Jacques Mayol, hero of the blue

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L’Homo Delphinus

Long ago, the ocean was prohibited territory. Freediving puts public into a state where all of a sudden people realize how important and crucial it is to save it, be a part of it and not destroy it. That was the elemental message the movie “Dolphin Man” was trying to deliver. Nearly three years in the making, the movie is a dramatized story of the friendship and sporting rivalry between two leading contemporary champion free divers in the 20th century: Jacques Mayol (played by Jean-Marc Barr) and Enzo Maiorca (renamed “Enzo Molinari” and played by Jean Reno), and Mayol’s fictionalized relationship with his girlfriend Johana Baker (played by Rosanna Arquette). It tells a genuine documentary and legacy of Jacques Mayol as a legendary free-diver whose life became the inspiration, captures the portrait of Mayol with his compelling journey and transformative experience of free-diving. The movie uncovers how he reached the limit of the human body and mind, not to break records but hoping to discover the more profound affinity between human beings and the ocean.

Jean-Jacques Mayol spends his time attempting to educate how freediving helps individuals to associate with nature, the same reasoning his father held. Born in 1927 to a French family living in Shanghai, he developed a passion for the underwater world. His love of the sea – and a taste for the nomadic life – was gradually established on long steamship voyages to and from France. His fixation with the marine world was not controlled by the death of his father in a diving accident while Mayol was still young. Much of his early adulthood was spent wandering the globe, working differently as an author, miner, pianist, and diver. Mayol’s interest in dolphin’s world started during a period as a commercial diver at an aquarium in Miami, Florida. There, he shaped a close bond with a female dolphin named Clown and mocked the aquarium’s rules by climbing into the pool to swim with her during his lunch breaks. Mimicking Clown, Mayol learned how to hold his breath, moving with elegance and ease in the water. It was the best training a freediver could have wished for, and afforded insights that would help establish Mayol as the ultimate diver of his era.

Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca

Jacques Mayol was already a profoundly respected freediver when the Sicilian Maiorca showed up on the scene, claiming the world record with a dive to 49m in 1960 and pushing the limit to 54m in 1965. Mayol was not obviously competitive by nature but he stole the Sicilian’s record by diving to 60m off the Bahamas the following year. A friendly competition followed, with each diver carrying out increasingly daring dives throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies. Their most celebrated records were set in the no limits category, in which divers are allowed to utilize weighted sleds to descend and air balloons for a similarly fast ascent. Mayol was eight times no limits world champion between 1966 and 1983. In 1981, Mayol also set a world record of 61m in the constant weight discipline, using the power of his fins to dive and after that return to the surface. His notorious record was sealed in 1976, when he broke the 100m obstruction with a no limits dive to 101m off Elba, Italy. Tests revealed that Mayol’s heart rate had slowed from 60 to 27 beats per minute during the dive, a mammalian reflex shared with seals and dolphins. With Maiorca resigned from competitive diving, there was no one competent of matching Mayol’s supernatural ability. He stamped his authority on the sport with one final deep dive in 1983 when, at the age of 56, he reached 105m.

Myol formed a close bond with dolphins

Mayol was not blessed with the typical athletic physique associated with champion freedivers and swimmers. His diving technique was less based on muscle training and maximizing air storage for the descent, but more on psychological preparation and concentration on the dive. He incorporated yoga techniques learned from his childhood in China into his training, achieving a spiritual union with the marine environment that has become a key aspect of modern freediving. “To hold your breath effectively, even though it seems paradoxical, it’s best not to think about holding it,” he once said. “You need to become part of the act of non-breathing itself.” This philosophy was outlined in his book L’Homo Delphinus (1983, published in English as Homo Delphinus – the dolphin within man), in which Mayol talked about his theories about man’s relationship with the sea. He was fond of pointing out that human babies spend their first months in the liquid environment of the womb, and argued that people should try to reconcile themselves with their aquatic beginnings. For him, the “Homo Delphinus” is an individual who has a love of the ocean and recognizes the importance of protecting it. He believed that human beings would never be able literally to inhabit the oceans, but predicted that, within a couple of generations, some people will be able to dive to 200m and hold their breath for up to 10 minutes. Self-taught, he wrote four books on oceanography and dolphins. His documentaries about the sea for Italian television earned him a reputation as Europe’s latter-day Jacques Cousteau.

Mayol incorporated yoga techniques learned from his childhood into his training

Mayol enjoyed a fresh wave of celebrity in 1988, with the release of the film The Big Blue. At the time, the film was the most successful ever French production, and a new generation of freedivers was inspired by the tale, which focused primarily on the rivalry between Mayol and Maiorca. While the film brought him widespread fame, Mayol grew frustrated at the public’s seeming inability to recognize the differences between himself and the fantasy freediver depicted on screen. In any case, Mayol had by then turned his back on freediving as a competitive sport, and was promoting the activity as a means of interacting with the marine world. He made frequent appearances at dive shows and other public events, but in conversation he would often seek to distance himself from the film that had given him enduring celebrity.

Mayol kept diving into his seventies, routinely descending to 40 or 50 meters. The onset of old age brought him spells of depression, however, and he admitted to feelings of loneliness when speaking to Pelizzari two months before his death. Mayol was found hanged at his home on Elba on December 22, 2001; he left a note which requested that he be cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea. His son, Jean Jacques Mayol, is also a freediver. Those that knew Mayol would describe him as larger than life. Mayol’s knowledge of and love for the sea and his passion for freediving will continue to be an inspiration for divers around the world.

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