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Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves

Overview


An Amazon Best Book of 2014

While on assignment in Greece, journalist James Nestor witnessed something that confounded him: a man diving 300 feet below the ocean’s surface on a single breath of air and returning four minutes later, unharmed and smiling.

This man was a freediver, and his amphibious abilities inspired Nestor to seek out the secrets of this little-known discipline. In Deep, Nestor embeds with a gang of extreme athletes and ...

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Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves

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Overview


An Amazon Best Book of 2014

While on assignment in Greece, journalist James Nestor witnessed something that confounded him: a man diving 300 feet below the ocean’s surface on a single breath of air and returning four minutes later, unharmed and smiling.

This man was a freediver, and his amphibious abilities inspired Nestor to seek out the secrets of this little-known discipline. In Deep, Nestor embeds with a gang of extreme athletes and renegade researchers who are transforming not only our knowledge of the planet and its creatures, but also our understanding of the human body and mind. Along the way, he takes us from the surface to the Atlantic’s greatest depths, some 28,000 feet below sea level. He finds whales that communicate with other whales hundreds of miles away, sharks that swim in unerringly straight lines through pitch-black waters, and seals who dive to depths below 2,400 feet for up to eighty minutes—deeper and longer than scientists ever thought possible. As strange as these phenomena are, they are reflections of our own species’ remarkable, and often hidden, potential—including echolocation, directional sense, and the profound physiological changes we undergo when underwater. Most illuminating of all, Nestor unlocks his own freediving skills as he communes with the pioneers who are expanding our definition of what is possible in the natural world, and in ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Scientists estimate that there are nearly a quarter million species live in the world's oceans and even now, researchers are discovering numerous others and learning astonish new things about the ecosystems that exist beneath the surface of the seas. In this new release, journalist/world traveler James Nestor writes with a wealth of shared enthusiasm about the adventurous scientists who are transforming our sense of a realm of still remains surprisingly unknown. Well-told stories about natural finds that we can all appreciate.

The New York Times Book Review - David Epstein
There is a point about 30 feet below the surface that freedivers know as "neutral buoyancy." Beneath it, the ocean stops trying to spit you out and begins sucking you in. That is how Deep itself unfolds…The deeper the book ventures into the ocean, the more dramatic and unusual the organisms therein and the people who observe them…Nestor's reportorial trip…[is] a journey well worth taking.
Publishers Weekly
04/28/2014
This exploration of the “human connection to the ocean” begins with free diving, the technique of depth diving on single breaths of air. While free diving may have earned YouTube notoriety as a danger-laden sport with “fringe disciplines” and stunning depth records, Nestor is only briefly fascinated by the “ego-driven competition,” and focuses instead on free diving as the elemental mode for accessing the wonders of the ocean. A surfer with a lifelong connection to the ocean, Nestor interpolates his own training to “go deep” with encounters with scientists researching at the limits of ocean knowledge. He avoids the “quasi-religious terms” encountered in others’ experiences of deep dives, yet still offers an acute sense of wonder and respect for the ocean, from the disappearing diving traditions of ancient cultures to the diversity of life in earth’s deepest trenches. Nestor’s explorations of the “outer limits of amphibious abilities” and “latent and unconscious senses” that link humans to our aquatic evolutionary heritage make for a thrilling account, made timely by the rapidly changing state of earth’s most expansive environment. Agent: Danielle Svetcov. (July)
From the Publisher

A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
 
An Amazon Best Book of the Month

Scientific American Recommended Read

iTunes Top 20 Books of the Month

Christian Science Monitor Editors' Pick: 10 Best Books of July

BBC Book of the Week

The Week Book of the Week

“The deeper the book ventures into the ocean, the more dramatic and unusual the organisms therein and the people who observe them…Through [Nestor's] eyes and his stories, it’s a journey well worth taking.”
David Epstein, New York Times Book Review
 
"Fascinating, informative, exhilarating book, and, I wager, it will at the very least have you testing how long you can hold your breath."
Wall Street Journal

"An engaging exploration of the depths of the world's oceans and the human connection to the rapidly changing world below. This is popular science writing at its best."
Christian Science Monitor

