Watches Take the Plunge: A Deeper Dive

Getting beneath the surface of the art of Freediving, with Julie Gautier

6 min

Tasted the pleasures of scuba diving, but keen to learn more about the ‘next level’ – from letting go of breathing apparatus to submerging in icy climes? We’re investigating the extremes, for thrill-seekers and adventurers alike, to give you a sense of what's out (or rather, down) there... join us as we get the down-low on free-diving, from aquatic athlete Julie Gautier.

Julie Gautier wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300 (WBP201B.BA0632)

Breathe Deep: What is Freediving?

The O.G. diving method, Freediving (aka breath-hold or skin diving) means going sub-aqua without the use of breathing apparatus such as scuba gear or oxygen.  That’s right – you just take a big breath and hold it.  But actually, it’s not quite that simple.  Besides the limits of oxygen supply, exposure to high ambient pressure also has physiological effects that limit the depths and duration possible for gill-less humans; but that doesn’t stop us trying!  

As far back as the ancient world, there are records of divers facing the same problems as we do today, from decompression sickness to blackouts. In fact, in Ancient Greece, divers used heavy weights to plunge them deep into the Aegean (about 30 metres, to be precise), to collect sponges, coral, and even pearls from the Ocean floor.

Julie Gautier wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300 (WBP208B.BF0631)

Julie Gautier

Nature or Nurture?

When asked what drew her to the sport, Julie Gautier shares that while growing up on the island of La Reunion, her father was an underwater spear fisherman; she spent her childhood going to the beach and fishing with her dad.


“That’s when I developed a love for water. In my teenage years, I discovered there was such a thing as free-diving competitions and that’s how I got into it! I was at that age where you need to prove your worth and since I had been diving since the age of 11, I progressed very quickly.”


But if you weren’t fortunate enough to be ‘born into’ the art of breath control, there are plenty of skills to be learned later in life.  Training for a free dive can begin with simply spending as much time in the water as possible, building physical strength and endurance – all the way to specific exercises to stretch out the rib cage and loosen the diaphragm, to increase lung capacity. Even Yoga, with its focus on breathwork and concentration can be a beneficial addition to your training routine!

‘Mens Sana in Corpore Sano’

And it’s not only physical endurance that’s required to complete a successful dive – mental endurance must be sharpened, too.  In fact, the art of free-diving can have a profound effect on overall well-being; says Gautier, “during all those years of free-diving, I’ve learned how to surpass myself, to know my limits, to take care of my body and mind… stepping out of your comfort zone through sport really helps you become more confident. As a consequence, you make a habit of doing the same in your day to day life. You also learn to accept your failures and use them to grow and evolve. And water is an element that forces you to slow down, so in life you do the same, and that’s a very good thing.”

Julie Gautier wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300 (WBP208B.BF0631)

Picture the Scene...

So what’s it like, being alone beneath the waves without oxygen or clear vision? Contrary to what one might think, there’s not a lot going on in the mind of this particular champion! And that’s no bad thing, according to Julie Gautier:

« I think of nothing when I’m in the water, it’s a moment of utter calmness where I’m just living in the moment, a moment of weightlessness where even the weight of my thoughts is lifted. »

And if the prospect of achieving zen-like detachment while fighting for breath has you doubting whether free-diving is for you… think again.  Calming the natural instinct to resist discomfort – while remaining safe – is certainly a balancing act. Knowing when to give in to the body’s demands and when to fight is learned through personal experience; as in any other sport, “you learn to know yourself better as you progress, step by step. You go down to a depth you are comfortable with and you add on metres day after day. You learn breathing techniques to make better use of your lungs and you learn to let go and accept the spasmes that your body uses as warning signs, but they start to come later and later.”

Julie Gautier wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300 (WBP208B.BF0631)

Making lemonade out of… seawater

Gautier has learned these lessons the hard way; when asked if she’s ever made any mistakes during a dive, she relates that during her last competition, she became too preoccupied with pressure resistance and ignored her senses. This led to an unfortunate chain of events, in which she pushed her own limits too far and ultimately failed the competition. Never one to be deterred by failure, she has since reevaluated her relationship with the sport, and started new creative endeavours creating films that express her love of water, and the beauty present beneath the surface of the waves. 

In fact, some of this high-achieving athlete’s most memorable diving experiences haven’t been trophy or time-related at all! She describes the encounters she’s had with sea creatures as the most powerful ones: “I remember my first dive with a humpback whale – in Silver Banks, on the coasts of the Dominican Republic. I was in awe of its size at first, but then I made eye contact with it and the most magical thing happened – it was as if we were communicating. These animals are so intelligent, seeing them move so serenely and gracefully, in total harmony with the water, is very humbling.”

Julie Gautier wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300 (WBP201B.BA0632)

Quick-Fire Round With Julie Gautier:

What is your physical training or nutrition routine?

JG: The most important thing in life is balance. I do a bit of yoga, I swim, I hike, I eat healthy and sometimes not so healthy. I try not to create a routine, and most of the time I give into whatever I’m craving. 

Where in the world would you most like to dive?

JG: I’ve always dreamed of meeting and diving with the Japanese freediving fisherwomen, the Ama. They’re a community of strong women who are working a male profession and who have a very similar relationship with water as me.

Who has been your greatest teacher (in any discipline)?

JG: My dad.

Which aspect of your ability would you most like to improve, and which are you most proud of? 

JG: My flexibility is my strength. It makes me highly adaptable – and graceful.

How do you experience time during a dive – does it seem to pass more slowly or quickly? 

JG: In the water everything is slowed down. Movements, time.

How do you keep time, and how important is it for you to know how much time has passed? 

JG: When you are under water, time is life. Having a reference to actual time is extremely important. The difference between life and death comes down to a few seconds.

Any spiritual or philosophical revelations you’d like to share? 

JG: Time and space are closely related to each other. Under water, the former slows down, the latter knows no limits. If you follow the water’s rhythm, you can reach your dreams.

Why Try It?

Learning to freedive can offer myriad benefits – for some, it’s mental balance and strength, others, an escape into a beautiful aquatic realm. Many proponents say it has a powerful impact on self confidence, stress management, the ability to face challenges, make commitments, and take risks. Competitors – and champion athletes, such as Gautier – can take part in a range of ‘competitive apnea’ (that’s ‘not breathing’ to you and me) disciplines, in an attempt to reach the greatest depths, times, or distances in a single breath. Intrigued? Often described today as a ‘wellbeing’ sport, freediving is a discipline that requires deep introspection – listening to one’s body and thoughts, while developing certain strengths, and abilities. But if you master it, (as Julie Gautier says)… it can make dreams come true.