From Out of the Big Blue Comes Free-Diving Champ Jacques Mayol

updated 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the lyrical new movie The Big Blue, a beautifully photographed, if somewhat plotless, paean to the mystical pull of the sea, the hero plunges into icy waters and calmly descends hundreds of feet below the surface without benefit of oxygen. He swims tirelessly with schools of dolphins. He seems more like Superman gone off the deep end than a real man—even than such a free spirit as Jacques Mayol, whose extraordinary life The Big Blue celebrates. Mayol, quite simply, is the greatest free diver in recorded history. In 1983, at the age of 56, aided only by a pair of noseclips and a 66-pound weight, Mayol dove into the Mediterranean and headed straight down to a record 345 feet, roughly the equivalent of a 30-story building. Drawing on a lung capacity of about seven quarts (the average for an athlete is about four), Mayol held his breath for the three minutes and 15 seconds it took him to make the round trip, his body enduring water pressure of more than 170 pounds per square inch. But Mayol was just doing what came nautically. "I'm like a wild animal," he says. "I like freedom of space and I live intensely for the moment. The worst thing in life is to suffer from not having done what one had wished to do."

That calamity is unlikely to befall Mayol. "I am very unorthodox in my way of living," he says. "I am not a family man at heart nor am I nationalistic." Drawn to the sea since childhood, Mayol lives a peripatetic life, keeping homes on the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies and on Napoleon's old haunt, the Mediterranean isle of Elba. He has traveled the world visiting primitive diving societies. He has studied Yoga and worked with an aged Zen monk in Japan in order to turn an ancient wheel into the modern diving weight that French director Luc Besson features in The Big Blue. "The film's 50 percent true, 50 percent fantasy," says Mayol, who served as a consultant. "I enjoyed it."

Like the movie's hero, Mayol has a fascination with the sea that approaches the transcendent. Last year while he was diving off Maui, a pod of humpback whales appeared. "The whale song came and filled my bones," says Mayol. "I felt as if I were a part of them, that the music was going through my body. I forgot everything. It was something divine."

But unlike the movie's shy and taciturn hero, played by French-American actor Jean-Marc (Hope and Glory) Barr, Mayol is a talkative type, especially when it comes to the topic of human abuse of the sea. "I avoid swimming by coastlines," he says. "After 40 years in the water, I know the taste of pollution. I could taste ocean water from a drinking glass and tell you where it came from."

When it comes to women, Jacques has got some barnacle-encrusted opinions. "I prefer Oriental women," he says. "Occidental women have lost their femininity. They are too involved in a man's world." Females, intellectually inferior to males, Mayol feels, are better left home to knit: "I don't like women who try to compete with men."

Divorced for 28 years, Mayol frequently visits his Miami-based children, Jean-Jacques, 33, a scuba instructor, and Dottie, 37, a marine lab researcher. He lives with a sculptor girlfriend who is younger than either of his children, but he has no plans to marry. "I was married once and I was in love once," he says, the latter sentiment referring to a six-year liaison with a woman who died. "Now I consider myself a widower."

Born in Shanghai, the son of a French architect, Mayol learned to dive at age 3 in a private pool. During his family's frequent vacations to Japan he began ocean diving. At the outbreak of World War II the Mayol family was caught in Marseilles. When German troops dynamited local waters to kill fish for eating, boys were allowed to dive for the leftovers. "I learned to dive deep in order to get the most fish to feed my family," says Mayol.

After the war and a series of odd jobs—lumberjack, coal miner, journalist—Jacques ditched diving to marry a Scandinavian, Vickie Wadsholt. The couple moved to Canada, and Mayol worked as a farmer and a TV correspondent. By 1957 he had had enough of the wintry hinterlands and accepted a job as a journalist based in Miami. Vickie, unhappy, moved back to Sweden with the children, and Jacques was left to indulge his itinerant itch. He flitted from Florida to California to Italy and then to the Bahamas, where he worked as a documentary producer and practiced his free diving.

In 1966 Mayol won his first of three World Underwater Federation Championships by diving to what now seems a paltry 198 feet. In 1970 the Federation deemed the sport too dangerous and transferred it from the competitive arena to the realm of scientific research. In 1976, when Mayol descended to 328 feet, even the scientists believed that nobody could survive a deeper dive.

Mayol did, of course, and now, at 61, plans to do it again—by reaching 360 feet. He is practicing off his island home in the Mediterranean. While it is quite conceivable that Mayol's upcoming dive could kill him, it is less conceivable that he will be put off by that possibility. "I will continue to dive," says the daredevil, "until I know within myself that I must stop."

—By John Stark, with Careth Ellingson in Miami

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