The Last Deep Dive
The most noticeable thing about Francisco Ferreras is his chest. He is otherwise an imposing presence -- tall, muscular arms, broad back, shaved head bronzed by the sun. But it is the chest that impresses. It is prodigiously expansive, but not in the way bodybuilders become musclebound with bulk. Ferreras's ribs simply encase a greater mass. A lifetime spent developing that voluminous chest has made Ferreras unique: He can hold his breath and dive deeper into the sea than anyone alive, a feat that has brought him worldwide fame and a modest fortune. For a time it also brought him a breathless love as exhilarating as any record-setting dive.
His beautiful French wife, Audrey Mestre, garnered her own fame. From their North Miami headquarters he trained her in the dangerous sport of free-diving. She too became a luminary, diving deeper than any woman in history. In Ferreras's life, all fulfillment flowed up from the depths.
Until Audrey drowned.
She was trying to set a world record -- for men and women -- by diving to 171 meters (561 feet) off the coast of the Dominican Republic this past October. Something went wrong on her ascent and a dive that should have lasted three minutes stretched to four, then five... After eight minutes Ferreras emerged from the water with his wife's body. She was 28 years old.
The diving world mourned. Free-dive Internet chat rooms reverberated with grieving fans. The international press recorded her passing. Time magazine eulogized her as the sport's "star." Audrey's death also provoked pointed questions about her husband, known by his nickname Pipin.
Given his reputation for being aggressively competitive and obsessed with his sport, some people asked whether Pipin had trained Audrey too quickly. Had he brought her too far too fast? Were adequate safety measures in place during her fatal dive? Pipin was well known for taking risks, and now his past involvement with deadly dive accidents took on new significance. Still the tragedy simply could have been a consequence of the inherent hazards upon which the sport is built. The thrill of danger, after all, is in cheating death.
The loss and subsequent controversy have taken their toll. Today Pipin, 41 years old, wants to make one last dive -- in his dead wife's honor -- then retire. Their romance, his fierce ambition, and her death bespeak a drama of operatic proportions, one in which the ocean itself assumes a principal role: Pipin loves the sea, Audrey loves Pipin, the sea takes Audrey.
This sport that entices people to risk their lives is little known in the United States, but in Europe and elsewhere free-dive champions are lauded as heroes. Its roots are ancient. Greek warriors sent divers to sabotage the ships of their enemies. For centuries Japanese pearl divers and Medi-terranean sponge harvesters trained themselves to dive deep for their livelihoods.
But the depths to which Pipin and his free-diving associates now descend were not thought humanly possible until recently. As late as the Sixties doctors and scientists believed the immense water pressure below 300 feet would crush the human chest cavity. Pioneering deep-divers such as Enzo Maiorca of Italy, U.S. naval officer Robert Croft, and Frenchman Jacques Mayol proved them wrong. They began using weights and cables to take them deeper than they could go under their own power -- deeper than humans had ever gone.
Puzzled scientists then discovered that exposure to the pressures of deep water causes the body to respond in unexpected ways. Heart rate slows. Blood flow to the extremities constricts and is redirected to vital organs. The lungs contract to the size of oranges. This process came to be known as the mammalian dive reflex, perhaps a vestige of our aquatic origins. Through training, the response can be amplified.
Pipin's years of relentless training have resulted in extraordinary abilities. At peak performance his lungs can hold eight liters of air, twice the normal amount for a man his size. At the bottom of a descent his heart rate has been reduced to an unparalleled 8 beats per minute, though more commonly it drops to 20 to 30 beats per minute while diving. (The average human rate is about 65 beats per minute.) At rest he can hold his breath for nearly eight minutes. (Dolphins can do so for up to fifteen minutes.) Physicians and scientists have studied, tested, and probed him seeking to learn how he does this, and thus perhaps learn more about what the body is capable of achieving. To them he is a mystery. CBS, NBC, and the Discovery Channel have produced programs marveling at his accomplishments. In fact when Audrey Mestre first met him, she was a marine biology student specifically studying his body, the way an art history major might study Michelangelo's David.
Today's top divers have devised high-tech tools to take them as deep as possible as quickly as possible. At the extreme end of the sport, called no-limits free-diving, champions like Pipin and Audrey use a heavy "sled" guided by a weighted metal cable to rapidly descend to a desired depth. Then they inflate an air bag to shoot them back to the surface. Safety divers with scuba gear are positioned along the length of the cable in case of emergency. But the risks are still great. One constant danger is something known as shallow-water blackout, which occurs when oxygen starvation causes a sudden loss of consciousness during a diver's ascent.
