It happens to me almost every time i freedive. Whether it’s in a pool or in a lake or a sea, there usually is one moment where i lose myself in a moment of awe, of marvel, of wonder. I hesitate to use the word ‘wonder’, since my father was a philosopher and therefore i know the magnitude of the word. Wonder is the beginning of philosophy, the ‘that’ of an experience, which comes before the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. Wonder is his word, his world, and i’m not a philosopher, so i feel like a silly tourist in that world, using a word the depth of which i can’t begin to measure. But i’ve read and probably understood what my dad wrote about wonder, i’ve experienced it, and i recognise it in those moments underwater. I’d be more at ease using the word ‘magic’ -though it’d be better without the wand and alohamora associations. Some people would call it spiritual, or maybe god. But wonder seems most accurate, if slightly pretentious.
These are moments when life is more than you could have ever imagined, and you’re absorbed in them so completely that you become one with them. In those moments, there is no identity, no thoughts, just experience. All that there is is what you see, hear, smell or feel. For me, as a visual person, it’s often what i see. And in freediving, it’s often linked to what i feel, the weightlessness, the otherworldliness of it -the combination seems to enhance the wonder. I feel wonder all around, but more so while free diving, and after i sense it, i want to photograph it. I often fail, sometimes i get close enough for me to be happy with it, very rarely do i capture it. Wonder does not seem to lend itself easily to a medium. My father tried his whole life to describe it.
Last winter i had so many moments in the Bahamas where i had to almost pinch myself to make sure i wasn’t dreaming, that i was glad to have put a gopro on my big camera. Big massive moments like swimming with a tiger shark, or hearing whales sing, and tiny little wonders like sand falling through water, all shared with friends. I’m not sure what to do with some of the pictures, but the videos became pretty evident soon on that trip: i heard just the song. A song about wonder. I had tons of material, but luckily, the song is 10 and a half minutes long. I still shy away from that word a little, but to me, this comes close, at times, to the wonder of freediving.
Shot this image of our champ William Trubridge last month, but messed up a little, had the setting wrong and it underexposed quite a lot. Couldn’t really make the series work, until i finally made the switch to Lightroom, and what a joy that program is. It was still a very tricky edit, but i watched the image come alive today:
One of the peculiarities of life is how we often stumble into a profession we turn out to love -my underwater photography career, for example, was born out of the necessity to document my life as an extreme underwater adventurer. Who else could go with me on adventures like deepest superman pants, deepest apple eating, or my world record feet first -the hectofeet? So i started filming them and fell in love with the process and my daytime job was born.
But of course, deep in my heart and in the depth of night, i’m still an explorer of human potential, and since my previous world records have yet to be challenged, i decided to once again take myself to the limit of possibilities and grace with a new challenge. Now, after having lived with a ballerina for a while, it has been my opinion that the most extreme sport of all is ballet. So it occurred to me: “Why not combine the two?” Combine what i do with what is even more extreme? Make it most extremist hyperbolicst?
The challenge was born and the preparation began. I spent months at the Bolshoi, where my natural grace was tweaked and my innate fluidity enhanced. I studied and studied, even slept in the plie. They asked me to stick around and become the male lead, but i was not to be distracted: i was ready to put the ‘balls’ into ballerina.
Now the graceful nature of this project would prevent my from doing my own filming with a bulky camera. Luckily, the second camera person on my Hecto-feet dive, UK freediving champ Georgina Miller, was available to shoot, and she turned out to be quite talented, and managed to capture the full grace and depth of my latest adventure.
Hope you enjoy!
2 months ago today, Nick had his fatal accident at Vertical Blue. It has affected many people profoundly and you can still see ripples of the shockwave in the community. For me, i struggled with a whole complex mixture of emotions; i was there as a cameraman and i’d caught the hole thing on video and in pictures. So not only did i see what happened, i had to review it in order to make sure i had it. Then i had the duty to make it available to the people investigating the incident -these people are my friends, so i’d have to expose my friends to traumatic footage. And i was feeling somehow dirty for having kept filming. The professional part of me knows it was the right thing to do, that it was my job, that the footage will be used to learn from, and that i couldn’t have helped in any other way. But another part of me, the part that gets angry when i see people playing tourist around the scene of an accident, was a little disgusted. You pay your respect by turning away, and instead, i pointed my cameras right at it.
