Breathe deeply and slowly. Allow the fresh air to fully expand your lungs and oxygen to saturate your blood. Begin clearing the mind. File away the never-ending tasks, troubles and stresses, then gently close the drawers behind them. Scan the body. Release the tension in the muscles — unfurrow your brows, unclench your jaw, let your shoulders fall and rest your feet. There is nothing water cannot carry.
Salty air breezes through the balmy afternoon. Morgan Bourc’his stands akimbo by the edge of the pool, occasionally squatting to tap between the shoulder blades of submerged patrons who had been invited by The Hour Glass and Tudor Watch to take part in a freediving masterclass in Gaya Island, Sabah. “Relax,” the three-time world champion encourages us. “Let go.” We are holding our breath underwater as part of static apnea training to prepare us for a dive in the ocean. Eyes closed. One minute.
At some point, the diaphragm starts to contract, effecting movement to prevent suffocation. Two minutes. We open our eyes to the blue tiles at the bottom of the pool, focusing on the swirling patterns reflected by the tropical sunrays. The body’s signals are not equal to its capabilities, we remind ourselves. “Push beyond. Your body is ready, your body is able.” Three minutes. It is a struggle between the mental and physical, refereed by emotions that are no less tumultuous. How we are supposed to find peace in this sort of situation is beyond us. We rise to the surface gasping for air and begin breathing for recovery. “Three minutes and 15 seconds,” says a smiling Bourc’his. “Good job.”
Born in Touraine, central France, Bourc’his grew up in the heart of the Loire Valley and far from the ocean. “As a child, I was fortunate enough to travel a lot with my parents. These trips left a deep impression on me and showed me a world of mixed cultures, landscapes, languages and mythologies. The one thing that connected it all was the Mediterranean Sea.”
There was never enough time, he recalls. The vacations came and went in a flash, leaving the young lad always longing for the next summer holiday. “Despite not living on a sailboat or spending several months by the sea, these short experiences were deeply etched in my mind and led me to forge a close connection with the sea.” At the age of 22, Bourc’his left the valley to heed the ocean’s siren call. He made Marseille his new home and eventually freediving his life.
Bourc’his’ reputation precedes him. Prior to being introduced, we got wind of his enigmatically calm and serene disposition. And true enough, the Frenchman exudes an aura that strangely tranquilises those around him. His words are measured while his movements are more fluid than those of a dancer. “Wait until you see him in the water,” an affiliate of Tudor nudges. “He practically glides.”
As part of the French national team, Bourc’his has collected many accolades over the years. He became world CNF (constant weight without fins) champion in 2008 and 2013, breaking the French record by descending 89m. To those unfamiliar with freediving, CNF is often perceived as one of the purest disciplines as it requires divers to descend and ascend along a dive line without fins, changing their weight or using the rope (save for a single hold at the bottom to turn back up). It is regarded as the most physically and technically demanding freediving practice as it relies heavily on muscle strength. In 2017, he delved deeper, reaching 90m before bagging the world title again two years later with a depth of 91m. For context, the Statue of Liberty is 93m. He completed the return trip with only a single breath of air.
“I was very well prepared mentally and physically, the best I have ever been,” Bourc’his remembers. “I was in the zone, as we say in sports jargon. On D-Day, the weather conditions were harsh. There was swell, water temperature dropped because it had rained the previous night and the ambience was electric. It was extremely tense.”
But he knew he would win, he quips with a glint in his eye, the very colour of the cerulean ocean behind him. It was as though his physical, emotional and mental state were aligned on a single axis. “I was completely focused. I had never been so strong mentally in a competition. I dreamt that I would be world champion. Even if two people had the same announcement (athletes are required to announce the depth they will attempt before the dive), when I projected the result, I was alone on the podium.”
Bourc’his was first in line. “I managed to keep away from all the adversaries and completed my dive, but it wore me out. I could not even push myself to go another metre.The three competitors who followed failed to complete their dives.”
Possessing the right mindset is a large contributor to maintaining sangfroid. Bourc’his has a mental coach who helps him during competitions, and the greatest lesson he has gleaned is not to think about the target, but be in the moment. “Because if I think about the target, I could be afraid of it. If I failed, what would happen? What would others say? When I started to apply this, being in the present moment and not thinking about the next step, it helped me to be more calm and focused on what I have to do and enjoy it.”
