If you’ve never heard of free diving, just imagine this. Launching yourself hundreds of meters into the sea wearing nothing more than a mask, a good dose of courage and a deep breath.
Spearfishers and pearl divers have been freediving for thousands of years. But a growing number of people are now doing it for the sport.
There are hundreds of competitions around the world where athletes test their limits and common sense by diving as deep as possible without diving equipment.
You may remember that our Bob Simon first gave us a glimpse into that world about eight years ago.
But now there is one man who dominates the sport. 34-year-old Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov. He is known within the diving community as “the machine” – the undisputed king of the deep.
Off the turquoise coast of Long Island in the Bahamas, see Dean’s Blue Hole. From above, it looks like an ink well. It’s 200 meters deep and is the perfect place for dozens of the world’s elite free divers to try and rewrite the history of the sport. This is the annual “Vertical Blue Competition”.
We went there to meet Alexey Molchanov.
To see him glide through the water is to glimpse something otherworldly. He looks part Golden Poseidon, part porpoise, kicking out of the sparkling blue water in the dark.
Molchanov can dive more than 39 floors while holding a breath for nearly five minutes.
Sharyn Alfonsi: It doesn’t seem like a good idea to dive so deep and hold your breath for so long.
Alexey Molchanov: Right. (LAUGH) For me, yes.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Is that so?
Alexey Molchanov: Right. I enjoy discovering new boundaries and pushing them further because I know I can do it. I know through all these years and thousands of hours of training and diving how well I can use my oxygen, how slowly I can use it and how efficient my technique is.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How does it feel?
Alexey Molchanov: It actually feels a lot like flying. I really like freedom. Just pure flying pleasure, like staying and not feeling the urge to breathe.
Sharyn Alfonsi: But you enjoy it.
Alexey Molchanov: Yes. Yes, without joy it does not work.
Our photographers circled beneath the surface as free divers tested itself in four disciplines. With or without fins. With or without the use of a rope to pull them down.
At the start of this year’s competition, Molchanov held the world record in three of the four disciplines and wanted to break all of them. We watched him prepare for his most ambitious dive attempt at 430 feet — more than the length of a football field.
As the judges watch, he takes his last breath. Looking like a goldfish desperate for water, he stuffs his lungs with air and then slides under the water’s surface, his cetacean monofin helps him fight his buoyancy.
At about 65 feet, he drops his arms at his sides and freefalls. His lungs are now a third of their size and he is starting to sink. He is attached to a diving line that can bring him back to safety.
Once he’s reached his designated depth, he’ll pick up a tag to prove he’s covered the entire distance.
He’s been underwater for almost two and a half minutes.
Then he starts the most dangerous part of the dive.
With his last reserves of air and his lungs now one-tenth their normal size, he transfers air between his mouth and sinuses, equalizing the pressure in his body, to prevent his ears from tearing and slowly moving toward the light.
A team of safety divers circles the road.
But that is not it. He then must prove he is alert – not disoriented by the crushing pressure of the water – by giving the OK sign within 20 seconds of surfacing and then presenting his tag.
Failure to do so in this order will result in the dive being disqualified.
Molchanov does it. Diving from 430 feet, for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, setting a new world record with a single breath.
Alexey Molchanov: When freediving during the dive it is very important to be zen, very important to be relaxed and not to think about the goal, how far or deep you want to go, because that will damage your state of mind, your current state where you have to stay to be very focused, very still and relaxed.
Sharyn Alfonsi: People consider freediving to be this very extreme sport. How dangerous is the sport of freediving?
Alexey Molchanov: The most dangerous side of freediving, I would say, if you go out to sea alone and freedive, it’s very dangerous. Because there is a risk of eclipse underwater.
Blackouts occur when divers push their limits too far,
And the oxygen reserves are running out. A fate that annually claims the lives of about 60 recreational free divers.
That’s something the competitive freediving world has worked hard to prevent by adding safety divers, underwater monitoring and doctors at every event.
Only one person has died in a match in the last 20 years.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Have you ever had a blackout?
Alexey Molchanov: I had. When I was a novice free diver I would be very stubborn and push it to the end. I wouldn’t listen to the signals my body is giving me. And now I’m much more aware of what’s going on.
Sharyn Alfonsi: When I was sitting outside watching your dives recently and I was looking at the competitors, a lot of them were gasping for breath. And you came out of the water, and you smiled.