That risk and many others are worth taking, divers say, because of the reward: the experience of a quiescence so euphoric it is hypnotic, even magical.
Pipin was born in Cuba and grew up with the allure and dangers of the ocean. His hometown of Matanzas, about 60 miles east of Havana, has one of the deepest bays on the island. At eight years old he was spearfishing with a neighbor's borrowed gun. By age eleven he could hold his breath and dive down about 100 feet.
His parents were educated -- his father a judge, his mother an academic -- but Pipin was drawn to the sea. Instead of attending college he chose a different path: spearfishing. "As a boy I never went to the discotheque," he says. "I never played soccer, baseball, or anything. The only thing that gave me pleasure was diving, spearfishing. In Cuba this is a big sport. The best, most brave spearfishermen are in Cuba. The reason why is that when you have to feed your family, you will do anything."
Pipin accepted the risks of pursuing big fish in deep water, which exposed amateur divers to the threat of shallow-water blackout. At age thirteen he helped recover the body of a spearfishing colleague in Matanzas. As his skill grew, families would ask him to retrieve the bodies of others who drowned. In all, he estimates, he has recovered ten victims. "Sometimes the family knew where the body was, but it was too deep," he recounts. "They would tell me and I would get it."
While the danger heightened his attraction to the water, it also deepened his respect for it. "The only way you can get more conscious of what you are doing is to know the dangers," he says. "It's the only way to control the panic and fear. I love the ocean. I love what I do. Free-diving is mystical, a magical way of living."
He joined the crew of a state-owned fishing boat as a lobster diver, sailing for up to three weeks at a time and spending virtually all day in the water. On the return trip the divers would go spearfishing. "I was very happy," he says. In 1980, while in Havana, a friend asked him to take an Italian journalist spearfishing. They saw a grouper in deep water and Pipin said he could get it: "The Italian said, 'You know how deep that is? It's probably a record.' So I did it."
The unassisted free-dive record at the time was 60 meters (197 feet). The next day Pipin returned with a line and measured the depth of his dive: 62 meters. The Italian journalist brought a Super 8 camera and filmed Pipin descending again. Next thing he knew he was invited to Italy. But the Cuban government wouldn't allow him: "They said no, this is not the Olympics." Pipin was so furious he quit his job on the fishing boat. For seven years he fished alone. He also read about the diving records being set in Europe and assiduously attempted to repeat them.
This period of internal exile ended in 1987, when Cuba opened a new tourist resort. For the inaugural festivities government officials asked Pipin to perform for the foreign press, including a host of underwater photographers. He dove an astonishing 67 meters, or 220 feet. After this feat he and the government made peace. In fact Pipin was selected to run dive operations at the new resort, which quickly became a favorite of Cuba's elite. "My life changed," he recalls. "I became friends with the most powerful people in the military and in politics. I would go spearfishing with them and get fish for their family. You know, Castro is a very good spearfisherman."
Finally he was allowed to travel abroad and dive competitively, though always with an official "minder" at his side. His newfound freedom, he believed, was tenuous. "I was scared Castro would say, 'Okay, I'm tired of Pipin,' and put me in jail." During a 1993 dive contest in the Bahamas, he defected with the help of some Miami friends.
A life of fixation is not one of balance. Pipin is focused to the point of fixation. He is consumed with being underwater. He is also ferociously competitive, a quality fueled by an equally ferocious ego. This volatile combination does not make for an easygoing personality. "Pipin is a great champion, a great free-diver, but he's an idiot," jokes his friend and business partner Carlos Serra. "He's not a regular guy. He thinks differently about things. That's what makes him special. He's extremely, extremely competitive. It's to the point that he's a maniac. As soon as somebody breaks his record he has to beat them."
Serra first met Pipin in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1989. Pipin was there to lead a seminar, but when he learned an Italian woman had broken his free-dive record he became enraged, canceled the second day's sessions, and raced home to resume training. "My impression when I first met Pipin was that he was very macho and very irresponsible," Serra says.
They didn't meet again until around 1994, when both opened dive shops in Key Largo and became friends. They lost touch when Pipin moved away to launch Pipin Productions, his North Miami company that produces underwater documentaries on spearfishing and diving. Then one day in 1998 Pipin showed up at Serra's shop with a beautiful new girlfriend and an offer to become a partner in running his newly formed organization to promote free-diving: the International Association of Free Divers. The girlfriend was Audrey Mestre. She may have seemed shy and quiet at first, but Serra soon learned Audrey was possessed of a will to match Pipin's.
