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The Challenge of Science – 15 Years Later

Based on the life of Francisco (Pipin) Ferreras and scientific research conducted by Dr. Jorge Reynolds


 Pipin Diving RecordThe “No Limits” discipline of free diving is the most extreme of extreme sports. Less than a handful of divers on the planet practice it. It consists of going as deep into the ocean as humanly possible by holding one’s breath. Aided by a ballast weight, or sled, free divers descend to the absolute limit, where the crushing pressure of the ocean could kill a human being in an instant; a breathless 4-minute trip to the realm of death and back. The Challenge of Science – 15 Years Later explores the world of No-Limits free diving like never before. Thanks to unprecedented access to one of the sport’s biggest icons, this 90 minute documentary will follow the life of Francisco Ferreras, as he prepares for a world record attempt, while also exploring the fascinating science behind deep, breath hold diving.

Francisco Ferreras, better known as “Pipin”, is no ordinary man. He has free dived more than 150 times beyond 100 meters and broken in excess of 21 No-Limits, free diving world records. In 2003, Pipin set the world record at 171 meters, the equivalent of diving down from the rooftop of 56-story building to ground level and then back to the rooftop on one single breath of air. At these extreme depths, the water pressure is lethal. For every 10 meters, the weight of the water increases by 1 atmosphere. That is 1 kilogram per square centimeter. Since Pipin’s chest measures about 1,000 square centimeters, one atmosphere exerts about 1 metric ton of pressure on his chest. At 170 meters deep, the pressure on Pipin’s chest is about 17 tons, the rough equivalent of having 8 cars parked on top of him! At only 10 meters below the surface, the lungs collapse to almost half their initial volume. At 170 meters, the pressure pops eardrums and causes extreme bleeding in the lungs. The water column above is so heavy that it is impossible to survive, unless you are someone like “Pipin”.

Now at 51 years of age, Pipin will attempt to reach the 200-meter barrier – a tribute to his loving wife, Audrey Mestre, who lost her life in a Free Diving accident after attempting to establish a No Limits world record of 170 meters.

In collaboration with Colombian electronic engineer, Dr. Jorge Reynolds, known for his invention of the pacemaker in 1958, “Pipin” Ferreras sets out to uncover how human physiology works under extreme pressures. Aided by state of the art imaging technology, Dr. Reynolds will monitor Pipin’s brain activity, cardiac response, lung physiology, vascular flow, and gas exchange in a series of 5 dives between 100 and 120 meters deep. From the optimizing of blood flow to different organs of the body, to the lungs and possibly the heart shrinking to a fraction of their original size; and from cardiac response to how the brain works through the entire dive, Dr. Reynolds will be able to witness in real time all aspects of extreme deep diving human physiology thanks to micro electronics engineering and modern medical technology. The data, analyzed by experts in each field of medicine, will allow Pipin to better understand how his body adapts to the immense pressures of the deep, in order to prepare himself for his first and last dive since 2003.

The documentary will be shot in high definition and 3D, with multiple cameras and specialized underwater photography covering the entire length of the descent.  3D animation will recreate Pipin’s physiology throughout the dive, based on the medical data obtained by Dr. Reynolds. Total access to the experiments and dives has been granted by Pipin Ferreras and Dr. Reynolds. Pipin’s story will be featured in James Cameron’s film “The Dive”, due to premiere sometime in 2014.

Challenge of Science - Promo - 1 min. (size ~91MB)

Challenge of Science - Promo - 7 min. (size ~516MB) 




Pipin was born on January 18, 1962 in the coastal city of Matanzas, Cuba.  His childhood was a difficult one.  Pipin’s father left the family before he was born, and his mother worked around the clock.  She took off for work long before he woke up and returned long after he had gone to bed. His grandparents were the ones who took care of him.  Pipin spent his first five years in silence and on his own.

Not surprisingly, Pipin was diagnosed with dormant motor skills. It was several years before he learned how to walk and talk.  And when he did finally speak, the first words he ever articulated were widely celebrated and became his lifelong nickname: “pi … pin”. Because of a malformation in his feet, he wore orthopedic shoes. And his uncle, a doctor, even prescribed him with water therapy as a means of prompting his motor skills. It seemed to work.  Pipin learned how to swim before he was able to walk.