And what does he enjoy most about freediving? It is free falling. His face lights up as he explains the phenomenon. “Because of the physical aspect of the water, you have two main forces working in the opposite way: gravity, where your body falls towards the centre of the earth and the Archimedes force, which is linked to buoyancy. When you’re at the surface, the Archimedes force is stronger than gravity, that’s why you float. When you start to dive, you have hydrostatic pressure that presses your chest. So, your chest reduces its volume, your natural buoy shrinks and buoyancy decreases.
“At a certain depth, you free fall naturally without movement because the gravity is stronger than the Archimedes force. This part of the dive, probably for every freediver, is the most interesting and strongest part that concerns your feelings because you fly in the water. You’re completely swallowed by the water. And it’s also a time when you can recover because you don’t have to make any movements to descend. The feeling is so awesome. And for a very deep dive, you can spend one minute free falling. It’s very long. During that minute, you’re totally part of the environment and the feeling is so great.”
Tudor’s Born to Dare manifesto certainly fits the inspiring individual like a glove. Their collaboration started at end-2014, when Bourc’his was selected as an underwater stuntman to film a commercial for the new Tudor Pelagos launched in 2015.
“We have been able to immediately understand each other. After this first opportunity, we got to know each other over the years and built a partnership with shared interests. Tudor has managed to successfully integrate freediving into its corporate events and it became a strong element of experience for the guests. It has been supporting me in my expedition projects as well as my sporting career.” The proud friend of the brand touches his trusty timepiece, currently a 42mm Pelagos in lightweight titanium with a blue dial and ceramic matte blue disc. Powered by a self-winding mechanical movement with a bidirectional rotor system, it is waterproof up to 500m and has a power reserve of about 70 hours.
“A good dive watch should complement a diver and not hinder his or her activities. The watch should instantly meet its functional goals when required. It should be dependable despite being used under extreme conditions, which include pressure, shock, volatile temperatures and rough handling. In this case, the Tudor Pelagos checks all the boxes. Despite having a 42mm case, the watch is lightweight and negligible under water. Sometimes I forget it is even on my wrist! During my dive in varied environments such as the Red Sea or the Barents Sea, its luminous indices have increased legibility under deep and dark conditions.”
Bourc’his’ relationship with the brand has allowed him to perform dives all over the world. “Indonesia, Malaysia, the Caribbean islands, the cenotes in Mexico, under the ice of Lake Tignes in the French Alps at an altitude of 2,000m, in the middle of the Atlantic and, of course, in the Mediterranean. These experiences have not always been extreme. Not all dives are meant to be a succession of records. But each moment was unique and allowed a real awareness of the incredible underwater landscapes that the ocean holds,” he says.
However, there was one trip in particular that left an indelible mark. After a competition in 2019, Bourc’his embarked on an expedition to Norway. “I had the honour of working with director Jean-Charles Granjon for a documentary film, The Quest for Nature. With the Tudor Pelagos, I travelled to the far north of Europe to dive with the great lords of the sea. I swam with orcas and humpback whales in this long valley between the fjords and snow-capped mountains. Sometimes, we could be among 40 whales and each was around 18m. It is one of the most awesome memories I have linked to freediving, even if all the action was near the surface.”
In the film, Bourc’his meets other thalassophiles, from scientists to fishermen, whose lives revolve around the ocean. He swims cheek by jowl with the great cetaceans herding and feeding on shoals of herring, innumerable and glistening in a hypnotic vortex. The whales enjoyed teasing land dwellers with their secrets, breaching the surface to take a cheeky peek before plunging back into the deep, leaving white water trails and swirling foam like a disappearing act, just to do the same seconds later from miles away. It is a marvellous sight. In this world, our freediving champion is aware of his fragility. “I learnt to be humble in the face of the ocean,” he says.
Bourc’his also saw first-hand the special relationship between humans and nature, and the inextricable link that binds their existence. The way mankind has depended on the guidance of the currents, winds and stars — such closeness is lost. Instead, rampant pollution is found in all corners of the world. “Plastic pollution, overfishing, degradation of the quality of the water and the seabed,” he names. These are some of the negative human impacts that have compelled him to regularly take part in ocean initiatives, including driving awareness of plastic pollution, clean-up activities, observing and studying marine species and denunciating deep-sea mining.
