The (History of) Freediving Records

The Development of Beautiful Sport!

How the Sport ‘Freediving’ Developed, its Records and its Heroes.

Often when we talk about the history of freediving, we talk about the divers of ancient Greece, the Haenyeo Divers in Korea or the Sama-Bajau of the Philippines, but that’s not all, of course. Modern freediving as we know it now, as a sport and lifestyle, of course, doesn’t date back as much, as for example, the Haenyeo, but knowing more about the history of the sport freediving is just as interesting.


Let’s Look at What Records Were Set!

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1913 – 60m: Stotti Georghios, the First Recorded Deep Dive

The history of freediving records officially started when in 1913, Stotti Georghios had retrieved a missing anchor from the depth of over 60 meters. Employed by the Italian navy, the diver descended to the legendary ship Regina Margherita. The prize for that record was only £5 and lifelong permission to fish with dynamite, while the “athlete” suffered considerable lung and ear trauma during this ordeal. At that time, with no freediving physiology knowledge, these disorders were a common thing between the divers. But in about 50 years this will fortunately change.


1949: Raimondo Bucher, a Wager Record

Although the 60m dive of Georghios was fixed and signed by three ship officers, it mostly remained unknown to the world. And in 1949, Italian air force captain Raimondo Bucher had a wager to dive 30m deep in the waters of Naples, which to his opinion, had never been done before. Bucher succeeded in his ordeal and won 50,000 lire, which was the first officially recorded freediving prize. The medics didn’t believe that the human body is capable of diving to that depth, and the scientists confidently predicted Raimondo would die from high pressure.


1951: Alberto Novelli, the Diving Dentist

In the same 1949, Alberto Novelli, a medical school graduate and a dentist, and his spearfishing friend, Ennio Falco, read about Bucher’s record in the paper and endeavoured to beat it. For the next two years, they used the physiology knowledge and consistency Novelli had received during his academic studies for freediving training. And on February 1, 1951, Novelli and Falco set a new record of 35m.

Novelli applied his medical background together with a calculated approach to further training. His dive preparation included slow hyperventilation to purge the body of carbon dioxide to overcome the need to breathe for longer. In 1956, he and Falco set another freediving record of 41m.

Later in 1958, Novelli had to choose between his career as a dentist and the call of the deep. It was a hard choice, but in 1959 he filed a patent to what would later become the first two-stage scuba diving regulator (marketed by Pirelli as the ‘Explorer’) and fully engaged in diving. Over the next ten years, Novelli led archaeological, oceanographic and commercial dive teams and consulted many underwater exploration activities in Italy. The only teeth he saw were the teeth of the sharks and moray eels on the shipwrecks and in the caves he explored, but we guess he didn’t miss the dentist chair much.

Raimondo Bucher
Alberto Novelli
Alberto Novelli new WR

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1960-1990: The Race of the Freediving Pioneers

Starting from around 1960, the freediving world record stage was shared between the pioneers of competitive freediving: Enzo Maiorca, Jacques Mayol, Bob Croft and Teteke Williams. The organization that registered the records and set the rules was Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques, or CMAS, founded in Monaco in 1959 by French underwater explorer and SCUBA diving pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

1960 – the race for depth was started by Americo Santarelli, who reached 43m in Brazil in the waters near Rio de Janeiro.  Enzo Maiorca accepted the challenge and dove 45m in Syracuse, Italy.

Maiorca was born on June 21, 1931, in Syracuse, Sicily. He started to swim and dive as early as four years, although he was afraid of water as a child. Fighting this fear, he became a spearfisher, although later in 1967, he stopped hunting fish and turned vegetarian. In one of his interviews, he explains that he realized the terror of the fish he had shot during one of the hunts and decided never to do that again. He was inspired to start freediving in 1956 by an article in the local paper about the record of Alberto Novelli and immediately started training.

1961 – Maiorca sets a new record of 50m promised to be impossible by the medics. They thought that the diver’s lungs would collapse at that depth because of the pressure, but it turned out the human body had much more resources for adaptation in store.

1965 – In competition with Santarelli, by 1965 Maiorca reached 54m. His record streak was beaten only by Polynesian diver Teteke Williams the same year, who dove 59m. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about this athlete.

1966 – Jacques Mayol entered the freediving stage with a new record of 60m. Mayol was a French national born in Shanghai, China. He began diving as a child in Karatsu, Japan, where he went every summer with his family. As he writes in his book “Homo Delphinus: The Dolphin Within Man”, he saw a dolphin for the first time at the age of seven. By 1966, Mayol was already a seasoned freediver inspired to train by his rivals. In his career, Mayol advertised yoga breathing as a way to control the body and open the hidden aquatic potential. He was a proponent of the Aquatic Ape theory and believed that the human could re-awake his genetic potential for deep diving and become Homo Delphinus by training.

