Freediving has been an integral part of Guillaume Néry’s life from an early age. The French freediving champion grew up in Nice, by the Mediterranean Sea, and took his first plunge into the sport – diving on a single held breath instead of using breathing apparatus like scuba gear – at the age of 14. At 20, he became the youngest freedive record holder in the world when he reached a depth of 87m. Néry went on to break three more world records in the following years and won two World Freediving Championship titles in the Constant Weight category.
In 2015, Néry attempted a 129m dive in Cyprus during the pre-competition to the AIDA Individual World Championship. Had he succeeded, the Frenchman would have broken yet another world record. The organising body, AIDA International, made a mistake while measuring the guide line though, and sent Néry down to 139m instead. Although he succeeded in reaching the bottom, he blacked out at 15m while resurfacing. The near-death experience and accompanying lung injury prompted Néry to retire from competing, but he never really left the sea; he continued to freedive, and went on to make several beautiful underwater films with his wife, who is also a freediver.
Néry’s impressive results – as both competitor and film-maker – drew the attention of Panerai, which brought him on board as its brand ambassador. The two also collaborated to create limited editions of the Submersible; the new Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition was introduced at SIHH this year, and each of the rarer, 15-piece limited-edition reference comes with an offer for its owner to learn freediving from Néry in French Polynesia this September.
Unsurprisingly, the 37-year-old could not stay away from the sport for long and started competing again last year. In Shanghai in May for Panerai’s Survival Instruments For Modern Heroes event, Néry talked about his new motivations for going back into competitive freediving and the message he wants to share with the world.
Why did you start freediving competitively again after a three-year hiatus?
I needed this break to realise that freediving is not just about breaking records. When I stopped, I really started to discover the magic of freediving. I still want to compete and dive deep, but I’m more relaxed and I don’t care about records. I’ve done the records. Now, I’m more interested in diving deeper inside of myself. We as humans really have a special connection with the underwater world and I want to explore that. And to feel this connection more, I want to stay underwater longer and go deeper. But I don’t link it to numbers or medals anymore. It’s a more personal approach, and I like the discipline of the competition process that is required to achieve that. It’s more about self-improvement and how to become better.
What has your journey with Officine Panerai been like so far?
The connection with the brand was always obvious to me because I grew up in Nice and train in the Mediterranean Sea, while Panerai has its roots in the Mediterranean Sea, very close to where I live. I also saw that Panerai was supporting explorer Mike Horn’s expeditions and I admire his spirit of adventure, so I was like, “Wow, this brand has everything.” To me, Panerai has both purpose- driven efficiency and aesthetics in its designs, which are very important in a watch, just like how I try to be efficient and aesthetic in the way I’m moving in the water and creating films. So there was a lot of similarity and it was a natural collaboration.
How involved were you in designing the Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition?
It was important for the designer and I to work together to create a link between this watch that 15 people will keep forever and the experience that they will get with me. I really wanted a chronograph because measuring time is so important in freediving – time is life. And in terms of design, I really wanted the Submersible case because it was truly made for underwater activity. It’s robust and big, with good readability, but at the same time, it’s very light because it’s titanium. So it was the perfect match. The watch has a beautiful mix of black, which represents strength, darkness and the unknown, and a shade of blue-green that reminds me of a lagoon, when the sun reflects off the water. I hope this is something the watch owners will always remember after their experience with me – a mix of the unknown and the magic of the Pacific.
What can the 15 watch owners expect at the freediving experience with you in September?
It’s going to be in French Polynesia, which is my second home. I really want to show them the magic of this underwater world right in the middle of the Pacific and let them feel the strong connection with the ocean that’s present in Polynesian culture. I also want them to see the importance of reconnecting with ourselves, which is something freediving helps with a lot. Finally, French Polynesia is a world of wonder, and I hope I can show them the whales, manta rays, and incredible corals and fishes because the marine life there is incredible.
Your freediving activities also extend to underwater film-making. How did you get into it?
Freediving is beautiful to watch, and I actually started freediving after watching an engrossing documentary about a freediver. I think seeing humans moving in the water like that evokes deep emotional responses. What will save humanity is love and art, and with freediving films, we have the chance to bring to people the love of nature and the ocean. I will try to touch people with freediving however I can, whether it’s through films, photographs or books.
What are the challenges of underwater filmmaking?
I try to be as innovative as possible and that’s not easy. The last film I released with my wife, One Breath Around the World, was a project we worked on for several years. I wanted to create a film about freediving in different places that is not a documentary but more of an experience. And it’s challenging because today, everybody can buy GoPros and do incredible things. So my approach was to focus on quality, not quantity, for my films.
Another challenge is spreading awareness about the ocean environment through the film. Where I live, by Mediterranean Sea, I see more and more plastic. This is obvious and it is a disaster. There are also fewer big fishes because of overfishing and I see the effects of global warming on the corals, which are really in danger. People can watch the movie and say the ocean is beautiful, but then they will use a lot of plastic without realising that they’re killing what they love. So the big challenge is helping people make the connection.
How will you help people make that connection?
The next book I’m writing, which will be out next year, is about that and I will find a way to spread the message through my next film as well. I’m lucky because I have a big community following my adventures, so I try to share the message with them. I’ve also changed my lifestyle because you cannot ask people to change if you don’t do so yourself. I’ve stopped eating fish and most meats such as beef and pork because it’s very bad for the environment. I’ve also reduced the travelling I’m doing. When I’m in Europe, I try not to fly; instead, I take the train. Changing isn’t easy, but we don’t have any other choice.
Tell me more about your upcoming book.
It’s called Reconnection, and it’s about my experiences underwater and how I found happiness through reconnecting with what’s really important. We live in a world where everybody thinks they’re connected because they have smartphones and Internet access. But we’re losing the real connections. I’m trying to use my experiences to invite people to reconnect with different things, such as their bodies and minds, nature, even the universe itself, and just take the time to understand the world around us and how lucky we are to live on this planet.