One More Deep Dive

Pipin Ferreras prepares to set a world record as his dead wife watches and the cameras roll

The water is flat and calm behind Pipin Ferreras's home in North Bay Village as we load snorkeling gear into his boat, Olokun III. But by the time the 30-foot craft shoots out of Government Cut into the Atlantic, heavy swells roll the hull, forcing us to run parallel to shore until we break eastward into the waves to reach our destination. Then the boat pounds through the waves pugnaciously, slamming down so hard you need to stand and absorb the blows with your knees, like an outmatched boxer.

This sea promises one thing and does another. This sea does what it wants.

Forty-one-year-old Pipin Ferreras knows about the power of the ocean. He's spent a lifetime flirting with it, first in Cuba as a commercial spearfisherman and later as a champion diver. He can hold his breath more than twice as long as the average man, a skill that allows him to excel at the esoteric sport of free-diving, in which men and women hold onto weighted metal sleds that carry them hundreds of feet below the surface on one breath of air; then, after reaching a desired depth, rocket back up by inflating a balloon.

Pipin feels closest to his late wife Audrey when he's in the water

Pipin feels closest to his late wife Audrey when he's in the water

Despite meticulous preparations, Pipin has been criticized for lax safety measures
Despite meticulous preparations, Pipin has been criticized for lax safety measures

His monomaniacal pursuit of this sport has won him world records and made him famous. It also brought him, for a short time, an unparalleled love. Audrey Mestre was a marine biology student in Mexico studying how the renowned Pipin's physiology adapted to underwater pressure. In 1996 she traveled to Cabo San Lucas to watch him dive. They met and immediately became inseparable. She wrote in her diary that to get closer to Pipin she began training with him, and under his tutelage she was soon setting records herself.

On October 12, 2002, Mestre attempted her most ambitious dive -- to 171 meters, or 561 feet. It would best the world record of 162 meters (531.5 feet) Pipin himself had set in January 2000. But mechanical problems and bad weather complicated her ascent. After reaching the unprecedented depth she didn't make it to the surface fast enough. She drowned. In the wake of her death Pipin and the organization he founded, the International Association of Free Divers, were rebuked for lax safety measures. Pipin was devastated.

A lot has happened since Audrey's death, which made national news. New Times published a cover story in March ("The Last Deep Dive," March 6, 2003). That was followed by a Sports Illustrated cover story four months later. Soon major filmmakers were seeking out Pipin, including Titanic director James Cameron and Fox producer Barry Josephson. Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez reportedly expressed interest in a potential movie. Last month Pipin inked a deal with Cameron, whose own fascination with the ocean appealed to the diver. Josephson, whom Pipin took spearfishing during a July visit, will sign on as executive producer. "It was amazing to see him dive," Josephson marvels during a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I couldn't believe he didn't have tanks. How is it possible that your mind allows you to do this without panicking?"

Cameron visited him at his home, Pipin recounts, and they had a straightforward meeting: "He sat right there and said, 'I know what you want to know. You want to know whether I'm a jerk. I want to know whether you're a jerk. I'm not going to BS you, because the most important thing is that we're here to tell the story of Audrey.' We had a deal right away."

This October Pipin plans to make his first deep dive since Audrey's death. On the anniversary of her fatal accident he will attempt to match her 170-meter record, set during a training dive three days beforehand. The dive will take place where the couple first met, off Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Cameron will shoot the event using two submarines and incorporate the footage into his movie.

And that is why Pipin is spearfishing today. He is training for this momentous dive, the most important of his life.

A few miles offshore Pipin's two friends, Roberto and Tillo, prepare the gear. The three men dove together in Cuba years ago, before they independently migrated and found each other in Miami. After consulting the depth finder, they drop a weighted buoy to mark a wreck 125 feet beneath us. Pipin unsheathes a four-foot-long pneumatic speargun, which he designed for dive-gear manufacturer Mares, then dons mask, snorkel, fins, and weight belt. Roberto and I do the same and follow him over the side. Tillo will stay onboard and track us from the boat. Pipin has said this is a good spot for fish. But this is not a good day. The tides and weather conspire to limit visibility while currents push us around like rag dolls.

As Pipin hovers, his body still and his breaths deepening, Roberto tends to the hundred-plus feet of braided nylon line connected to Pipin's gun. When a fish is shot it will be his job to retrieve it, allowing Pipin to swim unencumbered to the surface.

Then Pipin jackknifes his legs into the air and with his arms pointed directly in front of him, smoothly descends. I ventilate, inhale a lungful of air, and follow. Ten feet and I squeeze my nose and blow out as the pressure builds in my sinuses. I'm down to twenty feet and Pipin is a ghostly blur beneath me, dissolving into the cloudiness of agitated water. Maybe I make 30 feet, maybe 35, the pressure pounding in my chest and head, the mask pushing into my face. But for a moment I get a glimpse of what draws Pipin down here. It is impenetrably quiet. Peaceful. Then my body sends me a signal and I dart to the surface.

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