More than a decade ago, record-setting free diver Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras of North Bay Village lost his wife, Audrey Mestre, when she drowned attempting to exceed his world depth mark in a plunge to 561 feet off the Dominican Republic.
Mestre’s death in 2002 at age 28 — while trying to go down and up the underwater equivalent of a 56-story building on a single breath of air — roiled the free-diving community worldwide.
Authorities in the Dominican Republic ruled it an accident, but some accused Ferreras of negligence or worse.
Ferreras, now 51, retired from competitive diving after his wife’s death. He dissolved his company, the International Association of Free Divers, and did some photography and promotions work.
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But now he is announcing a comeback: an attempt in 2014 to break the “no-limits” world record of 702 feet set by Austria’s Herbert Nitsch in 2007 off Greece.
No-limits free diving means taking a breath at the surface, riding a sled down a weighted cable to a pre-determined depth, then inflating a lift bag or balloon to rocket back to the surface in a round trip that can take several minutes depending on the depth.
The plunge — his last before retiring from the sport for good — will be in Mestre’s honor, he said.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking for years about,” he said in a recent interview at his Miami office. “People have the right to come back. I’m a fighter. I’m glad that Audrey gives me the force to do this. I can not let her fail. If it were the other way around, I know she would do it, too.”
In preparation for his final world-record attempt, Ferreras said he plans to travel to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, later this year to perform five consecutive breath-hold dives below 100 meters (328 feet) in 30 minutes or less — something that’s never been done — and have it webcast live on the Internet.
Scientists and medical experts are being invited to travel with him to study the physiological effects and help him design a training program for the final dive.
“I’m not crazy,” Ferreras said. “There has to be a safe way to do it. If it’s going to be danger, I’m not going to do it. We have a big aquatic potential that lives inside of us. Marine mammals do that their whole life way below 100 meters. This information I’m going to get is going to tell us how really deep we can go.”
Ferreras initially launched a $150,000 crowd-funding campaign on the Internet to finance a 90-minute documentary on the dives.
But he has suspended that effort, saying he is confident his company, CAMM Productions, can sign up private sponsors to underwrite the costs.
While Ferreras has stayed away from record attempts for the past decade, he said he has continued to train, diving and spearfishing and working out in the gym by holding his breath and climbing the Stairmaster. A year ago, he married South Beach model Nina Melo, 22, and has trained her to hold her breath past 100 feet deep and shoot fish.
As well as the production company, Ferreras says he has a line of spearfishing equipment and a nutritional supplement, and a fledgling recreational boat company.
“I want to live now more than ever,” he said. “I got a beautiful wife. I’m building up my companies. My enterprises are working.”
Ferreras, born in Cuba, came to South Florida in the mid-1990s. He set world records for deep free-diving that generated wide media attention and gave a major boost to a sport that was popular in Europe and the Caribbean but had been little-known in the U.S.
Ferreras married Mestre after they met during one of his world-record dives, and he trained her as a competitive free diver. After Cayman Islands native Tanya Streeter set a women’s no-limits world record of 524 feet in 2002, Ferreras announced his wife would attempt to beat that mark by diving to 561 feet.
Mestre made the dive but drowned before she could get back to the surface. The small air tank that was supposed to fill the balloon for the quick return trip did not have enough air. A deep rescue diver carried her, unconscious, toward the surface where Ferreras, diving on scuba tanks, picked her up and brought her to a waiting boat. Efforts to revive her failed.
The tragedy was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, two books, and several television news programs, including ESPN Films’ “Nine for IX” documentary, No Limits, that premiered last month.
In 2007, Ferreras’ former friend and business partner Carlos Serra wrote a book, The Last Attempt, in which he accused Ferreras of deliberately failing to fill Mestre’s air tank so that Ferreras could hold on to his world record, stage a dramatic rescue and focus international media attention back on himself.
Ferreras vows to address those allegations in his upcoming documentary but insists it was Serra who was in charge of operations on the day of the fatal dive and was supposed to make sure Mestre’s tank was full.
“It’s very sick what he says,” Ferreras said. “I didn’t know people can be so evil, maybe because I’m so naïve. I risked my life to go to 100 meters and bring Audrey back to the surface.”
He said he is considering legal action against ESPN over the No Limits documentary.
Meanwhile, Ferreras said, he is concentrating on his upcoming dives.
“What I’m doing is not competition. It’s a scientific experiment,” he said. “It’s going to be a world record, anyway.”