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One More Deep Dive

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

COURTESY OF PIPIN FERRERAS

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.

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.

Meanwhile Pipin, on one lungful of air, is gone. Minutes pass. It's as if Roberto and I are waiting for a scuba diver, the yellow line our only proof that he is below us. If it were anyone else, I would panic. But this is Pipin Ferreras, who can hold his breath longer and dive deeper than nearly any human being alive today. His little swim with a gun at 125 feet is the equivalent of a morning jog for a marathon runner.

I've read about his exploits riding a sled down hundreds of feet below the surface. I've seen videos. I've talked to experts who describe how a man's lungs compress to the size of a fist, the heart rate drops, and blood is shunted from the extremities to the vital organs. It's a response known as the mammalian dive reflex, a legacy of our aquatic origins. But to be there with him as he disappears for so long is unsettling. It's as if the laws of physics don't apply to him.

Then I hear the telltale susurration of the shaft leaving the gun, the softest sigh and ping far below. Roberto grabs the line and starts hauling it hand over hand. Pipin rises as he descended, arms out in front, in no great hurry. Eventually the gun comes into sight. Then a silver speck grows more distinct in the gloom. Soon Roberto is holding a twelve-pound yellowtail jack, stunned, its wide eyes the color of burnished copper. A plume of blood billows behind it.

We'll spend the late afternoon bobbing in the swells as Pipin relentlessly dives to the bottom and spears grouper and snapper, all shot right behind the head so the meat isn't damaged. He takes no break longer than a few minutes before plunging down, down, down.

On the ride back, the cooler filled with fish, Pipin sits alone at the bow, cross-legged, his shaved head glinting in the scattered sunlight like a carved figurehead on a schooner's bowsprit. He is calm. Trips into the water, he says, make him feel close to Audrey. "She is with me on these dives, guiding me," he remarks casually.

Pipin has constructed his life so that, in her absence, Audrey is everywhere. Her presence goes beyond a pending HarperCollins book, the movie, and the record dive attempt. At least that's how Pipin sees it. "Now we are closer than ever," he says. "Even in my dives she is pushing me. She'll be guiding me how to do the movie. She'll be guiding Jim and the actors." She has become his personal orisha, and for now he is content to dedicate all his efforts to create a lasting monument to her -- in the record books, on the printed page, and on the big screen.

This is his self-imposed penance, to work toward her glory. Channeling his energies this way allows him to assuage any guilt he may feel for having brought her into this dangerous sport. It also helps him manage the grief of losing her. "Even now I know she's preparing the place where we're going to be together," he says. "Sooner or later I know I'm going to get together with her someday."

But not before he sets a record in her honor.


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