She was born in northern France in 1974 to a family of underwater enthusiasts. (As a child she swam along with her spearfishing grandfather in the Mediterranean.) At age thirteen she learned to scuba dive. In 1990 her family moved to Mexico, where she later enrolled in La Paz University, majoring in marine biology. Her thesis topic was the phenomenon known as "blood shift," the body's ability to constrict blood flow during deep dives. She picked Pipin as her study subject.
Audrey read everything about him she could. In an online autobiography she wrote, "He became my only conversation topic ... my new obsession."
In 1996, when she heard her subject was going to attempt a free-dive record in Cabo San Lucas, south of La Paz, she took a bus down to observe and, if possible, meet him. "One of my producers was allowing people to pay to see the training dives," Pipin recalls. "That's how I met Audrey."
Their initial encounter was marked by some ominous foreshadowing. While Pipin was training, two of his safety divers, Massimo Berttoni and Pepe Fernandez, died in separate diving accidents. In press accounts of the incidents Pipin claimed he didn't know what happened. The sport, he repeated, is simply dangerous.
As disturbing as the deaths may have been, they didn't completely divert Pipin's attention from Audrey. He had been with beautiful women before, but here was a gorgeous, athletic young woman who was schooled in exactly the thing that captivated him: the world beneath the waves. One can imagine how long it took him to be smitten as she asked her questions. They went out to dinner. He told her how he disliked the French free divers. She told him she was French. He apologized and walked her to her hotel.
Pipin knew right away he wanted to be with her. "I asked her to come to Miami and live with me," he says. Two weeks later she told her parents she was dropping her studies and moving to Miami to be with Pipin. "Since then," he says, "we were never apart."
Serra concurs: "She told me it was just like that -- love right away."
Once in Miami, Audrey took on a variety of responsibilities: dive assistant, underwater camera operator, assistant producer at Pipin Productions. She also began training: gym workouts and progressively deeper dives. "We were looking for a U.S. girl to do free dives competitively. We were training a few," Pipin recalls. "But [Audrey] was getting into training so intense the result was 100 times better than the American girls."
Their union was now almost complete. Audrey not only understood Pipin's public life intimately, she was about to join him in his private universe: the rapture of the deep dive. "I thought that if I could enter his underwater world, I could be closer to him ... and I did," she wrote. She was the perfect student, thoroughly absorbing his lessons. He was the perfect teacher, avoiding the mistakes he endured as a natural but untrained diver. "She didn't have to go through the problems I had to go through," he says. "She was better than me. She had a power in her mind -- an ability to focus, to get a clear idea of what she wanted to do." Their profound connection helped: "I could take one look at her and know she was having a problem equalizing, or whatever it was."
In May 1997, a year after she and Pipin met, Audrey set the French women's free-diving record at 80 meters (263 feet) off the Cayman Islands. The president of Mares, a manufacturer of dive gear, was present and signed on to sponsor the svelte beauty. In 1999 she and Pipin married.
To remain competitive, the couple trained with zealous fervor. They worked out with conventional free weights while holding their breath in order to accustom the body to exertion with limited oxygen. They practiced yoga to better control the impulse to breathe and to lower their heart rate. They spent countless hours in the pool, swimming underwater laps and honing their kicking skills.
This intensive training was taking place in addition to their other projects at Pipin Productions and the International Association of Free Divers (IAFD), which are located in the same North Miami building at 820 NE 126th St.
The goal of all the training, of course, was for Pipin and Audrey to dive to unheard-of depths. Mounting such world-record attempts requires extensive planning and substantial funds. In their logistical complexity, they resemble mountaineering expeditions: commitments to be secured from sponsors; support crew hired and IAFD judges engaged; press coverage, often including live broadcasts, coordinated; and the appropriate dive spot located. Pipin has done it often enough to be considered a pro.
On his 38th birthday in 2000, he set a new world record by diving to a bone-crushing 162 meters (532 feet). On May 13 of that year Audrey broke the female world record, reaching a depth of 125 meters (410 feet) off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. This was the fifth-deepest dive to date by anyone, male or female. A year later she broke her own record, again off Fort Lauderdale, by diving to 130 meters (427 feet).
While Pipin had been doing this most of his life, Audrey had been free-diving only four years. But she was a phenomenon being trained by another phenomenon, and together they seemed an unbeatable team. Soon she was measuring herself by Pipin's standards, which is how a joke eventually turned into a serious objective: Audrey would attempt to break Pipin's world record of 162 meters. That would be a major leap from her deepest dive of 130 meters, but Pipin thought her training was progressing so fast she was within reach. They didn't lock on a target depth; they simply knew it would be more than 162 meters.
