Is Time Running Out for the Mythic Man Fish?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, October 1998

Is Time Running Out for the Mythic Man Fish?
The greatest breath-hold diver the sport has ever seen

By Paul Kvinta

Looking back on it, I should have suspected trouble right around the time Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras Rodriguez informed me that an aquatic personality dwelled within my body.

"He has been inside of you all your life," the world's greatest breath-hold diver told me, "but you do not know him. He is a completely different person. It is important for you to meet him."

I was game to shake wrinkled digits with my aquatic inner self, but that might have been the beer. We were knocking back a few at the poolside bar of the Pelican Bay Hotel in Freeport, Grand Bahama, and Pipin was holding forth on breath-hold diving — how it was not merely a sport, but an evolutionary step toward a shining global enlightenment. Every human, Pipin said, possesses an "aquatic genetic memory," a primordial remnant of our premammalian days as gelatinous globs of seagoing protoplasm. To access this memory all I had to do was gulp a giant breath of air, pinch my nose and hold my breath, and quickly plunge 30 feet or more beneath the ocean's surface; thus my slumbering personality would awaken like a startled Rip van Winkle. Afterward I could reveal to this soul mate my hopes, my fears, my very dreams. "You will be tapping into pure energy," explained Pipin. "Pure energy with the power to heal."

If anyone should know about such stuff, it was Pipin, the Cuban-born prodigy who, with a single breath of air, had plunged without scuba to a record depth of 439 feet, a distance greater than the height of the Statue of Liberty. In the fringe world of competitive breath-hold diving, or freediving, a sport in which individuals attempt to out-sink one another in the open ocean, Pipin is Greg Maddux and Evel Knievel rolled into one. To his millions of fans across Europe, Latin America, and Japan, to the audience that has watched him triumph in live television broadcasts of freediving competitions, he is — like Sinbad or Ronaldo — simply and singularly Pipin.

A pilgrim seeking a guru, I had come to Pipin searching for knowledge: I wanted the master to teach me how to freedive. But as I sat with him on a balmy Caribbean evening, Pipin had other things on his mind. There was his upcoming trip to Antarctica to "carve a hole in the ice" and set a cold-water freediving record. There was his proposed children's television series about astronauts who land on an aquatic planet populated by fish-people. There was the movie of his life, a planned $20 to $40 million biopic to be directed by Alfonso Arau, who helmed Like Water for Chocolate. There was also Wet Galaxy, a 100-foot-tall combination freediving facility/discotheque that Pipin had planned for Miami, having secured, he says, a 99-year lease from former mayor Xavier Suarez.

I mentioned to Pipin that the sport of freediving had opened up some interesting projects for him. Pipin stared at me a moment. "Freediving is not a sport," he declared. "It is ... a symbol for humanity."

However one classifies it, freediving has been practiced for centuries across the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and parts of Asia, with certain adepts — Greek sponge divers, Japanese pearl divers — possessing a mythic status on par with the American cowboy. This was the traditional style of freediving I most wanted to learn, a style known as constant ballast, in which the diver dons nothing more than a weight belt and fins and propels himself with his own leg power. As freedivers attempted to out-macho one another to deeper depths by the middle of this century, new styles emerged, including "no-limits," a form that is to freediving what bull riding is to rodeo. When a hotshot like Pipin attempts a no-limits record, he wraps himself around a T-shaped metal sled weighted with 100 pounds of lead ballast and suspended on a line at the ocean surface. He pulls a pin and rips down the line on this contraption, plummeting 10 feet per second into the black abyss. If the freediver can keep from panicking and withstand the intense water pressure that reduces his lungs to the size of potatoes, he'll reach his mark, abandon the sled, and rocket back to the surface beneath an inflated air bag. The entire spectacle lasts less than two minutes.

