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January 2003 Vol. 29, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Death of a Free Diving Champion

but who is to blame?

from the January, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Death, like pressure and speed, is a constant companion for the few who engage in no limits free diving. Divers take a single deep breath, then submerge on weighted sleds mounted on cables, plummeting hundreds of feet in a minute. When they reach their goal, the weight is dropped and they race to surface like a bullet. There's no need to decompress. They haven't breathed.

"Free diving is getting in touch with yourself. It's a quiet and peaceful feeling, and you get to understand your body,'' said Carlos Serra, president of the Miami-based International Association of Free Divers (IAFD). "You need to know what your body is telling you and when you need to go to the surface and breathe," Serra told an Associated Press reporter.

But the October 12 death of a world-record holder, 28-year-old Audrey Mestre, has sparked intense debate about safety and who's in charge. Mestre, the wife of record free diver Pipin Ferreras, drowned while trying to break her husband's IAFD record of 531.5 feet.

Free divers can hold their breath for up to three minutes. No-limits divers can regulate their heart to twenty beats per minute. They flush their sinuses and ears with water to combat the fierce effects of pressure. "They put their bodies in a mode of trying to ... learn to control the urge to breathe,'' Serra said, however shallow water blackout can cause the diver to pass out and possibly drown.

IAFD's Serra is partners with Pipin Ferreras, who was present at his wife's death. A dive to 561 feet that should have taken just three minutes lasted more than 8 1/2 minutes. Mestre's body was limp when Pippin brought her to the surface. She had reached her target depth of 561 feet, but experienced problems on her way up. The IAFD has posthumously recognized a dive to 558 feet completed by Mestre October 9 in practice as a world record.

Serra and Ferreras have been inundated with criticism on Internet forums and from fellow free divers. They were blamed for failing to have adequate safety divers and medical staff and for covering up any mistakes that were made. Serra vehemently denies such criticism.

Ricardo Hernandez, who began his own free diving school after being fired from the IAFD two years ago, says Serra and Ferreras are hiding information. They have not released a video made during the dive using a camera attached to the sled, and failed to disclose information from computerized depth gauges secured to Mestre's body during the dive, Hernandez said. He also questions why Ferreras had to dive in to save his wife when there were supposedly plenty of safety personnel in the water.

"There is a general outcry and an uproar in the diving community,'' Hernandez said. "The video has always been shown to public after each successful record. The video will be proof of how many divers were there.

"Audrey's death became a tragedy and it's becoming a tragicomedy perhaps because there are so many facts people don't know a month after she died,'' he said. "Carlos and Pipin have a complete conflict of interest and their lack of disclosure is a total mockery.''

Ferreras has declined interview requests, only speaking to the press during a memorial service. But Serra insists there were enough safety divers and emergency medical personnel present. He says Hernandez is a disgruntled former employee who is seeking notoriety through "sickening'' personal attacks.

He says that little information has been released out of respect to Mestre's parents and Ferreras, who need time to grieve. "The investigation continues. There is no cover-up. We have to understand the painful process of healing,'' Serra said.

Serra has acknowledged that the sled malfunctioned and stopped while Mestre was at 530 feet. A safety diver stationed near the bottom of the line saw that Mestre had fainted and began taking her to the surface. Ferreras eventually dove in with an air tank to bring his wife up.

While Mestre's death has been felt throughout the diving community, participants say such danger is ever-present and must be accepted. "The ocean is more powerful than you. You have to make a major peace with the ocean and realize every time you go out you can die,'' said Briseno, whose husband, Matthew, was working as a safety diver during Mestre's fatal dive. "Yes, death is always possible. But that is the way I would choose to die. It is acceptable to me that I would die free diving.''

Ferreras said at his wife's funeral that he plans to reach her record depth of 558 feet. "I can't retire right now. If I stop doing what I've been doing, everything she worked for would be worthless,'' Ferreras said.

Briseno and many others say the main challenge for the sport now is establishing a centralized governing body that can standardize safety practices and records. "The different bodies that organize the sport need to get together on safety procedures,'' Briseno said. "The training, the safety and the records: They need to agree on the basics."

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