Guillaume Néry, 37, is a French freediving champion. For him freediving is much more than a sport, and is closer to being an art form. With his partner, Julie Gautier, and daughter, Maï-Lou, seven, he has travelled the world’s oceans making films, written books and now campaigns to save the ocean life he loves from pollution and overfishing.
How deep can you dive?
I have broken the world record four times and I have been world champion twice.
My personal record is 139m, but it was not counted because I was unconscious when I came up, but that is the deepest freedive ever.
It happened because of an error in measuring the rope so that I went 10m deeper than I should have done.
It could have killed me, but fortunately I was well prepared and in the end it was not such a bad accident.
I had a break from competitions for three years and last year I started again by taking part in one in Nice and now I am training for the World Championships.
This time my approach is quite different. It is a personal quest and I have no expectation of records and depth – it is really about my own quest, more about my way of life.
How did you start?
It happened on the school bus when I was 14 and I challenged my friend to see who could hold their breath the longest.
It was a game, with a watch. I lost, so I decided to train in bed to win next time and this game became fascinating, an obsession, and I realised I was able to hold my breath for a long time.
Because I was in Nice I realised it would be much more interesting to try this in the water.
I have always been fascinated by exploration and the unknown and going under the surface meant another world to discover – and then I really fell in love with going into the darkness, under the water.
You can do that with oxygen tanks on your back. What is the difference between that and doing it without the equipment?
For me, going with oxygen tanks means it is no longer natural. We are humans, we are mammals, and when we go under water we can hold our breath just like dolphins, whales and seals. I have always wanted to experience how far and how long I can go with just my body.
I try to do everything in a simple way and I like everything that is pure. When I am on land I like to walk or run, and when I am in the water I like to swim and dive, but as soon as there is too much equipment I feel I lose something in my connection with nature. I like to come up against the naked truth.
And how long can you stay under water for?
If I don’t move and conserve energy, I can hold my breath for between seven and eight minutes.
Can anyone do this if they have the training?
Anyone can become a good freediver, of course, but as in any other sport not everyone can become a champion. It is a combination of talent, genetic make-up, training and hard work.
But anyone can hold their breath for two to three minutes within one hour of training with an expert.
Do you do a great deal of training?
Of course. I asked for this interview to take place in the afternoon, because every morning I train in the water, or do some physical training or yoga, or both. It is a way of life, so it is part of what I do.
You say it is a way of life. Can you tell me what it brings to a life and why you wish to share this kind of experience?
It is a way to reconnect with your body. You are surrounded just by water, you hold your breath and your mind slows down and you are face to face with yourself, with your mind and with your soul.
It is very important to have some moments in your life away from the craziness of time going by and all the stress.
Is it a similar philosophy to someone who does yoga?
In some ways, but it is also different. The reconnection with the body and the mind is like yoga. But as well as that you reconnect with nature because you are diving in the ocean and you are face to face with the water. You cannot escape.
You have to understand the water and nature and you have to be careful. There is nothing you can do to become stronger than nature and you are vulnerable.
You have to take time to adapt to the depth and pressure and so you learn humility and passion.
You learn how to be slow in a modern society which is asking you to go faster and faster and which leads to burn out. So it is very interesting to slow down; the metabolism, the heart rate, breathing.
It is a good way to understand our relationship with the planet and our world. Doing the best with the minimum.
I have made films, written two books and I am in the process of writing a third one. I try to take everything from free-diving that can be helpful to others in life. It is a way of life, more than just a sport.
You say ‘slow down your life’, but you travel all over the world and visit amazing places so you have done a great deal in your life so far. How much of the oceans have you explored?
It has been wonderful exploring all the oceans and I have been to many, many, many places. I cannot tell you how many.
Today, though, I often say no. People are always asking me to go here and there, and say: “I invite you to spend a week in Thailand.” I could say yes, but I would just travel and never take the time to focus. So today I am really changing and I really want to have a slower life.
Even so, it must have been amazing to do such things as swimming with whales.
Of course. I will not stop altogether, but I will do less. So, yes, I have had incredible experiences swimming with sperm whales, which I did for my latest film, One Breath Around the World.
What was that like?
They are giant mammals, and what is crazy is that it is not just that they are big, but that they are mammals and you can feel a real interaction with them.
You feel they are very intelligent and despite their size whales are very careful and they try to be kind with you in the water and, wow, it is a real experience, a real connection with the wild. I was not scared. Maybe the first time, but they they make you feel really confident.
My last experience was in Spring in Antarctica. We went to dive with seals, which can be dangerous. We had to use our intuition and be very aware of the animals’ behaviour.
We are animals, too, but we live in a controlled environment so it is extraordinary to feel that other side of human nature, facing up to dangers in the wild.
We hear a great deal about pollution in the oceans. Have you come across plastics in the sea during your travels?
Pollution is only one problem caused by human activity. We are destroying everything right now. That is another reason why I want to slow down.
We are facing a very critical situation. Yes, there is more plastic in the ocean. But not only that – the oceans are empty.
The statistics all show there is less life in the oceans. We are changing the great currents which control climate. The ice is melting, coral is dying.
There is overfishing. I have been working with environmental charity Sea Shepherd to campaign against overfishing. Giant fishing nets are drifting in the ocean, leading to the death of so many animals: fish, of course, but also dolphins and sharks.
Industrial fishing is a huge concern as more than half of the catch is not taken to be eaten but has died for nothing.
What can we do? What do you do?
It is very simple. We need to stop eating fish. I don’t eat fish any more. I eat no more beef, no more lamb, no more pork, because one of the major reasons for global warming is agriculture.
Everyone can change their ways. I know it is not easy, but come on. I know political change is necessary too, but that can take time so we have to do something ourselves, and we can stop eating fish in the blink of an eye.
That is something powerful. Through my movies I can show people what weare trying to save. We have to fight for life on the planet. I like to eat fish, but I have stopped and I am trying to persuade more people to do the same.
If we want our kids to live in a world with lots of life it is our responsibility to be together in this and do something.
What are the most beautiful oceans you have visited?
I really love the Mediterranean, because there is something special in the culture. It is a beautiful blue and even if it is one of the most polluted seas today, it is still very special.
I’m in love with another part of the world, too, which is French Polynesia, and that is the reason we go there as a family to spend part of the year there.
It is magical for my seven-year-old daughter to play on the beach with small animals and swim in the sea every day, far from artificial places. We really wanted to offer her this experience. French Polynesia is in the centre of the Pacific.
From space, our planet is blue and that is because so much of it is ocean, and so much of that blue is the Pacific.
We should not call it planet Earth, but planet Pacific. Every day I am grateful to have the chance to live like this and try to share my experiences.