That, combined with the raw trauma of watching someone die surrounded by friends, made it very difficult to do anything with this footage. I knew it was important, and i knew i was not in a good place to judge what to do with it -i wanted to delete it, wash it off me, have nothing to do with it. So i trusted another person to be my moral compass in this matter, and asked William Trubridge what to do. He was my guide through that first couple of days and weeks, and he made sure the right people got access without the footage or Nick’s accident getting exploited. I had my first taste of a bit of a media frenzy, and thanks to Will’s clear guidance, it wasn’t as beastly as i’d feared. As a matter of fact, most contacts were quite understanding in my refusal to share the footage.
But then there was a mountain of other material, 7 days of competition before the accident. Normally i’d do something with that in the week after an event. Usually, i have a vague idea that sort of takes form as i’m working with the material, much in the same way i shoot. But this time, i had nothing but a heart full of grief and a head full of doubts. I kept seeing my friend fading away, i kept wondering if i’d done the right thing, if there had been anything else i could have done. I was very far from being able to create anything. Then a couple of weeks later, on a trip through Belgium on the way to see my family in Holland, i hear a song. It often starts with a song, and this one, ‘Free’ by Rudimental, planted a seed. I made a note of it on my phone, and started listening to the song that night. I know my process, i have to obsess with a song for a bit, so i listened to it over and over again, till i knew what to do.
But then i had to do it, and i knew the video would have to end with Nick. And i didn’t want to. I wasn’t ready to do that yet, not ready to get so intense with his last diving pictures. So i took a lot of time making everything ready, preparing all the images and footage, doing the stuff around the edges, laying some of the groundwork. It wasn’t until i got back to the Bahamas that i had the time and found the peace to really work with it. A couple of dives in Dean’s Blue Hole re-affirmed to me that it was alright to celebrate freediving, celebrate this magical place. Yes Nick died here, but he didn’t die because of this place. Like my father said: “Water is innocent of the temptations that well up from it -it even washes away its own sins.” After that realization, it was just a matter of putting in the days of editing, and this date seemed like a natural point to aim for.
So this might be my most complex video to date, which is slightly ironic, since the thing Nick and i had been planning to do was a very simple one: him pushing an old shopping cart with used freediving material around underwater, making fun of him being ‘the freediving bum’. This video might be a bit too sombre for his tastes, i’m afraid.
It was indeed a beaut. It started with so much rain that it was actually dryer underneath the platform than above it
i’ve always been a sucker for rain on the surface of water
but as hard as it fell, so soon it disappeared, to be replaced by that delicious Bahamian sun
so that our Venezuelan champ Karla could finally meet the resident tarpons in the right conditions
and i finally met Sport Illustrated swimsuit model Alicia Hall, who was kind enough to play a little and make this photo with me
Happy new year, i hope 2014 brings you interesting and beautiful trips
Obviously, Nick was a much more talented freediver than i am, but when i say “I am Nicholas Mevoli”, i mean that Nick and i were similar in our approach to freediving. He had a passion for water, a joy for being in water, and a love for our freediving community, combined with a certain tenacity to go deeper, get results. Passion and drive often go hand in hand, and Nick and i both have let our egos dictate our dives at times. Forcing an equalization or riding our ears just to get to that damn plate, get that stupid tag. In retrospect, it’s never worth it, a dive tarnished by painful ears or bloody spit. It is always wiser to turn early. Wiser, and endlessly more frustrating. Those of us who knew Nick as a freediver knew his anger when he had to turn early, the shouting at himself afterwards. The charming, funny sunshine boy turned momentarily into a thundercloud. I saw it happen 3 times at Vertical Blue, and empathized. Twice he turned early, once he rode his ears, and i understood his frustration. At competitions it’s lovely to be there surrounded by friends, and it’s wonderful to dive in good conditions where everything is taken care off, but at a certain point, you expect yourself to perform, get it right, get a record.
That’s ego diving. Ideally, you dive till your body says ‘turn’, because you ran out of air to equalize or because you feel tension you can’t get rid off. You let your relaxation and shape of that day dictate your depth, and if that happens to be the bottom plate, that’s nice, if not, ah well, dive another day. But ego diving is different: depth is dictated by the plate. It’s stupid, of course -i’ve set 6 national depth records and none of them made any difference to my life whatsoever. A PB won’t make you a better person. The only thing this goal orientated diving does is put you at risk of injury; in my last 3 national record dives, i’ve squeezed myself, determined to get to the bottom. I got the record, yay, and also got some serious questions of ‘what the hell am i doing?’ while i’m spitting blood in my bathroom. I saw Nick going through the same thing, struggling with his ego.
