Jacques Mayol

Jacques Mayol
Jacques Mayol

The free-diving community was shocked in December by the news that the most famous free-diver of the last century, Jacques Mayol, had committed suicide. Bernard Eaton knew Mayol and remembers a man for whom spirituality was everything.

DURING THE DIVE 2000 SHOW IN BIRMINGHAM, at which Jacques Mayol was the star speaker, he urged me to read a non-fiction book called Fingerprints of the Gods, subtitled A Quest for the Beginning and the End.

That subtitle could well have been what Jacques, who hanged himself at his villa in Capoliveri on the isle of Elba on 22 December, had undertaken throughout much of his 74-year life.

For this world-famous pioneer free-diver was absorbed by all things spiritual and mystical, and his deep-diving exploits appear to have been motivated less by a desire to break records than by a hope of discovering the affinity between human beings and the sea.

In the introduction to his book Homo Delphinus – The Dolphin Within Man – he wrote: “I have attempted to open new windows onto the mystery of our mother, the sea, and to deepen the spiritual links that unite us to the sea and to dolphins.”

Mayol believed that humans have far more in common with dolphins than we realise, and that by harnessing our dormant powers we can go on to ever-more amazing underwater feats.

He met the dolphin called Clown (the mother of Flipper, from the 1960s TV series) in 1955 at the Miami Seaquarium, and later said: “I learned everything from her.”

Now Mayol, who was to earn himself the title Dolphin Man, is dead. “It was the saddest day of my life,” says Umberto Pelizzari, the Italian who has arguably been the most outstanding free-diver since Mayol. “I spent three days shut off from the world when I heard, trying to come to terms with his loss. We owe so much to Mayol. It was he who beat the 100 metre barrier, who got all the way there. Now the man has gone, but as a symbol he will remain for eternity.”

Pelizzari had met Mayol in September, and said he had seemed quite positive: “He had wanted to open a school with me in the Bahamas or in Elba.” He later met him at his home in Elba, just two weeks before his death: “He was still questioning why the Lord had put us in this world only to grow old. It seemed to me that he was really depressed, because in private he was usually always open and full of laughter. Only in public would he be transformed and become diffident and stand-offish.

“However, a psychologist has told me that those who commit suicide are not usually depressive but just coming out of that black state of mind – and terrified of falling into it again.”

Mayol was born in Shanghai to French parents and spent his first 13 years in Asia. His interest in diving began on holidays in Japan, where he would spend much of his later life, and his enthusiasm remained unquenched, even though his father died in a diving accident.

His free-diving adventures began when he was a young man, and he won several European deep-diving competitions, in which contestants descended on weighted sleds. The contests were suspended for some time because of the number of fatalities that were occurring. Among other things, doctors believed that divers' rib cages could be crushed by the pressure.

A record for sub-aqua diving without breathing apparatus had first been officially set in 1919, when Raimondo Bucher reached 30m. Then, in 1953, Italians Alberto Novelli and Ennio Falco reached 43m.

Luc Besson, who directed the classic The Big Blue; Jean-Marc Barr, who played Mayol in the film, and the man himself.

Luc Besson, who directed the classic The Big Blue; Jean-Marc Barr, who played Mayol in the film, and the man himself
Luc Besson, who directed the classic The Big Blue; Jean-Marc Barr, who played Mayol in the film, and the man himself

Italian Enzo Maiorca, who would become Mayol's great rival, had built up to 54m by 1965, but the following year Mayol responded with his first “variable-weight” world record, a 60m dive. Their rivalry was portrayed in the film The Big Blue, which has become a classic. By 1970 Mayol had painfully pushed the limit to 76m, and in 1976 he carried out his landmark dive to 100m.

Finally, in 1983 at the age of 56, Mayol set a 10th world record, with a dive to 105m. That same year, he retired from competitive diving.

Mayol was able to hold his breath for five minutes while motionless and four minutes when active, and in an interview with Diver in October 1980 said that the only people in the world capable of simulating the effects of pressure on the body were yogis, who could suppress respiration for up to 22 minutes.

He took seriously his practice of meditation and the yoga breathing exercise pranayama to slow his heart rate and oxygen consumption. His normal pulse rate was 60bpm, but the medical establishment was astonished to discover that this would drop to 20bpm when diving.

“Some yogis in India are able voluntarily to lower their pulse rates to one beat per minute,” he said during the interview. “Unfortunately, I am a long way from achieving such remarkable feats, but before starting each new series of deep dives I go to India, to a place called Pondicherry, to train for two to three months with a yogi.”

Following his retirement from free-diving competitions, Mayol became absorbed with archaeology and the world's forgotten history, diving on a number of underwater structures around the world. Among them, as reported in Diver in July 1999, were sites in the Canary Islands and Bimini Island.

“There was a race of humans called the Cro-Magnons,” he said. “Some of the bones have been found in the Canary Islands. The theory is that they may have come from a lost continent – maybe Atlantis.”

At that time, he had been to visit Yanoguni Island, off Okinawa in Japan, where some underwater structures were believed to be the oldest made by man. They dated back 12,000 years, out-dating the pyramids by thousands of years, and some, Mayol among them, believed that they signified the existence of a previously unknown civilisation.

Friends have their own theories about Mayol's death. Maurizio Candotti Russo told Diver: “Lately Jacques was very depressed, mainly because he was getting old. He was always moving around the world too much, doing many projects as usual.

“Recently he had finished the IMAX film Ocean Men with Umberto Pelizzari, which will soon be shown in the USA. His popularity was at the top. He had received an award for his book as best publication. But he was unhappy. He had lost interest in life. He could find peace only by swimming in the ocean together with his dolphin friends. In my opinion he had always challenged the limits of the unknown; therefore his final challenge was to experience his death.”

Free-divers have a certain way of expressing their emotions. Iskandar Risso, another friend, said: “It is likely that Jacques could not accept the implacable law of time, and that when he felt that his blue was becoming black, he decided to pass towards the infinite abyss.”

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Pelizzari believes that Mayol had been suffering from a sense of deep isolation for some time. “He was used to publicity, and having people around him all the time who needed him. Perhaps more recently Jacques was trying to find someone and had not done so.

“This was a man who had always based everything on the intellect. Probably he had lost the mental force in which he believed so strongly. Absurdly, his death would have been more comprehensible if it had occurred in the middle of the ocean.”

Another outstanding modern free-diver is Frenchman Loic Leferme, who makes a guest appearance at the London International Dive Show this month. Leferme says he was not particularly influenced by The Big Blue – “that was just a film, not to do with the real Mayol” – but regards Mayol as one of the people who laid the foundations for modern free-diving.

Leferme had heard that Mayol was not particularly sympathetic to the modern sport, with its emphasis on competition and teams. He knew his reputation for being curmudgeonly and regarded him as something of a relic from a former era. Then the two met in Antibes last year. “We had much discussion about free-diving, and now I feel disappointed that I didn't get to know him better,” says Leferme. “I think he was still trying to prove something.

“I explained to him that the way we get together to free-dive today is no bad thing, but a way for divers from all over the world to get together and share their experiences. Competition is all about what goes on in your mind, and for me, whoever is the best diver is the least important aspect.

“I think Mayol understood what I was saying and I felt happy after our meeting.”

One prophesy that Mayol made in Diver years ago was that if man could fully rediscover his latent physiological qualities, he could dive beyond100m as easily as he now dives to 10m.

There's a long way to go to achieve that aim, but the present No Limits free-diving world record, set by Loic Leferme, stands at 154m.

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