Deep and Going Deeper

In the final lines of his book Deep, journalist James Nestor ponders the mystery of the human being and asks, “What are we?” It is a question, he says, that he asks with every breath, the question that drove his intensive research. His book explores not only the secrets about marine life and evolution that can be glimpsed in the depths of the ocean, but some extraordinary and little-known abilities of the human body in deep water.

The year it was published, Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Scientific American Recommended Read. I devoured the book with great fascination because, I too, am seeking answers to the question “What are we?” or perhaps, “Who are we?” My experience has taught me that human beings today–even those with advanced academic degrees–have a dangerously inadequate understanding of the answer to those questions. Like the freedivers and “renegade scientists” that Nestor gets to know in his research, I, too, have experienced human capabilities that have been, for centuries at a time, forgotten secrets known only to a few. I, too, have a sense of urgency about our need, in this moment in history, to learn some of those crucial secrets—truths about human nature and the nature of reality.


Nestor’s journey into the depths began when he was sent to Greece to report on the annual world freediving competition. What he saw both fascinated and horrified him. Until then, he’d had no idea that human beings were capable of diving as many as three hundred feet deep and staying underwater for three minutes, wearing only wetsuits and filling their lungs with a single deep breath. He was repelled, however, by how many competitors threatened their own lives in the effort to achieve new records. After two competitions, he refused to attend any more. However, along the way he met some freedivers who use their skills not for competition but to explore the depths of the ocean. At the same time, they are discovering more about some extraordinary abilities of the human body.

The human embryo goes through stages similar to the evolution of the species, from a marine creature to a human being. For example, at about four weeks, the human embryo, like all vertebrates, forms pharyngeal gill slits in their throat region. In fish, similar slits develop into gills, but human embryos develop lungs instead. What Nestor learns, and then explains in Deep, is that the human body exhibits unexpected capacities deep underwater, capacities that may remain from earlier stages in evolution.

Underwater, it is possible to hold one’s breath longer than above water. Under strong water pressure, human lungs contract in size. The body withdraws blood from the extremities and then later releases a fresh boost of oxygen to the vital organs after minutes underwater, an event that freedivers refer to as “Flipping the Master Switch.” Until thirty feet, natural buoyancy lifts the human body to the surface of a body of water. There is, however, a point at which the body is no longer able to simply float to the surface. At around thirty feet deep, there is a “no-gravity” zone, where a human body neither rises nor falls. And then, around 35 to 40 feet deep, gravity begins to pull the human body into the depths of the ocean. This is what freedivers call “the doorway to the deep.” At this point, they no longer need to work to go deeper; they simply allow themselves to be drawn into the depths. They count on flipping the “Master Switch” to give them the oxygen they need to fight gravity for their return to the surface.

To become a freediver, James Nestor had to learn many skills. For instance, how to fill his lungs to maximum capacity; how to hold his breath at least four minutes submerged in water; how to equalize the air pressure in his head and ears without taking in more air; and how to reach the doorway to the deep and allow himself to be effortlessly pulled deeper. Overcoming his fear of deep water was a crucial skill, as well. He learned these skills in order to accompany the freedivers and “renegade scientists” who have made it their work to learn more about large marine animals, including dolphins, whales, and sharks. They meet these creatures in the depths of the ocean, where they are at home, recording and videotaping their interactions and communications to discover how they communicate, gain information, and find direction across long distances.

Scientists who are supported by research institutions and large grants generally restrict their study of whale interactions to recording and photographing them from the decks of boats. The freediving scientists, however, meet them in the water. Their research requires great patience and a certain amount of vulnerability. They travel by boat to places where they are likely to encounter the marine animals they want to study, but once in the water, freedivers don’t chase whales, dolphins, or sharks. Instead, they go deep and wait until the marine animals choose to approach them. Some of them are motivated by a love of these creatures, some of which have been hated and decimated by human populations over time. They study these animals, in part, because they want to explain them well enough to prevent their extinction.

Photo by Emma Li on

Nestor describes what they have learned about how whales identify other creatures through echolocation in the water, using loud clicks like a form of underwater radar and x-ray, and then receiving from the echoes an image of the bones and organs of those they are encountering. Sperm whales, he learns, do not chew their prey. They use their teeth as “antenna” in the process of echolocation. Instead, they stun their prey, which are often faster than they are, and then swallow them whole.

For me, the most wonderful description in the book is the moment when James Nestor’s efforts to become a deep diver finally succeed, and, for the first time, he glides through the doorway to the deep without fear or unnecessary struggle. The most exciting moments are when he encounters whales at close range. The first time, a mother whale as big as a bus and her large cub swim by and then turn around. It’s rare for a sperm whale to choose to approach a human; mothers, however, sometimes indulge the curiosity of their cubs. This mother and cub come as close at thirty feet, blasting Nestor and his companion with echolocation “clicks” that feel like “jackhammers on pavement.” Once their curiosity about the human divers is satisfied, the whales depart with a few “coda clicks,” clicks that are thought to be the way that whales identify themselves and communicate with each other.

