Words by Jack Franks

Watching The Deepest Breath is hard work.

It’s an experience I can only compare to 2017’s Free Solo, which left me clinging to my sofa and missing several fingernails upon the rolling of credits.

Netflix’s new documentary centering on the terrifying, adrenaline-drenched extreme sport of freediving will make us mere mortals value oxygen even more. 

Following the journey of Alessia Zecchini, an Italian diver aiming to conquer the world of the sport, and Irish safety diver, Stephen Keenan, the story blends scenes of genuine terror, claustrophobia and heartbreak, punctuated by an overarching feeling of awe and admiration.

The keyword you hear throughout the film’s one-hour and forty-six-minute run time is “limits.

How far can the limits be pushed before the lights go out? 

At its core, it’s a story of ego, the quest to be the best at whatever cost.

I regularly found myself gasping for extra air throughout the constant stream of deep dive sequences that punctuate The Deepest Breath – despite their pitch-black color palettes – and I was comfortably above sea level.

In extreme sports, free diving secures a place at the top table. Life-threatening blackouts are as common as touchdowns in the NFL and as frequent as three-pointers in the NBA. Those moments are a 50/50 toss-up. With an adept and experienced safety team, divers can avoid meandering into the light. 

Unsurprisingly, athletes who dare to tread in such risk-filled waters are driven beyond comprehension, fuelled by danger, and determined to stop at nothing – even the potential of death – to break world records and attempt feats that defy the physical limitations of the human body.

The film tracks the lives of its two protagonists – Zechinni and Keenan – until their paths collide at Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island in the Bahamas.

Vertical Blue, described as the “Wimbledon of free diving” where only the finest receive an invite, provides the backdrop for the birth of a relationship that would end in tragedy.

It’s simple. The most resounding dive wins.

After three blackouts in her early attempts, doubts about Zecchini’s ability to perform under pressure were clear. However, that’s where Keenan entered the frame, ultimately training the Italian and igniting a sparkling chemistry between two souls bonded by a love of the ocean.

Hanako Hirose’s world record dive of 103 meters – accomplished with unerring ease – lit the fuel for Zecchini to fight back immediately, silencing her critics and proving she was the one to beat. There were clear worries, prompting Keenan to spring into action.

When she finally emerged, her father – a prominent feature throughout – declared she was no longer “swallowed by the darkness” upon reaching the surface.

She had become the deepest woman in the world.

But that wasn’t enough. Keenan would train Zecchini – a period where their relationship blossomed – ahead of a dive to eclipse all that came before.

The Dahab Blue Hole Egypt – a place which has taken more lives than Mount Everest.has – the nickname ‘The Diver’s Cemetery.’ No surprise. The death toll is estimated to be close to 200.

At 56 meters, divers encounter a cathedral-esque arch, a segment of Zecchini’s attempt where events take a disastrous turn.

Despite expecting the inevitably morbid conclusion, it’s impossible not to hold your breath and feel your heart rate creep up. The tension is palpable.

As the realization dawns upon those supporting and filming the diving attempt, panic sets in, the screen turns black, and those without prior knowledge of the incident fully anticipate both divers are lost.

Then, the face of Zecchini, aged and very much alive, is front and center, dominating the lens. Her eyes are submerged with devastation and tinged with a puddle of guilt.

Hats off to Director Laura McGann, who plants a red herring in the doc’s first sequence by showcasing Zecchini emerging from a dive with a death-like exterior. The scene cuts to black, and we only hear her voice for most of the runtime.

She survived, but only because Keeney gave his own life to save hers. It’s impossible to prevent a tidal wave of remorse from washing over you when the rug gets pulled under your feet so swiftly.

I miss him, but I am much consoled by how he lived” is my standout quote from the piece, spoken by Keeney’s father. 

Since Keeney’s passing in 2017, she has set 23 records in the pool and sea, dedicating each to his memory.

Despite the high stakes, freediving continues to grow in popularity, lending itself to a society increasingly obsessed with meditation and mindfulness cultures.

