Training partners of a freediver: sharks

It was another picture-perfect February morning off the coral atoll of Tikehau in French Polynesia when Denis Grosmaire, 44, dropped anc...


It was another picture-perfect February morning off the coral atoll of Tikehau in French Polynesia when Denis Grosmaire, 44, dropped anchor around 8am. Grosmaire, French Polynesia’s deepest freediver, looked over the edge into the crystal clear South Pacific Ocean. To one side of his speedboat was a thriving coral reef that plunged into the shaded depths. On the other was endless blue water. He put on a pair of flippers, dropped down alone, and waited for company.

Two old friends – or as he calls them, “his lovers” – soon materialized from the blue and swam towards him with easy grace. Chuppa and Victoria were tall and muscular, their impenetrable eyes were drops of black ink, their skin mostly light gray with charcoal stripes. Their powerful tails rustled elegantly behind them. They were tiger sharks, each measuring over 14 feet long.

He stood straight in the water and faced them, extending his arm. The sharks veered straight ahead, one after another, close enough for Grosmaire to stroke them between their gills and powerful jaws, which were lined with 48 serrated teeth, ideal for slicing through flesh and bone. The couple swam, safely, to get back. This time they got close enough for Grosmaire to lean over and hug Chuppa.

Professional freedivers are very daring. The best of them can hold their breath for over 10 minutes at the surface and dive to depths of over 300 feet in a single breath. When not competing, they dive for fun, sometimes in extreme environments or alongside charismatic wild animals. Instagram is littered with images of divers swimming with humpback and sperm whales, crocodiles and even great white sharks.

These are most often one-off encounters or expeditions. But when Grosmaire is at home in Tikehau, where he has lived for five years, he swims with tiger sharks at least once a week.

He knows them so well that he can identify them by sight by their scratches, movements, or tiny imperfections, like the frayed edge of a dorsal fin.

He studies their personality quirks. He gave them names. Although there are dive shops and dive guides elsewhere in the world that promise cage-free encounters with tiger sharks, Grosmaire does not bring tourists on its shark dives. It’s not a business, but it’s much deeper than a hobby. It’s a call.

“It might sound crazy if you don’t know how to be comfortable in open water with big animals around,” said Alexey Molchanov, deepest free diver ever, who enjoyed diving with humpback whales, bull sharks and walruses. “But comfort comes from trusting in your own abilities and trusting in the environment, and that takes time.”

Grosmaire grew up in French Polynesia and grew up surfing and spearfishing, although he never ventured below 66 feet, the depth students are expected to reach in a beginner-level freediving course. , until the end of the thirties. He had heard stories of spearfishers who went too long diving alone and passed out, which can be fatal. One of the first lessons he learned when he took his first freediving course in 2016 was that he should never dive without a buddy.

The best spearfishermen are good freedivers, because in much of the world spearfishing with scuba gear is either illegal or old-fashioned and considered irresponsible to the environment. But it’s the rare spearfisherman who becomes so enthralled by the experience of diving deep along a line that he yearns to compete.

At the end of his initial intermediate run, Grosmaire reached 100 feet with relative ease. Later that year he entered his first competition and reached 170 feet. Soon after, he traveled to Moscow to train with Molchanov.

“Really good spearfishers have an amazing starting point,” Molchanov said. “They trust the water and are really relaxed and aware, and need a lot less time to progress to being great free divers.”

In 2018, while competing in the sport’s premier event, vertical blue, Grosmaire reached 305 feet in the free immersion discipline, in which athletes pull themselves along a rope deep and back without wearing fins. More recently, he reached 345 feet in training. That depth makes him truly elite, and if he achieves his goal of reaching 361 feet by the end of the year, he could crack the top-10.

But his passion for sharks predates and exceeds his love of competitive free diving. He has encountered and photographed resident tiger sharks in the water around Tikehau, the more rustic atoll of Apataki, and the island of Moorea since 2004, when he worked in a human resources office for the administration of the island of Moorea.

In 2005, he participated in a successful campaign that established a nationwide ban on shark fishing. Within two years, it was illegal for any boat with a dead shark in storage to dock in French Polynesia.

Grosmaire still considers himself a defender of sharks. That’s why he shares his images in line. “The idea is to tell people that we can create a relationship,” he said. “That’s why I give them names.”

Grosmaire can hold his breath for more than seven minutes, but his dives with sharks are relatively short and shallow. It doesn’t go much deeper than 50 feet and stays down for 60-90 seconds at a time. He almost always swims alone with the sharks with his camera as his only shield. He rarely wears a wetsuit and never picks up his spear. Often he puts his camera back on his boat and gets lost in the moment. “When I have a camera, I can’t hug them,” he explained.

He is often warned by residents of Tikehau and others in French Polynesia that what he is doing is dangerous. Although there hasn’t been a fatal shark attack in French Polynesia for more than 50 years, he missed a bit last year when he tried to kiss Chuppa on top of his head. He closed his eyes and frowned, but instead of having sharkskin on his lips, he felt his head being sucked back, as if caught in a vacuum. It was not a void.

Tiger sharks eat by sucking up a large volume of water, and for a moment Grosmaire’s head was inside Chuppa’s open mouth. He jerked his head free and pushed it back just before his jaws closed. He didn’t realize exactly what had happened until a dive buddy showed him the footage.

“I didn’t pay attention to the trajectory of the shark. I was too comfortable,” he said. “I haven’t slept for two nights.”

According to the International Shark Attack File, which has tracked and investigated reported shark attacks for nearly 70 years, tiger sharks are responsible for 138 “unprovoked” attacks on humans and 36 known deaths, making it the second deadliest shark species (when it comes to humans).

“Of course, there is a risk. As soon as you put your face in the water and hold your breath, there’s a risk,” said Anna von Boetticher, a German who made a name for her dives under Greenland’s glaciers and other feats. . “We all take risks and we all break the rules, so I understand the desire to be alone, to have this experience for yourself. I think that’s quite beautiful.

But, she continued, “What really drives me crazy is when people go freediving alone, and they’re super sure that nothing can happen and they’re fine.”

Is it comfort in the face of risk or faith in nature and in oneself that inoculates extreme and adventure athletes like Grosmaire to danger? Is it naivety, arrogance or love? It may be all of the above.

“To be honest, if one day the worst happens,” Grosmaire said, “I’ll accept it forever. I’ll never blame the shark.



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