March 17, 2015
Having suffered from severe decompression sickness following his latest world record of 253.2 meters (830.8 feet), and being told that he would be wheelchair bound for life, he took his healing into his own hands. Two years later and against all odds, Herbert is training and deep-freediving again.
How did you become a freediver? What started you off?
“It was a big coincidence. I went on a scuba diving safari in 1998 and the airline lost my luggage, including all my scuba gear. As I was stuck on this live-aboard without scuba gear, I went snorkelling every day, taking pictures with an underwater camera. I was so distracted by taking pictures that I sometimes forgot the time. My friend was interested to find out how deep I could go and when we checked it with a depth gauge, I went to 32 meters (105 feet). At that time that was two meters short of the Austrian record. It is a laughable depth at today’s competition standards.”
What does your training consist of? How do you get such mastery over your body and natural instincts?
“My training is controversial and very different to the training of other freedivers. Whereas they train more or less by freediving in the ocean, I train in stages, and mainly out of the water, because of living in a landlocked country. I do breath-hold training on the couch while watching a sitcom, endurance training on the bicycle, and strength training with weights at home. But when in training I am very disciplined.
In the early years I only trained two days in the water prior to a competition, simply because of time constraints with my job as an airline pilot. During the last few years I extended this to between two and three weeks of ocean training, but that is still very little compared to other freedivers who train throughout the year.”
During a dive, at what point do you really begin to feel the effects of the pressure and lack of oxygen on your body? And how does this manifest itself?
“You only feel the water pressure at depth indirectly. If you wear a regular mask (versus the fluid goggles I use for competitions), you need to equalize the mask by blowing air into it via your nose, otherwise your eyeballs eventually get sucked out. And you have to equalize your Eustachian tube and sinuses by putting air into these, otherwise your eardrums will burst.
On your body itself, you don’t feel any pressure at all. Not even at 253 m (830 ft). But your body does react to the pressure. For example, your lungs are compressing until they reach the size of oranges, and the mammalian dive reflex draws all the blood out of the extremities and concentrates it in your upper body and brain.
You don’t notice the lack of oxygen. The body actually reacts to an excess of carbon-dioxide, which in turn triggers a breathing response. You can overcome this very easily within a week of couch training, and therefore double your breath-hold time. Anybody can do this.”
What are the greatest dangers for a freediver? Have you ever felt as if you were no longer in control?
“The biggest danger is to dive alone. Because there are several things that can happen, you need a buddy to look after you and vice versa. Nevertheless, some things can happen, such as:
I’ve had all of the above. You never really feel that you are no longer in control, because you slowly but surely loose control and are not aware of it yourself.”
You hold 33 world records for freediving – is the plan to continue beating existing records, or to attempt new ones?
“When I first dived to 32 meters (105 feet) during my trip to Egypt, I realized this was very far from any world record. At that time Umberto Pelizzari had the record at 80 meters (262.5 feet). That is quite a big difference. So in the beginning I didn’t even think about world records, it was more that I was astonished at my own progression.
I think this is what keeps most freedivers motivated. They don’t focus so much on what their competitors are doing, but more on reaching, progressing and working on their own limits. My drive is to explore the unknown, crossing physiological boundaries and achieving goals that seem beyond my limits. Of course, it becomes even more interesting if you see that you can push yourself far beyond what you initially thought was impossible. My drive for going deeper is not getting another world record, but if by coincidence that limit comes close to a world record, of course that’s motivating too.”
What is the next challenge?
“After my deepest dive in June 2012, I had severe decompression sickness. In my case this resulted in multiple brain strokes. To become mentally and physically fit again became the biggest challenge of my life.
I lost the use of the left side of my body, and my memory was like that of a gold fish. The initial diagnosis was to be wheelchair-bound for life. I did not accept this diagnosis because I did not feel like learning how to live in a wheelchair. I wanted to walk and freedive again.
Following standard routines and treatments for “˜the average stroke victims’ wasn’t doing it for me. These stroke victims were not professional athletes, and did not have the same understanding of their own bodies that freedivers have. Because of the severe side effects, I had (secretly) already stopped taking all medicines. I further refused treatments I deemed unnecessary or openly questioned them. I surely was not an easy patient.
Against the advice of doctors, family and friends, I discharged myself from the long-term care facility after five months. Taking my health back into my own hands was the best decision of my life. By using the same approach as I had always done with freediving, and by believing that our bodies are indeed amazing, I let the wheelchair rust. Now, over two years later I am fit and deep-freediving again.
As for my next challenges, I am designing an ocean going eco-boat to live on for most of the year. And I am writing my autobiography and a series of freediving books. While I’ll never stop freediving, I have not decided yet if it is worthwhile to make another record attempt.”
You are on the advisory board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, can you tell us a little bit about its work and how you help them?
“Established in 1977, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) is an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization. Its 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. Sea Shepherd uses innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, to document, and to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas. By safeguarding the biodiversity of our delicately balanced ocean ecosystems, Sea Shepherd works to ensure their survival for future generations.
I help them by spreading the word about Sea Shepherd and its projects during the lectures I give around the globe, and in some of the video productions I make. I also participate in events or operations where Sea Shepherd is active.”
What are the greatest issues facing the oceans today?
“I became aware of all the overfishing and pollution when I saw the amount of trash under the surface, and hardly any fish. Humans treat the oceans like a big trash can. Out of sight, out of mind.
In the Mediterranean Sea for example, there are hardly any fish left. And in the Philippines, where I’ve completed at least one thousand dives, I’ve seen only one shark. Almost everywhere I freedive, I see plastic trash and plastic particles, as well as a lot of abandoned fishing nets.
Since late 2013 I’ve been on the advisory board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. My motivation is to support them and to defend the rights of the ocean. If we keep on treating it the way we are now, the ocean is going to die.”
With your freediving experience and breath holding capabilities, does it allow you to get much closer to marine life?
“When fun freediving, it’s magical to interact with marine creatures. Scuba divers are not so mobile due to their equipment and make much more noise, meaning they miss out on a lot of marine life. Freedivers can also spend a lot more time underwater in a day compared to scuba divers. While a scuba diver can stay underwater for about 45 minutes at limited maximum depths, a freediver can keep diving the whole day with short intervals at the surface. When freediving over a beautiful coral formation, or swimming in the midst of a tuna vortex, I feel like a kid in a candy store.”
What are your favourite dive sites around the world?
“For fun freediving I enjoy Palau and French Polynesia because of their clear waters and abundance of marine life. For competition freediving, Greece is wonderful, and I also enjoy the Dean’s Blue Hole in Long Island, Bahamas.”
Header Image © herbertnitsch.com
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Written by Tremayne Carew Pole