Audrey Mestre’s story — Her rise and tragic death detailed

Audrey Mestre

Audrey Mestre was perhaps the world’s most famous freediver before her tragic death in October 2002. Mestre’s attempt to break the freediving world record set by Tanya Streeter a few weeks prior ended in disaster: Mestre blacked out under water after the mechanism that was supposed to hasten her ascent failed. 

A swimming champion at age 2, Mestre appeared made for the water. At 14, complications from typhoid fever created scoliosis in her back. She needed to wear a tight plastic corset for several years, and the only time she could remove it was when she was underwater, reinforcing the notion that the open water was her home. 

“People think of mermaids, she was the original mermaid,” said Nick Buckley, a cameraman who filmed her underwater. 

Audrey Mestre got into freediving after meeting Francisco ‘Pipin’ Ferreras

Audrey Mestre was born on 11th August 1974 in Saint-Denis, France. Mestre’s grandfather was a spearfishing champion who inspired a family of scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts. Audrey began swimming as a child, and when she was two, she came first in a 25-meter swimming competition. 

By age 13, she was a seasoned scuba diver but had to wait three years to get certification under French law. The development of scoliosis motivated Audrey to spend as much time in the water as possible. 

Mestre didn’t just want to enjoy the depths of the seas and oceans; she also wanted to understand the underwater environment. Therefore, she enrolled in a university in La Paz, Mexico, to study marine biology. 

In 1996, Mestre learned by chance that world-famous Francisco ‘Pipin’ Ferreras would freedive at the nearby Cabo San Lucas. Pipin and Audrey’s story had several parallels.

Ferreras had developmental problems growing up – he had deformed limbs, asthma, and bad eyesight. His deficiencies mattered less when he was underwater: he learned to swim before he could walk. 

Immediately, Mestre was sucked into Pipin’s world. “I chose him as the subject of my testing because he was a world champion free diver,” Mestre told WABC’s Bill Ritter. Audrey said she fell in love with Pipin in ‘about two days.’

A day after meeting Pipin, Audrey joined his team as an assistant. With time, Ferreras started training Mestre on the art of no limits freediving. Audrey took to it like a duck to water and made her first no limits record dive for the French nationals under her mother’s watchful gaze. 

Mestre rapidly evolved from an extra on Pipin’s set to the main attraction. Audrey was so good at the sport because of her natural talent and commitment to becoming the world’s best. 

Audrey and Ferreras headed to the Dominican Republic to beat Tanya Streeter’s world record dive

Pipin Ferreras And Audrey Mestre
Pipin Ferreras And Audrey Mestre | Roberto Schmidt/Via Getty Images

Audrey and Ferreras became competitors shortly after their wedding in 1999. They worked together, but Mestre’s rapid rise in diving inevitably meant she would become her husband’s challenger. 

Freedivers describe the feeling of being so far underwater with one breath of air as euphoric. They push their bodies to the limit: the heart-rate slows, their lungs shrink to the size of oranges, and the heart redirects blood flow from the extremities to the vital organs.

Therefore, to experience the outer space-like environment in the deep, freedivers risk death. In 2002, ABC News reported that an estimated 100 freedivers died annually. “It’s a hostile world down there,” Loic Leferme, a free diver and Audrey’s friend, told The New York Times.

Free diving teacher Kirk Krack told Good Morning America that the biggest risk in freediving is blackout. He said:

“That’s upon your return to the surface. You’ve used up so much oxygen that your body senses the low level and it decides to conserve oxygen for you. And it basically shuts you off, turns the switch off and you go unconscious.”

Krack said that blackouts account for 99.9% of freediving deaths. Audrey and Pipin had both suffered blackouts: In 2000, Pipin blacked out during an attempt to dive to 163 meters; In her early freediving days, Audrey blacked out following a dive to 125 meters. 

The risk of a disaster increased with the increase in depth. The further a freediver attempted to go, the greater the chance they wouldn’t make it back up. Rudi Castineyra, then the president of an organization sanctioning freediving records, told The New York Times:

“There is no physical effort involved in this discipline, if you will: You ride a sled down and then are pulled back up. You can reach amazing depths, and those depths are starting to pose physiological threats to divers.”

Nevertheless, Ferreras and Audrey headed to the Dominican Republic to begin training for Audrey’s attempt to beat Tanya Streeter’s world record dive. Mestre would perform the dive because Pipin’s body couldn’t handle the challenges of such a deep dive. She was a star on the rise; he was a master in decline. 

Authorities cited multiple reasons for Audrey Mestre’s death

Audrey Mestre
Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Training went swimmingly for Audrey as she reached 170 meters. Her target depth was 171, so she took a deep breath and went for it. 

Audrey attempted to inflate a balloon that would hasten her return to the surface when she hit her target. However, the tank supposed to fill the balloon was empty. Audrey blacked out during her compromised return to the surface. 

A safety diver activated an emergency inflatable device and used an inflatable jacket to get Audrey to the top. However, by the time Pipin dragged Audrey to the surface, the damage was done. A dive supposed to take around four minutes had taken more than nine minutes. 

The autopsy report declared that Mestre’s death was accidental. A much-criticized investigation by the International Association of Free Divers cited multiple reasons for Audrey’s death, including inadequate lift from the lift bag, inadequate tension on the cable, the unexpected sideways force from the sled camera, and a non-vertical ascent. 

The association stated that Audrey’s death was ‘tragic but unforeseeable.’ The report read:

“In summary, no single reason can be determined for the tragic death of Audrey Mestre. Many factors contributed to it and it may be the case that if any one had been different, the dive would not have resulted in the tragic ending which occurred.”

Many in the freediving world viewed Audrey’s death as avoidable. The underfunded attempt had too few safety divers, insufficient rescue equipment, and no medical personnel at sea or shore. Audrey reportedly had a pulse when she got to the top, but she died due to the lack of emergency medical attention. 

“I saw Pipin and one of the other guys put her on a speedboat and transfer her back to shore,” Rudi Castineyra told The New York Times. “And at no time in the video was there any medical personnel approaching her or trying to administer her.”

Some people allege Pipin was responsible for Audrey’s death

Carlos Serra, then the president of the International Association of Free Divers, wrote in his book The Last Attempt that Audrey and Ferreras’s marriage was a disaster. He described Pipin as abusive, possessive, and increasingly envious of Audrey.

Serra alleged that Mestre’s admiration of Ferreras never waned since their first meeting at Los Cabos in 1996. Carlos said that Audrey tried as much as possible to satisfy Pipin, but it was never enough. 

Serra concluded that Pipin was responsible for Audrey’s death but wasn’t sure whether Ferreras intended to murder Audrey. Ferreras was responsible for checking Mestre’s lift air bag and reportedly didn’t allow anyone else to confirm the tank was working. The tank’s failure contributed to Audrey’s compromised rise to the surface. 

Linda Rotson, the ghostwriter for Pipin’s biography, painted him as dishonest. “He was kind of an unreliable narrator and it’s really hard to write a book about someone if you don’t believe half of what they say,” Rotson said. 

Ferraras said he was devastated by Audrey’s death and would retire after one more dive. “I’m not going to break her record,” Pippin said. “I’m going to reach the same depth she reached in training. After that dive, I’m going to retire.”