Once I was kneeling on the seabed in a clearing in a kelp forest, rigged down with scuba tank and cold-water wetsuit but feeling pretty good about myself. Six-gill cowsharks passed on either side, two metres long and sturdy as submarines, and the sunlight shafted down like God through the clouds in a renaissance painting. Then Hanli Prinsloo swam by.
Hanli is a freediver – she takes a breath at the surface and carries it with her, like dolphins do – and while I suddenly felt as lithe and hydrodynamic as a sunken Volkswagen Beetle, she was sleek in a silver-grey sharkskin bodysuit, swimming as seals seem to swim: through lazy half-turns and hitches and slo-mo invisible ripples. I tried to hold my breath along with her but she smiled and waved and was still undulating off into the silvery blue long after I’d exhaled in a gasping cloud of bubbles. It struck me that I’d never seen a human being happier or more wholly at home.
I remembered that moment last week when Natalia Molchonova went missing. Natalia was probably the world’s greatest freediver. She was world champion 23 times, breaking 41 world records. She could hold her breath for more than nine minutes and in the 2007 World Championships her winning time in the discipline of static apnoea beat the male winner’s. She was the first woman to dive more than 101 metres with constant weight. When she vanished, while on a recreational solitary free-dive to a casual 40 metres in the warm blue Spanish water off the coast of Formentera island near Ibiza, she was 53 years old.
The first thing people say when someone dies doing something out of the ordinary is “at least she died doing something she loves”, but I’ve never liked that line of thinking. It’s the same as being afraid of dying alone or poor or in the economy class section of an aeroplane: it gives too much weight to dying. Death is a moment just like any other moment in our lives – the only difference is that there aren’t any more moments after it – and the instant of death neither ennobles nor diminishes anything that came before it. I’m more afraid of living badly than dying badly.
Of course, like anyone, I’ve given plenty of thought to the ideal circumstances of my ideal death – watching cricket from a quiet grassy bank in the hazy orange light of the post-tea session on the third day of a test match, for instance, or reading a Hercule Poirot novel beside a fire on a cold night with my wife nearby and perhaps the murmuring voices of good friends elsewhere in the house and a glass of something splendid balanced on the arm of the chair, but each time I’m not convinced. Why in the world would I want to die right then? I wouldn’t! I would want a bit more of that. I’d want to see who the murderer is, I’d want to see how we chase on a wearing wicket on the final day. I’d want more. If I could choose the circumstances of my death, I’d far rather be doing something unpleasant, so that whatever put a halt to it would feel like relief: I’d want to be sea-sick, or applying for a British visa, or about to pay the bill. I’d want to be flying economy class.
So I’m not inspired by Natalia Molchonova’s death, nor by Jim Morrison’s or Michael Hutchence’s or anyone else who died doing something they loved, but I am inspired by her life. Natalia set all those 41 world records in the space of only 13 years, because she only took up freediving when she was 40 years old. While the rest of us are patting our bellies thoughtfully in the mirror and reluctantly deciding between gym membership and a new summer jacket, she bought a nose-clip and went to find a hole in the ocean deep enough to fall through. On the day she turned 50, Natalia set a world record by swimming without fins to a depth of 70 metres. She’s one of those splendid, unstoppable women – like PD James, who wrote her very first novel aged 42, or Diana Nyad who started long-distance swimming aged 61 and at 64 became the first human being to swim alone and non-stop from Cuba to the USA – who only get started when the rest of us are giving up and who help me think differently about the second half of my life.
I hope Natalia had her Big Blue moment, and met death swimming toward a dolphin in the warm ocean with a smile on her face, but if she didn’t, that doesn’t matter. It’s not dying that matters, it’s how you get there.
The Times, 12 August 2015