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Miami Herald Article about Ocean Men (First Part)t

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Ricardo (SAFER)

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Part1, following in next post is Part 2


THE DEPTHS OF DESIRE
BY DANIEL CHANG
[email protected]


More photos CANDACE BARBOT / HERALD STAFF

MIAMI MERMAN: Francisco 'Pipin' Ferreras, who has remarkable lung capacity, demonstrates his underwater-breathing techniques at the Miami Seaquarium.


Deep in his heart, Francisco ''Pipin'' Ferreras considers himself a marine mammal.

Deeper still, he must know he is just a man. But the world record freediver has yet to plunge to that depth.

Ferreras has gone deeper into the ocean on a single breath of air than any man in history -- dropping more than 530 feet below the surface.

It is a remarkable record that nearly cost Ferreras his life but has earned the 40-year-old Miamian a mythical reputation as a man-fish and sharp criticism as an underwater daredevil.

Now, Ferreras' legend -- already at celebrity status in Europe and South America -- could reach unfathomable levels with the South Florida debut of Ocean Men, an IMAX movie that stars Ferreras and opened Friday at Sunset Place in South Miami.

''I always wanted to be in IMAX,'' Ferreras says after handfeeding nurse sharks in a tank of the Miami Seaquarium during a publicity event for Ocean Men.

A soft-spoken man with a boyish, gap-toothed smile, Ferreras says he is motivated not by celebrity but by earnest desire to test human endurance at extreme depths.

It's a dangerous proposition, because isn't the only way to find the true limit of the human body to exceed it, and risk certain death?

Ferreras has survived life-threatening dives, he says, at times passing out for hours.

Despite these dangers, he says, anyone can dive to extreme depths by only looking inside oneself. But the truth is that not everyone is built like Ferreras, and not everyone can or wants to endure the dire risks of record-setting dives.

A hulking man with a shaved head and a 6-foot-3-inch frame, Ferreras has remarkable lung capacity, reported to be about eight liters, compared to the six-liter average.

His preferred freediving method is known as ''no-limits,'' whereby he drops into the blue abyss on a steel sled weighted with as much as 200 pounds of ballast.

On his descent, Ferreras' lungs shrivel to potato-size, and his heart rate slows to 12 beats per minute. It is a dangerous experience, doctors say.

Indeed, during the filming of Ocean Men, director Bob Talbot blew out an eardrum while diving with a camera. And one tense scene shows Ferreras as he suffers Shallow Water Blackout -- a sudden loss of consciousness caused by oxygen starvation -- during a practice dive for his record-breaking effort in Cozumel, Mexico, in January 2000.

''Shallow Water Blackout is worse than having a stroke. It's like being brain dead,'' says Dr. Carlos Sanchez, an avid freediver and hyperbaric expert at the University of Miami School of Medicine. ``Everytime you have a blackout, you can consider yourself reborn if you survive.

''Every year, probably 100 people die freediving,'' says Sanchez, who is familiar with Ferreras' work. ``I think he does some very unsafe stuff.''

Though experts once believed a diver's chest and lungs would collapse like a crushed soda can below 330 feet, Sanchez says, it is now known that the body counters the ocean's pressure by redirecting blood flow from the limbs to the organs.

But doctors still worry about the risk of cardiac arrhythmia, which can cause a heart attack, or burst capillaries in the lungs, which flood the organs with blood. Other dangers include brain damage and loss of motor skills and sensory function, Sanchez says.

Ferreras says he accepts these dangers as inherent to freediving and that he dives with a team of safety experts who monitor vital signs.

Despite those precautions, some professional diving organizations refuse to sanction ''no-limits'' diving. Ferreras' freediving records are sanctioned and ratified by an organization he created -- the International Association of Free Divers -- in August 1997.

RAISED EYEBROWS

Some question the ethics of that. Others dispute the diver's recollection of dates and events, which can contradict accounts in magazines, on Internet sites and in his autobiography, Ninety Miles (Ediciones de Buena Tinta, 1997).

For instance, Ferreras said at the Seaquarium that he defected from Cuba in December 1993 while in the Bahamas and arrived in the United States by airplane.

But in Ninety Miles, where Ferreras provides two dates for his birth, 1957 and 1962, the diver's defection was much more dramatic.

According to published reports of the book (which is not available on Amazon.com), Ferreras flees the island with two friends in a rubber raft, dodging Cuban warships, helicopters and a Soviet submarine. Ferreras then is plucked from the sea by a U.S. Navy ship just as sharks devour one of his companions.

Ferreras counters that Ninety Miles is a novel, though it is based on his life.

HIS CRITICS

But some critics charge that Ferreras has embellished more than his own life history.

In October 1998, Paul Kvinta of Outside Magazine called into question many of Ferreras' claims, including the diver's explanation of a freediving accident that landed him in a Miami hospital.

In spring 1997, Ferreras staged an event called the Cayman Challenge, a ''two-breath'' dive off Grand Cayman Island. On one breath, Ferreras rode his sled to 300 feet, where he then took a second breath from a SCUBA tank tied to the line, and continued to 500 feet.

But during a practice dive, Ferreras lapsed into convulsions and became unconscious, Kvinta wrote, after following a ``two-breath plunge to 400 feet with a SCUBA dive to 200 feet to help retrieve the sled.''

Ferreras was sent to a hospital, Kvinta wrote, and treated for possible decompression sickness (''the bends'') in a hyperbaric chamber.

Upon regaining consciousness, Kvinta continued, Ferreras ``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.''

Ferreras later returned to the Caymans and performed the dive, claiming he had only banged his head on the boat.

The dive, and Ferreras' accident, were documented in the film Conquistando el Azul (Conquering the Blue), done by Ferreras' Miami-based production company, Pipin Productions. According to sources who have seen the video, Ferreras did not exhibit any obvious injuries to his head.

Ferreras maintains that he banged his head. If he'd had the bends, he says, ``I would not have been able to set the record two weeks later.''

Then there are the deaths of two of his safety team divers in 1996. That year, Ferreras was training for freediving records off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Both Massimo Berttoni and Pepe Fernandez died ''somewhat mysteriously,'' Kvinta wrote in Outside.

Kvinta quoted Ferreras as being ''mystified'' by Berttoni's death but explaining Fernandez's death this way:

``He had been bitten by a scorpion the day before the practice, and it seems that the pressure at 70 meters [231 feet] injected the venom in the bloodstream and caused him a heart attack.''

Sanchez, of the University of Miami School of Medicine, says scorpion venom takes hold almost immediately.

Ferreras declined to comment on the deaths. ''It's just reliving a problem,'' he says. But he adds that in freediving, ''There are accidents. It's like in Formula One'' auto racing.

Before Ferreras graced the giant screen in IMAX's brand of larger-than-life entertainment, he was diving for fish in his native Cuba.

Spearfishing off Matanzas, Ferreras developed his freediving skills hunting for the biggest fish in the deepest waters. It wasn't until 1981, though, that Ferreras' talent was discovered by an Italian journalist.

Since then, Ferreras has cultivated celebrity status that was apparent during last week's Ocean Men screening.
 
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