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The History of Freediving and Apnea
(page 1 of 4)

is as ancient an activity as humanity itself. More than any other sport, freediving is based on old subconscious reflexes written in the Homo Sapiens genome.



For the first 9 months of their lives, humans exist in an aquatic environment very similar to seawater. If an infant is submerged under water, it instinctively holds its breath for up to 40 seconds while swimming breaststrokes, or though we seem to lose this ability as soon as we commence walking. Waking up these reflexes is one of the most important elements of freediving, thus giving humans better abilities to be protected at large depths.



Since 1960, a divisive scientific theory labelled the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, published by late Sir Alister Hardy, has circled among zoological scholars. From the 1930’s, the Oxfordian Hardy had suspected that humans had primate ancestors more aquatic than previously imagined. He based this on studies of human lack of fur replaced by a layer of isolating sub skin fat, similar to that of marine mammals rather than modern man apes. This theory indicates that swimming and diving was a key ingredient in the eon long development of the Homo family from before Out Of Africa to modern times.


Sir Alister Hardy


The word Apnea derives from the Greek word a-pnoia literally meaning “without breathing”. The origin of this word doesn’t have connection to water, but in modern athletic terminology “Apnea” has become a synonym for freediving, i.e. diving on one breath of air, without using equipment that would make it possible to breathe underwater.

The Myths

The oldest archaeological evidence that would confirm human breath hold diving dates back to at least 5.400 B.C. A Scandinavian Stone Age culture called Ertebølle (in some sources: “Kjøkken-møddinger”) lived at the coasts of Denmark and Southern Sweden, and is believed to have been a culture of shellfish eating freedivers, as witnessed by large excavated kitchen mittens.

The Ertebølle culture, 5400 B.C.


Similar and plentiful archaeological proof of diving has been found in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations dating back to 4.500 and 3.200 years B.C. On the Mediterranean coast freediving was a regular practice during the classic ages, reported by plenty of myths and legends. One Hellenic myth tells about Glaucus, which could be labelled the first mythological freediver. He was named “The Green Mariner” and the myth recalls that he ate a magical herb, which gave him fins and a fish’s tale. A tale from the Greek-Persian wars tells of a Greek fisherman and his daughter Cyan that at night, under water, cut the anchor ropes of the Persian war ships. In another story, the antique Athenians cut the underwater wooden barriers of Syracuse.


The legendary philosopher Aristotle is the first to document the common problems associated with diving, e.g. nose bleeding and pain in the ears. Alexander the Great used divers and even a diving bell during his military campaigns. In the Roman Empire existed a war unit called “Urniatores”; they had such tasks like recovering lost anchors, removing underwater barricades and other specialized sub aquatic was tasks.


In Asia, across the Middle Eastern, Indian and Pacific Oceans, the desire for pearls fuelled freediving activities for centuries. Most famous of these freediving traditions is that of the Amas. These Japanese and Korean female divers still today use a diving technique at least 2000 years old. Women between 17 and 50 years of age use rocks to get to the bottom where they pick up shells and sea weeds, while diving naked 8 to 10 hours a day in water barely over 10 degrees Celsius.



The Legend

In the summer of 1913, the Italian naval flag ship “La Regina Margherita” lost its anchor off the Greek island Karpathos. A reward was offered for its retrieval, which gave way for the strongest of freediving myths: 35 year old Chatzistathis (also: Stathis Chatzi, or Italian: Haggi Statti), one of the leading sponge divers from nearby Symi, stood only 1.70 meters tall and weighed 65 kilograms; he suffered from remarkable lung emphysema, smoked tobacco extensively, and was part deaf from a life of diving without proper equalization. However, on July 16, he salvaged the anchor from estimated 88 meters depth, freediving up to three minutes at a time. He was carried down by a heavy stone, this primitive diving technique being as old as the Greek civilization itself. His reward was a sum of 5 pounds Sterling and permission to use dynamite for fishing. The legend of Chatzistathis was considered vastly exaggerated until 2001, when the Italian Navy officially confirmed most previous reports.


Chatzistathis, Greece


The Year Zero

…was 1949. The Hungarian-born Italian fighter pilot and avid spear fisher Raimondo Bucher founded the modern sport of freediving by announcing that he would reach a depth of 30 meters on a breath hold. Using a large rock for ballast, Bucher completed the dive outside Naples, presenting a parchment in a cylinder to a surface supported diver. Bucher later confessed to have done it all for a lavish bet of 50.000 lire with the diver waiting at the bottom, fellow Italian Ennio Falco, which two years later broke Bucher’s record.


Raimondo Bucher, Italy

Bucher’s Italy became the nourishing site for early competitive freediving, seeing freedivers like Alberto Novelli and Brazilian Americo Santarelli setting early records. By 1962, one of the greatest freedivers of all time emerged on the scene, as Enzo Maiorca prompted the first major development of the then obscure sport of deep freediving, which he dominated for the next 25 years. Maiorca was the first to reach and breach the fateful 50 meters barrier in 1962, despite predictions from scientists that beyond 50 meters, the human lungs would collapse from the pressure. Maiorca kept increasing his depths virtually unchallenged....


...this until Frenchman Jacques Mayol was introduced in 1966. Born in Shanghai, China, Jacques Mayol revolutionized freediving with his use of Eastern yoga and meditation traditions, rather than the previous norm of heavy hyperventilation. Enzo Maiorca had an fantastic record career that include not less than seven-teen world records. The Frenchman Mayol was not far back with his  eleven world records and to be the one who reached 100 meters first.


To History page 2