A Free Diver’s Training Partners: Sharks

It was another perfect February morning off the coral atoll of Tikehau, French Polynesia, when Denis Grosmaire, 44, anchored around 8 in the morning. Grosmaire, French Polynesia’s deepest free diver, peered over the edge into the crystal-clear South Pacific Ocean. On one side of his speedboat was a flourishing coral reef that plunged toward the shadowy depths. On the other was endless blue water. He slipped on a pair of fins, dropped in alone and waited for company.

Two old friends — or as he calls them, “his lovers” — soon materialized from the blue and swam toward him with easy grace. Chuppa and Victoria were long and muscular, their eyes inscrutable drops of black ink, their skin mostly light gray with charcoal stripes. Their powerful tails swished elegantly behind them. They were tiger sharks, each over 14 feet long.

He stood tall in the water and faced them, extending his arm. The sharks banked right, one after the other, close enough for Grosmaire to pet them between their gills and their powerful jaws, which were rimmed with 48 serrated teeth, ideal for slashing through flesh and bone. The pair swam off, harmlessly, only to circle back. This time they came close enough for Grosmaire to lean in and give Chuppa a hug.

Professional free divers are a daring lot. The best of them can hold their breath for over 10 minutes at the surface, and plunge to depths of well over 300 feet on one breath. When they aren’t competing, they dive for fun, sometimes in extreme settings or alongside charismatic wildlife. Instagram is speckled with images of divers swimming with humpback and sperm whales, crocodiles and even great white sharks.

More often than not, those are one-off encounters or expeditions. But when Grosmaire is home in Tikehau, where he has lived for five years, he swims with tiger sharks at least once a week.

He knows them so well, he can identify them on sight by their stripes, movements or tiny imperfections, such as a frayed edge of a dorsal fin.

He studies their personality quirks. He gave them names. While there are scuba shops and dive guides elsewhere in the world that promise cage-free encounters with tiger sharks, Grosmaire doesn’t bring tourists along on his shark dives. It’s not a business, but it is much more profound than a hobby. It’s a calling.

“It might seem crazy if you don’t know how to be comfortable in the open water with big animals around,” said Alexey Molchanov, the deepest free diver ever, who has enjoyed dives with humpbacks, bull sharks and walruses. “But the comfort comes from trusting one’s own ability and trusting the environment, and that takes time.”

Grosmaire was raised in French Polynesia and grew up surfing and spearfishing, though he did not venture below 66 feet, the depth students are meant to reach in a beginner-level free diving course, until he was in his late 30s. He had heard stories of spearfishermen who stayed down too long while diving alone and blacked out, which can be deadly. One of the early lessons he learned when he took his first free diving class in 2016 was that he should never dive without a buddy.

The best underwater hunters are strong free divers, since in much of the world spearfishing with scuba gear is either illegal or out of fashion and considered environmentally irresponsible. But it is the rare spearfisherman who becomes so captivated by the experience of diving deep along a line that he yearns to compete.

By the end of his initial intermediate course, Grosmaire reached 100 feet with relative ease. Later that year, he entered his first competition, and reached 170 feet. Shortly thereafter, he traveled to Moscow to train with Molchanov.

“Really good spear fishers have an amazing starting point,” Molchanov said. “They trust the water and are really relaxed and aware, and need much less time to progress to become great free divers.”

In 2018, while competing at the sport’s premier event, Vertical Blue, Grosmaire reached 305 feet in the free immersion discipline, in which athletes pull themselves along a rope down to depth and back without wearing fins. More recently, he has reached 345 feet in training. That depth makes him truly elite, and if he reaches his goal of hitting 361 feet by the end of the year, he may earn a top-10 ranking.

But his passion for sharks predates and surpasses his love of competitive free diving. He has mingled with and photographed resident tiger sharks in the water around Tikehau, the more rustic atoll of Apataki, and the island of Moorea since 2004, back when he was working a desk job in human resources for the Moorea Island Administration.

In 2005, he was a part of a successful campaign that established a national shark fishing ban. Within two years, it was illegal for any boat with a dead shark in storage to dock in French Polynesia.

Grosmaire still sees himself as a shark advocate. It’s why he shares his footage online. “The idea is to tell people that we can create a relation,” he said. “That’s why I give them names.”

Grosmaire can hold his breath for over seven minutes, but his shark dives are relatively short and shallow. He doesn’t get much deeper than 50 feet and stays down 60 to 90 seconds at a time. He almost always swims with sharks alone with his camera as his only shield. He rarely wears a wet suit and never takes his spear. Frequently he’ll set his camera back on his boat and lose himself in the moment. “When I have a camera, I can’t hug them,” he explained.

He is often warned by locals in Tikehau and others in French Polynesia that what he is doing is dangerous. While there has not been a deadly shark attack in French Polynesia in more than 50 years, he had one near miss last year, when he attempted to kiss Chuppa on the top of her head. He closed his eyes and puckered up, but instead of sharkskin on his lips, he felt his head get sucked backward, as if caught in a vacuum. It wasn’t a vacuum.

Tiger sharks eat by sucking in a large volume of water, and for a moment, Grosmaire’s head was inside Chuppa’s open mouth. He jerked his head free and pushed her away just before her jaws snapped shut. He didn’t realize exactly what had happened until a dive buddy presented him with the footage.

“I didn’t pay attention about the trajectory of the shark. I was too comfortable,” he said. “I didn’t sleep for two nights.”

According to the International Shark Attack File, which has tracked and investigated reported shark attacks for nearly 70 years, tiger sharks are responsible for 138 “unprovoked” attacks on humans and 36 known fatalities, which makes them the second most lethal shark species (when it comes to humans).

“Of course, there is risk. As soon as you put your face in the water and hold your breath, there is risk,” said Anna von Boetticher, a German who has made a name for herself for diving beneath glaciers in Greenland and other feats. “We all take risks, and we all break rules, so I understand the desire to be alone, to have this experience for yourself. I think that’s quite beautiful.”

But, she continued, “What really drives me crazy is when people go free diving alone, and they’re super sure that nothing can happen and they’re fine.”

Is it comfort with risk or faith in nature and self that inoculates extreme and adventure athletes like Grosmaire to danger? Is it naïveté, arrogance or love? Perhaps it’s all of the above.

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

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