Depths of a passion
When the wife of a champion free diver tried to break his record, something went terribly wrong
Audrey Mestre was a world-class athlete in a niche sport so physically and mentally punishing that it counts only a handful of practitioners worldwide. She was a "free diver" --one who tests how deep humans can go underwater or how long they can remain submerged--on a single gulp of air. "No limits" free divers like Mestre go deeper than most. Wrapped around a weighted sled that slides on a cable, they plunge hundreds of feet down, then inflate an air bag that shoots them swiftly back to the surface. In the process, they withstand near-crippling water pressure; their lungs shrink to the size of baseballs; their hearts slow to 20 beats a minute; and their sinus cavities fill with salt water to keep their eardrums from exploding.
With her thick auburn hair, long legs, and shapely figure, Mestre, 28, was a striking poster girl for no-limits diving. And on the morning of Oct. 12, 2002, under leaden skies, in the choppy waters off the Dominican Republic, she sought to set a world record of 561 feet. That is roughly equivalent to descending and ascending a 55-story building--and she would have to do it in the time she could hold her breath, about three minutes. Even more important, it was 29 1/2feet beyond the record claimed by Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras, the Cuban defector who also happened to be her husband.
Ferreras, 42, has for years dominated the sport of free diving, as much because of his personality as his skill. An ornery maverick, he takes pride in being a risk-taker. The French-born Mestre, granddaughter of a renowned spearfisherman, met Ferreras in 1996 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, while she was studying marine biology. She had sought out the bull-chested Cuban with the shaved head and gap-toothed smile, enthralled by his ability to reach depths once thought unattainable by man. In Mestre, Ferreras had found his soul mate, a vivacious woman who shared his passion for the sea.
At the time they met, Ferreras was the competitive one, regularly smashing records. But in 1997, he persuaded Mestre to try free diving, and she was immediately hooked. Ferreras realized that his beautiful protege was a natural at the sport, and he put aside his own considerable ego to coach her.
Risky business. There was a lot to teach. Accomplished no-limits free divers train hard, running, using weight machines, doing isometrics. They also learn to slow their heart rates by going into a meditative state. And though they're slicing deeply into a dark, wet abyss, they can't afford to panic--panic can kill at those depths. For unlike scuba divers who breathe compressed air and therefore have to return to the surface slowly to avoid decompression sickness, or "the bends," nonbreathing free divers must return to the surface at high speed. For them, the last few feet of the return journey is the riskiest, because as blood that has rushed to the brain to protect it at great depths once again courses to the body's extremities, the drained brain can shut down. But Mestre had never blacked out, so, on the day she set out to top her husband's record, she was characteristically calm. In case of problems, safety divers were posted at intervals down to 295 feet, with one at the ride's bottom, at 561 feet.