As the world reels from the OceanGate submarine disaster, Netflix’s newest documentary focuses on another tragic accident that took place in the big blue.
The Deepest Breath, directed by Laura McGann, dives into the world of the extreme sport of freediving – a competitive pursuit in which people dive underwater using only their breath, without the help of oxygen tanks or scuba gear. As per the documentary’s official synopsis, it is “a look at the thrilling rewards — and inescapable risks — of chasing dreams through the depths of the ocean.”
The film tells the story of two divers, Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan. It covers their relationship and careers in the sport, before disaster struck. So what happened on that fateful day in Dahab, Egypt, in 2017?
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The back story
The Italian freediver, Alessia Zecchini, “had a supernatural power with freediving” from a young age, says a friend in the documentary.
She eventually met up with Stephen Keenan, who was born and raised in Glasnevin, near Dublin. Keenan was a safety diver – that is, someone who accompanied the freedivers on their dives, and who would be on hand to help them when the effects of the lack of oxygen can take hold in ascending too quickly, causing the diver to blackout or fall unconscious.
Keenan fell in love with the sport in 2009, when he was on holiday in the area, and in 2015 he set up his own freediving centre with two friends, Dahab Freedivers, training people to dive in and around The Blue Hole.
According to reports, the extremely capable Keenan was AIDA, PADI and EFR trained and taught hundreds of divers over the years, and he became chief of safety at various freediving events and organisations such as Vertical Blue Freediving Competitions, and other competitions around the world. He also set his Irish records in freediving competitions before partnering with Zecchini as her safety diver, and to coach her to her own success.
What is the Blue Hole?
About five miles north of Dahab in the Red Sea is a 120-metre sinkhole, known both as The Blue Hole and “the divers’ cemetery”, where there is an arch that divers regularly try to reach by freediving, often with tragic results. It’s been estimated that it’s the site with the most diver fatalities in the world, with up to 200 deaths recorded over the past 15 years.
According to The Guardian: “Thousands continue to flock here each year, unperturbed by the increasing number of plaques that hang on the cliff opposite to mark those who never returned.”
Many divers try to reach The Arch, a 26-metre-long tunnel at a depth of 56m underwater, that makes up part of The Blue Hole.
What happened in the Blue Hole in 2017?
On July 22, as Outside Magazine reported, ”Conditions weren’t ideal in the Egyptian dive mecca… Visibility wasn’t good, and the winds were high enough—20 miles per hour—that they were pushing the water around, conjuring currents that could push a freediver off course.”
Despite these conditions, Zecchini began a descent to the arch in the Blue Hole, tailed by Keenan as her safety diver. But, according to The Guardian, the 25-year-old “became disoriented. Keenan rushed to her aid and guided her to the surface. She made it out unharmed but he blacked out and was found floating face down some distance away.”
Outside Magazine detailed further: “Zecchini descended to the mouth of the Arch along a line as planned but became disoriented at depth. Keenan bolted to her aid at a reported 50 metres (164 feet) and began finning her to the surface. Zecchini made it back unscathed, but Keenan blacked out underwater at a depth that remains unknown. He was found floating on the surface, face down and unresponsive.
“Despite repeated attempts to save his life, he could not be revived.” Deeper Blue further explained: “Keenan seems to have suffered an in-water blackout in the last 10m / 32ft of the ascent. Due to where Keenan and Zecchini surfaced, there was a short delay in rescuing Keenan. It is understood he died whilst in a taxi to the hospital.”
There were tributes from all over the world after Keenan’s death. Freediving photographer Daan Verhoeven called him “our best safety diver”, while Dr. Kerry Hollowell from the US National freediving team said: “You knew he had your back. He would not bail on you.” The world-record holder Alexey Molchanov added: “He was the heart of the community.”
Where is Zecchini now?
Zecchini is now 32, and is still competing in freediving competitions. In March 2023, during the Secretblue Competition in Moalboal she set a new world record by descending to -107m. Two days later, she beat that record and went down even deeper to -109m.
The Deepest Breath is streaming on Netflix from Wednesday 19 July