I first learned that Pipin was teaching freediving to ordinary folk in the summer of 1997, when I saw this advertisement for a constant-ballast class in a dive magazine: "Freediving Clinics with Freediving World Champion Pipin Ferreras! Reach depths of up to 75 feet or Pipin will refund your $300!" Later I read that he was launching the International Association of Freedivers, an organization for training and certifying breath-hold enthusiasts the way the Professional Association of Diving Instructors trains and certifies scuba divers. "I want to help all people understand better the importance of our aquatic potentialities," Pipin explained to me. While I couldn't be exactly sure if I understood all the permutations of that, I got the gist. Possibly more than anything, Pipin wants to usher freediving from the extreme fringe into the profitable mainstream. "One day," he predicted, "you will see everyone in the airport carrying his own sled, the way they carry surfboards today."

Understandably, there are those who find this a bit much. "Pipin's a freak show," says Tec Clark, director of the YMCA scuba program and U.S. representative to the Confederation Mondiale Activités Subaquatiques, the world body that certifies freediving records. "Sitting on a sled isn't freediving. It's stunt diving, and it's dangerous." In 1970, concerned that an elite group of sled divers had begun plunging well beyond 300 feet, CMAS stopped sanctioning no-limits freediving, labeling the practice "human applied experimentation." As for taking novices to 75 feet, Clark calls that "irresponsible." "Focusing on depth like that misses the whole point of the sport," says Clark. "Freediving is about being at one with the ocean environment, not about who can go deeper."

But just as novice mountain climbers tend to obsess over the altitude they reach, aspiring freedivers — myself included — often fixate on depth. Sharyn Janis, a 54-year old nurse from Chicago, attended one of Pipin's classes off the coast of Honduras in July 1997. "I got down to 50 feet!" she says, explaining that her classmates all seemed to have a fine time, even the guy who blew out an eardrum trying to nail a 75-foot dive.

I called Pipin's office in Miami and the office of his sponsor, Mares, a diving equipment manufacturer in Connecticut. A Mares official told me Pipin was going to Freeport for a week to shoot a shark-feeding episode for a Mexican television program. But after talking with Pipin, she assured me the master could squeeze me in for a lesson after the filming. In fact, she said Pipin needed to make a training video, and he would use me as the student. When I asked Pipin's office manager if there were any exercises I should perform to prepare for my course, he said no, adding, "Just watch what Pipin does. Then you do it."

Pipin is a hulking man, with a shaved, bulbous head and a linebacker's six-foot-three inches and 210 pounds. He possesses both a commanding Latin presence and a goofy, gap-toothed grin, making him something of a cross between Antonio Banderas and Howdy Doody. In Freeport, he arrives at the Pelican Bay Hotel in the company of his girlfriend, Audrey Mestre, holder of the French women's no-limits record (269 feet). "You are lucky," Pipin says. "You get to meet not one, but two champions. Ha ha."

This day the champions have a movie to make, and Pipin's cameramen set about organizing a scene near the hotel pool. In this first scene Pipin and Audrey will sit around a table with Ollie Ferguson, manager of Freeport's Underwater Explorers Society, UNEXSO, the world's premier scuba-diving center for shark interactions. For the benefit of the cameras, the three will debate whether Pipin should wear the 20 pounds of Arthurian chain mail that Ferguson requires of his employees who feed the sharks. "This," Pipin explains, "is for the dramatic tension."

The scene rolls, but almost immediately the camera craps out. Quickly the filmmakers devise a strategy: They will send for another camera from Miami and, in the meantime, do an in-water walk-through of the critical shark-feeding scene. As we putter out aboard one of the dive boats, Pipin tells me I'll be able to study his freediving form at the shark site — the previously mentioned close-hand observation that will allow me to absorb the famed Pipin technique. I'm adjusting my mask and fins at the site when Pipin sidles close. Don't snorkel too near, he warns, lest I wander "into the frame." Obediently, I tread water some 100 feet from the action, unable to glean much technique — unable to see much of anything, in fact, save Pipin's head rising and falling in the swells like a long-abandoned cantaloupe.

