One of the most famous—and disputed— quotes in exploration is attributed to British mountaineer George Mallory, who responded to the question “Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?” with a simple, “Because it’s there.” The desire to conquer all that man surveys is innate within some people. It’s a drive to go anywhere, to stand atop the world where there is no further to go without an airplane or spaceship. But the depth of the ocean is a different obstacle entirely. The human body isn’t capable of plumbing the same depths underwater that it can be pushed to climb above the surface without mechanical aid to lessen the pressure. But that doesn’t stop people from pushing more boundaries for the sake of a record.
Free diving isn’t a sport in the same competitive sense as team head-to-head competitions or even individual sports like tennis. It is a more solitary act—though dependent on a safety team of others—pushing an extreme further and further, one-upping other divers in order to set new records for human capabilities. The quest is simple: hold your breath, descend to a depth never before reached without the aid of scuba gear using a lead weight called a sled, then use air propulsion to get back to the surface. It’s athletic, to be sure, since cardiovascular health and breath holding takes athletic training, but it is unnecessarily risky in a similar way to big wave surfing or mountain expeditions—the only requirement is a desire to reach a goal never before achieved. There are no opponents other than the body’s limits and mental hurdles preventing someone from pushing that to the extreme.
Mountaineering has become nightmarish as it turns into a race between expeditions to get up Mt. Everest (or other mountains) faster, with less support, and on riskier paths than ever before. Free diving is dangerous in many similar ways: Because the limit is unknown, the safety measures are costly and prohibitive to entering the sport, and if even a small snafu occurs, it can quickly spiral into tragedy.
No Limits is not about a rivalry between two people. It is a light shone on French marine biology student Audrey Mestre’s entry into the “sport” of No-Limits free diving after meeting Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras, a relationship which pushed free diving to new depths and ultimately led to Mestre’s tragic death in 2002. This is the first Nine For IX entry to transcend the overarching theme of stories that tie into Title IX to become a riveting sports documentary, on par with some of 30 For 30’s best hours. It takes a few liberties in editing the fiercely compelling story to fit a designed line of thinking, but make no mistake: This is a story that deserves to be told and demands rapt attention.
Director Alison Ellwood enters the story with a distinct perspective. Though she attempts to outline every possible explanation for Audrey’s death, she is building to one conclusion, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of one man. She introduces Pipin Ferreras first, the mythical personality of free diving, pushing the sport to some niche prominence, but alienating many people around him, even putting off the ghostwriter of his autobiography with unbelievable stories she still doesn’t believe to be true. In response to an outside organization forming in order to oversee dives with safety regulations, Pipin forms his own competing organization to certify his attempts, always maintaining control. He’s a showman, and as one interviewee states, in public Pipin acts as though he plays the title role in a movie in which he is star, director, writer, and producer. In contrast, Audrey Mestre is a starstruck student, studying in Mexico and writing a thesis on Pipin. Within days of meeting him in Cabo San Lucas, they are together, inseparable as Pipin pushes himself further in free diving. But he’s 12 years older than her, blacking out more frequently during or after dives, and when Tanya Streeter flashes onto the scene as the new record-setter, Pipin pushes Audrey to train as a free diver to remain at the top of a movement he essentially invented.
The film builds Mestre and Pipin’s relationship as a strong but fiery partnership, linked by health problems in youth that led them to treasure the water. She paints Audrey as a beautiful mermaid, enamored by animals, seemingly without the drive to continue pushing limits; Pipin, on the other hand, is hell-bent on being associated with the best, so driven that Audrey defers to his leadership and directives of when to dive and how far. He takes great offense when Tanya Streeter sets a world record dive (albeit with great risk and troubling mishaps), and Streeter has perhaps the most controversial line of the film when she claims Pipin pushed Audrey to beat her because his body could no longer perform record-breaking dives without the risk of a more damaging blackout.
