Tuesday 17 October 2017

Obituary: Enzo Maiorca

Renowned Italian free diver who defied experts by reaching new ocean depths

RECORDS: Enzo Maiorca
RECORDS: Enzo Maiorca

Enzo Maiorca who has died aged 85, was the first man to dive 50m (164ft) without breathing apparatus; a feat previously believed to be physiologically impossible.

Between 1960 and 1974 Maiorca held as many as 13 world records in the "no limits" class of free diving, in which divers may use any means to go as deep as they can. The most common method - and the one practised by Maiorca - has divers clutch a weighted, rope-guided sled, which plunges to the prescribed depth. Competitors then inflate a lifting bag from a gas canister to propel themselves to the surface.

Having made it to a depth of 50m in August 1961, Maiorca surpassed his own record again and again.

With the medical wisdom of the time set against him, he drew inspiration from the life of the Greek fisherman Yorgos Haggi Statti, who in 1913 had dived 77m (252ft) to locate the anchor of the wrecked Italian battleship Regina Margherita.

"A pair of doctors witnessed this and reported what they saw but were dismissed by their medical colleagues," Maiorca told Diver magazine.

"As I progressed I was learning more and coming to realise that the doctors were building walls based on beliefs that were wrong."

Throughout his career Enzo Maiorca enjoyed a spirited rivalry with fellow free diver Jacques Mayol, who in 1976 trounced Maiorca's previous achievements by reaching a record depth of 100m. The director Luc Besson turned their story into a film, The Big Blue (1988), which achieved huge commercial success in France and acquired a cult following for its ravishing cinematography and quasi-mystical vision of man's relationship to nature.

The film also sought to play up the contrasts in personality between its two subjects, giving Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) a fictional love interest and making much of his spiritual approach to the sport.

Maiorca saw few similarities between his own character and that of his brash on-screen alter ego, who was renamed Enzo Molinari and played by Jean Reno.

He brought a lawsuit to prevent the release of The Big Blue in Italy, but relented following Mayol's death in 2001 - on condition that the film receive several dialogue cuts.

Enzo Maiorca was born in Syracuse, Sicily, on June 21, 1931. He learnt to swim at the age of four, and took a keen interest in spear-fishing as a young man. A distressing encounter with a "combative grouper", however, prompted him to focus his energies on free-diving from the 1960s.

In 1970 the dive organisation CMAS (Confederation Mondiale Activities Subaquatiques) stopped sanctioning "no limits" free diving as a world-record sport, believing that the attendant health risks were too great. Instead it was labelled a kind of "applied experimentation", to be conducted only with the support of trained safety personnel. The ruling did nothing to dampen public enthusiasm, and Maiorca's attempt to set a new record depth of 90m off Sorrento on September 22, 1974, was televised by the Italian state broadcaster RAI.

Just a few metres into the dive, however, Maiorca collided with the journalist and diver Enzo Bottesini, who had been dispatched by RAI to get close-up footage. Maiorca surfaced and subjected Bottesini to a barrage of invective, which was streamed live to Italian audiences.

The incident saw Maiorca ostracised by national networks, and he retreated from competitive diving for the next decade.

He set a new personal best in 1988, aged 57, with a dive of 101m (331ft).

In later years, Maiorca made a brief foray into politics, serving as a senator for the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) party from 1994 to 1996.

He married Maria Gibiino, with whom he had two daughters, Patrizia and Rossana. Both became free divers. Rossana died in 2005.  (© Telegraph)

  • Enzo Maiorca, born June 21, 1931, died November 13, 2016.

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