You are Nicholas Mevoli
As a safety diver i’ve done dozens, if not hundreds of rescues since 2006. After the first couple of BO’s you relax into it -yes, they look horrible, but they always come around and they’re fine afterwards. They had a nice dream, usually. Black outs don’t bother me anymore. But what bothers me more and more the longer i do this, are squeezes. The first bad one i saw, where the athlete didn’t cough up specks of blood but had orange foam oozing from his mouth, worried me because it took him so long to recover. Even after he was breathing and somewhat conscious, it was still a good couple of minutes before he seemed to function independently. In the beginning i thought it was that combination of a squeeze and BO that was serious, but then i started seeing people who made their dive, were conscious, but seemingly not recovering, even after minutes on oxygen. That worried me, also because we had no protocol: how long do you need to recover after a squeeze? I saw people diving deep the next day after a squeeze. And the more i payed attention to it, the more i saw the signs: little coughs, rattling breaths, people spitting into their hands and then putting the hand underwater so not to show, ashen complexion still 10 minutes after a dive. It isn’t just an occasional problem, it is very prevalent, and the current attitude seems to be one that’s too cavalier “Oh, just take a day off.”
I think squeezes are more serious than that. Yes, maybe if you just do something stupid like looking up at the plate and have a little speck of clear blood in your spit, you might have a tracheal squeeze and maybe that’s no worse than a nose bleed. Maybe. But really, when you have rattling breath and you cough up a blob of mucus-y blood, don’t you think that requires more than a day off? Maybe also a different approach to your diving? Maybe your body is saying it’s not quite ready for this? After my last one, i stopped competing for a while, till i had adapted to depth. I’m still adapting. I’d love to compete again, but my ego is still probably gonna write checks my body can’t cash. And i see it all around me; there are no numbers on this, of course, but from informal conversations i’ve had with people it seems that almost 75% of competitors show, at some point, squeezes or squeeze-like symptoms.
So what can we do? Somebody suggested banning competitive freediving. I think he is an idiot. The problem is not competition, the problem is squeezes, and squeezes are an individual, attitude problem. It’s counter-productive to regulate it with rules: people will just try and hide it more. It’s a legal nightmare to have doctor’s tell you whether you’re fit to dive after a squeeze, or sign you off -what if the dive goes wrong, are they then responsible? In the end, it’s up to the athlete. The first line of safety is always the athlete themselves, not a counterweight or a doctor or a lanyard or a safety diver. The athletes themselves are the ones who should be educated and cultured into an environment where caution is more dominant than ego. Right now the attitude seems to be more pool based, summed up by the Australian motto “Harden the fuck up”. That attitude might work in the pool, but it is dangerous in depth, where the opposite applies: you should soften the fuck up. There should be no ego in the ocean, you should either melt into her or turn early -with ego comes conflict and a conflict with the ocean is one you will lose. You will burst an eardrum or you will squeeze.
On November 17th, we horribly awoke to the fact that this is not a minor problem: it is a deadly problem. Nick most likely died of a squeeze. A fit, young man, diving to a depth that is well within his normal range, wasn’t as relaxed as he should have been and instead of turning, let his ego take over. Most of us have been there, it could have happened to any one of us.
We are Nicholas Mevoli.
a fund is set up for Nicholas Mevoli. Visit http://www.gofundme.com/5f9cfo if you want to donate -money goes into rebuilding a church on Long Island where Nick was volunteering.
He might not have made this dive today, but on the way down Nic Mevoli was looking stylish and strong -for a freediving hobo.
This week it’s one in Dean’s Blue Hole, for i’ll be back there in a couple of days to cover Suunto Vertical Blue 2013. This is my mate Brian Pucella, champion spearfisher, freedive instructor, surfer, madman. The morning we took this picture was the day after a bit of a party, so there was a touch of hang-over to aid our breath hold. I figured we’d be lucky to go down to the ledge at around 15 meters, make a few shots, go back up, seeing the state we were in. But Brian’s a professional -or mad- and sat there for a long time, posing and giving me the opportunity to line things up -and get seriously out of breath.