A Discussion with James Nestor Author of Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves

James Nestor is a San Francisco-based author who just recently published a book titled “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves.” In it, he describes attending a freediving competition in Greece, learning how to free dive from Eric Pinon of Performance Freediving International and Ted Harty of Immersion Freediving, discovers how humans’ heartbeats slow when immersing their faces in water (the mammalian dive reflex or has he calls it, the “Master Switch”), swims with sperm whales and dives deep into the ocean in a custom-built submersible.

Nestor was kind enough to take time out of his hectic schedule promoting the book to answer some questions from DeeperBlue.com.

Tell us about yourself, how did you get into Freediving in the first place? Have you gone freediving since you finished the book? If so, where and when?

The first time I ever saw anyone freedive was at the AIDA world championship in Kalamata, Greece, 2011. I was sent there to cover the event for Outside magazine. It absolutely blew my mind. I had no idea the human body was capable of diving to such depths, for so long. The competitors seemed amphibious, half-fish. Even stranger, freediving seemed natural. Like these people were really meant to be down deep in the ocean. Like all humans were.

At the same time, the competition was also a pretty frightening spectacle. Many of the divers didn’t make it back to the surface in, shall we say, good health. Some had blood pouring out their noses, others had blacked out and had to be dragged to the surface. One guy resurfaced in cardiac arrest for a few minutes before he was resuscitated. Really frightening stuff.

Nonetheless, there was something about freediving that really mystified me. To go where few other people have gone, see things few others have seen. I wanted to learn more. I was lucky enough to meet a few more philosophical freedivers who approached diving as more as an underwater yoga, a meditation. It’s those folks — Hanli Prinsloo, Fred Buyle, and many others — the recreational freedivers who were using diving to explore the ocean, and in some cases, to conduct marine research, that really sparked my interest. They were the impetus to writing the book.

How weird was it for you to discover the “Master Switch” for yourself?

My biggest hangup with freediving was mental. For the first few months after Kalamata, every time I tried to dive I kept having flashbacks of those competitive divers who didn’t make it. I know that sounds whiney and melodramatic, but that’s what happened. It took me many months (and much training) to get past those recurring visions and to view freediving in a more holistic light. That whole underwater yoga thing. Once I figure it out, the ocean seemed to open up. I was hooked. I’ve been diving more now since I finished the book than I had while I was researching. This wasn’t just some oddball hobby I chose to write about; it was and will continue to be a big part of my life.

You describe in great detail in the book about your experiences at the World Championships in Kalamata. What other memories/anecdotes of your experience there didn’t make it into the book?

Well, that chapter is pretty long, so most of what I experienced is in the book! I was lucky enough to get a few days off of the reporting on the competition and hit the beach with some of the divers. We went surfing, explored some ancient Greek ruins, ate delicious food, drank a bunch of wine. It was great to meet competitive divers out of the context of a competition. The whole competition stuff seemed to offer a pretty myopic view of freediving, one driven mostly by numbers, egos, beating the next guy, that kind of thing. There’s enough of that stuff on land. It’s nice to leave that all behind when you enter the ocean.

The AIDA Team Freediving World Championships are taking place in Sardinia, Italy this coming September. What would you hope to see?

After watching Herbert Nitsch’s failed attempt to dive to -800 feet in 2012, I swore off reporting on any more competitions. That side of freediving doesn’t hold much for me anymore. I mean, I’m all for people doing what they want with their bodies; I just don’t have much of an interest in seeing it. I’ll stick with diving with dolphins, whales, seals, and other people. It’s the more yogic, meditative, and, I guess “spiritual” side of freediving that holds so much allure. And, diving for abalone is pretty fun as well.

What other memories/andecdotes of your experiences diving with sperm whales didn’t make it into the book?

I discovered, rather quickly, how absolutely hard and miserable it is to research marine mammals! Part of that misery is included in the book, but I didn’t want to harp on and on about it. It’s funny, you see a documentary of people swimming with dolphins or whales or whatever and you think, “Damn, I want to do that.” What you don’t realize, at least what I didn’t realize, is that for every minute you’re having some mind-blowing encounter with a whale, you’re spending about 100 hours in abject misery on a shadeless boat, eating stale bread, sunburned, and sick to your stomach. But that one minute is worth it. It’s life-defining.

You wrote about an awkward visit to the few remaining Japanese Ama freedivers. Have you been back to see them since you finished the book? Given what you now know about freediving, are there any new questions you’d want to ask them?

It’s hard to find anyone on the planet today who isn’t happy to have their picture taken, to be interviewed, to be the center of attention. Everyone’s favorite subject is him or herself. But not the Ama. These women were crabby, cold, and distant. It was actually refreshing. They didn’t care that I was writing a book and wanted to profile them. They had work to do; they wanted to go dive!

