Extreme Sport of Free Diving

ByBill Ritter

March 6, 2002 -- It seems almost comical to slap a label on him. So simplistic, so Barnum-esque to call him "The Human Fish." But how else to describe Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras and all the marvelous things he can do with just one very deep breath of air?

We've all tried to hold our breath for as long as we can. How long did you last? Thirty seconds? A minute? And how long can you do it under water? And how deep were you? The bottom of a 10-foot pool, with the pressure on your ears nearly unbearable?

Please, no foolhardy machismo here. Your claims will pale by comparison to what Pipin can do: stay under water for several minutes. And by under water, I mean deep under water. Almost 500 feet.

It's called free diving. It's part extreme sport, part quest for inner peace.

Pushing His Body to the Limit

Pipin rides down on an 80-pound weight that plunges him down to the equivalent of a 50-story skyscraper. As he descends, amazing things happen to his body: His heart rate slows to just 14 beats a minute. That's barely a pulse. Each of his lungs, normally the size of a football, shrinks to the size of a potato. Blood surges from his extremities to his heart and brain. In short, he's pushing his body to the limit.

It's pretty much what happens naturally to marine mammals. The "marine mammal response" is what Pipin calls it. And he insists humans can do it too; the ability, he says, is buried deep within us. He believes we evolved from the sea and, he says, everyone of us, after all, spent our first nine months of life "underwater," swaddled in amniotic fluid.

"You're going back into the aquatic memory that every human being has," says Pipin.

There is, say free divers, a sense of euphoria way down there — a little like floating in outer space, and so peaceful they'd rather stay under. But of course they can't. So to make it to the surface before he runs out of that single swallow of air, Pipin inflates a balloon that will quickly carry him up — sort of like an express elevator.

There are two things I should make abundantly clear here. First, free diving is dangerous — deadly dangerous. Last June, renowned U.S. surfer Jay Moriarty died while free diving in the Indian Ocean. Those last few feet, as your body readjusts to the nearing-the-surface pressure, are especially risky. Divers can black out — forever.

Second, not everyone is enamored with Pipin and his diving records. (He's held several world marks, and he claims, in practice, to have dived as deep as 558 feet on one lungful of air.) Diving purists criticize Pipin's reliance on a weighted sled to go down and an inflatable balloon to surface. Pipin also does it the "purist" way, but using the equipment has enabled him to go twice as deep.

My Underwater Attempt (OK, Five Attempts)

I decided to test Pipin's theory that anyone can do this. So one day I find myself flying to Miami. Two hours after landing, I'm in the water, looking and feeling a bit like a whale about to beach.

Pipin — who advises me that, despite a tight deadline for the story, I should really wait 24 hours between flying and diving — leads me through some deep breathing exercises, trying to force the "bad air" out and get my lungs accustomed to expanding. I do not grab or practice this concept as easily or attractively as he does.

Now I've snorkeled for years, but I quickly discover this is much harder than I expected. It's not holding my breath that's the problem: It's the pressure on my ears. I'm in sheer agony. I try all the diver's tricks to equalize the pressure, including blowing into my pinched nose harder than I think I should. Nothing works.

But I do not want to give up! Not on national television, with two cameras above water and one underwater taping my every pathetic attempt. So down I go. Again and again and again. Five times I try. Five times I wimp out, or at least my ears do.

Pipin says I made it down 18 feet. I suspect he's being charitable. (And this hurts to admit, because I'm told my colleague Don Dahler went down about 125 feet for a story he did on free diving for Good Morning America a while back. Ouch.)

But Pipin says, give him a week to train me, and I'll be down 200 feet, easy. Really, he says, 200 feet.

As for Pipin, this 40-year-old Cuban defector says his next goal is — get this — 600 feet. That's like a 60-story building. On one single breath of air.

Me? Next time I think I'll watch from the boat.