Going deep with Umberto Pelizzari

Relaxed, good natured and open, Umberto Pelizzari doesn’t strike you immediately as a fierce competitor who 21 years ago set the world record for freediving down to 150m below the sea. A student of freediving legends Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca (whose friendship and rivalry inspired the film The Big Blue), Pelizzari says that freediving isn’t just a dive down into the sea, but into yourself.

Although Pelizzari has long since retired from professional competition, the 55 year old teacher and motivational speaker talked with us about why your ribcage doesn’t implode at 150m below the sea, swimming with sperm whales, and how breathing might be the key to surviving the Covid-19 pandemic. 

OPEN: So, freediving is just holding your breath, right?
UMBERTO PELIZZARI: Freediving actually consists of a number of different disciplines, each with its own technique and training. I specialized in depth, and even in that there are various ways to go down and come back up again. In The Big Blue you see Variable Weight No Limits, where you go down with a weighted sled and come back up with a balloon. That’s where I set the record for 150m.

150m under the sea? That’s incredible. How does it feel?
The day I set the record I was so focused on the competition that I didn’t feel much at all, just the satisfaction of having gotten there first. 150m was an important number, because it was Enzo Maiorca who hit 50m, Jacques Mayol who first hit 100m, and 150m was mine.

What does it do to you physically to go down that deep?
We’re made to live in our normal atmosphere, to walk upright, with our head on top, to breathe. Underwater it’s totally different. At 150m down you’ve got 16kg for every square centimetre of your body. That’s the pressure of 15 atmospheres. So you’ve got this extreme pressure on your body. Your eardrum has 15kg of pressure pushing in on it, and you have to compensate by using air from your lungs to push your eardrum back into its normal vertical position.

But at that point your lungs are tiny. Underwater, for every 10m you go down, the pressure increases by one atmosphere, which has an enormous impact on our lungs. Your lungs shrink down to 1/15th of their original volume. Taking air from such tiny lungs to compensate for the pressure on your eardrums is pretty tricky.

Wow! It hurts my ears to go down 3m, let alone 150m!
That’s not all of it. If there was just this reduction in lung volume, and nothing to compensate, our rib cage would implode. It would get crushed under the pressure of the water. But what our body does instead is called a “blood shift”. As with sea mammals like whales, seals and dolphins, your body’s response is to pull blood from the arms and legs, where we don’t have any vital organs, and push it into your chest. Blood is a liquid, and can’t be compressed, which means our rib cage doesn’t get crushed. So being underwater triggers these automatic physiological processes that just don’t exist in the normal atmosphere.

And your heart slows down, way down, beating at 10, 12, 15 beats a minute. Our body isn’t taking in oxygen, so our heart decides to distribute the existing oxygen as slowly as possible.

Can you control these processes?
No, not at all. But you need to train your body to survive in these conditions. If I don’t train for 10 years and one day I decide to go down to 150m I’ll be dead. The training program, which lasts about 10-12 months, is designed to get your body used to this situation.

You’ve been talking about training your body’s response to physical stress. But now we’ve got so many other stresses like the pandemic, the environmental crisis, and politics. Does your training help with that, too?
I was really fortunate to have Jacques Mayol as a teacher, because he was one of the first to introduce pranayama breathing techniques into freediving and focus training on not just the physical aspects, but the mental as well. Yoga teaches us that breathing is the best tool to help you reach states of relaxation, concentration, calm, control of your body and your reactions.

Learning to breathe like this can make the difference in sport, as well as help get us through a life full of the kinds of crises you mentioned, especially with coronavirus.

When you’re down at the bottom, do you see the underwater world around you? Or are you only in your head? There’s a French journalist who said, “Scuba divers go down to look around. Freedivers go down to look inside.” And this is the difference. When you scuba dive you can take pictures to show off to your friends. When you reach a certain level in freediving, and you’re completely relaxed, completely surrendered to your body, what you feel and see inside yourself can’t fit into a picture. It’s even hard to put into words.

But you don’t only go down for these intense experiences, right?
No, of course not, there are many different reasons for going in the water. I love spearfishing, and when I go down to fish I’m paying attention to everything around me, because I’ve got to bring home dinner for my friends. I’ve also swum with dolphins and whales. But freediving is a different experience altogether, and something totally personal.

Swimming with whales? What was that like?
It was really amazing. I’ve swum with humpback whales and sperm whales as well. You’re there in the middle of the sea and this giant submarine arrives and suddenly you realize you don’t count for much and the whale can do what it wants with you. That’s why the most important thing is to act as calmly as possible. If you don’t do anything to make the whale nervous, the whale will keep acting naturally.

Once when I was down with a friend in the middle of the sea, the lead sperm whale separated from the herd and came toward us and I could feel a vibration going through me. It was the whale scanning us, trying to understand what these two things were doing in the middle of the sea, to understand if we were a threat. And then the whale sent a signal back to the herd. If I’d been perceived as a threat, they’d have disappeared, but they didn’t. It’s wonderful to try to understand these laws of nature and insert yourself into the situation without creating chaos.

Act calmly, think about how your actions will affect others, and breathe. These sound like great lessons for us all. Thank you, Umberto.


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