Static apnoea and the jacuzzi scam

How long can a human being survive without air? There are ways to manage around twenty minutes — and ways to cheat.

Apnoea is when people hold their breath, usually with their face immersed under water, for as long as possible. Static is when they do it without swimming or movement, minimizing their consumption of oxygen. The acknowledged record has been increased from 4 minute 47seconds (by Dave Liston in his bathtub in 2000) to 11:54 min (by Branko Petrović in 2014).

In 2008 the street magician David Blaine attempted to break the static apnoea world record in a very well-publicized attempt (on the Oprah Winfrey show). You can watch him doing it here, and then listen to a TED lecture (there is even a transcript of it) of him explaining his feat. All very impressive — but it has led to many skeptics doubting its veracity — after all he is a professional magician, and constructing an illusion of holding his breath for a ridiculously long period would be easier for him than actually doing it. The “masked magician” shows us how such an illusion can be perpetrated.

But that does not appear to be what Blaine was doing. His face is clearly visible and his using a breathing tube is highly unlikely. Still he was able to break the previous record by staying under water for 17 minutes 04 seconds! He did it using a technique called “pure oxygen apnoea”, where the subject will pre-breathe 100% oxygen for up to 30 minutes, prior to the attempt. Blaine’s record was subsequently broken on more than a dozen occasions and currently (April 2017) stands at 24 minutes 04 seconds.

I am convinced that Blaine used oxygen apnoea to genuinely hold his breath for over 17 minutes. He is an extreme magician and many of his “tricks” are not tricks at all. Take the famous snake illusion: the point here is Blaine actually eats the grass snake, while an accomplice slips a second one into the backpack of the boy. You can watch the video if you have good nerves…

Now comes my own career in static apnoea. There is a very effective trick that I have used for years — it’s one you should try on your friends.

Some years ago I was invited to congress in Romania, and the hosts put me up in a luxury spa hotel. The country has more than one third of all Europe’s mineral and thermal springs, and it cashes in on this with a large number of wellness hotels, which also cater to “natural cures”. At the center of it all, for instance in my hotel, is usually a hot water pool, which has a salinity that is so high you float around like a cork. People spend hours doing this.

Well, during my stay the nice lady at the reception asked me how I liked the hotel, and the therapeutic pool. I said it was very nice — except they should fish out the dead bodies floating in it. She was a little shocked, and her assistant actually walked over to check. “No, that’s just people relaxing,” she said, seriously. “They are all fine.”

I spent a lot of time in that marvelous pool, which may not really have magical curative qualities ascribed to it, but is intensely relaxing. On the one side of the pool there was a long bench with bubbles of air pearling out of little holes — hydro-massage they called it. Ideal for my little scam. I started floating around with my face down in the water, slowly drifting over to the bench, where I could take a few gulps of air from the vents. Then I would drift over to the center, for two minutes or so, before I needed more air from the bubbles pearling out of the holes in the bench.

The effect: on multiple occasions I was turned over by a guest with the anxious question “Are you okay?” When they saw I was fine they wanted to know how I could stay underwater for such a long time. I would open my mouth wide and say: “I have rudimentary gills. It’s a mutation.” And some actually considered that a possibility. Unfortunately after a while the hotel staff asked me not to do the dead body thing, since it was “scaring the guests.”

I invented this trick many years ago, in a jacuzzi in San Diego, where some friends were competing for who could hold their breaths longest. I won, by using the bubbles streaming from jacuzzi holes. In Europe most pools have a bubbly area, which I can use in the same way. At some stage I got myself a clear aquarium tube that just fit into a bubble hole (tapering the end with a pencil sharpener helps). With a ten-foot tube I could float to the middle of the pool and lie there, face down, for protracted periods of time. It is an interesting test as well: how long does it take for people to be alarmed. And are they are willing to believe the “gills” explanation.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store