Alexey Molchanov: I think that’s the essence of really deep diving and being able to make records. For example, it’s really hard to do those deep dives when you’re stressed and from the outside it looks like it’s very easy. But that is not it. Of course, by the time I’m done with my dive, it’s tough. My muscles are tired. They’re heavy, they…sometimes burn, muscles will burn. And I will feel that. But still I come up and train this positive mindset. So I like to do a few recovery breaths. And then… just this difference between a few seconds before and now, like when I got those few breaths, it’s so big… it’s just so much joy.
Alexey Molchanov’s famously easy-going temperament is how “the machine” earned its other nickname: “the golden retriever.”
Sharyn Alfonsi: What’s it like to fight against him?
Arnaud Jerald: For me it’s like a dream. He smiles or laughs all the time. All the while he enjoys life. And it’s beautiful.
Arnaud Jerald and Camilla Jaber are friends and competitors of Molchanov. Jaber holds a national record for Mexico and Jerald holds French records.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What makes him so good?
Camila Jaber: That’s a very good question.
Arnaud Jerald: I think experience.
Camila Jaber: He has a very sporty mentality. So this confidence in himself, in his training, in what he believes about growing the sport. He also encourages and encourages other athletes to get better.
Jerald, 25, is one of the few divers to break a Molchanov record.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you think you push each other?
Arnaud Jerald: Yes, we push each other – not too much because I’m less competitive than him. I’d rather have a more romantic one than Alexey.
Sharyn Alfonsi: He’s more competitive, you’re more French?
Arnaud Jerald: Exactly.
Only a Russian would think this is a good idea.
Last year Alexey Molchanov swam under a frozen quarry outside Moscow. Holes were cut in the ice in case he had to surface, but he held his breath for nearly three minutes and swam nearly 180 meters wide.
Last spring he stepped onto the ice in Siberia to swim. It was 14 degrees outside when he broke another world record: the deepest dive under ice with fins. On a single breath, Molchanov swam up to 262 feet deep in 37-degree water.
Sharyn Alfonsi: That doesn’t seem happy to me.
Alexey Molchanov: It was not. It certainly wasn’t as cheerful as here.
Sharyn Alfonsi: And does the cold put extra stress on your body?
Alexey Molchanov: Yes. It makes the face numb. And you just lose heat very quickly and it gives you a very short period of time where I could dive. And I should focus quickly.
Molchanov is ‘ready to dive’ on land. He does daily stretches and deep breathing exercises — something he calls “lung gymnastics” — to build mobility in the diaphragm, ribs and back.
Alexey Molchanov: I’ll just demonstrate. It’s inhale, (BREATHING) inhale fully, and then it’s relaxation. And then there’s this part in the neck and in the mouth that I… that I just grab and then I push it into the lungs.
Researchers who have studied Molchanov and the impact of freediving on his body estimate that he inhales two liters of air before diving.
It’s a technique he learned from his mother, Natalia Molchanova, who is considered the greatest free diver of all time. She entered the sport at the age of 40 after a successful swimming career in Russia.
Alexey Molchanov: She was my swimming coach. And I followed her training. We would go to the pool together. She would do her training, I would do my training. So this transition to freediving and me following her as a freediver coach was natural. She started to get like the best, very, very fast and yes, I was proud. I was very proud of her.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What did she teach you about the sport?
Alexey Molchanov: The most important thing she taught me about freediving is that I should enjoy it. It’s not about records. Numbers will come later.
Together they took on the freediving world and took command. Alexey set his first world record at 21.
At the age of 53, his mother Natalia had 42 world records and 24 gold medals.
In 2015, she was giving a free diving lesson off the coast of Spain when she disappeared. Her body was never found.
Sharyn Alfonsi: At that point, you kept on freediving. No one would blame you if you said, “You know what, I’m done.” Why did you continue?
Alexey Molchanov: I had the feeling that freediving is actually the best thing for me. It was the best therapy to be in the water.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Really?
Alexey Molchanov: Yes, because it just helped me to be at peace and just helped me live through it.
Molchanov seems most at peace underwater, hunting whales, not records, and on land with his new son and wife Elena, a former Olympic swimmer. The family is expanding the free diving schools his mother founded and provides hundreds of instructors in 20 countries.
And as the sport grows, Alexey Molchanov seems to be sure of his place in it. At the age of 34, he holds two dozen world records.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you think you haven’t reached your limit of diving as deep as possible yet?
Alexey Molchanov: No, no. I don’t think so. I know that with all the skills I have, with all the mind control I have, I can go deeper and so because I can do it, I will.
Produced by Ashley Velie. Associate producer, Jennifer Doz. Broadcaster, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Peter M. Berman.