American free diver Nicholas Mevoli dies in competition in the Bahamas
American's passion for plunging to bottom of ocean without oxygen led to risky second dive at contest in the Bahamas that ended in his death
As Nicholas Mevoli floated in the azure sea off the Bahamas, attempting to relax, his deep breathing was audible.
The countdown had begun and he prepared to dive into Dean's Blue Hole, hoping to reach 72 metres on a single inhalation, with no fins or supplemental oxygen.
He began sipping the air, attempting to pack as much oxygen in his lungs as possible.
At 12.25pm on Sunday, surrounded by 15 other athletes and observers, as well as five safety divers, he turned and submerged, face-first and looking like a human arrow shooting into the darkness on what would be the last dive of his life. Officials for Vertical Blue, a championship event in the sport of free diving, monitored Mevoli's progress by sonar, and all was progressing smoothly until he had trouble at 68 metre s and seemed to turn back. Yet instead of heading to the surface, he decided to dive down again in an attempt to achieve his second American record and perhaps a share of a purse of US$20,000.
A few of his fellow athletes squirmed, recognising his decision was a dangerous one.
"Diving to that depth with no fins, that's a hard, physical dive," said Mike Board, the UK record holder. "I was thinking, 'He's going to have a hard time getting up.'" Still, Mevoli shot to the surface after a dive of 3 minutes, 38 seconds. That's when the scene became a nightmare.
Mevoli ripped off his goggles and attempted to complete the surface protocol that would make his attempt official by saying: "I am okay." But he wasn't.
His words were garbled, his eyes wide and blank. He tipped backwards into the ocean and lost consciousness.
The five safety divers pulled him onto a platform and tried to revive him. They turned Mevoli onto his side and blood began pouring from his mouth.
At first there was a pulse, at times faint, at times strong, but within 15 minutes there was none. Their attempts to revive Mevoli, which included three shots of adrenaline, would continue unsuccessfully for the next 90 minutes.
Mevoli, 32, from Brooklyn, a prop man in film and television production, was a relative newcomer to the sport. When he dived to 100 metres in May, he became the first American to break that mythic barrier, unassisted.
He used a monofin that day, and completed the feat in 3 minutes 45 seconds.
It is this type of free diving - rather than the variety known as Variable Weight, in which divers are taken deeper by a sled - that has exploded in popularity.
Internationally, free-diving schools are multiplying in places including Hawaii, Egypt, Indonesia, Greece and the Bahamas.
Mevoli began his competitive free-diving career early last year.
He won the Deja Blue, a similar competition in the Cayman Islands. He also won an event earlier this year in Curacao and took bronze in the Constant Weight No Fins world championships in Greece in September.
Mevoli arrived in the Bahamas last week confident and aiming to break another national record, this one in the category of Free Immersion.
But his attempt to reach 96 metres last Friday went awry, when he turned at 80 metres and had to be assisted to the surface.
He reached the surface with blood dripping from his mouth. Furious, he screamed and cursed, certain he had blown out his left eardrum, an injury that would end his competition.
Mevoli was relieved when tests found that his ear was fine, but he had suffered an upper respiratory squeeze - when capillaries burst due to pressure exerted on the body at depth.
Safety team leader Ren Chapman, who had known Mevoli for three years, addressed a crowd of divers and their families outside the medical clinic where he was declared dead.
"We wish Nick luck in his new world," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "He died doing what he loved to do, I know that."