That evening Pipin and I meet for the first of my "theory" classes, which, per Pipin, will occur in the educational environment of the hotel bar. The professor and student order a couple of beers. Our two theory sessions, he explains, will be followed by a class in the ocean; Pipin assures me that despite our limited time together I will easily dive to two "atmospheres," somewhere between 33 and 66 feet. "If you follow everything I tell you," he says, "66 feet for you will be nothing." Tonight's curriculum involves the inner self, relaxation, and yoga. Pipin says that his guru in India — a man he claims can hold his breath for 14 minutes — taught him how to cleanse his body of negative energy and how to attain inner peace, all through meditation.

But first, a class demonstration. Pipin shifts in his seat and prepares to display proper freediving breathing method. Suddenly his mouth transforms into something akin to an industrial-strength vacuum hose, the kind used at a coin-op car wash to Hoover grit from floorboards. Whoosh. Whoosh. And yet despite all the inhaling and exhaling, despite all the subsequent discussion about relaxation, Pipin appears to be anything but centered. He's fidgety. Perturbed. "Man, I have not been able to sleep," he complains. "There is too much going on." Pipin has learned that Televisa, the Mexican media giant, wants to broadcast 20 hours of live coverage of his upcoming record attempt in Cabo San Lucas. This is not ease-making news for Pipin or, one imagines, for the programming honcho behind the decision. For Pipin, this means a lot of work; his last such attempt in Cabo involved 10 Suburbans, three big trucks, a makeup trailer, two helicopters, and 10 cellular phones. "There is so much to do," Pipin says, fidgeting again. "I cannot relax."

"Why don't you, uh, meditate?" I suggest, naively.

"I do not want to meditate," he grumbles. "I cannot meditate. If I meditate I won't get anything done." I'm anxious to get back to our theory session, to prep for the upcoming dives, but my instructor is still distracted. Pipin glances around anxiously. "I should be in Miami focusing on Cabo, not this," he mumbles. "I wish I wasn't even here this week."

We receive word that the new camera won't arrive until midweek. I grow nervous that the delay might jeopardize my freediving class, but shepherding the skills the master has taught me, I hole up in my hotel room and purge my tissues of negative energy, loudly inhaling and exhaling until cottonmouth sets in. Then, properly focused, I spend some of my newly expansive hours trying to ascertain the facts about the life of the world's best freediver. Pipin himself might supply his bio data, but the answers I get from him either obsess on the absurdly heroic — like the time a tiger shark gulped down Pipin's boyhood spearfishing buddy, and Pipin responded by stalking the beast, butchering it, and delivering the friend's remains to his grief-stricken but presumably thankful mother — or come in torrents of vague generalities. One evening, loitering outside a restaurant before dinner, Pipin mentions that he returned to Cuba not long ago to visit his sick mother. When I ask how he managed that — since he defected to the United States in 1993 — he stares at me incredulously. "Don't you know, man?" he says. "I am a hero in Cuba. Everybody knows me. Don't you know?"

Of course, I should have known. It's all right there in Pipin's recently published autobiography, Ninety Miles. This work, a souped-up fusion of Gabriel García Márquez and Danielle Steel, opens on a sugar plantation in the coastal village of Matanzas (Pipin provides two dates for his birth, 1957 and 1962, so the reader gets to pick), where young Pipin grows up under the loving care of a black nanny (his parents have scampered off to the mountains to become heroic guerrilla fighters). The most fascinating thing about Pipin's early life isn't that he begins breath-hold diving at 11 months — it's that he still can't walk at 19 months because he's possessed by evil spirits. Justifiably concerned, the nanny whisks little Pipin off to her village, where elders spend an entire night dunking the toddler in goat blood and dedicating him to Olokun, the Afro-Cuban god of the sea. Success. One month after this ritual, the not-yet-two-year-old can walk, and more: Wee Pipin makes a solo journey to the cliffs to "fling himself into the sea from the height of the great rocks." End of chapter.

