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  • AutorenbildMichael Mutter

The "deepest breath" - critical review of a risky stunt

I've been asked repeatedly for my opinion on this movie. Here it is. Warning: Contains spoilers!

The Netflix film by Laura McGann from 2023 is set in the scene of extreme freediving (apnoea diving(breath hold diving). The focus is on Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan.

Impressive insights into the extreme freediving scene

Keenan finds his purpose after years of wandering as an apnoea safety diver who accompanies athletes during freediving competitions as they ascend from the depths and intervenes when they need help. During a world record attempt, he saves Alexei Molchanov, a world-class freediver, from drowning due to blackout by risking his own life. As a result, Keenan becomes a star among safety divers and can earn a living as a freediving instructor in Dahab, Egypt.

Zecchini, a highly talented, hyper-competitive Italian freediver, repeatedly pushes her limits at the exclusive "vertical blue" invitational competition as she attempts to break a world record. When Keenan, who rescues her several times due to blackouts, takes care of her and gradually pushes her to her limits, she manages to set a new world record with a depth of 104 metres.

Zecchini and Keenan became a couple and set themselves a new, ambitious goal: Zecchini was to dive apnoe-style through the "arch", a tunnel-like opening in the reef at a depth of over 50 metres in the infamous "blue hole" in Dahab. This extremely dangerous stunt had previously only been performed by one woman, the legendary Natalia Molchanova, mother of Alexei Molchanov.

Tragic hero

In July 2017, the endeavour ended in disaster. Zecchini managed to dive through the arch. However, she lost her bearings as she passed the exit and missed the ascent line. Mistakenly believing that she is still inside the arch, she initiates the ascent far too late. Keenan, who should have met her as a safety diver at a depth of about 50 metres of depth in freediving style, misses her because, for reasons that remain unclear, he dives down to her at least 10 seconds later than planned. At depth, he realises his mistake and sees Zecchini diving in the wrong direction without noticing him. He manages to follow her and bring her to the surface using the last of his strength. There he suffers a blackout. Zecchini, herself suffering from a lack of oxygen, is unable to turn him on his back and keep his airways clear. Keenan becomes a tragic hero and dies despite resuscitation measures.

The film captivates with deep insights into the extreme freediving scene. It is difficult to escape the menacing grandeur of the underwater shots, which convey the effect of depth on the athletes. The fascination of this sport becomes partially comprehensible.

Consternation over an unnecessary death

However, the film primarily triggered one thing in me: consternation over the unnecessary death of Stephen Keenan. While watching the film, some questions arose in me. I would like to address them here.

From the very beginning, I couldn't shake off the impression that Keenan was the victim of his own success. Even the rescue of Molchanov came within a hair's breadth of disaster. Only with a great deal of luck were there not two deaths at the end of the day, namely those of Molchanov and Keenan. Tragically, this is exactly why Keenan is hyped and achieves his status as a star safety diver.

On the day of the dive in the "blue hole" there was a lot of wind and the sea was choppy: not ideal conditions for the endeavour. Molchanova had mastered the "arch" in CWT mode ("constant weight with fins"), i.e. with fins. Zecchini tried not only to emulate her, but also to surpass her in CNF style ("constant weight no fins"), i.e. without fins, which is much more difficult. Although this mode may have been within Zecchini's capabilities under optimal conditions, it had major disadvantages when the ascent was botched.

Zecchini's dive plan was essentially to pull herself to the depths on the descent line, cross the arch and resurface pulling herself to the surface on the ascent line. She descended according to plan. She crossed the arch a little faster than planned, the reasons are unclear. Most likely the stress made her swim faster. Although she was wearing a freediving watch, she swam a full 40 seconds over the planned time after leaving the arch and was apparently unaware of this. Why she did not look at her watch and initiate the long overdue ascent, even without having localised the ascent line, remains an open question. There were no other orientation aids.

No hedging of the decisive phase

And this was the most critical point of the operation: Zecchini had to find the narrow ascent line in suboptimal lighting conditions. The plan was for Keenan to dive towards her to meet her at the exit of the arch and accompany her to the surface. The time window for this was extremely narrow at around 20 seconds. Because Keenan started his dive at least 10 seconds later than planned and Zecchini dived through the arch faster than planned, this window quickly shrank to zero. It is not clear why a light was not attached to the ascent line or why a scuba diver was not waiting for Zecchini. It is also worth asking why two camera divers recorded the action, but Zecchini was not accompanied through the arch by a scuba diver. It would have been easy for a technical diver to guide her safely through the arch to the ascent line. A guideline could also have been laid through the "arch" for her orientation. Every trained cave diver knows how to do this. Thus, a much broader safety corset could have been laid out with manageable additional effort. Relying solely on Keenan as a safety diver without any other backup was certainly not appropriate.

Zecchini missed the line by about 10 metres, and Keenan must have been shocked to realise his mistake. Regardless of his safety, he sprinted off and reached Zecchini after about 30 seconds at a depth of 40 metres. Now Zecchini's diving mode took its revenge. At this depth, she was negatively buoyant due to the high ambient pressure compressing her wetsuit, with the result that she had to work against downforce when surfacing. She could have pulled herself up by the arms on the ascent line. This was no longer possible, and she had to swim freely against the downforce, a strenuous endeavour without fins. During the already tricky phase towards the end of the dive, and after diving much longer than planned, this led to Zecchini becoming even more oxygen-deprived than expected. But Keenan also reached his physiological limits more quickly, as he too had already used up a lot of oxygen through his sprint and needed even more as he struggled to bring Zecchini to the surface against her negative buoyancy. This ultimately led to a blackout for both.

Safety diver?

The question arises as to whether a freediver, who is already close to his physiological limits on such a dive, if nothing goes wrong, can fulfil a function as a safety diver at all. I think not. Why Keenan did not use a scooter to be better prepared in an emergency is beyond me. After all, these are at least occasionally used by safety divers in freediving competitions.

To complicate matters, Keenan and Zecchini came to the surface far away from the boat in a group of snorkelers, who were unable to help, and were not spotted by their crew. This emphasises how critical finding the ascent line was in this venture. Furthermore, the authorities incomprehensibly did not allow the team to station an ambulance on site, which must be interpreted as a further inadequacy in the safety concept.

Poor safety awareness in this sport

Is the disaster an expression of a generally poor awareness of safety in this sport? I can't help but think so.The film conveys a limited awareness of safety that is masked by pseudo-risk management and obscures the real risks. (The blackouts during the "vertical blue", which are shown many times and are difficult to watch, are evidence of this, as they are nothing more than deliberately accepted drowning accidents that only just went off without a hitch). The conceptual preparation of the free dive in the "blue hole" must have suffered as a result and I wonder whether the protagonists were even capable of planning such a challenge, taking all the necessary aspects into account. Ultimately, however, it was an unfortunate chain of events that led to the disaster.

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