"Rich and illuminating ... A passionate celebration of the possible and the unproven ... [Deep] will certainly enrich the thinking of anyone planning to spend time at the beach."
Independent (UK)

"Truly breathtaking ... Nestor gets right in with the competitors and rogue scientists who are unearthing mysteries of the deep and its inhabitants that we can't even imagine, in a book that's engaging and eye-popping."
Esquire

"Nestor is crisp with his fun, seafaring facts; he is sober with his sprinkling of environmental bulletins. The book never preaches, and it’s a zippy read."
Los Angeles Times

"Freediving, the sport that harnesses the mammalian dive reflex to survive deep plunges, can be a boon for marine researchers, avers James Nestor. We meet a salty cast of them, such as the 'aquanauts' of Aquarius, a marine analogue of the International Space Station submerged off the Florida Keys. Equally mesmeric are Nestor's own adventures, whether spotting bioluminescent species from a submarine in the bathypelagic zone, or freediving himself and voyaging into humanity's amphibious origins in the process."
Nature (UK)

"Put Deep at the top of your reading list. This book will do for the oceans what Cosmos did for space. It's mind-bending, intrepid, and inspiring."
Po Bronson

"With verve and humor, the author describes his own risk-taking attempts to understand the ocean's ancient secrets and future potential and the daring and brilliant people who have dedicated their lives to probing deeper ... [Nestor's] writing is sharp, colorful, and thrilling ... Bring[s] the ocean to life from a research perspective as well as a human one. An adventurous and frequently dazzling look at our planet's most massive habitat."
Kirkus

"A thrilling account, made timely by the rapidly changing state of earth’s most expansive environment." —Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
05/15/2014
Competitive freediving is an extreme sport that tests one's limits and fights one's natural instincts. Diving without any scuba gear to depths of up to 300 feet all in one breath can result in resurfacing unconscious, paralyzed, bloody, or dead. The author, a journalist, adventurer and traveler labels it the most dangerous sport on earth. Although practiced for centuries by pearl, coral, and sponge divers, these groups had an economic purpose. A party with whom the author associated in his travels to Central America and the South Pacific uses freediving as a vehicle to learn about whale and shark navigation and communication. They are scientific amateurs without academic credentials but with great curiosity and love of the ocean. Chapters are arranged by increasing depths (minus 60 feet, minus 300 feet, etc.) and include trips the author made in a homemade submarine that submerged beyond 2,500 feet. A mélange of facts about hydrothermal vent animals; the underwater habitat Aquarius in Key Largo, FL; bioluminescence; and marine geology are presented by the author, whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon. This reviewer found no other books on the subject. VERDICT This well-written title will either fascinate or repel readers with its discussions of marine life on the one hand and the horrific descriptions of the masochistic sport of freediving. Photos not seen.—Judith B. Barnett, Univ. of Rhode Island Lib., Kingston
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-06
Nestor (Get High Now (without drugs), 2009, etc.) takes readers around the world as he explores the ocean's mysterious and revealing depths—and what the deep might reveal about mankind's origin and future.We've all seen documentary footage of strange deep-sea creatures, trundling along a hazy ocean floor, maybe even glowing in the dark. But how much do we really know about these ecosystems, and how much have we forgotten about our own profound connection to the ocean? With verve and humor, the author describes his own risk-taking attempts to understand the ocean's ancient secrets and future potential and the daring and brilliant people who have dedicated their lives to probing deeper. Take free diving, for example: Historical accounts suggest that humans have been diving hundreds of feet deep for centuries, with no equipment and holding just one breath of air. Our bodies are capable of withstanding the crushing pressure in deep water, and we have a built-in instinct called the "master switch of life" that activates to give human bodies amphibious skills. Nestor goes into great detail about his own free-dive training, and his writing is sharp, colorful and thrilling. Equally magnetic is the account of his adventure in a deep-sea submarine, a cramped contraption that dove to 2,600 feet below the surface, where light can't penetrate the water but a variety of organisms thrive. Perhaps the most memorable chapter covers the author's experience diving with sperm whales, whose enigmatic vocalizations may be the most complex language we can imagine. Throughout, scientific mini-lessons and lively character profiles give context to the author's anecdotes, bringing the ocean to life from a research perspective as well as a human one.An adventurous and frequently dazzling look at our planet's most massive habitat.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547985527
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/24/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 54,368
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


