The Russian woman considered one of the greatest freedivers of all time is feared dead after she failed to surface after a dive in the Mediterranean.
Natalia Molchanova was diving without fins to a planned depth of 35 metres (115ft) near La Savina port on Formentera, a small island south of Ibiza, where it is feared she may have encountered a strong underwater current.
Freediver Natalia Molchanova – in pictures
Molchanova, 53, holds 41 world records in freediving – diving without breathing apparatus – and can hold her breath for nine minutes. In May, she dived to a depth of 71 metres in waters off Egypt.
The local coastguard and the Guardia Civil arrived in the area at 5pm local time on Sunday after Molchanova’s friends reported her missing.
A helicopter monitored the area and private boats joined the search, said Miguel Félix Chicón, head of Spain’s coastguard in the Balearic Islands. “We searched all evening until the sun set. We combed the entire zone and ruled out the possibility that she was near the surface.”
Chicón said Molchanova was believed to be wearing weights, often used by freedivers to help the descent. “Everything suggests she was wearing weights of around six kilos,” he said.
Rescue workers, having failed to find Molchanova near the surface, believe she did not remove the weights, pushing the search to the depths of the sea. “The area now being searched reaches depths of around 80 metres. And those depths make things very complicated,” Chicón said.
On Tuesday, an underwater robot was brought in to widen the search area and is working alongside divers from the Guardia Civil. “The specialist divers from the Guardia Civil need to use a blend of helium, nitrogen and oxygen to be able to carry out their work. They can only dive for short periods of time and many safety precautions must be taken to allow them to work under those conditions,” Chicón said.
He noted that the skies were clear and the sea was calm on Sunday, and had been that way since.
Molchanova was diving in an area known for strong currents, where the water temperature can dip sharply once divers get below the surface – something that can affect even the most experienced of divers.
Alexey Molchanov, her son and a champion freediver himself, said he believed his mother was dead. The freediving community also appears to have accepted that Molchanova is unlikely to have survived.
Will Trubridge, a respected freediver, tweeted that the world had “lost its greatest freediver”.
The freediving website Deeper Blue said Molchanova exploded on to the scene in 2003 when she set a world record in only her second competition by swimming underwater for 150 metres without fins at the Freediver Classic Open in Cyprus.
A year later she broke that record again, and in 2005 confirmed her dominance in the sport by breaking nine world records in six freediving categories. “At this point there was no doubt that there was a new superwoman in the sport of freediving,” Deeper Blue said.
She continued to set new world records for the next decade. In 2013, Molchanova swam 182 metres underwater with no fins at the world championships in Belgrade, breaking the record by 19 metres.
At the following year’s world championship in Sardinia she broke the world record with a fin by swimming underwater for 237 metres. In total she won 20 world championship individual golds.
Sara Campbell, a former World Champion and for many years Molchanova’s main rival, said: “I called her the Queen. She is the greatest free diver that the world has ever seen and quite possibly that the world will ever see. It’s absolutely tragedy that she’s gone in this way. It seems to have be freak accident, But she lived for the ocean and ultimately every free diver would be quite happy to go that way.”
The British free diver, who beat Molchanova to a gold medal in her first world championships in 2007, said there was gentle side to her older rival that was hidden behind her competitive image.
“A lot of people called her the machine and she was incredibly strong physically and mentally. But the more I got to know her I realised there was much more behind that. She worked at the University of Moscow and did a lot of research into sports science. She had a huge wealth of knowledge about the magic that is the physiology of free diving.
“She once said ‘death and birth are important and free diving is just a game for adults’. That kind of sums her up. She talked about her children with immense love. Free diving was a curiosity she pursued with passion, but it was not the be-all and end-all in her life.”
Campbell added: “I asked her recently ‘what makes you keeps going?’ and she said it is not world records, just that was she curious about what she could do. She wasn’t sure how long she would continue, but she gained so much pleasure from doing what she did and from teaching and sharing.”
Campbell said that when she first first encountered Molchanova in 2006, the Russian had “blacked out” after diving to 60m with no fins.
“I had the response that a lot of non-free divers have, that this person looked dead. I was very upset, I think I started crying. But later, on her 50th birthday, she set the world record to 70m with no fins. She was just phenomenal. The tragic irony was she lost her life in the same discipline, no fins, but just playing in depths of 30m or 40m. Whether it was the current, or something happened, I just hope they can find her body and some answers as to what caused her death.”
“She was diving within 50% of her maximum capacity. Free diving itself is not a dangerous sport, what makes free diving accidents happen is people without training trying things they shouldn’t. What makes me really angry is people who don’t know anything about the sport making judgement that we are all stupid, reckless and irresponsible because we are not, and if you compare the safety record of free diving to scuba diving there is no comparison.”
Aida International, the freediving governing body, issued a joint statement with Molchanova’s family paying tribute to her achievements. “She was an inspiration to all freedivers and despite being one of the fiercest competitors in the world, she was always calm and relaxed during competitions,” the statement read.