It was one other good February morning off the coral atoll of Tikehau, French Polynesia, when Denis Grosmaire, 44, anchored round 8 within the morning. Grosmaire, French Polynesia’s deepest free diver, peered over the sting into the crystal-clear South Pacific Ocean. On one facet of his speedboat was a flourishing coral reef that plunged towards the shadowy depths. On the opposite was countless blue water. He slipped on a pair of fins, dropped in alone and waited for firm.
Two previous associates — or as he calls them, “his lovers” — quickly materialized from the blue and swam towards him with simple grace. Chuppa and Victoria had been lengthy and muscular, their eyes inscrutable drops of black ink, their pores and skin principally mild grey with charcoal stripes. Their highly effective tails swished elegantly behind them. They had been tiger sharks, every over 14 toes lengthy.
He stood tall within the water and confronted them, extending his arm. The sharks banked proper, one after the opposite, shut sufficient for Grosmaire to pet them between their gills and their highly effective jaws, which had been rimmed with 48 serrated enamel, preferrred for slashing by way of flesh and bone. The pair swam off, harmlessly, solely to circle again. This time they got here shut sufficient for Grosmaire to lean in and provides Chuppa a hug.
Professional free divers are a daring lot. The better of them can maintain their breath for over 10 minutes on the floor, and plunge to depths of nicely over 300 toes on one breath. When they aren’t competing, they dive for enjoyable, typically in excessive settings or alongside charismatic wildlife. Instagram is speckled with photos of divers swimming with humpback and sperm whales, crocodiles and even nice white sharks.
More typically than not, these are one-off encounters or expeditions. But when Grosmaire is house in Tikehau, the place he has lived for 5 years, he swims with tiger sharks not less than as soon as per week.
He is aware of them so nicely, he can determine them on sight by their stripes, actions or tiny imperfections, similar to a frayed fringe of a dorsal fin.
He research their persona quirks. He gave them names. While there are scuba outlets and dive guides elsewhere on the planet that promise cage-free encounters with tiger sharks, Grosmaire doesn’t convey vacationers alongside on his shark dives. It’s not a enterprise, however it’s far more profound than a passion. It’s a calling.
“It might seem crazy if you don’t know how to be comfortable in the open water with big animals around,” stated Alexey Molchanov, the deepest free diver ever, who has loved dives with humpbacks, bull sharks and walruses. “But the comfort comes from trusting one’s own ability and trusting the environment, and that takes time.”
Grosmaire was raised in French Polynesia and grew up browsing and spearfishing, although he didn’t enterprise beneath 66 toes, the depth college students are supposed to attain in a beginner-level free diving course, till he was in his late 30s. He had heard tales of spearfishermen who stayed down too lengthy whereas diving alone and blacked out, which could be lethal. One of the early classes he discovered when he took his first free diving class in 2016 was that he ought to by no means dive with out a buddy.
The finest underwater hunters are sturdy free divers, since in a lot of the world spearfishing with scuba gear is both unlawful or out of style and regarded environmentally irresponsible. But it’s the uncommon spearfisherman who turns into so captivated by the expertise of diving deep alongside a line that he yearns to compete.
By the top of his preliminary intermediate course, Grosmaire reached 100 toes with relative ease. Later that yr, he entered his first competitors, and reached 170 toes. Shortly thereafter, he traveled to Moscow to coach with Molchanov.
“Really good spear fishers have an amazing starting point,” Molchanov stated. “They trust the water and are really relaxed and aware, and need much less time to progress to become great free divers.”
In 2018, whereas competing on the sport’s premier occasion, Vertical Blue, Grosmaire reached 305 toes within the free immersion self-discipline, during which athletes pull themselves alongside a rope all the way down to depth and again with out sporting fins. More not too long ago, he has reached 345 toes in coaching. That depth makes him actually elite, and if he reaches his aim of hitting 361 toes by the top of the yr, he could earn a top-10 rating.
But his ardour for sharks predates and surpasses his love of aggressive free diving. He has mingled with and photographed resident tiger sharks within the water round Tikehau, the extra rustic atoll of Apataki, and the island of Moorea since 2004, again when he was working a desk job in human assets for the Moorea Island Administration.
In 2005, he was part of a profitable marketing campaign that established a nationwide shark fishing ban. Within two years, it was unlawful for any boat with a lifeless shark in storage to dock in French Polynesia.
Grosmaire nonetheless sees himself as a shark advocate. It’s why he shares his footage on-line. “The idea is to tell people that we can create a relation,” he stated. “That’s why I give them names.”
Grosmaire can maintain his breath for over seven minutes, however his shark dives are comparatively quick and shallow. He doesn’t get a lot deeper than 50 toes and stays down 60 to 90 seconds at a time. He virtually all the time swims with sharks alone together with his digital camera as his solely protect. He not often wears a moist swimsuit and by no means takes his spear. Frequently he’ll set his digital camera again on his boat and lose himself within the second. “When I have a camera, I can’t hug them,” he defined.
He is usually warned by locals in Tikehau and others in French Polynesia that what he’s doing is harmful. While there has not been a lethal shark assault in French Polynesia in additional than 50 years, he had one close to miss final yr, when he tried to kiss Chuppa on the highest of her head. He closed his eyes and puckered up, however as a substitute of sharkskin on his lips, he felt his head get sucked backward, as if caught in a vacuum. It wasn’t a vacuum.
Tiger sharks eat by sucking in a big quantity of water, and for a second, Grosmaire’s head was inside Chuppa’s open mouth. He jerked his head free and pushed her away simply earlier than her jaws snapped shut. He didn’t understand precisely what had occurred till a dive buddy offered him with the footage.
“I didn’t pay attention about the trajectory of the shark. I was too comfortable,” he stated. “I didn’t sleep for two nights.”
According to the International Shark Attack File, which has tracked and investigated reported shark assaults for almost 70 years, tiger sharks are answerable for 138 “unprovoked” assaults on people and 36 recognized fatalities, which makes them the second most deadly shark species (in the case of people).
“Of course, there is risk. As soon as you put your face in the water and hold your breath, there is risk,” stated Anna von Boetticher, a German who has made a reputation for herself for diving beneath glaciers in Greenland and different feats. “We all take risks, and we all break 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 free diving alone, and they’re super sure that nothing can happen and they’re fine.”
Is it consolation with danger or religion in nature and self that inoculates excessive and journey athletes like Grosmaire to hazard? Is it naïveté, conceitedness or love? Perhaps it’s the entire above.
“To be honest, if one day the worst happens,” Grosmaire stated, “I will accept it forever. I will never blame the shark.”