Free-diving, once the preserve of a tiny minority, is seeking a wider audience with a new feature film and a book released this summer. Tim Ecott, author of Neutral Buoyancy, reports on the latest from the world of the 'big blue'
ALKI DAVID HAS REALISED A DREAM. He has combined his talents as a diver, marine environmentalist, actor and writer to create a feature film that captures his passion for the sea, and the island of Spetses where he has a home. Several years, and $3.5 million later, the result is The Freediver, in which he stars as Hector, a man who discovers the remarkable breath-holding talents of a woman named Danai.
Alki David wearing his director's hat on the set of The Freediver; in acting mode with leading lady Camilla Rutherford as Danai; doing what they do best under water; doing what they inevitably do above water
Danai, the film's central character, is a flighty, feisty, elfin creature who dives to honour the memory of her father, a fisherman lost at sea. The actress chosen to play the role is Camilla Rutherford (Gosford Park) and there is a cameo role for veteran English actor James Fox as the head of the free-diving authority AIDA.
"My main problem in casting the part of Danai was to find an athletic actress," says David. "I didn't need an experienced diver but I needed someone who at least looked like she was physically fit enough to be a champion free-diver."
Anyone who tries to make a film set on boats, islands and under the sea needs deep pockets and a brave heart. The Freediver was no exception, and Alki David himself suffered a bend after making repetitive dives during the shooting of one underwater scene.
"It was scary stuff," he says. "I really didn't know if I was going to be paralysed or even if I could die. Fortunately we had a portable chamber on set and I was recompressed for 12 hours and the symptoms resolved completely."
Without giving away the plot of the film, the story revolves around Danai being trained to set a new world record. Under the unscrupulous care of a slightly mad scientist, Dr Viandes (played by Adam Baldwin), she is forced to deeper and deeper depths with the promise that one more record "will have every commercial sponsor on earth wanting a piece of you". No doubt Tanya Streeter will smile when she hears that line.
This wouldn't be a diving movie if someone didn't die under water, but I won't give away the ending.
Inevitably, The Freediver will invite comparison's with Luc Besson's Big Blue, made in 1988. Alki David doesn't think this is a problem. "My film is much more real," he says. "We don't have any of that 'dolphin dream' stuff." Maybe not, but he does have some "dead-fisherman-daddy dream" stuff.
The Freediver is not a great film, but it is entirely watchable. Alki David plays his own role extremely well and convincingly, and is rightly chuffed that he has completed his project ahead of the much vaunted film about real-life free-diver Pipin and his late wife Audrey Mestre, which is reportedly in production with Titanic director James Cameron.
I couldn't help asking if the tragedy of Mestre had influenced the plotline of David's film. He shook his head. "Not really. I had written my film long before Audrey's accident. The fact is, accidents do happen in free-diving."
Does he think free-divers will flock to see it? "I hope so. But I didn't make this film just for free-divers. I am part of the free-diving community and many of them helped with the making of this film. I just felt the time was right for a story of this kind.
"For me the process of making the film is a joy, and I wanted to tell it in an unpretentious way to give it wider appeal."
Meanwhile, the famed Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras has published a new book, a dramatic and first-hand account of his life with Audrey Mestre, who died in October 2002 while attempting a new world record in No Limits free-diving.
Free-divers Pipin and the late Audrey Mestre pushing the envelope
The Dive: A Story of Love and Obsession spares no punches in describing the awful events which culminated in Mestre being dragged from the sea "with pink foam oozing from her nose and lips".
Her death sent a shock through the network of professional free-divers around the world. It was the first fatal accident in No Limits diving, in which participants use a weighted sled to plummet down a steel line to a pre-arranged depth and then inflate a gas-filled balloon to drag them at speed to the surface.
Normally such a dive takes around three minutes to complete, but when Mestre failed to surface after more than four, it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong.
