Diver Down

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

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 try 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 that 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 last summer. Audrey continued training while Pipin and 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 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" that, when inflated at the bottom of the dive, separated from the sled for rapid ascent.


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.

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 as 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 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, 12 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 about five feet per second, gaining speed as she descended. At 30 seconds, she was moving about six feet per second. At 1 minute and 49 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.

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