Diver Down

Pipin Ferreras and his wife, Audrey, challenged the deadly sea. They lost.

She was born in northern France in 1974 to a family of underwater enthusiasts. As a child, she swam alongside her spearfishing grandfather in the Mediterranean. At age 13, 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 that 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."

Audrey dove to 170 meters on October 9, 2002, at the time an unofficial record; three days later, she made her fatal dive. After her death, the IAFD gave Audrey's practice dive record status.
Audrey dove to 170 meters on October 9, 2002, at the time an unofficial record; three days later, she made her fatal dive. After her death, the IAFD gave Audrey's practice dive record status.

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," Pipin recalls. "We were training a few. 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 but 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 breaths to accustom their bodies to exertion with limited oxygen. They practiced yoga to better control the impulse to breathe and to lower their heart rates. 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 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).

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