Jacques Mayol: the dolphin man’s sporting and spiritual quest

Featured in an Arte documentary, freediver Jacques Mayol has left his mark on the sport. With his extraordinary physiology and almost mystical approach, he became the first man to free dive to a depth of 100 metres.


The term “April fool” fits him perfectly. Born on 1 April 1927 in Shanghai, China, little Jacques Mayol spent his summers with his family in Japan. From an early age, the child played in the water and was fascinated by the sea. He was fascinated by the “amas”, or women of the sea in Japanese, who freed-fish for oysters and shellfish. At the age of 6, Jacques Mayol learned to dive and pursued this abyssal ambition throughout his life.


Born to be in the water


At the start of the Second World War, the teenager and his family moved to Marseille. It was an Eldorado for the young man who spent his time in the creeks. In 1948, Jacques Mayol, driven by his thirst for adventure, travelled the world. After visiting Morocco, Sweden, Denmark and Canada, he settled with his wife and two children in Miami, Florida.

While working at the city’s Seaquarium, he became close to the female dolphin Clown, with whom he formed a very powerful relationship. A bond that Jacques Mayol explains by the common characteristics between man and animal, in particular the ability to hold one’s breath to stay in the water. It was a revelation.

Jacques Mayol divorced his wife in 1957 and went off to live on his own, separated from his family.


The adventurer of all records


In 1961, the Italian Enzo Maiorca shook the freediving world by descending to a depth of just over 50 metres. It was both a sporting and scientific record, despite the fact that doctors and emergency doctors were convinced that his chest cavity would be crushed by the pressure.



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Jacques met the athlete and asked him to coach him. In 1966, despite the risks involved, including syncope, he broke the world record by diving to a depth of 60 metres. Then 70 metres. Thanks to a healthy lifestyle and his practice of yoga and breathing, his body was able to withstand the trauma of the water. For the freediver, the sea was a veritable introspective, almost mystical escape.

Jacques Mayol beat the world record again in 1976, breaking the symbolic 100-metre barrier. In 1983, he broke the 105-metre barrier.

The film Le Grand Bleu, directed by Luc Besson and released in 1988, was inspired by his story and that of Enzo Maiorca. A true cinematic success.


A life full of excitement but consumed by grief


A nomad and a loner at heart, Jacques Mayol reconnected with his children in the 1970s and settled down with Gerda Covell, a woman as free-spirited as himself. But in 1975, a terrible tragedy occurred : Gerda died in his arms after being attacked. It was a shock and a suffering that would never leave him.

Despite this life punctuated by the sea, the diver was alone and terribly sad. His quest for a maritime paradise where he could find eternal calm seemed far away. In 2001, he committed suicide on the Italian island of Elba.



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Jacques Mayol has left his mark on his discipline through his many records, his participation in numerous scientific and sporting experiments, and his fascinating osmosis with the marine world and animals. This notion of an inner journey and his spiritual approach, based on yoga and meditation, have had a major influence on his peers and the whole world.

This fascinating story can be discovered in depth on Arte, which is currently broadcasting the documentary “Jacques Mayol – The Dolphin Man” on its website. The film is based on his autobiographical account Homo delphinus, full of memories that are as moving as they are inspiring.



Front page photo: © “Jacques Mayol – The Dolphin Man”

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