Free Diving with Pierre Frolla
What exactly is Free Diving? It sounds simple: like scuba diving, but with one major difference. It is without the scuba tank. So it’s all about breath and holding your breath. It is exhilarating and demanding, as Lisa Barnard discovered in Monaco with one of the past world champions in free diving, Pierre Frolla.
A Lesson in Free Diving with Pierre Frolla
Pierre and Lisa in action – James Lipman Photography
When you are invited by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars for an initiation in free diving in Monaco, it is hard to resist the challenge. I arrived in the unparalleled comfort of a Roll-Royce Phantom to the free diving school in Monaco, run and owned by Pierre Frolla, who is the four-time world champion of free diving in the world. How privileged was I to have a one-to-one initiation by this Master.
It was initially believed that humans could not dive deeper than 38 metres (125 feet). But now the world’s top free divers go much deeper, thanks to the biological mechanisms, known as the mammalian dive reflex. It allows humans to conserve oxygen, slow the heart rate and survive for much longer periods despite the atmospheric pressure.
Four times world champion Pierre Frolla – James Lipman Photography
Frolla’s story is extraordinary. He was immersed, literally, in the ocean from a tender age: “When I was young, I was totally fascinated by the ocean. My father was a champion in free diving and spearfishing. I grew up with my brother in this climate, in this mode of thinking, that was the reality.”
Teaching the next generation to navigate the ocean is an ongoing project close to Frolla’s heart and as a result is the highly respected “Academie Monegasque de la Mer”, which he launched in central Monaco in 2002.
A group of 25 school children arrived at the same time as I did for a water safety lesson: “They will not do free diving or a diving course,” explained Frolla. “They will do an ocean race. It’s part of the big lessons they have – nine courses with us during the school year.
“But when I launched this school, it was a project to teach children from the age of 8 how to dive, free dive and save the ocean. In fact, diving and free diving are really an excuse to teach them how to improve and save the oceans.”
Pierre Frolla diving in the Bahamas
Pierre diving with whales
Frolla is so passionate about the ocean, he even persuaded his fiancée, now wife, in 2015 to hold their wedding underwater. She was not experienced in diving, but was still willing to descend to the bottom of the sea in her full wedding regalia. Prince Albert II of Monaco was the witness of their underwater union. Have a look on YouTube.
Frolla became a diving instructor after he broke his shoulder when training to participate in Judo in the Olympic Games in 1996, and this took him into free diving:
“After training, in 1997 I broke the French record in variable weight during a training. Variable weight is one of the disciplines in the diving, where you go to the bottom on your own in constant weight of free immersion. You use nothing. You go down and you go up on your own or you use a weight, it’s called variable weight or no limit. I broke the record during a training, the French record. So we decided to officialise it.”
That was Frolla’s first record break but there were more to come. It is monitored by AIDA (the International Association for the Development of Apnea): “I won four French records, so I decided to become a professional in this discipline. I trained for free immersion in European Championships. But I was focusing on the variable weight competition, because at 115 meters there was the world record of a discipline that was really strong in freediving but in France only as the national record. I wanted to beat the world record.”
But all did not go to plan, as Frolla candidly confesses: “I was focusing on the 115 meters, but I was too much in a hurry. I wanted to have the record. I didn’t take the time. I was impatient, not humble. I was young. I thought I was the strongest of the world. So, I fell in the trap and I broke my lung. This stopped me.”
“It wasn’t possible for me to continue and train more than 90 meters. Lungs are like a big sponge. The blood went from my body to my alveoli, instead of air, so basically you have blood in your throat. It is ok okay because the lungs will recover, but it takes time, 4-6 weeks, depending on how you train.”
“In fact, during that summer I did break the French record, the European record and the world record in free immersion. It was for 64, 68 and 72 meters and for 3 years I was the world champion in free diving and free immersion. It was fabulous but I was always focusing on the variable weight. It is hard discipline because you go down and you have to force a lot to go up.”
15 years ago, Frolla stopped competing and launched his free diving school. We spent an afternoon where at first, we practised breathing techniques with slow exhales and how to increase the lung’s capacity for air through the diaphragm. This, explained Frolla, is the same technique if you have to go on stage and speak to an audience of 1,000:
“I have a 4-year-old son and he says going under the water makes him feel bad in his stomach. He is frightened, so now he discovers fear and love at the same time. The key is learn to exhale in the water. I don’t need to know how you go down. It’s how you come up and exhale.”
We did some snorkelling, which was the best experience I have had as I was guided by Frolla expertly by the hand. Then we tried some Free Diving, using a rope tethered to a boat to guide my way down and importantly up. I reached my own “personal best” of 8 metres!
Pierre meets all kinds of wildlife
For those who wish to dive deeper into the world of free diving, there is a fascinating new documentary by the filmmaker Laura McGann’s The Deepest Breath which has launched on Netflix. Telling the moving story of two free divers and their journey to cross paths: a champion, Alessia Zecchini, trying to break world records and safety diver, Stephen Keenan, who helps her train. The film gives a stunning view into the world of free diving, shot underwater of course.