The book progresses, as does Pipin. The lad grows into a mighty spearfisherman, and then, by the end of his teenage years, he gets his big break. As it happens, a Soviet submarine is patrolling Bahia Honda one day when crew members spy something odd prowling at 216 feet. On closer inspection the crew is stunned. It's Pipin! The Soviets call in the Cuban navy, which surrounds the breath-hold diver with ships and helicopters. Plucked from the sea, Pipin is subjected to a battery of tests by the Soviet doctors, and when the data leak out — his heart rate at 100 feet, for example, slows to about five beats per minute — freediving officials in Italy convince the Cuban government to hurry the phenom to Europe to compete. Accompanied by a phalanx of Cuban secret service men, Pipin shatters the constant-ballast record with a plunge to 219 feet, to the delight of all Europe.

Back home, Castro rewards the man-fish with a position entertaining foreign diplomats. But alas, Pipin becomes disillusioned, having discovered "the absurd contradictions, the corruption, the levels of envy, the narco traffic, the plots and the miseries of the Cuban political system," to quote the book's primary source. The scales fall from Pipin's eyes, and he realizes that he must cut his ties to mother Cuba. One night he flees the isle with two friends in a rubber raft. Castro, upon hearing of the escape, hurls his dish of vanilla ice cream to the floor of the presidential palace and screams, "I want those three, dead or alive!" Across the heaving Straits of Florida, Pipin valiantly dodges two Cuban warships, three helicopters, and a Soviet sub, sparking an international incident when the Pentagon dispatches ships to see what all the fuss is about. Pipin is pulled from the waves at the last second by a U.S. Navy ship, just as a frenzied school of sharks rips one of his friends to pieces.

It's quite a tale, even for Pipin — so much so that he admits in a "clarification" at the beginning of his autobiography that "my imagination has adorned more than one event in this story."

Indeed. By more sober accounts, during part of the time Pipin's book has him engaged in all manner of geopolitical derring-do, he was actually spending time in Italy, securing a number of freediving depth records and the first waves of the media coverage that would ultimately wash him of those vestigial extra names and leave the one-monikered, inexplicably famous Pipin.

But judging from the starry-eyed way people approach him during our week in Freeport, Pipin's fame is not overstated, even by Pipin. "He's the world's greatest diver," squeals Lisa Miller, a Bahamian UNEXSO employee, moments after she and some friends nab I'm-with-Pipin snapshots. Another time, two Greek tourists rush the master and beg for his T-shirt, which he happily removes and autographs. He politely refuses the pair only after they press him for his sneakers. Ged Martin, a British dive instructor, seems particularly moved the day he tags along to the shark site. "It's a tremendous privilege being on the same boat with him," says Martin. "I want a photo of us two. The guys won't believe it."

What's obvious from these few days in the presence of all that is Pipin is that he has mastered the art of hype — largely through the staging of something known as a "world-record freedive attempt." Such events, produced regularly, keep Pipin in the news, which in turn makes possible all of his other projects — the television and movie deals, the IAFD, the Mares and Seiko sponsorships, the spearfishing videos he produces under his Pipin Productions label. "It takes a lot to do the kind of self-promotion he's done," says UNEXSO's Ollie Ferguson, who organized Pipin's world-record no-limits dive to 410 feet off Freeport in 1994. "You have to stay at it all the time."

A typical world-record freedive attempt unfolds this way: Pipin selects a record to break and a place to do it. He rustles up some sponsorship and then informs the media, which (particularly the European paparazzi) flock to the site. If he's lucky, Pipin can convince a network, usually a content-starved outfit like Televisa, to broadcast not only the dive itself, but the preliminary activities — the sled training, the meditation rituals, the buzz flowing through the host town. On the day of the big plunge, hundreds of spectators and photographers in boats pack the dive site to watch Pipin induce himself into a near trance, mount the sled, and then vanish beneath the surface. Suspense builds. Two minutes later, if all goes well, Pipin blasts up out of the water, and the crowd goes nuts.

