Through his protagonist Phileas Fogg, French writer Jules Verne took us on an epic voyage in Around the World in Eighty Days. With a similar quest in mind but using a decidedly different approach, Guillaume Néry embarked on an underwater odyssey based on a single breath of air. Entitled One Breath Around the World, Néry’s journey began off the coast of the French Cote d’Azur. Standing there, waist-deep in the Mediterranean Sea, he adjusted his goggles, took one deep breath and thrusted himself forward and downward into the deep blue. From that point and beyond, he was at one with nature’s most powerful—and beautiful—omniscient force: the ocean. Over the next 12 minutes or so, Néry explored the mythical underwater ruins of Yonaguni Island in Japan, gliding past its lonely pillars. He walked, ran and parkoured all over the barren Mexican sea bed, just like he did in the music video for Naughty Boy’s "Runnin’ (Lose It All)" featuring Beyoncé and Arrow Benjamin. He touched and even walked upside down on the reverse of a massive sheet of ice in Finland.
He swam in complete darkness. He dove headfirst into an abyss. He fraternised with great shoals of blacktip reef sharks and came upon a pod of gentle sperm whales resting vertically, keeping perfectly still as is their wont. He encountered a humpback whale and her calf before making one final survey of the underwater seascape, and then launched himself skyward to finally breach the surface. He didn’t even gasp. Instead, Néry walked calmly up the pebble beach of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais; the sunbathers completely oblivious. It was just another bright sunny day on the scenic French Riviera.
A BEAUTIFUL, SILENT WORLD
Of course Néry didn’t actually swim from France to Finland, Mexico, Japan, the Philippines and French Polynesia on a single breath of air. In any case, the message of this short film, which Néry produced with his wife Julie Gautier (also a champion freediver), wasn’t about breaking records or performing daredevil feats. Rather, all Néry wanted to show was the sanctity, purity and beauty of our oceans. That’s why none of the footage has any captions and neither are there explanations of where and what was being filmed. It’s just one long, uninterrupted freedive that began and ended in Nice—Néry’s hometown. “You don’t know where the places are because this is not a documentary,” said Néry in an interview with France 24. Indeed, One Breath Around the World is an artistic film where you just need to sit back and absorb the pure unadulterated beauty of the scenery, the animals and Néry’s fluid movements.
WHAT IS FREEDIVING?
There are some things we would never fully understand without experiencing them first-hand. Freediving is one of them. Says Néry: “Freediving is all about freedom, feeling the harmony with the water. Because when I’m diving, I have no equipment. It’s just me and the ocean. There is a very close connection with the elements. When I’m going deep, I’m not swimming, I’m flying.” He adds: “I’m not diving at 126m just like that [snaps fingers]. It took me many years of training. So it’s really all about adaptation. I never fight the water when I’m diving. I always try to repeat some depth and increase the depth very slowly, just to feel comfortable. When I’m at 100m or more than 100m, I really feel at one with the ocean. I’m not struggling at all.” Néry broke the French freediving record in 2015 when he dove to a staggering 126m below sea level at the world championships in Cyprus. But two days later he met with an accident in an attempt to make a 129m dive. The organisers made a mistake on the dive line and marked it at 139m instead, causing Néry to black out on his ascent just a few metres below the surface. Fortunately, there were safety freedivers around who acted quickly to resuscitate him although he still walked away with lung barotrauma. Still, the 37-year-old father of one remains unfazed and even found a new raison d'être for his sport.
Panerai Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition 47mm.
UNRAVELLING THE ARTISTIC SIDE
Since 2010, Néry and Gautier have been producing short films for various causes as a natural extension of their freediving expertise. Gautier’s ability to shoot on breath hold allows the husband-and wife team to achieve magnificent video footage that would have been impossible with a scuba diver. “When I started, it was really about performance and not so much about competition as I didn’t care about being better than others. What was important to me was going as deep as possible.
To try to be the deepest. As soon as I started freediving, my dream was to break a world record,” Néry reveals. And while he did achieve that goal, he maintains that breaking records goes beyond the notion of sports. “It is about pure exploration,” he explains. “For me exploration of the unknown is very fascinating. More so than winning medals.” These days Néry still freedives competitively but he also spends a significant amount of time using his ability for a greater good. “After the first part of my career where I was really performance oriented, I became more interested in the connection with the underwater world. I was more interested in using my capacities of staying a long time underwater to meet new species, to see, take pictures, film, make artistic projects. So my relationship with freediving is a constant evolution,” he reveals, beaming.
A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE
In French Polynesia, specifically a place called Mo’orea Island where he lives, Néry is expecting a group of 15 student freedivers. These are the owners of a limited-edition Panerai timepiece that Néry helped create. Clad in black with a beautiful turquoise degradé (faded) dial, it is an invitation to dive the unfathomable depths while commingling with some of nature’s most majestic marine animals. Says Néry: “I really want the people to get the connection with the ocean a connection with themselves through the art of breath-hold and freediving, and a connection with the magic of the underwater world.” To freedive like Néry, you must descend 126m and make it back up in around three minutes and 20 seconds. Alternatively, you could just stop breathing for seven minutes. We’ll leave you to decide which of the two is potentially easier, but we won’t be holding our breath.