Under a slanting sun that heralded autumn's approach, the resort islet of Caprera, off Sardinia, was enjoying a late-season gathering of skin-divers for the Mediterranean spearfishing championships. There were divers on hand from both Americas as well as Europe, but it was generally conceded that the individual title would go either to Jules Corman of France or to the Portuguese champion, José Ramalehete. In the week before the meet Ramalehete, an easygoing sort of champion, practiced with a group of prospective rivals. Corman, always intent, practiced alone to safeguard his "secret techniques." In the late afternoon of the first big practice day Corman, the loner, spotted a big grouper in a dark hole. He asked the official accompanying him to get an underwater light. The official begged Corman to wait for another day, but the diver was insistent. The official went off to get the light and returned to find the fish speared and the diver drowned.
While doctors were working in vain over Corman's body, other divers were searching for another missing champion, José Ramalehete. They found his body the next morning. Like his French rival, Ramalehete had speared a fish and drowned. Forty feet down he lay against a rock (above), his mask in place, his eyes open—like a man patiently waiting.
This double tragedy was not without precedent. Earlier in the summer two promising candidates for the U.S. spearfishing team, Alan Riddle of Miami and Richard Ferg of Long Island, had drowned in much the same way. Like Corman of France and Ramalehete of Portugal, both of the Americans were well-conditioned, accomplished divers. At the time they died none of the four divers was in water that challenged his ability too greatly. None of them had been using breathing apparatus. For all four, a free dive of 60 feet was a fairly easy mark, yet all had drowned in less than 50 feet. What had happened?
Most probably all four divers had blacked out from lack of oxygen. Oxygen is the vital gas in every breath, but, ironically, it is not the lack of oxygen but the build-up of carbon dioxide in the system that stimulates the all-important process of breathing. The urge to breathe, generally, is a powerful one, but the expert diver who stoically suppresses the urge can literally push himself beyond the limits of consciousness. Because the reflex action of breathing persists beyond this point, the unconscious free diver fills his lungs with water and drowns. It is most likely that all four of the divers who perished last summer pushed themselves unwittingly past the point of no return.