Photo by Elianne Dipp on

The second time Nestor encounters a whale, while freediving with a researcher, a young bull bombards him with fierce echolocation clicks. The bull then flips over to better receive the echoes, and then decides to swim away. The scientists he is with explain to Nestor that it’s likely the bull initially targeted him as prey, but, after learning that Nestor has a big brain and lungs, chose to leave him alone. Did the whale decide that he didn’t want to eat a creature with capacities similar to his own? Was the whale more “humane” than human whale hunters?

During his research, Nestor found accounts from earlier centuries when human beings used their freediving skills to plunge deeper than 100 feet to collect sponges or red coral from the sea floor. For centuries, in numerous locations around the planet, pearl divers made use of the human ability to dive deep and stay underwater for extended periods of time. In the 14th century, for example, Marco Polo wrote about witnessing divers plunging more than a hundred and twenty feet and staying underwater three or four minutes on a single breath, to harvest pearls. Nestor writes that by the twentieth century, when new technologies had made freediving economically unnecessary, the “human body’s amazing diving abilities and human knowledge of freediving had begun to disappear.” Today modern competitive freedivers are rediscovering these abilities.

Possibly the largest group of human freedivers in human history was the ama of Japan, generations of women who for centuries—possibly as far back as 500 BC—daily dived hundreds of feet to collect sea creatures for food. For his book, Nestor flew to Japan to see if he could find any remaining ama in Japan. After a great deal of persistence and a lot of luck, Nestor found four women in Sawada. Their daughters had decided not to carry on the tradition of their mothers, choosing instead more ordinary and easier professions. These older women, however, the last to carry on a tradition twenty-five hundred years old, are different from the other women of their culture, “bawdy, brazen, and gruff.” They made fun of Nestor’s expensive newfangled wetsuit and fins. Diving since their teens, the women are now over 60; the oldest is 82. Nestor watched them dive for hours and then sell their catch to a sushi restaurant. Then he tried to get them to tell him their secrets.

“You just dive,” one of them told him. “You just get in the water.” This is more or less what most of the freedivers he has interviewed have told him. “The secret to going deep, they all seemed to be saying, was within each of us. We’re born with it,” he writes. Then adds, “But unlocking that secret was trickier than I ever imagined.”

Photo by 7inchs on

In the course of the book, Nestor describes how the warming of the oceans, caused by rises in greenhouse gases and global warming, is killing the phytoplankton that provides 50% or more of the oxygen in the air. At the end, he again writes of the forces that are changing the ocean, “oil spills, trash, sound pollution, nuclear waste” and more. Large marine animals, he warns, “may be gone before we even have a chance to fully understand them.” What we learn about them has much to teach us about ourselves. The exploration described in Deep leads Nestor to the conviction that human beings don’t yet know what we are. It’s a truth, he says, that “is constantly ringing in my ears.”

This book drew me in not only because Nestor is an excellent writer telling a fascinating story, but because his question is my own. The story of the amas speaks to me of wisdom that has been known through the ages by small groups of people, passed from generation to generation, breaking into the wider culture in flashes of wisdom and then being repressed by the dominant culture. There is essential wisdom that needs to emerge in our time, truths about who we are and the good we are capable of, that can still, at this late date, turn around the destruction that we have been unleashing on the planet in so many ways. The depths we need to explore are not just the mysteries of the ocean and the unexpected capacities of the human body, but inner terrain, and the deeper realms of consciousness.

Deep and Deeper: What deep truths have you learned about hidden human capacities from your own experience?

© 2021 Marcelle Martin

Upcoming Online Webinar with Marcelle Martin: The Radical Quaker Spiritual JourneyJanuary 30th, 7 to 9 pm EST on Zoom

The first Quakers discovered that a radical spiritual transformation resulted from learning to pay attention to the inward guidance of God. Their collective experience of surrendering together to this direct relationship enabled great spiritual power to work through them, which set in motion many liberating changes in society.

In this free 2-hr webinar, Quaker author Marcelle Martin will tell what she learned from studying the experiences of both the first Quakers and contemporary Friends, describing ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey that were important both then and now. The transformative process she describes enables people to face the challenges of our time with radical faithfulness and God-given strength. Jennifer Hogue and Benjamin Warnke will co-facilitate. Participants will have a brief opportunity for sharing with others what you are seeking in your spiritual life.

To register for The Radical Quaker Spiritual Journey, go HERE.

A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.

Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey describes the transformational spiritual journey of the first Quakers, who were inwardly guided by God to work and witness for radical changes in their society. Focusing on ten elements of the spiritual journey, this book is a guide to a Spirit-filled life, designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. Our Life is Love has been reviewed by Marty Grundy in Friends Journal, by Carole Spencer in Quaker Religious Thought, and by Stuart Masters on A Quaker Stew.

Both books are available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website for Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey.)

For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
This entry was posted in All of Life is Sacred, environmental activism, Stories that Heal and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Deep and Going Deeper

  1. susanstoo says:

    Human capacity/capability, then, joins the list of what we have harmed! May it be retrievable as the water rises.

    • We have thwarted the full expression of human capacity for a long, long time. I pray that more of it be widely revealed/released now and I ask what’s my role in helping that to happen.

  2. Alicia Conklin-Wood says:

    The story of free divers is fascinating and very thought provoking. I wonder how many other powers we humans once had but have neglected and so lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.