The name Herbert Nitsch might not be a global household name, but this extraordinary man will motivate you, he will inspire you, and he will make you believe you can do anything. Herbert is an Austrian-born free diver, now retired from competitive diving. He holds 33 official world records across every freediving discipline, and also holds a record in the traditional Greek discipline of Skandalopetra.
No person on earth has dived deeper than Herbert Nitsch, and he can hold his breath for more than nine minutes. His world record dive 253.2 metres (831 feet) down into the depths of the ocean still stands. This record surpassed his previous world record and showed just how far the human body could be pushed.
During the deepest dive record-setting attempt, well after reaching his planned depth, Herbert temporarily fell asleep due to nitrogen narcosis and missed the planned one-minute decompression stop on the same breath-hold. At the surface, he was alert and asked for a mask to return underwater to recompress on pure oxygen, which is a standard after-dive safety feature to further off-gas. But it was too late.
While decompressing underwater, Herbert felt the onset of decompression sickness. He incurred severe Type 2 DCS which would eventually result in multiple brain-strokes. He arrived comatose at the hyperbaric chamber, and his future did not look good. However, as you will find out in this exclusive interview, nothing can keep a good man down, or in Herbert’s case, up.
Outer Edge caught up with Herbert to ask a few questions about his sporting career as a competitive free diver, and about his role as Ocean Advocacy Advisory Board member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. It’s important to note that Herbert is not only a free diver and advocate of cleaner oceans but also a lecturer, a pilot and most of all an innovative and extraordinary free-thinker. His ground-breaking ideas completely reinvented the sport of free diving, and his creations and philosophies are now used as a standard in the competitive sport. Over the years Herbert has also skippered additional large monohulls and catamarans. The most recent boat he skippered was an experimental 64-footer zero-emission solar powered catamaran.
Describe what it was like, the moment you realised freediving was what your life had been missing?
Since I was a kid, I was always into water sports. I loved windsurfing, sailing, water skiing, swimming, snorkelling, and later also yachting. I discovered freediving by chance when the airline lost my luggage including all my scuba-gear during a dive-trip. I was forced to “snorkel,” and when a friend of mine wondered how deep I could dive near the end of the trip, it turned out that I was close to the Austrian freediving record. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Where is your favourite dive spot on the planet?
That depends on the kind of freediving I do.
For fun, I love to play around in waters with marine life, shipwrecks or caves. Palau and French Polynesia are good for wildlife underwater. Some areas in Micronesia have great wrecks, and the Cenotes in Mexico have magnificent caves.
For competitive freediving, one of the best spots is Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island in the Bahamas. It is a natural sinkhole of some 200+ metres deep, right off the beach.
For No Limit freediving, which falls outside of competitions, Santorini in Greece is great, as it has very deep waters right off the island. No Limit freediving is the deepest and most extreme form of freediving. It was celebrated in Luc Besson’s 1989 movie “The Big Blue,” depicting rivals Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca (named Molinari in the film). No Limit uses a weighted sled suspended on a dive rope to descent, and a buoyancy device to ascent.
What was the most amazing thing you have seen when freediving?
Any encounter with marine life is magic whether it is freediving with manta rays or with playful dolphins or being in the midst of a school of barracuda, sardines, or tuna. But also, small clownfish peeking out of sea-anemones are great to observe.
Yet the most amazing thing I ever saw was during a night-training-dive at a competition in Egypt. I love training at night, as it is usually peaceful and without distractions, and it simulates the darkness at depth. In training and during competitions, I usually dive with my eyes closed. I open them when getting near the bottom plate (an acoustic alarm on my depth gauge indicates this). And this time when I was opening my eyes, I saw a bright green ball of light dancing below me.
When I looked up, I saw small green stars everywhere. I thought I had a serious case of nitrogen narcosis and went quickly back to the surface. Once there, I looked back down and realised that fluorescent plankton was all around me, and a lot of it was gathered around the bottom plate. The movement of the buoy at the surface made the plate move up and down, which made the green plankton seem to boogie.
What was your scariest moment freediving?
I no longer spearfish, but when I did, I always went out with the local “spearos” (spearfishermen). During one adventure in Palau, I had just shot a fish, when out of nowhere a massive bullshark appeared. I guess he did not like a thief in his pantry. Instead of going for the fish, he came straight at me from below.
Not knowing any better, I aimed with my feet for his nose. I got that right, but the impact was so strong, that I was lifted out of the water. The shark kept circling me but left me alone.
When I got picked up a little later by the locals, I told them the exciting story. They just shrugged their shoulders, laughed, and told me that shark-encounters are part of spearfishing and that some of their friends had some scars and missing fingers as a result. It was no big deal for them.
What is the one thing that drove you deeper in competition freediving?