Later in 1966, Maiorca retook the lead with the result of 62m.

1967 – a new name in the freediving record book, Bob Croft goes 64m deep in the waters of Florida, USA. Croft had been actively training to dive in the army for many years before his record, so when he stepped on the freediving stage, he was a seasoned professional already.

A US Navy diving instructor at the US Naval Submarine Base of New London submarine school in Groton, Connecticut, Croft trained the soldiers to escape from a disabled submarine at the training tank from 1962. Doing this as a job, five days a week, he had improved his breath-hold time from 2 minutes to over 6 minutes after a year. He could descend to the bottom of the 35-meter training tank, sit there for over three minutes and comfortably ascend to the surface. In 1967 Bob’s fellow instructors encouraged him to try how deep he could go in the open water. Well, he tried, and over the next 18 months, set three world records. Croft was the first freediver who used air packing; later, he wrote a book where he explained his technique. And it is Croft to whom we owe our knowledge about the blood shift: from 1962. He served as a subject for the Navy research that ended in 1968 with a discovery of the blood shift and other physiological adjustments that deter the limits of depth in breath-hold diving.

The race between Maiorca, Croft and Mayol went on, and the depth limits fell one after another. In 1967 Mayol broke the 70m notch diving 71m. Six years later, in 1973, Maiorca conquered the depth of 80m. It took Mayol two years to win another 10m, and in 1975 he dived 92m. But the most-desired milestone in this race was the depth of 100 meters. And in 1976, this barrier was broken by Mayol with a no-limits 101m dive off Elba, Italy. Later Mayol improved his result with 105m in 1983 and retired from freediving after that.

This historic race for the new depths is well-known among the freedivers even today and is a fascinating and adventurous story about courage, discipline, rivalry and friendship. To plunge yourself into the atmosphere of the race of freediving pioneers, we advise you to watch a 1988 film, “The Big Blue” by Luc Besson, a cult classic in the diving fraternity, with Mayol as one of the screenwriters.

In the late 1970s, with the depths going down, there were rising concerns in CMAS about the risks of deep freediving to the human body. As a result, CMAS announced that they would no longer register new freediving records.

Santarelli Amerigo
Enzo Maiorca & Jacques Mayol
Bob Croft

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At the same time, we’ll subscribe you to the Freedive Academy iMagazine, and every two weeks, we’ll send you an email with news and schedules for courses and online (free) events that everyone can join.

Freediving is an incredible sport, and it’s amazing what the human body can do. Message us today and submerge yourself in a beautiful world in one breath!

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1990-Present: New Heroes

After CMAS stopped registering freediving records, no centralised organisation would organize international championships and protocol the depths. But the records kept coming.

1989 – Angela Bandini became the first woman in the history of freediving to surpass her male rivals. On October 3, 1989, she reached the depth of 107m near the Island of Elba.

Bandini is an Italian freediver born on May 26, 1961, in Rimini. She had been in the sport since her childhood. In 1980, at the age of 19, she joined the “Lake-Mountain Expedition” to the Peruvian Andes led by the Institute of Human Physiology of the University of Chieti to try herself in high-altitude freediving. During the expedition, she dove 20m deep in the Huacracocha lake at the altitude of 5000m. The physiology of high altitude diving had not been yet thoroughly studied at that time, but freediving to this depth was considered to be equal to 50m at sea level. Later in 1985, she obtained the female world record diving to 52m, and only four years later became the absolute world champion. Beyond freediving, Bandini was involved in TV projects popularising the freediving sport and the sea.

1989 – later that year, Bandini’s record was beaten by Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras in Cuba with 112m. Ferreras was born on January 18, 1962, in Matanzas, a city on the northern coast of Cuba. “Pipin” was his childhood nickname. Later he added Ferreras. He started diving at the age of 5 and later made spearfishing and picking black coral his job. Pipin got to know about freediving from some Italians visiting Cuba and realized that he routinely dived as deep as the world champions. So he decided to try himself as a professional sportsman and, at 27, set his first world record.

1991 – Italian freediver Umberto Pelizzari sets a new record of 118m. Pelizzari, born August 28, 1965, came to freediving from professional swimming at the age of 19. During his career, he became the only person of that time to establish world records in all existing freediving disciplines.