“For years, we have considered the ocean inexhaustible. We poured all our waste into it, we consumed all the resources we wanted — animal species, minerals, fossil fuels — we used it as a passageway for sea transport without taking into account the impact that has on ocean health. As a result, the ocean is dying. The ocean helps to regulate the climate, carbon dioxide sequestration and oxygen supply. It also supports most of the planet’s biodiversity and is at the heart of regulating the water cycle on earth. We must all be aware of this and protect nature if we want to continue living in sustainable conditions.”
Bourc’his wants to set a good example. “I was a sports teacher before for a private institution that supports teenagers and children with mental and psychiatric diseases. And I was already competing at the time, but I knew that among the team, I was watched by the children as a person who was very calm, like a rock, you know?
“I remember one time when I was in Paris for a TV journal, I received a picture from the educational referent in the hospital (I was working with a hospital at the time) with all the children in front of the TV and looking at me like this [Bourc’his makes an expression of wonder, with wide eyes and mouth agape]. For me, it was an incredible experience. It was magical, magical. And the day after, I came back to Marseille and had an awesome conversation with them. ‘Oh, you were on TV! And now you are here. How is it possible?’”
A smile stretches from ear to ear as he looks back with fondness. “Of course, everything was not always easy. Sometimes, it was violent. Sometimes, they were in crisis. So, I had to manage all these things. But I knew that I had a very special place in the institution. And the executive team of the institution considered it important for me to have the possibility to [follow] my passion.”
Bourc’his’ time at Serena Institution created in him a heart for the younger generation. He is now part of an association that works with students for shark and stingray conservation. He teaches them freediving, so it is easier to record the number of stingrays and sharks in shallow territories. “Last year in June, we spent one week in Corsica, a French island near the main continent, just to look at the different species of rays. To notice their presence and get the indication back to the scientists, and maybe try to change the laws on fishing and different activities linked to the territory.” This is how he is wielding his freediving knowledge.
“I think for me, transmission is an important thing,” says Bourc’his. “Through freediving, we can learn to breathe and focus on ourselves. I want to open their minds to think about themselves, their shape, to take care of their minds and bodies. This activity helps us to be more conscious about how we function. We would live better if we took more consideration of our conditions. It also helps to open the mind to the environment. We are part of it. These are the main targets I have with freediving.”
Bourc’his recently became a father. “The ocean will be present in the way I will educate her because it was very present in my life.” His daughter’s name, Sao, means “rescuer”. In Greek mythology, Sao was tasked with saving those shipwrecked in dangerous waters. The pearls of wisdom he has collected over the years will be passed down like an heirloom.
“The ocean has provided balance in my life. I don’t freedive every day but being close to it is important. I live 100m from the sea and I greet it every day. I can be myself when I am at sea. I know the different places, I know the different rocks, I know the species hiding under those rocks. And I know when I come back to this world, I can see the animals hiding in the same places again. It’s kind of like being completely connected to the environment. It’s strange, I’m not very comfortable with sailing activities. But when I’m near water, I need to plunge into it, sometimes just to taste it. It’s an archaic need of being with the water.
After retiring for almost four years from competition, Bourc’his will be participating in the Freediving French Championships in the middle of the year. “We’ll freedive in the bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer near the city of Nice. I have been training regularly since the beginning of January. I take my competition seriously. I know that I am not in the same shape as when I acquired my last title in 2019 but I’d still want to be satisfied with the work accomplished over these six months. It’s a personal challenge to return to a certain level, manage the rest of my activities and be the father of a little girl who celebrated [turning] one in February, all at the age of 45!”
Pondering over his thoughts on Tudor’s Born to Dare ethos, he says, “This slogan reflects the boldness that we all had as children, when we stood up for the first time on our two legs without support. We challenged ourselves to face the unknown. I think I’ve been Born to Dare in different stages of my life: when I realised my childhood dream of being a professional sportsman, when I swam with the most powerful predators in the ocean, when I decided to have a child when I didn’t think I could. I think that each of us has accomplished Born to Dare at our own level.”
Freediving is Bourc’his’ way of life. It is his way of exploring this other realm that is still so mysterious and largely undiscovered. He falls into the arms of the ocean with complete abandon. “I cannot foresee a future disconnected from the sea,” he says.
This article first appeared on Apr 3, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.