The planning began in earnest this past summer. Audrey continued training while Pipin and Carlos Serra pulled together a team of safety divers that included Pascal Bernabe, a renowned scuba expert with vast experience in the use of the mixed gases that would be required for breathing at the bottom of the dive because air is unstable. They considered various locations, settling on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic because of its mild currents and easy access to deep water. The base of operations would be the Viva Dominicus Beach Resort. They lined up sponsors, including Mares, and made accommodations for the press in attendance. For this record attempt there would be some slight equipment modifications. The team decided to use a thinner cable, expecting it would cause less resistance during the ascent. A new sled design featured stabilizer wings to keep the frame from spinning on descent. (The sled was a double-T design, a metal tube with two crossbars. The cable ran through the tube. Audrey grabbed the top bar and wrapped her knees around the bottom bar, fins pointing upward. She did not wear a mask. Attached to the top bar was a "lift balloon" which, when inflated at the bottom of the dive, separated from the sled for rapid ascent.)
The entourage arrived in the Dominican Republic on September 29, 2002, and spent the next two weeks making practice dives to acquaint Audrey with water conditions and to test equipment, including the dive computers that would record the event.
Serra kept a log. On October 2 he wrote that Audrey easily completed a practice dive to 143 meters (469 feet) in two minutes and four seconds. "Based on that, they may readjust the depth for the day of the event," he wrote. On October 4 she plunged to an unprecedented 166 meters (545 feet). "That makes her the unofficial deepest diver on the planet!" Serra exclaimed in his journal. Because of this rapid progress, Pipin and Audrey decided to set 171 meters (561 feet) as her record attempt. Astounding though it was, this goal seemed easily within reach now. Pipin and Serra hired an enormous catamaran to carry Audrey, the crew, and the equipment on the day of the attempt, which was now set for October 12. On October 9 a practice dive took place using the new vessel. "Another great day," Serra reported. "Audrey did 170 meters in two minutes, fifty-five seconds. She came out in great shape.... If we had any doubts, they are now gone." This dive was yet another world record, though it remained unofficial because the formal procedures for documentation were not in place. But there was no reason to believe that on the scheduled day, with judges witnessing the event, Audrey would surface anything less than the undisputed world champion of no-limits free-diving.
For all their planning, there was one factor the team couldn't control: the weather. On Saturday, October 12, a passing storm washed the sky gray and kicked up the wind. At 9:00 a.m. the catamaran and several smaller boats were ready, but the decision was made to wait for the weather to calm. With all the logistics involved, no one, including Audrey, wanted to cancel unless absolutely necessary. By afternoon the weather had calmed enough to launch.
On the ride out, Audrey eased herself into a meditative trance to slow her heart rate. By 2:30 p.m., clad in her trademark yellow-and-black wetsuit, she had strapped a dive computer to her wrist and another to her calf to record the depth, duration, and velocity of the dive.
At the designated spot, twelve safety divers in scuba gear, including Pipin, spread out along the cable from the surface down to 90 meters (295 feet). There were no safety divers between 90 and 171 meters except for deep-diver Pascal Bernabe at the very bottom. (Divers working at Bernabe's depth must surface slowly and carefully to avoid potentially fatal consequences. The deepest safety diver on Audrey's October 9 practice run needed nearly four hours to surface after the dive was completed.)
In the water, Audrey mounted the sled and took her final breaths, deep and long, flooding her body with oxygen. Then, with one last swallow of air, she gave a quick nod and the sled was released. Computers on the sled and strapped to Audrey tracked the dive second by second. Initially she dropped at approximately five feet per second, gaining speed as she descended. At 30 seconds she was moving about six feet per second. At one minute, forty-nine seconds her descent was complete and safety diver Bernabe banged on his scuba tank in acknowledgment of her new world record. He later said she showed no signs of distress.
Once the sled hit bottom, Audrey reached up and inflated the lift balloon, which disengaged from the sled and began rocketing her toward the surface along the cable. But the balloon had trouble maintaining momentum. Just five meters from the bottom it stalled for a full 30 seconds. Bernabe quickly swam to her and attempted to add gas from his tank to the balloon. It's not clear if he was successful.
