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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 8 years old, he was spearfishing with a neighbor's borrowed gun. By age 11, 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, a feat that exposed amateur divers to the threat of shallow-water blackout. At age 13, 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 to go: "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 'OK, 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 that 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 that Audrey was possessed of a will to match Pipin's.