Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Nature of Things

In 2013, Natalia Molchanova became the only woman in the sport's history to break the 100-meter barrier, at the world championships in Kalamata, Greece. Credit Daan Verhoeven
"The bear was in bad condition, very skinny, and was of course very desperate for food. [With no ice floes just open water the bear had] no choice than to start his dive a long way ... from where the seals were (located)."
"[The dive] far exceeds anything previously reported."
Rinie van Meurs, co-author study: Longest Recorded Underwater Dive by a Polar Bear, Polar Biology journal

"She was a free-diving superstar and we all thought nothing could harm her."
Kimmo Lahtinen, president, AIDA, global federation for free diving

"The world has lost its greatest free diver. I don't think anybody would dispute that."
Will Trubridge, 15-time free-dive world-record holder

"Free diving is not only sport, it's a way to understand who we are. When we go down if we don't think, we understand we are whole. We are one with [the] world."
Natalia Molchanova, Russian free diver
Molchanova and her son, Alexey Molchanov, in Kalamata. Credit Daan Verhoeven
Regarded the greatest free diver in history, Natalia Molchanova set out on a 'fun' recreational dive off the coast of Formentera, an island near Ibiza, and never surfaced from her dive. The dive was routine, her failure to come to the surface of the ocean on the Balearic Sea off the east cost of Spain, was not. She prepared for her dive in a 'breathing up' exercise consisting of deep relaxation to lower the heart rate to enable her to utilize oxygen efficiently.

The depth she aspired to on this casual dive was nothing out of the ordinary for this extraordinary diver. Her son Alexy announced on Tuesday that his 53-year-old mother would not be found alive, after two days of intense searches following her disastrous dive. Human beings have a propensity to test the limits of their endurance, and Ms. Molchanova certainly did that. She met with success and world renown, but nature always has surprises in store for us.

The dozens of world records she achieved notwithstanding, the 'fun' dive she undertook with a handful of friends was to be her last. Currents at the surface and at depths of Poniente de es Freus where she and her friends had been diving are known to be powerful and unpredictable. It is  unknown what might have occurred, but there are theories; that she blacked out; the involvement of a shark; her head hit something fatally; she was swept away by the current.

In another instance of spectacular diving, Canadian researchers witnessed a Polar bear in the act of holding his breath underwater for a record-breaking three minutes, where the normally observed time for Polar bear dives are 30-second plunges for fish or whale carcasses. Bears have a particular "lobulated" kidney permitting them to filter waste products after a long dive; a biological peculiarity shared with dolphins, whales and sea otters.

Biologist Ian Stirling witnessed an emaciated bear remaining underwater -- during an expedition off Norway's Svalbard Islands -- for three minutes and ten seconds in an attempt to surreptitiously approach a group of bearded seals on an ice floe. Ice floes are vital to allowing polar bears to hunt as nature intended them to do. The summertime ice cover is on a disappearing trend, leaving the bears desperate to find food by any means possible.

The target of the Svalbard bear was three seals; easily reached had the sea been full of ice floes enabling him to come up for air periodically without fear of detection by his prey. But with open water and no ice under these new environmental conditions, the bear undertook its spectacular dive and underwater approach. Dr. Stirling commented on the belief of many biologists that Polar bears will simply accustom themselves to foraging on land.

"There is simply not enough to eat on land to support so many large bears", he stated flatly rejecting the thesis that bears "might be more resilient than is commonly thought". With the evolving issue of climate change, those bears that are capable of developing superior diving capacities, and growing wider, fin-like paws could be favoured evolution-wise to survive what may be a catastrophic change for most bears.

The caution is that with such swift ecological alterations, time is not on the bears' side.

And for Natalia Molechanova, who relished the freedom in nature and the oneness she felt with nature and all its creatures, time simply ran out.

Molchanova in the 2014 team world championships. “The world has lost its greatest free diver,” a world-record holder said. Credit Alessandro Madeddu

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