By the second day they softened up a bit and allowed me to come along and their morning rounds. It’s a humbling thing to watch a 70-year-old woman freedive down to the seafloor for a minute and yank prickly urchin from beneath rocks. And do this for three hours. The Ama are very different than the quaint, demure Japanese women promoted here in the West. They are the most bad-ass gang of grandmas the world has or will ever see. My heroes.

You write about learning that humans have an innate sense of direction that isn’t used much in our modern era. What other anecdotes about magnetoreception didn’t make it into the book?

Bees use it, birds use it, sharks use it. So do we. We just don’t get too much of an opportunity nowadays. You think about Polynesian sailors, how they were able to sail for months across the open ocean and always make it back home. They could only use the sun and the stars some of the time. Some days were cloudy; other days it rained. Yet these guys always made it to their destination.

And there’s the Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal tribe. Guugu don’t have words for “right” and “left” but they have words for “north” and “south.” The only way they could use their language is if they knew their exact location at all times. That’s a tough thing to do indoors or at night. But the Guugu did it all the time. Dozens of other cultures also used and continue to use cardinal directions in their languages. For thousands of years, this was the norm.

Recently, some scientists in New York found a receptor that they believe might be responsible for giving humans magnetoreceptive sense. This is an emerging science. I think we’ll know more in a couple years. It’s exciting.

The fact is, even if we do find we can sense the subtle energy in the Earth’s magnetic field, most of us probably won’t need it. Modern society is built on grids, with easily recognizable landmarks. It’s easy to know where we are at all time. When you don’t, you get our your phone. Our magnetoreceptive sense is latent and will probably become dormant very soon (if it hasn’t already) — just like our ability to hold our breath and dive deep to gather food from the seafloor.

What do you think of Fabien Cousteau’s recently completed Mission 31? You write about learning that having the body pressurized to 36 psi for an extended period can cause “mild delirium.” How whacked out do you think Cousteau and his colleagues were?

Anything to save Aquarius, to heighten the public’s awareness of the ocean and the research being conducted down there, is great. I’m really happy he did it. As far as the constant nitrogen narcosis, I can’t imagine how else Fabien could have survived in that cold, wet, metal box — eating wet Oreos and freeze-dried crap for a month — if he wasn’t whacked out on laughing gas!

You traveled a lot in the name of research for this book — Reunion, the Florida Keys, South Africa, Sri Lanka, etc. Is there any place you went to that didn’t make it into the book? Why did you go there? And of the places you visited, which was your favorite to dive at?

Traveling just piques my interest for more travel. Every trip abroad I realize how little of the rest of the world I’ve seen, how I’m living in this little bubble of San Francisco, how there are all these other amazing places to discover on the globe, all the other oceans to surf or dive into. I have no favorite spots — I know that sounds like a cop out, but, really, each destination is interesting in it’s own way . . . except for the soul desert hole of the Dubai airport. That place blows. I’d be content never seeing it again.

Having said all that, Oman is on the top of the list now. I hear they have pretty good surf and the diving is spectacular. Culturally, it’s totally foreign to me, which is another attraction. To visit a county without a KFC, and meet people who have never heard of twerking — that’s all a big plus.

What’s next for you? Any other book projects on the horizon?

I’m currently revising the manuscript for foreign publication in China, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and others. There are a couple things the fact checker and I missed working under our insane and inhuman deadline. Most people won’t notice these little things, but I see them, and they drive me nuts. It’s sad — you get everything 99.9 percent right and all you can see at the end of it is that .01 percent that isn’t! All books have these issues; that’s how it works in this business. Still, no excuses. My focus now is to make the new e-book edition (which should be out in a couple weeks) and future editions 100 percent right. Meanwhile, I’m on book tour for the next couple months and then working on some magazine pieces . . . about, you guessed it, the ocean.

But my goal this year is go on a freediving expedition to some exotic, foreign country without a notebook and pen in my hand, just to be there, to be present in that experience without any other distractions. Don’t get me wrong — having my work life coalesce so closely with my personal interests is a dream, and I absolutely love my job. But sometimes it’s great to just have adventures for the sake of it. Eveyone seems to be determined to record every experience now — on social media, with cameras, blogs, and whatever. I’m certainly guilty of that! But I think it’s healthy once in a while to just turn it all off.

And that’s yet again another attraction to freediving: there’s zero cellphone reception when you’re in the water.

Many thanks again to James Nestor for talking to DeeperBlue.com. To purchase “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves,” click here for Amazon.com or check out your local bookstore.

Have you read the book? Agree or disagree with what he says in the above answers? Discuss below or in the DeeperBlue.com Forums.

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  • Fantastic read, great science, good humour, glad there are other people out there with the same mindset to freediving:)