The only drive I ever had in going deeper and deeper was to explore the boundaries of my own limit. I enjoy nothing more than to explore how far and how deep I can go. In this pursuit, I discovered how human physiology and psychology work in union and learned how to interpret and influence them.
“Each time I think I’ve reached a limit … there is a door … it opens … and the limit is gone.”
During competitive freediving what is the key to a successful deep dive?
To know that “power is in calmness.” In other words, the more relaxed and calm you are, the more successful your dive will be.
Breathing properly while freediving is crucial for your safety and of course, enjoyment. There are a few different ways to breathe before a free dive and many for after the dive as well. There is also a specific way to take your last breath before each dive. Oxygen is bonded to haemoglobin in our blood and stored in the myoglobin in our muscles and is sourced from the air in our lungs. Breathing is both an automatic and autonomic thing for us. Typically, we breathe automatically, like when we sleep, the body just breathes. However, our breathing can also be autonomic, which means we can over power the automatic controls and breathe manually. This is especially purposeful when it comes to free diving. Training your body to breathe in the right way for the type of activity you are involved in, takes a lot of work.
Herbert, what is the technique you use for breathing during free dive, and how did you learn the technique?
I use controlled hyperventilation, followed by packing (buccal pumping) prior to a competition dive. I hardly do this when I freedive recreationally.
Packing is using your epiglottis as a piston to press more air into your lungs. You’ll need this extra air for equalizing your sinuses and middle ear cavities during your descent.
Hyperventilation gets rid of excess CO2 and lessens the urge to breathe, which in turn results in a more relaxed dive for me. And being relaxed consumes less oxygen.
Interestingly enough, the urge to breathe is not triggered by a lack of oxygen, but by an increase in carbon dioxide in your system. Some claim that (controlled) hyperventilation increases the chance of a blackout, but I do not agree with this philosophy. I’ve only had a few blackouts early on in my career, and they were the result of being unfit (mainly due to partying the night before). Meanwhile “controlled hyperventilation” got re-branded as “purged breathing” and is now taught in freediving schools.
Before using your epiglottis as a piston and pack your lungs in buccal pumping, you have to train your lungs and diaphragm to be super flexible. Packing and flexibility training go hand in hand, otherwise, you risk serious injury from packing.
What was it like returning to the water for the first time after your 253.2 m (830.8 ft) No Limit world record, followed by decompression sickness? What were your fears? Did you have any? What physical attributes were different?
Going back to deep freediving was a rebirth to me.
In June of 2012, some fifteen minutes after I had completed my deepest No Limit dive, I incurred severe decompression sickness (DCS). This resulted in multiple strokes in the temporal lobes and cerebellum. These, in turn, made me a vegetable in a wheel chair for some months.
It took a lot of stubbornness to get me out of that wheelchair and putting my brain back in order. The hospital circus felt like a downward spiral, and my fear was that I would never get well. Therefore, against everyone’s wishes, I stopped all medication and left the hospital to take care of my own healing. That was the best decision of my life.
In the summer of 2014, I felt fit enough to test the waters, and I wanted to see how I would feel when freediving deep again. Within a few days, I was back to the depth of some of my latest world records. And still today, I feel no difference underwater compared to before the DCS. On land is another story, because I still have some balance and coordination issues at times. But slowly and surely that progresses too. But it takes soooooooo long!
Being a self-taught diver, what can you tell other self-taught divers that can help them achieve greater depths?
I am often asked this question. My answer is pretty standard: listen to everyone, learn from everyone, and then innovate to make your own way. Because, if you follow the way of others, you can only be as good as them.
There are some excellent freediving schools and a few good books written. My suggestion is to read various books by current and former champions and attend several different schools to get a broader perspective of techniques that are out there. Learn through self-discovery how to influence your bodily functions, and how to balance the intricate play between your body and mind.
Then apply your newfound knowledge and innovate to create your own methods and techniques that seem most promising to you. No matter if it is controversial, no matter if your way is frowned upon. Be ready to try and fail a few times (been there, done that!). Good luck & above all: enjoy!
For people who can only manage to hold their breath for a short amount of time, what is a tip you can offer for holding their breath for longer?
Probably the same tip you would get when asking an Olympian runner how you can complete a marathon within three hours. His answer will be: “training.” And above all: train smart.
My breath-hold training sounds easy but is actually very tough. It is also called “couch training,” and it guarantees any novice to double or triple their breath-hold time within a week. This dry training is literally done on the couch in front of the TV and consists of a series of breath-holds on “exhale” for 60-90 minutes.
You need a stop-watch (on the phone) to keep track of your time. The time you hold your breath on exhale should be of the same duration as the time you breathe in-between breath-holds. It becomes harder and harder. Do this for a week, and you see amazing results.
Besides the couch-training it helps if you remain top-fit with flexibility, muscle and endurance training.
