ONE mile off the coast of Miami, Alejandro Ravelo, a small, unshaven man, perches quietly at the edge of a floating white platform, his neoprene-clad torso swaying without resistance to the ocean's uneven rhythms. His submerged feet sport three-foot-long fins. A heavy-duty clip clamps his nostrils closed.
Ravelo's breathing is slow and deep. His eyes are shut. By calming his mind he will, he hopes, slow his body and quell its thirst for oxygen as he attempts to reclaim his place as the world's deepest breath-holding diver, unaided by breathing equipment -- a title that the Italian Umberto Pelizzari took in 1992. In his category of breath-hold, or "free," diving, called constant-weight, Pelizzari descended 236 feet on a single breath of air. Ravelo aims to descend ten feet farther, looking for a "confirmation tag" attached to a blood-red guide rope that has already been laid deep beneath the platform. If he grabs the tag, the time he took to reach it -- probably about a minute -- will not be the most impressive part of his oxygenless excursion: he set a world record in 1993 by holding his breath for six minutes and forty-one seconds while lying motionless at the bottom of a hotel pool. The true feat is the tremendous exertion required to return to the surface. With his arms extended above him in a hydrodynamic Superman pose, Ravelo must kick against gravity the equivalent of nineteen stories back to air.
Around Ravelo's platform the faces of six scuba divers -- white ovals emerging from dark wet suits -- bob on the Atlantic's steely swells, waiting for Ravelo's move. Stationed at ten-meter intervals, the divers, who will later be joined by breath-hold divers, are ready to serve as links in Ravelo's underwater lifeline. If he passes out, no one of the safety divers can rush him to the surface: they will be anchored to their assigned depths by the perils of the bends, which threaten divers who breathe compressed air and ascend too rapidly. Instead they will pass his unconscious body back to the surface like a baton.
Spectator boats drift away; their engines must not taint the air. Momentarily lapsing from his trance, Ravelo signals to his manager, Rudi Castineyra, among the scuba divers. Castineyra extends his arm into the air and gives a thumbs-down sign -- diver-speak not for "bad" but for "descend." Air hisses out of their buoyancy vests as the divers sink like paratroopers into the clouds. Ravelo's black form remains alone under the gray sky as he prepares his underwater pas seul.