Diver Down

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' 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' 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 is well-known for taking risks, and now his past involvement with deadly dive accidents took on new significance. Still, the tragedy could have simply 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. The sport's roots are ancient. Greek warriors sent divers to sabotage the ships of their enemies. For centuries, Japanese pearl divers and Mediterranean 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 1960s, doctors and scientists believed that 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 eight 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 15 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.

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Tristram Korten