Julie Gautier can dive 72 metres underwater

Credit: Courtesy of TAG Heuer

I can hold my breath underwater for up to seven minutes. I’ve spent my life training my body. Strong muscles are key to being able to withstand the pressure of the water, which increases the deeper you dive. I do a lot of breathing exercises and a lot of yoga and partake in Pranayama, the ancient practice of holding your breath. I also do all kinds of outdoor sports like running and rock climbing, which help me get in the mindset of being very focused and aware of your body underwater.

The furthest I’ve ever dived is 72 metres underwater. I began officially competing in the sport in my early 20s and went on to achieve a French freediving record at a depth of −65 metres, before breaking that in 2007 with a dive of -68 metres.

At the age of 11, I accompanied my father, who was a sea hunter, on spearfishing trips. My relationship with water started as a young girl growing up on the French island of Reunion in the Indian ocean. My mother was a dance teacher and I followed in her footsteps and took up dancing too, although it would be years until I actually combined both.

Freediving is often perceived as a dangerous and extreme sport, but it’s actually one of the safest in an open environment. Freedivers follow several safety protocols in case they get into difficulty. Wearing a fin, we swim below the surface of the water, staying close to a dive line, or rope. Lanyards attach us to the dive line, and safety divers or “buddies” around us can feel the vibrations from the lanyards running down the rope. They will also feel a pull on the rope when the diver begins their ascent. Buddies will meet the diver at depth and ascend with them to the surface. The worst that can happen is you black out and if a diver faints, the safety divers will step in to bring them to the surface.

The most dangerous place where I’ve freedived was in waters near the Galapagos Islands. I was there filming some sea lions and we got very close to a few females – they’re such beautiful creatures and the best underwater dancers ever in my opinion. The males, however, are really protective of the females. I remember experiencing quite a scary moment with them because they can bark very loudly under the water. I’m not afraid of sharks or big water fish, but that experience with the sea lions was quite new to me.

Julie Gautier with husband and world-record freediver Guillaume Nery

Credit: Getty Images

Freediving is like one big meditation, you always have to focus on all your sensations and be as relaxed as possible. When you achieve a perfect dive, you don’t have this urge to breathe. You feel completely part of the ocean. The moment you are so low in depth, the weight of water takes you down. It’s as if you are no longer feeling your body, because you feel weightless. Time passes very differently in the water, but my diving watch helps keep me rooted in reality.

I used to compete as a professional freediver, but now I train my body for performance. It wasn’t until I did some underwater modelling work that I started to understand that I could combine freediving and dance so organically and, encouraged by my husband and world-record freediver Guillaume Nery, I started making underwater films. I fell in love with it so much that I even continued to do a bit of diving while I was pregnant and shot a film 10 days before I gave birth to my daughter.

My first video, shot in Dean’s Blue Hole, the world’s largest underwater sinkhole, gained 27 million views on YouTube. I filmed Guillaume standing on the crevice of the hole, before he dived into its dark abyss. The video’s popularity proved that people wanted to witness the underwater world differently – they wanted to see the magic and the beauty and the oneiric side of what water can achieve.

One of my future projects is a documentary exploring why I have such a strong relationship with water. It will also speak to some of my other passions, including nature and conservation. Unfortunately, I’ve dived in many places where I’ve seen plastic floating about, especially in the Philippines and the Maldives, and conserving our oceans is an important issue I am determined to raise awareness about. 

Julie Gautier, a TAG Heuer Ambassador, was speaking to Fiona Tomas