Traveling to the Edge of Myself
“A lot of people get scared about tings they don’t know or understand.” Audrey Mestre is on a boat as she speaks, the camera in motion, bobbing with her and the perfect blue sea behind her. The shot cuts to Audrey underwater, the camera barely able to keep up as her figure speeds toward the surface of a darker blue seas, bubbles swarming around her. What you might not know or understand here is freediving, the extreme sport that Mestre loved.
Mestre died during a free dive off the coast of the Dominican Republic in 2002. At the time, she was trying to set a new world record of 171 meters (561 feet). She’d reached 170 meters in a practice dive that week, and the idea was to break the world record of 160 meters set by Tanya Streeter only a few months earlier. And while Mestre’s loss was terrible in ways you might expect, it also raised questions, questions having to do with limits. Some of these concern the sport of freediving, its governance, its pressures, and its values. And some concern Mestre’s own experience, her marriage, her career, and her decision to dive that last day.
“When you live on that edge and you’re driven to that extreme,” observes Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith, you “want to push it further and further, and one mistake or whatever happened, is all it’s gonna take to tip into tragedy.” Certainly, as recounted in No Limits, a documentary premiering as part of ESPN’s Nine for IX series on 23 July, Mestre’s death is tragic. That “mistake or whatever it was,” however, haunts her memory and the sport she so loved. Admired in the freediving community for her skill and dedication, Mestre also inspired a kind of poetic reverie. “She was the original mermaid,” says cameraman Nick Buckley, who filmed her underwater. Her introduction to free diving came by way of her passion for the sea. As a child afflicted with scoliosis, she early on found freedom of movement and spirit underwater, a point underlined by Buckley’s breathtaking shots of her swimming with dolphins and sharks. Photographer GIdo Brasse adds, “She had something, she could bond with things.”
At least part of Mestre’s appeal, the film suggests in some frankly gorgeous imagery of her with sea mammals and in archival interviews, is a function of her movie-starry charisma, easily contrasted with the blunt egotism of her mentor and husband, the champion freediver Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras. As recounted by the documentary, the aspiring marine biologist Mestre wrote her university thesis on “blood shift” in freediving, using Pipin as her subject. Their meeting led to her assisting on his dive team, and to their romance.
If No Limits doesn’t explore details of their relationship, it does grant observers and friends the chance to voice both approbation and concern. The Miami Herald‘s Sue Cocking sees them as “soul mates,” whose mutual love of freediving “brought them closer together,” while Swedish freediver Bill Stromberg describes them as “the beast and the beauty.” Linda Rotson, the ghostwriter for Ferreras’ autobiography, recalls, “He was kind of an unreliable narrator and it’s really hard to write a book about somebody if you don’t believe half of what they say.” Moreover, adds freediver Paul Kotic, the marriage had its own potentially fictional dimensions: “It was sort of a star is born,” he says, “The declining older man and rising younger woman.”
Whatever tensions might have existed in the marriage at the time of Mestre’s death (and a photo shows her black eye as Ferreras’ “former right hand man” Carlos Serra notes it in voiceover), the film focuses on the event. No one here accuses Fererras of murder, though such rumors have swirled since that day (and Serra as much as says it in his book, The Last Attempt).
Using Mestre’s death as a starting point—one that remains quite shocking, given the mystery and anger surrounding it, as well as the shoddy official investigation— No Limits draws considers the risks of freediving. These include its classification and administration (competing organizations keep track of records, set rules, and monitor safety measures, the International Association for the Development of Apnea (Développement de l’Apnée, or AIDA) and one Fererras started, the International Association of Free Divers (IAFD) and its appeals, for enthusiasts, managers, and athletes too.
The film points out the physical dangers, mainly blackouts, and remarks as well the psychological and metaphysical costs and effects. Tanya Streeter, whose own world record dive of 160 meters inspired Fererras and Mestre to pursue theirs, describes her love for the sport in metaphysical, even spiritual terms. “I’m traveling to the edge of myself, but really pushing hard,” she says. As with Mestre, Streeter’s adventure involves the athletic feat, as crewmembers recount the psychic preparation and the physical performance, the intuition and the skill required. The film makes clear the thrill of this feat in some sensational underwater shots, arranged in split screens so that time ticks away while you can see simultaneously the athletes and their safety divers, usually in separate frames as they are spaced at different depths. Both women work and train with their husbands, both rely on their husbands to keep them safe, and both are marketed, to sell the sport, they say, but also, to sell themselves.
By the time the film gets to Mestre’s final dive, the pattern of this imagery is familiar enough that you recognize what’s going wrong as it does—even without the help of crewmembers looking back, occasionally in sorrowful, silent close-ups, so see they are still upset these many years later. That Mestre’s team was comprised of men may be typical of the sport, but it gives pause as you watch here, given the story of her difficult relationship with Ferreras. It’s impossible to know, now, who was responsible for what part of this dive gone wrong, but No Limits indicates that someone is. The limits exposed have to do with trust and expectation, and also responsibility. The many egos and complexities among the men charged with documenting and monitoring Mestre’s last dive, and with keeping her safe, are all now looking to blame someone.