One morning, at the age of 8, Pipin dove into the ocean and discovered an underwater cave beneath a cliff. It was as big as his bedroom. Between the water surface and the ceiling there was barely enough space for him to stick his head out to breathe. The cave became his secret hideout. It was his private playground, his realm. Inside, he felt at ease and safe from the school kids who tormented him because he was different. He was free to be, free to dream.

In 1970, Pipin’s grandparents fled Castro’s regime for Florida. Young Pipin was sent to a boarding school where his swimming skills were quickly spotted. Soon after, he was sent to the nation’s capital, La Habana, to train at the Escuela Superior de Perfeccionameinto Atlético (Advanced School of Athletic Training), where only the best athletes in Cuba are coached. This is where Castro’s Olympic athletes are made. Pipin became one of Cuba’s Olympic hopefuls and swam in the Olympic Hopefuls competition in Germany in the100 and 200 meters free style.

At 17, Pipin began to work as a fisherman. Thanks to his skills as an elite swimmer, he soon became a deep dive fisherman. Harpoon in hand, deep dive fishermen hold their breath and descend as far as they possibly can in search of their catch. Because there is a lot of competition, he who dives deepest has the best opportunities.

One morning, 20-year-old Pipin was approached by an Italian journalist who was traveling around Cuba in search of stories. The journalist had been writing a story about fishermen and had seen Pipin dive to 42 meters. “Do you know that the deep diving world record is a little over 60 meters?”, the journalist asked Pipin.  Pipin had no idea that there was such a thing as a deep diving world record, but quickly responded “I can do that…”. That same day, Pipin dove 65 meters. His fishing mates and the journalist were amazed.

But deep diving was not an Olympic sport. His deed, impressive as it was, went unnoticed in Cuba. Pipin could not convince the government to sponsor him. Hence, he continued earning his life as a deep-sea fisherman. He started harvesting black coral, a species of deep-water precious coral that sold well in Cuba at the time. Black Corals are rare. They are catalogued as some of the longest living organisms on the planet, capable of continuously living for thousands of years. Their native habitat is on the seabed deep under the ocean, where it is completely dark. Pipin had found a reef 60 meters deep, and for more than 7 years, fished and gathered Black Coral where no other fisherman could go.

In 1987, he got a break. The Ministry of Tourism organized an international photographic tournament in Cuba, sponsored by the World Federation of Subaquatic Activities. Journalists from all over the world flocked to the Island.  Pipin was invited to do a demonstration at the event’s opening gala. That day, Pipin took a breath that would forever change his life. He dove 67 meters deep and established a new “constant weight” world record. His achievement earned him a new status within the government, and a salary. He was no longer a fisherman. He was now a full time deep diver.

One year later, in 1988, the world was introduced to deep diving as a competitive sport for the very first time, thanks to Luc Besson’s film “The Big Blue”, a block-buster movie that plotted the rivalry between the  most famous deep divers of the time, Enzo Maiorca and Jaques Mayol. For more than two decades, Maiorca and Mayol dominated the sport, beating each other’s world records in what would become one of deep diving’s most legendary rivalries.  Mayol became the first human to reach the 100-meter mark in a discipline called “No Limits”.   Before retiring from competitive free diving, they shared the world record at 105 meters, a depth at which scientists had predicted no human being could survive.

But soon, others would take their place. In 1989, off the coast of Italy, Pipin Ferreras dove to an incredible 113 meters and became the deepest person alive, surpassing Mayol’s and Maiorca’s record. He then broke his own record and set a new threshold at 120 meters. A new and even fiercer rivalry was born when Italian diver, Umberto Pelizzari, broke Pipin’s record. For the next decade, the two divers competed neck and neck, breaking each other’s record a meter at a time. They had agreed not to break each other’s record by more. Scientists advised against going any deeper, as it was believed that the limit of what the human body could possibly withstand had been reached. But in 1999, Pelizzari broke the accord. The Italian dove an incredible 150 meters, breaking Pipins 133 meter descent by more than 17 meters.  It was as if Pelizzari wanted Pipin out of the competition. Pipin responded with an amazing 168 meter descent. That year, Pellizari retired.

