The man who would be dolphin

by Dan Riney

In the corner of a dive shop in a small city on the tip of the Boso Peninsula two hours’ drive northeast of Tokyo, there is a shrine dedicated to Jacques Mayol, the French free diver immortalized in Luc Besson’s 1983 film, “The Big Blue,” who hanged himself last December.

Four men are sitting around this shrine, which consists of Mayol’s diving mask, snorkel and fins; half a glass of red wine; two dolphin figurines — one wooden and one stone; and a traditional Japanese umbrella. The centerpiece of the shrine is a framed photo of a smiling Mayol with his “little brother,” Hitoshi Narita.

Narita was one of only five people at Mayol’s funeral last Dec. 27 on Monte Cristo Island in Italy, near the spot in the sea where he once broke the world free-diving record with a 105-meter descent.

Narita looks longingly at his shrine to Mayol, then picks up the glass of wine, salutes Mayol and takes a sip. He passes the glass to the other three, who do the same. A moment of silence is observed, and then Narita walks back home from his dive shop, alone in the rain.

“The Big Blue” made Mayol a household name in Japan, but few here realize that for the last 30 years he was living for up to six months a year in the coastal city of Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture. Why? The answer is surprisingly simple: Hitoshi Narita.

The two first met in 1969, when Mayol was in Japan for the Seventh World Spearfishing Championships. Mayol was a diving god in Narita’s eyes then, but they didn’t share a common language so that first encounter was little more than a quick greeting.

The next year, Narita was prepared. Nervously, he handed Mayol a letter he’d had translated into English, part of which read: “My name is Hitoshi Narita, and I am from the north of Japan. It’s a beautiful place. Why don’t you join me on a diving trip there?”

The Frenchman read the letter, then looked up at Narita and said, “Good idea.” Narita had no way of knowing that the letter would be the beginning of a beautiful, and later painful, friendship.

Or rather, a “brotherhood.”

“A well-known photographer came to take photos at the dive shop one day,” recounts Narita. “He said, ‘I hear you’re best friends with Jacques Mayol.’ Before I could answer, Jacques shouted from the other room, ‘No. He’s not my best friend.’ At first I was a little disappointed. But later Jacques explained to me that we were more than best friends, we were ‘brothers.’ “

That first trip north in 1970 is still fresh in Narita’s mind, and a smile comes to his face with the memories of it. He explains how he and his biological brother rented a dump truck and had it converted into a makeshift camper. They put a double bed in the back of the truck, so that Mayol would have a comfortable place to sleep with his German girlfriend. Also in tow were Narita’s sister, her friend and a French/Japanese translator they hired for the trip at 10,000 yen a day.

“He kept calling me crazy because of all the money I was spending on him. But that was fine with me,” says Narita. “I just wanted to make Jacques happy and spend as much time with him as possible.

“Jacques enjoyed life’s simple pleasures. He loved the sea, dolphins and nature. He was content just to be diving and with friends. It was a great trip.”

When it was over and the men said goodbye, Narita distinctly remembers Mayol saying, “See you later.”

“I remember thinking that it would never happen,” recalls Narita.

Two years later, however, after Narita had moved south to Chiba, Mayol showed up one day, out of the blue, on Narita’s doorstep.

“My girlfriend died,” was the first thing he said. Narita can’t remember the exact details, but he thinks she was killed by a drug addict in Miami. A few months before she died, she had told Mayol he should go back to Japan since he seemed happiest there.

“I don’t know how he found me,” says Narita, “but that was the beginning of about 30 years of visits.”

The visits were short at first but gradually lengthened to the point where for the past seven or so years, Mayol was spending about six months of every year in Narita’s second house in Tateyama, a house still adorned with a wooden sign inscribed, “Jacques’s Place.”

When asked what the two men had in common, Narita says, “Our love of dolphins.” Mayol considered himself “Homo delphinus,” rather than a mere human. He explains in his book, “Homo Delphinus: The Dolphin Within Man,” that he felt he could communicate with dolphins through telepathy. Narita confirms that communication with Mayol was made up of “2 percent English, 48 percent body language and 50 percent telepathy.”

Some of Narita’s fondest memories of Mayol are of watching him interact with dolphins. Narita shows a framed photo of Mayol 45 meters underwater, with no oxygen tanks and two dolphins at his side. The inscription on the photo reads, “To my Dolphin Brother, Narita!” and is dated Dec. 23, 1993.

Narita explains how these two dolphins had been raised in captivity, so they didn’t know how to dive deep or hunt for food. Mayol gradually taught them to dive to 45 meters, and when he needed to go up for air, the dolphins would raise their fins for him to hang onto as they took him up.

“He was extremely careful and gentle with dolphins, like a man is with a woman — only more so,” says Narita. “He’d take a long time to approach the dolphins. . . . I remember realizing then why he was so popular with the ladies: He treated them the same way he treated dolphins.”

When asked if there was anything about Japan that Mayol didn’t like, Marita replies, “A lot. He hated all the traffic and the narrow roads and highways. He also disliked how time-conscious Japanese were. He said everything in Japan happened when and as expected, and he didn’t think people should focus so much on schedules. He hated repetition, and was always seeking a new adventure.

Narita’s dive shop, Seacrop, certainly feels like a place for hard-core but fun-loving divers, as well as a busy home. A large pot of chowder simmers on top of a kerosene heater, right in front of the shrine to Mayol, as if keeping the legend warm and happy. It’s easy to imagine why Mayol would have been smitten by Narita and the life he’s created around him . . .