Pelizzari and Pipin started as friends and training partners but soon became rivals in the run for the record. All through the 90s, they kept pushing each other deeper and deeper, like Mayol and Mayorca in the 60s-70s. In 1992 Pipin reached 120m, beaten by Pelizzari in 1993 with 123m. Later the same year, in 1993, Pipin regained his leadership diving 125m and held the title of the champion until 1995, reaching 128m.

1996 – Pelizzari set a new record of 131m at the freediving Team World Championship held for the first time for many years since CMAS resigned from the sport. Association Internationale held the event pour le Développement de l’Apnée (International Association for the Development of Apnea, AIDA), a new freediving organization founded by Frenchmen Roland Specker, Loïc Leferme and Claude Chapuis November 2, 1992, in Nice, France, as a worldwide body for keeping the rules and records in competitive freediving.

Later in 1996, Pippin surpassed Pelizzari again by 2 meters with 133m.

1998 – another ex-professional swimmer, Italian Gianluca Genoni, takes it up a notch to 135m. Genoni, born July 5 1968, later became famous for his achievements in static apnea and altitude and ice diving.

1999 – French Loïc Leferme dives 137m. Lefreme was born August 28, 1970, at Dunkerque. He came from a swimming family. His grandfather was a national coach, and father – a national swimming champion, so Leferme started swimming early in the swimming pool his father managed. When he was 12, the family moved to a village on the Mediterranean coast. In 1990 Leferme entered the sports faculty at Nice University, where he met Claude Chapuis, Olivier Heuleu and Marc Council. They introduced Lefreme to freediving and later with Lefreme became the core committee of AIDA.

Later in 1999, Pelizzari surpassed Leferme with a new record of 150m.

2002 – the second woman in history to become the absolute freediving record holder, Tanya Streeter set a record of 160m, which remains the women’s world record for the no-limits category.

Streeter, born Tanya Dailey, January 10 1973, Grand Cayman) is a British-Caymanian-American athlete. She started her career at 25 and almost immediately began to break records, bettering women’s No Limits diving record by 10 feet. So by 2002, she was at the peak of her career. After setting three world records in different categories, Streeter retired from freediving in 2008 when she gave birth and decided to devote more time to her family. She is also a public speaker, television host and environmentalist.

Streeter held her No Limits record of 2002 for more than two months but was exceeded the same year by Loïc Leferme, who dove 162m. Later in 2004, Leferme bettered his own record to 171m.

2005 Herbert Nitsch dives 172m. Born April 20 1970, this Austrian athlete is at present the closing face in the hall of freediving record history. His freediving career started In the late nineties with an amusing incident. On the way to a scuba dive safari, his diving equipment got lost in transit, so Herbert went snorkelling and freediving. He was progressing fast, and after only ten days of vacation, he was 2 meters short of the Austrian National record. Through his career, Nitsch has set a total of 33 world records across all of the eight freediving disciplines recognized by AIDA International and received the title of “the Deepest Man on Earth”. Nitsch is also famous for his inventions and innovations in freediving equipment and techniques, such as the neck weight, pipe mask, decompression stop on breath-hold, oxygen-use after deep diving, the EQUEX (equalization extension tool), and “couch training” (a dry training sitting on the couch that consists of multiple exhale breath-holds lasting for 60 to 90 minutes). Outside his career in sports, for 15 years, Nitsch was an airline Captain for the Austrian Airlines Group but decided to drop his job in aviation to focus on freediving.

For two years from 2005, Nitsch bettered his own record by an astonishing amount of 42 meters, reaching 214m by 2007. In 2012, he dove to 253m but suffered an injury in the process. During the dive, the athlete temporarily fell asleep due to nitrogen narcosis and consequently missed the planned one-minute underwater decompression stop, which later caused severe decompression sickness and multiple brain strokes. With a prognosis of remaining a wheelchair-bound care-dependent patient, Nitsch took the recovery into his own hands, and two years later, against all odds, he is fit, training and deep-freediving again.

Honourable Mention: As publishers of this article, it simply doesn’t feel right to leave this article without giving credit to the queen of freediving Natalia Molchanova who has 41 World Records, was the first woman to break the -100 meter mark and is the founder of the Molchanovs freediving courses and the education system that we all love now. Still, today she is being missed as the freediving Mom for so many top-level athletes. Natalia Molchanova was an incredible part of the history of freediving.

Umberto Pelizzari & Enzo Maiorca
Tanya Streeter
Herbert Nitsch

Do you want to learn how to freedive or have questions, please contact us anytime? Also, do contact us if you want to join any of our freediving courses. We teach freediving courses in the Philippines, but we also teach freediving online via nice and entertaining Zoom classes almost every week. The same goes for our freedive instructor courses that we teach every few weeks online – we offer different options, but they are fun and entertaining.