Truly, Madly, Deeply

Even in the what-are-they-thinking? world of extreme sports, no-limits free diving seems best left to those with gills. The goal—to see who can dive the deepest—is straightforward enough, but here’s the catch: Free divers use no air tanks, which means that at depths of more than 500 ft.—the equivalent of a 50-story building—they are simply holding their breath. “One hundred percent of what we do,” says world-record achiever (532.8 ft.) Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras, “is in the mind.”

Still, the heart plays a part, especially for Ferreras, 40, whose partner in diving and in life—wife Audrey Mestre, 28—claims the female world record with a top dive of 427 ft. Married since 1999, the pair, who appeared in last year’s giant-screen film Ocean Men: Extreme Dive, are the Brad and Jen of the free-diving world. “They really emulate the sea creatures,” photographer pal Ron Everdij says of the couple, who can stay submerged for up to 7.5 minutes (him) and 5.15 minutes (her). “Few people feel what they do underwater.”

Let alone experience it together. As well as sharing a lifelong love of the sea, Ferreras and Mestre are equally committed to breaking their own records. To train their muscles to work on little oxygen, their workout involves running and weight lifting, then holding their breath for up to 2 minutes, followed immediately by more weight lifting. During a dive, they descend using an 80-lb. steel “sled” designed by Ferreras that glides along a steel cable. Their lungs, meanwhile, shrink to the size of oranges. “It’s amazing the body can withstand that,” says Ricardo Prado, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Miami who has studied Ferreras’s physiology. “Those depths are what nuclear submarines work at.” Unlike scuba divers, free divers don’t normally fear the bends (the potentially fatal release of nitrogen bubbles into the body), though the risk of brain damage is considerable. But there’s no place Ferreras and Mestre would rather be. “We don’t play tennis or watch TV or go to bars,” he says. “Water gives us happiness.”

Growing up in Cuba, Ferreras began diving for fish at age 6. The only child of Salvador, a retired lawyer and judge, and Margarita, a retired philosophy professor, he displayed his talent in 1981, when he caught a grouper for a journalist. “He could not believe I dove 180 ft.,” he recalls. “The next day we did a test, and I dove 207 ft.”—beating the then world record of 200. As his free-diving career took off, Ferreras began traveling, and in 1994 he flew to Miami, never to return to his homeland.

Meanwhile the French-born Mestre was pursuing a deep-sea passion of her own. Although she moved at 13 to landlocked Mexico City with her parents—Jean-Pierre, an engineer, and mom Anne-Marie, a retired public-housing official—she spent some summers on the Mediterranean with her grandfather. “I was diving every day,” says Mestre. “I wanted to be a mermaid at one point.” Instead she began studying marine biology in college. Her thesis subject? The physiology of the famous free diver Pipin Ferreras. By the time they met in 1996, Ferreras had been twice married and divorced and had fathered two children—Francisca, 12, and Luca, 7, who live with their mothers—and was seeing someone else. But that didn’t stop Mestre, who attended one of his competitions and pursued him at a restaurant. “The girlfriend went to sing karaoke and left Pipin alone with me—a big mistake!” says Mestre. “In a flash, I was in love. It was a big attraction, like a force.” Ferreras found the attention breathtaking. “She asked me very smart questions,” he recalls. “We decided to live together after one day.”

Soon after, Mestre took up Ferreras’s sport, and in 1999 the pair wed on their own dock (the bride wore coral-colored Versace). These days the couple—who share a four-bedroom home on Treasure Island near Miami with two rottweilers and two pugs—are busy running an underwater-film business and a free-diving school and creating a line of diving equipment. They also still compete—often against each other. “She could surpass my records,” says Ferreras. “But I hope not!”

Michelle Tauber

Linda Trischitta in Miami

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