The Deepest Breath will elevate its status more, bringing its popularity closer to the surface.

I’m pretty happy on dry land.

What is freediving?

Freediving is the act of diving underwater with no assistance, no air tanks, flotation devices or outside help. Divers rely solely on one thing; their lung capacity. It’s a battle between the ocean and the diver’s desire to push their body to the limits, an ancient practice used for thousands of years.

What was once primarily used for fishing, hunting, and gathering in coastal communities has expanded into a popular recreational activity and competitive sport. The more casual freed divers choose to explore reefs, underwater caves and observe marine life, undergoing a micro-mediation with each journey. Then some seek to compete as divers and plunge to unfathomable depths, well beyond the light of day and surrounded by a soundtrack of silence and isolation.

Man and woman freediving

There are several disciplines within freediving, each with its rules and objectives. These include static apnea – holding your breath while floating face-down on the surface – dynamic apnea – swimming horizontally underwater on a single breath – and depth apnea – descending to various depths underwater.

Freediving is not for the faint-hearted and requires proper training and safety protocols to avoid the risks associated with breath-holding, such as blackout and hypoxia. However, with the proper techniques and knowledge, freediving can offer a unique and captivating way to connect with the ocean and its inhabitants.

When did freediving become a sport?

In 1949, a fascinating chapter in the history of freediving unfolded when Raimondo Bucher, an adventurous Hungarian-born Italian fighter pilot and passionate spear fisherman, decided to pioneer the modern sport. Determined to push the limits of human capability, he boldly declared that he would dive to 30 meters in a single breath.

With rock as his trusty ballast, Bucher embarked on his ambitious journey just off the coast of Naples. As he descended into the depths, a surface-supported diver eagerly awaited his remarkable feat. True to his word, Bucher completed the dive and surfaced with a parchment, elegantly encased in a cylinder, as proof of his incredible achievement.

Behind the scenes, a lavish bet of 50,000 lire had fueled Bucher’s determination. Waiting at the target depth was his fellow Italian diver, Ennio Falco, who was willing to stake it all on Bucher’s endeavor. As fate would have it, two years later, Falco broke Bucher’s record, continuing the legacy of thrilling competition and groundbreaking accomplishments in the mesmerizing world of freediving.

In the following decades, freediving gained more recognition and popularity as a sport. Organizations like the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) were founded in the early 1990s to establish safety standards, rules, and regulations for competitive freediving events.

Since then, freediving has evolved into a well-established sport with international competitions, world records, and a growing community of enthusiasts.

How dangerous is freediving?

Without proper training and practice, freediving can be deadly. The risks associated with freediving primarily stem from the potential for hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and hyperventilation, which can lead to shallow water blackout and loss of consciousness. D divers may push their limits too far without adequate training and understanding of breath-holding techniques, leading to life-threatening situations.

Despite this, competitive freediving boasts a shockingly low death rate due to its stricter regulations, medical procedures and highly skilled divers. According to the Australian Freediving Association, in over 100,000 competitions and millions of training dives, ‘nobody had ever died from hypoxic blackout when basic safety protocols had been followed.’ Only once has life been claimed during a competitive freediving disciple; Nicholas Mevoli suffered pulmonary edema while attempting to set an American record for 72 meters on a single inhalation in November 2013.

It’s a different story regarding recreational freediving, with the numbers pointing towards a more dangerous reality. According to the 2019 DAN Annual Diving Report, between 2004 and 2017, there were at least 955 breath-holding diving incidents, which they had gathered from public media, breath-holding diving associations, DAN’s Diving Incident Reporting System, and also reports from individuals.

These incidents had a 73% fatality rate, averaging at about 51 fatalities per year, which means that recreational freediving has one death in 500 times. However, the AFA disputed the data, citing that ‘most deaths which are called ‘freediving’ deaths are spearfisherman who dive alone.’ Either way, recreational divers seem 100 times more likely to encounter life-threatening issues than those treating the sport as a competitive profession.

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