The dive sequences are the most breathtaking and horrifying in the film. Streeter’s record-setting dive is impressive, but not without significant problems, as she struggles to maintain consciousness and complete the three steps to release the air tank that carries her back above water. But Ellwood is careful to highlight all the safety measures taken to ensure Streeter would return to the surface alive and well. Pipin’s reaction to the new record is simple: Instead of taking a year off as planned, Audrey will attempt to break the record in a mere six weeks.
Knowing generally how Mestre tragically dies does nothing to dull the tension or agony of watching her final dive. From her last kiss with Pipin and her final breath before latching herself to a lead weight heading for the ocean floor, the pain of hindsight troubles every interviewee. It’s a masterstroke that Ellwood displays all the pertinent information on screen simultaneously: video of the dive captured from the sled, depth measurements, time elapsed, and another window for present day interviews. This is the most harrowing sequence in the film, a white-knuckle disaster that unfolds as every single possible thing goes wrong, from the number of safety divers along the line to the medical staff on the boat to the equipment on shore to the infirmary being painted. And the crucial detail—the pony tank of air meant to fill a bag and carry Audrey to the surface—was never properly filled. Pipin raged against anyone attempting to check the tank on the boat, yelling at everyone to get to their specific jobs—and Ellwood highlights just how differently Streeter’s husband handles all safety check before her dives.
But after the heartbreaking and terrifying dive sequence, Ellwood finally tips her hand. The final 15 minutes of No Limits are concentrated character assassination, going after Pipin with every shred of evidence, proven or otherwise, while ignoring other avenues of thought, such as bringing up Mestre’s parents or family, or the data collector who seems superfluous when nothing he took down helps explain what happened to Audrey. What was simply a riveting story for 40 minutes turns into a blame game with the ultimate goal of criminalizing the man who shoulders the most blame out of many at fault for the accident.
Pipin obviously refused to speak, and it’s heavily suggested that’s because he doesn’t have answers for his actions that day, his mistakes, or his responsibility for Audrey’s death. But Ellwood doesn’t indict anyone else involved in the team, who could have alerted some kind of authority or checked the pony tank despite Pipin’s objections. Though most of the blame clearly rests on Pipin, there is certainly blame to go around to everyone who simply falls into saying, “I was just doing my job. It wasn’t my responsibility to check the tank.” The most logical conclusion to Mestre’s death is that it was absolutely preventable, and many checks were ignored along the way. Safety was inadequate, perhaps recklessly so, and though Mestre ultimately dove, Ellwood suggests that a fame-driven manipulator kept her in a position where she could not refuse. Pipin’s drive is so single-minded that his own splinter organization’s lax standards got in the way of properly ensuring Mestre’s safety.
The documentary solely blames Pipin, though others clearly contributed to the disaster, and even goes so far as to lend credence to a theory of his former business partner that Pipin designed the dangerous scenario in order to somehow perform a heroic rescue and make it all about his story. Ellwood highlights other rumors—identified as such, but given weight in the run-up to the dive—that Mestre was pregnant and that she had a mysterious bruise under her eye. Ellwood drills this point home, though it’s unclear exactly what can be done about any of this a decade later aside from openly hating Pipin. Mestre’s family didn’t push for an investigation in the Dominican Republic where she drowned and watched as Pipin spread her ashes in the ocean. Ultimately, this is a deeply tragic story of ambitious reach blinding proper precaution, and how reckless egomaniacs can get away without a proper investigation outside of the United States. Ellwood’s accusatory tone in the finale segments doesn’t overshadow the dramatic presentation of Audrey Mestre’s story, and cements No Limits as the strongest entry in Nine For IX so far.
- The original Sports Illustrated stories featuring the fatal dive aren’t available online at the moment, but I’m attempting to locate some other way to read them. I vaguely remember receiving those issues a decade ago and whipping through those pages to devour the story.
- Alison Ellwood has directed other documentaries, but she’s mostly known as an editor, most notably for Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room.