Various technical problems have since been identified, and as Pipin makes clear in the book, the most crucial failure was that the gas cylinder used to inflate the escape balloon was virtually empty. To compound Mestre's difficulties, there were too few safety divers on hand to rescue her at extreme depth, and she was not wearing any sort of back-up inflatable-jacket - a device since made compulsory in free-diving competitions.
The Dive is clearly not solely Pipin's work, and he has told me in an interview that he had help in its writing. As such it contains a certain amount of tabloidese style, and a degree of breathlessness (sic) that emerges whenever the emotional relationship between Mestre and Pipin is discussed:
"There was something magical about this woman. I needed to know everything about her. And by the time the sun came up, I had made a pretty good start."
The Dive also contains biographical details about Pipin's early life and his poor upbringing in Cuba, where he was apparently a sickly baby with no inclination to walk or talk before he was three years old. In an effort to get Francisco to speak, the family tried to get him to say "Papa", but what came out was "Pipin", which became his nickname.
The book reveals the details of an earlier marriage, his frustration with the communist system in Cuba and how he first met free-diving legend Enzo Maiorca. Meeting Maiorca allows Pipin to explore the ancient relationship between free-divers and the sea, and to introduce the inevitable link they see between human beings and their friends the dolphins.
A few years later, and now a defector from Cuba, a chance meeting with a Mexican entrepreneur led to Pipin making a free-diving record attempt in Baja.
Pipin with Audrey Mestre - a relationship more powerful than fiction
And there he met Audrey Mestre, the beautiful French marine biologist: "She calmed me down and sent the angry Pipin packing." There is no doubting the depth of emotion Pipin displays for Mestre, a woman he calls his "steadfast angel" and "goddess" - an unflappable diver who had an incredible affinity with creatures from the sea.
As Pipin traces his own career in free-diving, the cast of characters expands to include names with which we are now familiar - Mehgan Heaney-Grier, Tanya Streeter, Loic Leferme, Umberto Pelizzari and others.
He admits that he has managed to become estranged from most of them, describing Streeter as "an attractive, articulate blond, educated in England [who] bugged the hell out of me". He doesn't make it clear which of those qualities - attractiveness, hair colour or an English education - were most annoying.
I suspect that most people will read this book because they want to know what happened on that fateful day in October 2002. There is a ghoulish appeal to the idea of a man encouraging his wife to compete in a sport which eventually ends her life. And in learning how he copes with the burden of that event. "I've said everything I want to say about the accident in this book," Pipin tells me curtly on the phone from Miami.
"I know people have blamed me for the accident but I don't care what they think. They don't understand the nature of true love, or the love that Audrey and I still have for each other."
Still have? "Yes, absolutely. I go diving every day and I feel Audrey's presence in the water. She is there, she has just gone into another dimension."
No-one can fail to be moved by the events that took place off Bayahibe Beach in 2002. And it would be senseless and cruel to perpetuate the debate about who or what was to blame for the tragedy. Perhaps Pipin sums up the situation best when he writes: "When I look back on it, I realise I was pushing her - pushing her as hard as I tend to push myself. It was blind ambition on my part, and blind devotion on hers."
Pipin told me that he hasn't quite given up his own ambitions to hold another free-diving record, saying he wants to be the first man to 600ft (181m), a record he thinks he can achieve by the end of this year.
Then, next year, he wants to be the man who finally hits the 200m No Limits goal.
Meanwhile he continues to work on developing the feature film about his life with Audrey Mestre for James Cameron. The project is, he says, still in development.
It is an odd thing, but when watching The Freediver and reading The Dive it's impossible not to think about Luc Besson's Big Blue. He captured it all back in 1988: the loneliness of the No Limits plunge, the rivalry and bitterness rife among free-divers, the concept of talking to dolphins.
Some of you may think these things romanticised, fanciful, perhaps plain silly. But in life and in art, the world of the free-diver is something other-worldly - perhaps you have to be part-dolphin really to understand it.
The film The Freediver will be released in the UK in the late autumn. The book The Dive: A Story of Love and Obsession by Pipin Ferreras is published by HarperCollins (£16.99).