Free Diving Training Partners: Sharks

It was another perfect February morning at Tikehaus, in French Polynesia, near the Coral Atoll when 44-year-old Dennis Grossmer got up at 8am. Grossmer, the deepest diver in French Polynesia, overlooked the crystal clear southern Pacific Ocean. On one side of his speedboat was a lush coral reef that ran deep into the shadows. On the other was endless blue water. He flipped the fins, fell alone and waited for the company.

Two old friends – or as he calls them, “his lovers” – soon materialized from the blues and swam towards him with simple grace. Chupa and Victoria were long and muscular, their eyes dripping with invisible drops of black ink, their skin mostly streaked with light gray charcoal. Their strong tails gracefully spun behind them. They were tiger sharks, each 14 feet long.

Standing high in the water and facing them, he held out his hand. The sharks sniffed one after the other, close enough for Grossmayer to see them between their cheeks and powerful jaws that had 48 toothed teeth, ideal for cutting meat and bone. The couple swam safely, only to be traced back. This time they were close enough that Grossmer leaned over and hugged Chupa.

Professional free divers are brave a lot. Most of them can hold their breath for more than 10 minutes on the surface and sink to a depth of 300 feet with one exhale. When they are not competing, they dive for fun, sometimes in extreme environments or with charismatic wildlife. Instagram is permeated with images of divers swimming along with hummingbirds and sperm whales, crocodiles and white sharks.

More often than not, these are one-on-one meetings or expeditions. But when Grossmer is home to Tikehaus, 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 recognize them by their stripes, movements, or tiny imperfections, such as the broken edges of a spinal cord.

He studies their personal qualities. He named them. While there are scuba shops and diving guides elsewhere in the world that promise to meet tiger sharks without a cage, Grossmer does not take tourists with him when his shark dives. It’s not a business, but it’s a lot deeper than a hobby. This is a calling.

“It may seem crazy to you if you do not know how to be comfortable in the open water around large animals,” said Alexei Molchanov, the deepest diver ever, who loved diving with turtles, bulls, sharks and sailors. “But comfort comes with confidence in your own abilities and environment, and it takes time.”

Grossmer grew up in French Polynesia and grew up in surfing and spearfishing, although he did not go below 66 feet, depth students had to reach a beginner free diving course before he was in his late 30s. He had heard stories of spear-wielding fishermen who had long been left alone to dive and obscured, which could be deadly. One of the earliest lessons he learned when he took his first free diving lesson in 2016 was that you should never dive without a friend.

The best underwater hunters are powerful free divers because in most parts of the world scuba fishing with spear tools is either illegal or not in vogue and is considered environmentally irresponsible. But this is a rare spear-wielding fisherman who becomes so fascinated by the experience of deep diving along the line that he wants to compete.

At the end of his initial intermediate course, Grossmer reached 100 feet relatively easily. Later that year, he competed in his first race and reached 170 feet. Shortly afterwards he left for Moscow to train with Molchanov.

“Really good spear fishermen have an amazing starting point,” Molchanov said. “They trust the water and are really relaxed and aware and take much less time to move forward to become excellent free divers.”

In 2018, while competing in the sport’s main event, Vertical Blue, Grossmer reached 305 feet in the free diving discipline, during which athletes jump rope to depth and back without wearing fins. Most recently he has reached 345 feet in training. That depth makes him truly elite, and if he achieves his goal of hitting 361 feet by the end of the year, he might fall into the top-10 rankings.

But his passion for sharks precedes and outweighs his love of competitive free diving. He has been interfering with and photographing native tiger sharks in the water since 2004, around Tikehaus, the more rustic Atoll of Apataka, and the island of Muria, since 2004 when he worked as a desk manager in the human resources department of Murray Island.

In 2005, he was part of a successful campaign that imposed a national ban on shark fishing. For two years, any boat kept by a dead shark in French Polynesia was illegal.

Grossmer still sees himself as a shark defender. That’s why he shares his footage on the internet. “The idea is to tell people that we can build a relationship,” he said. “That’s why I give them names.”

Grossmer can hold his breath for more than seven minutes, but his shark dive is relatively short and shallow. It does not go much deeper than 50 feet and stops at 60 to 90 seconds at a time. He almost always swims alone with sharks, the only shields with a camera. He rarely wears a wet suit and never takes a spear. Often he turns the camera on his boat and loses himself. “When I have a camera, I can not hug them,” he explained.

He is often warned by locals in Tikehaus and others in French Polynesia that what he is doing is dangerous. Although he has not been attacked by a deadly shark in French Polynesia for more than 50 years, he had one almost missed one last year when he tried to kiss Chupa on the head. He closed his eyes and lifted them, but instead of shark skin on his lips, he felt his head tilt back as if he were in a vacuum. It was not a vacuum.

Tiger sharks eat large volumes of water, and for a moment Grossmer’s head was in Chupa’s open mouth. He escaped freely and walked away until his jaws closed. He did not realize exactly what had happened until a diving friend introduced him to the footage.

“I did not pay attention to the shark trajectory. “I was too comfortable,” he said. “I did not sleep for two nights.”

According to the International Shark Attack File, which has tracked and studied shark attacks for nearly 70 years, tiger sharks are responsible for 138 “unprovoked” attacks on humans and 36 known deaths, making them the second most deadly shark species. Comes to people).

“Of course there is a risk. “As soon as you put your face in the water and hold your breath, you are in danger,” said Anna von Boeticher, a German who has made a name for herself by diving under the Greenland Glacier and with other victories. “We all take risks and we all break the rules, so I understand the desire to be alone, this experience for myself. I think it’s pretty beautiful. “

But he continued: “What really makes me mad is that people go alone for free diving and they are very confident that nothing can happen and they are fine.”

Is comfort at risk or a belief in nature and self that poses a threat to extreme and adventure-loving athletes like Grossmer? Is it naivety, arrogance or love? Probably all of the above.

“To be honest, if one day the worst happens,” Grossmer said, “I will take it forever. I will never blame the shark. “

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