JAMES NESTOR has written for Outside Magazine, Men's Journal, Dwell Magazine, the New York Times, San Francisco Magazine, Interior Design, the San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other publications. His longform piece "Half-Safe," about the only around-the-world journey by land and sea in the same vehicle ever attempted (and completed), was published by The Atavist. Nestor lives in San Francisco and is a member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto.
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Read an Excerpt


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I’m a guest here, a journalist covering a sporting event that few people have heard of: the world freediving championship. I’m sitting at a cramped desk in a seaside hotel room that overlooks a boardwalk in the resort town of Kalamata, Greece. The hotel is old and shows it in the cobweb cracks along the walls, threadbare carpet, and dirt shadows of framed pictures that once hung in dim hallways.
   
I’ve been sent here by Outside magazine, because the 2011 Individual Depth World Championship is a milestone for competitive freediving—the largest gathering of athletes in the history of the little-known sport. Since I’ve lived my whole life by the ocean, still spend much of my free time in it, and often write about it, my editor thought I’d be a good fit for the assignment. What he didn’t know was that I had only a superficial understanding of freediving. I hadn’t done it, didn’t know anyone who had, and had never seen it before.
   
I spend my first day in Kalamata reading up on the competition rules and the sport’s rising stars. I’m not impressed. I Google through photographs of competitive freedivers in mermaid outfits, flashing hang-loose signs while floating upside down in the water, and blowing intricate bubble rings from the bottom of a swimming pool. It seems like the kind of oddball hobby people take up, like badminton or Charleston dancing, so they can talk about it at cocktail parties and refer to it in their e-mail handles.
   
Nonetheless, I have a job to do. At five thirty the following morning, I’m at the Kalamata marina talking my way onto a twenty-seven-foot sailboat that belongs to a scruffy Quebecois expat. His is the only spectator boat allowed out at the competition, which is held in the deep open waters about ten miles from the Kalamata marina. I’m the only journalist aboard. By 8:00 a.m., we’ve tied up to a flotilla of motorboats, platforms, and gear that serves as the competitors’ jumping-off point. The divers in the first group arrive and take positions around three yellow ropes dangling off a nearby platform. An official counts down from ten. The competition begins.
   
What I see next will confound and terrify me.
   
I watch as a pencil-thin New Zealander named William Trubridge swallows a breath, upends his body, and kicks with bare feet into the crystalline water below. Trubridge struggles through the first ten feet, heaving broad strokes. Then, at about twenty feet, his body loosens, he places his arms by his sides in a skydiver pose, and he sinks steadily deeper until he vanishes. An official watching a sonar screen at the surface follows his descent, ticking off distances as he goes down: “Thirty meters . . . forty meters . . . fifty meters.”
   
Trubridge reaches the end of the rope, some three hundred feet down, turns around, and swims back toward the surface. Three agonizing minutes later, his tiny figure rematerializes in the deep water, like a headlight cutting through fog. He pops his head up at the surface, exhales, takes a breath, flashes an okay sign to an official, then gets out of the way to make room for the next competitor. Trubridge just dove thirty stories down and back, all on one lungful of air—no scuba gear, air tube, protective vest, or even swim fins to assist him.
   
The pressure at three hundred feet down is more than ten times that of the surface, strong enough to crush a Coke can. At thirty feet, the lungs collapse to half their normal size; at three hundred feet, they shrink to the size of two baseballs. And yet Trubridge and most of the other freedivers I watch on the first day resurface unscathed. The divers don’t look forced either, but natural, as if they all really belong down there. As if we all do.
   
I’m so dazzled by what I see that I need to tell somebody immediately. I call my mother in Southern California. She doesn’t believe me. “It’s impossible,” she says. After we talk about it, she dials some friends of hers who’ve been avid scuba divers for forty years and then calls me back. “There is an oxygen tank at the seafloor or something,” she says. “And I suggest you do your research before publishing any of this.”
   
But there was no oxygen tank at the end of the rope, and if there had been, and if Trubridge and the other divers had actually breathed some of it before ascending, their lungs would have exploded when the air from the tank expanded in the shallower depths, and their blood would have bubbled with nitrogen before they reached the surface. They’d die. The human body can withstand the pressures of a fast three-hundred-foot underwater ascent only in its natural state.
   
