official Panerai website here.