The IAFD later asked Kim McCoy, who works for Ocean Sensors, a company that supplied one of the dive computers, to analyze data collected that day. His report described several things that may have conspired to inhibit Audrey's rise. Among them: The waves caused by the storm appeared to be strong enough to move the new, thinner cable sideways, so her ascent was not absolutely vertical. This movement may have been exacerbated by inadequate weight at the end of the cable, which allowed it to become slack. That looseness apparently caused the balloon apparatus to stall.
As the ascent continued, Audrey suffered more periodic stalls -- none more than two seconds. But those were precious seconds. At three minutes and fifty seconds into the dive she had risen just 51 meters (167 feet) from the bottom. Who knows what level of panic she may have been feeling, but any panic at all surely would have heightened her impulse to breathe.
This is where Audrey passed out, lost her grip on the balloon's handle, and began to sink. It took Bernabe fifteen seconds to reach her. Pipin, at the surface in scuba gear, then swam down to meet Bernabe, who couldn't surface any faster without risking his own life. It remains unclear why the safety diver stationed at 90 meters did not meet Bernabe.
Pipin rushed to the surface with his wife's limp body in his arms. Eight minutes and thirty-eight seconds into the dive they broke the surface. A speedboat waited to rush her to the hospital while support crew trained in CPR and basic life support tried to revive her. Dominican authorities later performed an autopsy and declared her death an accidental drowning.
As details of the fatal dive slowly emerged, experienced free divers and fans alike began to question Pipin and the International Association of Free Divers. When answers were not forthcoming, they began to criticize him. Free-dive Internet sites bristled with conspiracy theories. One former IAFD employee, Ricardo Hernandez, alleged a criminal coverup. (The IAFD hired Miami attorney Joe Geller to sue him for invasion of privacy and defamation. The suit is pending.)
In response to the barrage of criticism, Pipin posted his own message on the IAFD's Website (www.iafdusa.com). "I'm writing this letter to clear some things that have been mentioned in some e-mail lists. Not Carlos Serra, not the IAFD, not any of the members of the diver's team are responsible for Audrey's accident. The only people responsible are myself, for introducing Audrey to this sport, and Audrey for deciding to practice. We knew the risk we faced when doing extreme dives."
The level of risk Pipin found acceptable, however, was unacceptable to others. "There are a lot of hard questions that have come up regarding the safety procedures of the IAFD," says Kirk Krack, who sits on the board of directors of the respected free-dive organization known as AIDA, the Association for the International Development of Apnea. (Apnea is the temporary cessation of breathing.) AIDA, which is more established than Pipin's IAFD, regulates the vast majority of free-diving competitions worldwide.
Krack, who also heads the Canadian chapter of AIDA, repeats himself for emphasis: "We question some of their safety procedures quite strongly." For instance, AIDA regulations require safety divers every 30 meters, with no gaps as occurred in Audrey's fatal dive. The organization also demands two safety divers at the bottom. In addition, any safety diver stationed below 40 meters must take the precaution of breathing mixed gases.
Krack also is not convinced that Audrey's medical support was adequate. Other than individuals trained in CPR, it's unclear whether advanced life-support equipment was available at the scene. Such equipment would include a defibrillator to restart the heart of a drowning victim, and drugs to then stabilize it.
Reports released by the IAFD thus far have not answered such questions. "They still don't address one or two mitigating factors that may have contributed to the accident," Krack says, alluding to the lingering question of why Bernabe handed off Audrey to Pipin instead of the diver posted at 90 meters, who happened to be breathing air, not mixed gases as AIDA would have required.
Pipin, lost in his grief, does not want to discuss the controversy. He'd rather talk about Audrey, the woman who managed to break through the armor of his uniquely insular world and touch a man trapped by his obsession.
"She too fell in love with the ocean," he says as a fog of denial seems to settle over him. "We have the kind of connection so tight, so real. It got to the point I could see inside of her. I know she can see through my eyes. We still are connected. That will never go away." These days he routinely says good morning to her during his daily meditations: "I try to keep that connection to her." Planning continues for his retirement dive, which he thinks could take place in June. He will aim for 170 meters to honor her. (The IAFD posthumously recognized her practice dive to that depth as a record.)
Observes his friend and partner Carlos Serra: "I don't think he will retire. I truly believe he thinks so, but he is so competitive, and I know he has plans to do a 200-meter dive." That scares Serra. A 200-meter dive (656 feet) has never been attempted. It would be the most dangerous endeavor ever undertaken in a very dangerous sport. "If there's anyone capable, it's him," Serra says while also acknowledging that Pipin is no longer a young man, that the years have taken a toll on his body. "If there's anyone who might die trying, it's also him."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.