Some humans handle it better than others.
   
Over the next four days, I watch several more competitors attempt dives to around three hundred feet. Many can’t make it and turn back. They resurface with blood running down their faces from their noses, unconscious, or in cardiac arrest. The competition just keeps going on. And, somehow, this sport is legal.
   
For most of this group, attempting to dive deeper than anyone—even scientists—ever thought possible is worth the risk of paralysis or death. But not for all of them.
   
I meet a number of competitors who approach freediving with a more sane outlook. They aren’t interested in the face-off with mortality. They don’t care about breaking records or beating the other guy. They freedive because it’s the most direct and intimate way to connect with the ocean. During that three minutes beneath the surface (the average time it takes to dive a few hundred feet), the body bears only a passing resemblance to its terrestrial form and function. The ocean changes us physically, and psychically.
   
In a world of seven billion people, where every inch of land has been mapped, much of it developed, and too much of it destroyed, the sea remains the final unseen, untouched, and undiscovered wilderness, the planet’s last great frontier. There are no mobile phones down there, no e-mails, no tweeting, no twerking, no car keys to lose, no terrorist threats, no birthdays to forget, no penalties for late credit card payments, and no dog shit to step in before a job interview. All the stress, noise, and distractions of life are left at the surface. The ocean is the last truly quiet place on Earth.
   
These more philosophical freedivers get a glassy look in their eyes when they describe their experiences; it’s the same look one sees in the eyes of Buddhist monks or emergency room patients who have died and then been resuscitated minutes later. Those who have made it to the other side. And best of all, the divers will tell you, “It’s open to everyone.”
   
Literally everyone—no matter your weight, height, gender, or ethnicity. The competitors gathered in Greece aren’t all the toned, superhuman Ryan Lochte–type swimmers you might expect. There are a few impressive physical specimens, like Trubridge, but also chubby American men, tiny Russian women, thick-necked Germans, and wispy Venezuelans.
   
Freediving flies in the face of everything I know about surviving in the ocean; you turn your back on the surface, swim away from your only source of air, and seek out the cold, pain, and danger of deep waters. Sometimes you pass out. Sometimes you bleed out of your nose and mouth. Sometimes you don’t make it back alive. Other than BASE jumping—parachuting off buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (geological formations)—freediving is the most dangerous adventure sport in the world. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of divers are injured or die every year. It seems like a death wish.
   
And yet, days later, after I return home to San Francisco, I can’t stop thinking about it.
I begin to research freediving and the claims made by competitors about the human body’s amphibious reflexes. What I find—what my mother would never believe and what most people would doubt—is that this phenomenon is real, and it has a name. Scientists call it the mammalian dive reflex or, more lyrically, the Master Switch of Life, and they’ve been researching it for the past fifty years.
   
The term Master Switch of Life, which was coined by physiologist Per Scholander in 1963, refers to a variety of physiological reflexes in the brain, lungs, and heart, among other organs, that are triggered the second we put our faces in water. The deeper we dive, the more pronounced the reflexes become, eventually spurring a physical transformation that protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns our bodies into efficient deep-sea-diving systems. Freedivers can anticipate these switches and exploit them to dive deeper and longer.
   
Ancient cultures knew all about the Master Switch and employed it for centuries to harvest sponges, pearls, coral, and food hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean. European visitors to the Caribbean, Middle East, Indian Ocean, and South Pacific in the seventeenth century reported seeing locals dive down more than one hundred feet and stay there for up to fifteen minutes on a single breath. But most of these reports are hundreds of years old, and whatever secret knowledge of deep diving these cultures harbored has been lost to the ages.
   
I begin to wonder: If we’ve forgotten an ability as profound as deep diving, what other reflexes and skills have we lost?

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Table of Contents


0 | 1
 −60 | 12
 −300 | 27
 −650 | 54
 −800 | 81
 −1,000 | 100
 −2,500 | 126
 −10,000 | 159
 −28,700 | 201
 Ascents | 222
 Epilogue | 228
 Acknowledgments | 234
 Notes | 239
 Bibliography | 247
 Index | 257
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