Hold your breath.
Camila Jaber is diving into Mexican waters. Sinking slowly, methodically, with purpose.
The water envelops her in ways that are equal parts invigorating and relaxing. But it’s an oxymoronic world deep underwater when you forgo any kind of breathing apparatus and instead use your wits, your mental strength and your lung capacity to push the limits of human depths.
“I didn’t even know this sport existed,” Jaber tells En Fuego about the first time she heard of freediving. “Then I discovered that there was something very similar to being a mermaid. My dream was to be a mermaid and to enjoy the water with this freedom.”
Down here, holding your breath would seem terrifying to some people. To Jaber, it’s freedom.
The liberty to explore unfettered, naturally. So it makes sense that a person such as Jaber would also take the time to dedicate herself to preserving the very thing that gives us life.
Down here, deep within a Mexican cenote, you can lose yourself. Jaber is quick to note that her sport might seem extreme, diving in upwards of 70 meters for two to three minutes at a time will cause that kind of reaction, but it’s actually quite the opposite.
When you are diving into astonishing depths with little else other than fins, you rely on biology, evolution and your ability to read your body.
The dive starts simply, with a breathe-up, making sure not to over breathe or under breathe but to get your body ready for the plunge into the water.
There is one final breath before submerging into the dive, the next time you take a sip of oxygen might not be for a full three minutes. The body is prepared for such a thing. All of our bodies are. The mammalian dive reflex is evolution’s way of allowing us to deal with being underwater for an inordinate amount of time.
The second our face and nose touch water, our bodies prepare to conserve oxygen. To that end, several things occur over an extended period of time such as bradycardia, or a slowing of the heart rate. Our bodies relax; the mind calms. It’s perhaps why diving into water can have such a serene quality to it.
“Then there's something called vasoconstriction where the capillaries on your extremities kind of limits the flow of blood,” Jaber explained. “So they focus on your vital organs.”
What comes next is either the stuff of nightmares or pure bliss.
“And then there's a stage that we call freefall in which you stop moving,” Jaber said. “And now you’re just sinking into the depths of the ocean. So that part is very relaxing but very thrilling at the same time, because with no effort you're sinking to the bottom.”
We are used to floating in water. Counting on it. Then again, there is disorientation to worry about down dozens of meters.
“It's a blue color, blue is very present,” Jaber described. “You open your eyes a bit and you're surrounded by blue.”
There’s a reason that competitions employ a guide rope, because it’s so easy to go off course and not follow a straight-line during dives.
It takes a special person to excel in this sport, someone as disciplined in their athleticism as they are in their mental state.
“This is not driven by adrenaline,” Jaber explained. “You have to be actually on the opposite side of your feelings. You have to be in a very relaxed mode, almost a meditative state in which you're not thinking aloud.”
You are not being deprived of oxygen, you are being powered by your dive. There is no suffocating, only freedom of form. Claustrophobia dissolves into infinite possibilities.
You are no longer sinking. You are diving.
On the way up, light becomes apparent. And there is a welcome feeling upon completion.
“The light comes. And it's a great day, of course, because you reach the surface,” Jaber said. She then pays close attention to her breaths, taking in a couple of recovery breaths, filling her mouth with oxygen-rich air and slowly exhaling.
The dive is complete.
Jaber is a national record holder in Mexico, diving 56 meters without fins and 70 meters guided by a rope. She can hold her breath anywhere between two-and-a-half to about three minutes.
And you can too if you held your breath to start this article.
Save the Water, Save the World
Jaber was born to be a mermaid, living sandwiched between the tourist destinations of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, in a town called Puerto Aventuras.
She fell in love with the sport at 16 years old. Now 24, she is guided not just by her passion for free diving but also the medium in which she works.
She majored in water resources and is focused on an engineering career to work on innovation for sustainability and water conservation.
While she is still considering subjects for her masters, she is plenty busy, preparing for an upcoming competition in the Azul Free Diving Competition in September and being an ambassador for the Proyecto Gran Acuífero Maya and working with Mexico Azul.
“(Water) is one of the most vital resources for human existence,” Jaber said. “And we are already having a lot of problems in different parts of the world in which a shortage of water is a reality.”
It’s a problem she sees growing close to home.
“We have a big challenge because the Yucatan peninsula is made out of limestone. It's a very porous a rock that is formed throughout the peninsula, so that's why cenotes and caverns are made. But the problem is that water filters very easily,” she said.
So fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants make their way into these gorgeous cenotes that were once treated with reverence and considered sacred.
But it’s not just pollution we have to worry about. “We have to save as much water as we can, reduce our consumption as much as we can. And also mind, (our) hydric footprint.”
The idea of a hydric footprint—a similar concept to one’s carbon footprint—was explored in PBS’s documentary “H20: The Molecule the Made Us,” a film in which Jaber features as she free dives into a most beguiling and somewhat toxic cenote.
The hydric footprint concept states that your water consumption doesn’t end with what you drink, or flush or bathe in. It’s also closely tied to the products we buy, the food we eat and the manner in which we get to work.
All of what we do as a species takes energy but also a great deal of water. And while abundant, water is not infinite, especially when it is constantly polluted and mismanaged.
“(We must) give the appropriate value of water as a resource,” she said. “That is so important to us as a civilization. And if we don't, in 50 years from now, I think we're going to start having a big social crisis regarding water.”
Embracing the many issues facing water, Jaber champions two organizations that are doing what they can to bring change and awareness to a growing concern.
Mexico Azul is dedicated to the protection of sharks, but also to the myriad environs in which they are found. This means protecting and preserving their ecosystems.
“We owe our lives to the sea, without them, there would be no humans,” México Azul Founder Guillermo Mendoza said. “For that reason, México Azul values those sports’ figures who, with their effort, contribute to raising awareness on the importance of protecting and conserving the big blue.”
Jaber is also an ambassador for the Proyecto Gran Acuífero Maya, which is dedicated to exploring, studying, and protecting the great Mayan aquifer.
Doing so takes a great many things but starts with the droves of people worldwide who want to taste paradise on holiday.
“We're working on workshops that we can give out to local tourism operators in which ways they can improve their practices and in which ways they can teach their customers or people that visit (about) these amazing cenotes and how to protect them and how to care for them,” Jaber said.
It’s hard not to fall in love with something you have immersed yourself in for most of your adult life. Then again, every last one of us is tied inextricably to water and still don’t give its conservation a second thought.
Having more of a relationship with the molecule might help. But what’s undeniable is the harm being done.
Camila Jaber was born in the ocean. Or she may as well have been.
There has been a constant call for her to jump into the water, whether it be early on in her life with scuba diving or surfing.
Then she found free diving, a sport that takes freedom and liberty of space and turns it into something exotic, terrifying and, to people like Jaber, irresistible.
Freediving remains that perfect sport to bring athleticism and conservation together. It raises awareness in a beautiful way and has very little impact on the environment.
Just hold your breath and jump.