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Jacques Mayol, 74; Set Record in ‘Free Dive’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jacques Mayol, the legendary breath-hold or free diver whose feats were chronicled in director Luc Besson’s 1988 film “The Big Blue,” has died of an apparent suicide. He was 74.

Mayol was found dead Sunday in his villa on the Italian island of Elba, and local police said he had died Saturday of suicide. Friends said he suffered from depression.

Born in China to French parents, Mayol spent 13 years in Asia. He used meditation techniques and yoga to slow his heart rate and oxygen consumption when diving.

He set a world record in 1983, at 56, by diving 347 feet with a single breath. That dive was officially described as a medical experiment. In his younger years, Mayol consistently won European contests among free or breath-hold divers, who use no oxygen tanks.

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The contests, in which the divers clung to weighted, falling sleds and were judged solely on depth attained, were stopped after several participants died.

Mayol set his first world record in 1966 by diving 197 feet off the coast of Miami, and 10 years later became the first free diver to plunge below 330 feet.

Although free diving has always been popular in Europe, fewer than 3,000 people are estimated to practice the sport in the United States, mostly in Florida and Southern California.

Besson, a scuba diver and admirer of Mayol, approached the older Frenchman about making a movie of his life in 1984 when they met in a restaurant in Marseille. Mayol eventually shared credit for the screenplay and served as technical consultant for the film’s praised underwater photography.

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The movie, which had poor box office in the U.S. but did well in Europe, was loosely based on Mayol’s rivalry with free diver Enzo Maiorca.

The latter--portrayed by actor Jean Reno--was called Molinari in the movie because the character is fictionally sketched as something of an aquatic gladiator. French actor Jean-Marc Barr portrayed the screen Mayol as metaphysically bonded to the sea.

Following Hollywood requirements, the film added a fictional love interest for Mayol in actress Rosanna Arquette.

In real life, Mayol acknowledged many romances but always said his true loves were the sea first and dolphins second, or maybe dolphins first and oceans second. “The sea is my mistress,” he often told interviewers. “I make love to her when I dive.”

Whenever Mayol discussed diving, he spoke passionately about bonding with the sea. “Water, the ocean . . . it is our most natural environment. We are born naked from the miniature ocean of the mother’s womb . . . and breath-hold diving is a continuance of that,” he told The Times when he was in Los Angeles for the film’s premier 13 years ago.

“It’s also a cult, a way of thinking,” he added, “for when you start breath-hold diving, you enter yourself and begin a marriage with the sea. You become a diving mammal.”

Mayol was, in fact, called “dolphin man” for his free-diving achievements.

Once a reporter for Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Mayol quit in 1957 to work with dolphins and other sea creatures at the Miami Seaquarium. He took up free diving when he moved to Florida.

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Although he liked to describe himself as “a professional bum,” he was a successful writer, lecturer and documentary filmmaker as well as a real estate investor.

Self-taught, he wrote four books on oceanography and dolphins. His documentaries about the sea for Italian television earned him a reputation as Europe’s latter-day Jacques Cousteau.

Asked to talk about free diving when the movie was released, Mayol told one interviewer that the major elements required included “good weather, clear, warm water in a well-protected area, and no sharks.”

“My life is inspired by dolphins,” he said. “Dolphins are free creatures in the sea, able to dive to great depths. . . . It’s a matter of retaining oxygen in the bloodstream, keeping it in the cells. I have worked on that through yoga, learning to ionize my air better than most people. Motionless, I can hold my breath for five minutes. In the sea and in action I can hold it up to four minutes. The average person can hold his breath for one minute.

“I don’t dive to conquer the elements,” he said. “I melt into the ocean.”

Mayol had no known survivors. Funeral plans have not been announced.


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