Three years earlier, in 1996, during his world record attempt at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Pipin met French-born Audrey Mestre, a beautiful marine biology student who was writing her thesis on Marine physiology. She was proving the theory that at extreme pressures, Pipin’s lungs “get filled with plasma when he reaches high hydrostatic pressures”. The air contained in his lungs is compressed as he descends. In an effort to prevent the lungs from collapsing under the immense pressures of the deep, the brain orders arteries around the lungs to fill them up with plasma. Because liquids can’t be compressed, the pulmonary membranes are protected. Audrey learned that Pipin had arrived in Mexico, where she lived with her parents, and did not hesitate to fly to Cabo San Lucas to try to meet him. She did, and fell in love with him at first site. Pipin offered her a job as a safety diver. Their fascination with the ocean immediately sparked a passionate romance between the two. They married and soon began descending to unthinkable depths. On June 6, 1998, Audrey set a new women’s world record, at 115 meters, in a tandem dive with her husband, Pipin. She became the fifth deepest person in the world three years later, after setting the women’s world record at an incredible 130 meters.

On October 12, 2002, in the Dominican Republic, Audrey attempted to establish an absolute No Limits world record of 170 meters, deeper than any human had ever gone, including her husband, Pipin, who held the record at 168 meters. The day before, in one of her training dives, she had reached 170 meters – the equivalent of a 56 story building. Unofficially, she was now the world’s deepest human being.  But on October 12, things would go awfully wrong.

That morning, as she did before every immersion, Audrey held her sled firmly and ventilated for five minutes. When the time was up, she took a deep breath and disappeared into the deep. On the surface, Pipin watched his chronometer impatiently, as the sled carried the love of his life into Poseidon’s realm. Tic, tic, tic, tic. One minute and 42 seconds passed before one of the officials felt the cable jolt. It was good news: she had reached the bottom, a whole 170 meters – deeper than anyone had ever gone!  Now, she only needed to inflate the lift bag by opening an air tank valve to return to the surface.  She did, but to her surprise, the bag did not inflate. There was not enough compressed air in the tank. She would not make it back alive.

As a tribute to his loving wife, Pipin will attempt to break the 200-meter barrier before retiring from competitive diving in the sport of No Limits Diving. In preparation for that dive, Pipin will lead an expedition to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in late September 2013, where he will spend the next 3 weeks undergoing a series of tests, as he remains breathless under water, while scientists monitor his cardio respiratory and nervous system with state of the art technology. Then, on October 12, 2013, the anniversary of Audrey’s death, he will perform a series of 5 consecutive dives below 100 meters – a world record on its own – in an effort to gather as much physiological data as possible. The data gathered will be used to create a baseline from which his athletic training program will be designed with only one thing in mind: breaking the 200 meter threshold.

As he prepares to honor Audrey, Pipin will be followed by a dedicated camera crew, which will document all his training activity. They will be watching and recording as scientists perform a series of experiments in hopes of better understanding how the human body adapts to extreme pressures and lack of oxygen. Those scientists will be utilizing state-of-the-art equipment and a new computer device, which has advanced technology featuring live video and diver instrumentation that will record the cardiovascular system activity and brain activity, sending the data live to the surface along with the video feed. Safety divers will be stationed at strategic intervals and at the target depth to judge event, which will be transmitted in its entirety live via satellite. Throughout the dive, there will be no blind spots. Every angle will be covered.

All of this footage will be utilized in the production of The Challenge of Science – 15 Years Later, a unique documentary that will profile the latest and most advanced marine physiological science. And then the whole world will learn the secrets of the world’s best test diver and king of the deep, Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras. This documentary will make a significant contribution to the scientific body of knowledge about human physiology in extreme immersion. And we will all gain a better understanding of our dormant and significant marine mammalian capabilities.

Pipin's 2013 Dive Protocol Schematic

  Pipin's 2013 Dive Schematic