Jorge Velarde, a Peruvian safety diver on two of Pipin's world-record dives in Cabo San Lucas in 1996, says that the energy generated by a big-time world-record freedive is unlike anything he's ever experienced. "Everyone in town called out to us," says Velarde, recalling the weeks leading up to dive day. "Pretty women noticed us. I felt like John Travolta walking through Hollywood."

Since Pipin has become so accomplished at this whole spectacle (and since he currently lacks any rivals, as no one seems overly interested in challenging the 439-foot record he set in Cabo in 1996), he no longer even needs a record to break as an excuse to stage a "world-record freedive." He can manufacture whatever sounds good. In the spring of 1997, Pipin pulled off something called the Cayman Challenge, a "two-breath" dive off Grand Cayman Island. On one breath, Pipin rode his sled to 300 feet, where he then took a second breath from a scuba tank tied to the line and continued down to 500 feet. Pipin, who wears a Seiko "limited edition" dive watch commemorating the event, touts the two-breath dive as "a breakthrough in breath-holding physiology." According to one source involved in the event, Pipin lined up more than $200,000 in sponsorship money. The stunt was apparently so successful for Pipin that he repeated it in Cabo last June, perhaps for the benefit of those who might have missed the first.

Or maybe Pipin repeated the event to polish up his delivery, since the Cayman Challenge itself came off as something like a Marx Brothers movie. During training before the event, Pipin followed up a two-breath plunge to 400 feet with a scuba dive to 200 feet to help retrieve the sled. But when he surfaced, he lapsed into convulsions and became unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital and treated him for possible decompression sickness, a.k.a. "the bends," in a hyperbaric chamber. Upon regaining consciousness, Pipin flew into a rage, demanding to be released and insisting that he wasn't bent. Doctors responded by sedating him and airlifting him to a hospital in Miami, where he stayed for two days. In the interim, the Cayman Ministry of Health, Ministry of Tourism, and members of the island's scuba industry denounced the event. But Pipin returned to the Caymans and performed the dive anyway, all the while claiming he had only slipped and whacked his head on the boat — a detail perhaps being readied for volume two of the Pipin autobiography.

Pipin's casual relationship with veracity isn't always quite so comic. One afternoon I ask him if he's ever lost a safety diver (deep freedivers such as Pipin hire teams of scuba divers who stagger themselves down the descent line to assist the star in case of emergency), and he initially says no. In fact, in 1996 alone, Pipin's safety divers were dropping like flies. Both Massimo Berttoni and Pepe Fernandez died somewhat mysteriously — from decompression sickness, arterial gas embolisms, or drowning — after diving to depths around 300 feet while helping Pipin train for records off Cabo San Lucas. The fatalities outraged Dr. Alfonso Najar, the hyperbaric specialist in Cabo, who says Pipin refused to bring along medical personnel or equipment during his practice dives. "Pipin doesn't want the public to see medical equipment onboard," fumes Najar. "Pipin thinks he's a dolphin. He thinks nothing will happen to him, but he doesn't think about his divers." Pipin is mystified by Berttoni's death, but about Fernandez he has absolutely no doubts. "My team leader died," Pipin explains, "because he had been bitten by a scorpion the day before the practice, and it seems that the pressure at 70 meters injected the venom in the bloodstream and caused him a heart attack."

By the end of my week in Freeport I've resigned myself to the idea that Pipin is unlikely to ever instruct me in the ways of freediving. But then he approaches unexpectedly and says he might be able to squeeze me in, particularly if he can get several UNEXSO scuba instructors to take the class too. That way, he explains, UNEXSO would have the teaching staff necessary to purchase one of his IAFD franchises. He promises to discuss the matter with Ollie Ferguson. Anticipating the depths to come, I practice holding my breath in the hotel Jacuzzi until I turn a handsome shade of blueberry. I plunk to the bottom with my mask on, timing my breath-holds in the churning bubbles, until a startled guest yanks me up by the hair.