For some people, being underwater poses some fears. It can make it extremely difficult to dive when the fear of being submerged takes over. Can you also offer any tips on holding your breath underwater compared to above water? What is the key to mentally preparing for the difference?
Practice makes perfect. Go slow, one step at a time.
If you are afraid to hold your breath underwater, put on a mask and snorkel first until you are comfortable breathing while floating on the water.
When you feel OK, do some breath holds, then do the same without a snorkel, and later without a mask, so the water covers your face.
The next step is to put the mask and snorkel back on and try to descent for one or two meters (don’t forget to equalize to offset the pressure underwater – by blowing air against closed nostrils until you hear a light “pop” in your ears).
And little by little, go deeper and longer. And never forget: always freedive with a buddy who keeps an eye on you and vice-versa.
You brought a lot of amazing ideas and inventions to the sport, what was your favourite idea/invention that has stayed in the sport?
My better known and most used freediving-invention is the neckweight (a weight of led-pallets in an innertube wrapped around the neck, in lieu of a standard weight belt).
I concocted this contraption the night before one of my world records in dynamic freediving (horizontal distance freediving in a pool). I had already introduced the mono-fin to the freediving scene, as more efficient propulsion compared to bi-fins. I was laughed at from all sides until I set a few world records with it.
Well, with the neckweight I got, even more, laughs from the “establishment.” To me, it was logical to offset the downward drag of the legs during a horizontal freedive by moving the weight further towards the buoyant upper body. And it worked splendidly. Even during deep freediving in the ocean, the neckweight gives a better weight and balance distribution. I don’t know of any competition freediver now that doesn’t use one. And they all use monofins too.
But my favourite invention is the EQUEX (“equalization extension tool,” named by AIDA president Bill Stromberg). A.k.a. two oversized plastic coke bottles glued back-to-back with a small hose on top and an opening at the bottom. I only use it for No Limit freediving, and I’m the only freediver using it.
One of the main challenges is being able to equalize deep enough, hence the EQUEX. Without an EQUEX you can only get air out of your lungs with special techniques to a certain depth. However, one handicap without these techniques is that there’s always some air that remains in your lungs at depth, that you can’t get out due to the extreme pressure. Another handicap is that you can’t equalize fast enough with the speed the sled needs to descend.
The EQUEX allows you to expel most of the air from your lungs in shallow waters (where there is less pressure) so you have more air to equalize deeper. During a No Limit dive, I pack my lungs to the fullest on the surface, then go down with the sled to 20 metres, stop for almost a minute, and exhale all the air I can into the coke bottle (through the hose, while pushing water out of its bottom).
I use reverse-packing to empty my lungs to the maximum. And on my way down I use this air (sip by sip) to equalize several times a second.
(Note: due to the water pressure at 20 metres, air reduces such in volume that I can expel most of the air from my lungs into the coke bottles).
Because Herbert always believed that the traditional No Limit sleds (with one tank and one lift bag) were very unsafe, he introduced the double lift-bag, out-of-water counter weight system, electric counterweight, multi-engine electric winch, and various advanced No Limit sleds with multiple safety, back-up and override systems.
During the development of the advanced hi-tech sleds for the No Limit discipline, what were the key challenges you faced?
Safety and security were the biggest challenges. The deeper you go; the more things have to be considered that can go wrong. There were no electronics onboard, yet the sled was high-tech because every system had a backup system. And some backup systems also had backup systems. Plus, you need a very well-trained team of which each individual knows his role and responsibilities thoroughly.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, Herbert is an Ocean Advocacy Advisory Board member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He explains what his role entails.
Sea Shepherd is an international non-profit marine wildlife conservation organization. Their mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.
They use innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas. They work together with local and national governments and have ongoing campaigns worldwide with their 14 ships, and many volunteers.
I have witnessed firsthand the ongoing (plastic) pollution and overfishing of our oceans and believe that creating awareness is essential. As an advisory board member of Sea Shepherd, I spread the word of conversation through the lectures I give, and the projects I participate in around the world.
Since your retirement from competitive diving, how often do you dive these days?
I go on long extended trips to exotic locations for 4-6 weeks at a time throughout the year. During those escapades, I freedive daily.
What is the best tip that anyone ever gave you?
Sometimes advice is to be ignored, and sometimes it should be taken to heart. French freediving legend Claude Chapuis gave me two tips during my very first international competition when he took me under his wing during training. With the first tip he missed the mark, and with the second one, he was spot on.
The first tip he gave me was to never hyperventilate prior to a dive. I have ignored his advice throughout my freediving career.
But Claude’s second tip was the golden one: “Slow down!” Freediving is all about using energy and oxygen in the most efficient way. And instead of speeding to the finish line, you have to take your time, and do everything relaxed and in slow motion.
If you would like to know more about Herbert Nitsch, you can visit his website below.
To read this article (Page 12) and more, get your free download of Outer Edge Magazine right HERE!