Thus propelled back to my room, I spend the remainder of my Caribbean vacation looking into the phenomenon that is Pipin. I never intended becoming Pipin's Boswell, but maybe it's my untapped aquatic doppelgänger that pushes me into the casual investigatory work. In any case, I soon happen upon a string of instances, mostly related to Pipin's businesses, in which what Pipin has told me differed dramatically from the available evidence. I also soon happen upon David Sipperly, co-author of Freedive and the unfortunate soul who managed Pipin's dive shop in Key Largo for six months in 1994. Sipperly moved from Rhode Island to Florida to run Pipin Divers only after the master assured him that everything about the business was in place. When he arrived, he found an empty building. "It wasn't even sheetrocked or painted," he says. Sipperly and his girlfriend say they worked long hours whipping the place into shape while Pipin spent the bulk of his business day spearfishing. To compound matters, Pipin typically refused to spend money to properly repair diving equipment, and two of Sipperly's paychecks bounced (Pipin later covered them). "It was the most unprofessional situation I've ever been involved in," Sipperly says. (Pipin acknowledges the business went belly-up, blaming part of it on staff that "didn't have the necessary knowledge on freediving.")

And I happen upon George Alvarez, adviser to former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, who says their administration never gave Pipin a 99-year lease to develop "Wet Galaxy," the ballyhooed freediving facility/discotheque. "We had some great discussions," says Alvarez, "but I don't know if Pipin understood the complexity of getting a lease." As an afterthought, he adds: "You know, Pipin doesn't have real good English. Maybe he just misunderstood."

And I happen upon Pierce Hoover, the editor of the magazine Sport Diver, who contends that Pipin's brand of freediving isn't the soul-satisfying journey he peddles it as. "It's a circus act," says Hoover, referring to both Pipin's no-limits world-record attempts and sled riding in general. Pipin invited Hoover to Cabo in 1996 for a sled lesson a few weeks before the master's record attempt. "He was trying to do it all," Hoover says. "This business deal, that business deal, trying to get everything comped. His mind was filled with all this stuff. He wanted to shoot the pictures of himself for my article so he could have the 500 bucks." Hoover accompanied Pipin during the master's training sessions, sessions that Hoover calls "chaotic." Gear was strewn everywhere. Female groupies tagged along. One day, in the middle of all this, Pipin declared that Hoover would make a 200-foot sled ride. Hoover had spent weeks training for the dive, but given the atmosphere on the boat, he had concerns. Nonetheless, he mounted the 200-pound sled and pulled the release pin. Suddenly, man and machine were hurtling into the abyss, into the realm of the piscine inner self. But Hoover met no aquatic personality. He had no time for philosophical contemplation. In fact, because his body slipped into a kind of automatic "survival mode," Hoover only remembers reaching 200 feet, inflating his balloon, and thinking while blasting toward the surface, "Shit, this is pretty stupid."

Suspect as the experience sounds, it remains one unavailable for interpretation by the likes of me. Late in the afternoon on my penultimate day in the islands, Pipin informs me that Ferguson can't spare any instructors for the class. Alas, Pipin says, our dive is not to be. Later, he and his crew change their plane tickets and leave Freeport a day early. The last thing Pipin says to me is that if I swing through Miami, "We should go out on my boat for some freediving." Then he drives off, leaving me in the UNEXSO parking lot.

I stand there a moment when I hear someone rushing into the lot on foot. It's Ged Martin, the enthusiastic British dive instructor who's so enamored of Pipin. He's hustled into the parking lot in time only to see the master drive away. He is crushed. The two had talked about Martin's possibly relocating to Miami to direct the IAFD. Martin wanted to give Pipin a copy of his résumé. "A chance to manage the IAFD," Martin sighs, wistfully. "Do you know how many guys in dive shops around the world would die for an opportunity like that?" I offer my condolences.

Paul Kvinta is an avid scuba diver and a frequent contributor to Outside.

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