by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures
This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico
She’s been free diving since before she could walk, but every time she gets in the water for a competition she reflects on the old nightmare: She’s swimming peacefully at the shore when the ocean suddenly starts retracting away from the beach at great speed like it does before a tsunami. She’s caught in the enormous power of the angry water, completely out of control. She’s filled with dread of the cold and the dark, terrified of being so absolutely alone.
“But competitive free diving is at least 70% mental” says Mexican free diving champion Estrella Navarro Holm. “And it was free diving that finally put that old nightmare to rest. In competition they allow us a few minutes on the rope at the surface before the dive, and I use that time to do my deep breathing, face any fears I may have, and relax into the dive. Once the count reaches zero, the rules allow only 30 seconds to get your face in the water, so you have to be ready.” Ready to dive 70 meters (230 feet) into the black of the ocean with no oxygen, no light, no friends, just the air in your lungs and your wet suit to protect you? Fear is the only rational response. “Yet”, says Estrella, “once my face is in the water the training kicks in and my diving reflex is activated. My whole system has a physiological response to my mental state and I am completely prepared to go. The first few meters are hard because my body is heavy and buoyant with air, and I have to really work to get down. But then at about 30 meters the free fall starts. It’s as if the wet suit and my skin fall away, and the water in my body merges with the water of the ocean. Each molecule of water feels very intense. It’s like flying, but in slow motion. The free fall is the most beautiful, spiritual experience – it’s what makes people free diving junkies.” Knew there had to be a payoff.
And that payoff has paid off big time for Estrella. The La Paz native has broken the Mexican national free diving record 21 times, she was the first Mexican on the medal podium in a free diving world championship, and she’s the first woman in Latin America to medal in the discipline of constant weight no fins. And unlike most world champion athletes, she didn’t enter her first major competition until she was 24. This gave her the time to earn a degree in marine biology from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, widely acknowledged as one of the best marine biology programs in the country. And she’s using that degree to pursue her other great passion in life, ocean conservation. Among other accomplishments, she is co-author of a paper titled Global Economic Value of Shark Ecotourism: Implications for Conservation, that appeared in Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation, published by Cambridge University Press. Yes, the one in England.
It is often the case in life that we don’t fully appreciate what we have at home until we travel elsewhere. And as Estrella traveled the waters of the globe for competitions, she found that her fellow athletes scarcely believed her when she described the riches of the Sea of Cortez, marveling – some skeptically – when she told them about diving with sea turtles, sea lions, whale sharks, whales, dolphins and more. Their wonderment (incredulity) gave her an idea for combining her passions: invite the best free diving athletes in the world to La Paz to share the wonders of the Sea of Cortez and, at the same time, promote ocean conservation. Says Estrella, “I sent out 250 personal invitations via Facebook to my free diving friends, and I was so thrilled that 24 of the best athletes in the world accepted the invitation to compete in our program, Big Blue. But I was even more excited that they took up the call to be ocean ambassadors, to return to their home countries and promote strong ocean conservation measures. This is really the success of Big Blue.”
Indeed, as part of the Big Blue program in November 2015, Estrella, working in coordination with the tourism board of Baja California Sur, organized a conference on ocean conservation where she presented the shark research in which she and her co-authors demonstrated that shark ecotourism around the world currently generates US$314 million a year and supports 10,000 jobs – a vastly higher and more sustainable number than those associated with shark landings each year. That is to say, as is generally the case when speaking of wild flora and fauna, the living, breathing resources of the world are worth more to mankind alive than dead.
Estrella wants to keep bringing that message to the world, and plans to make Big Blue an annual event in La Paz, her home town and a great staging area for exploring the Sea of Cortez. Estrella is part of a growing cadre of world class athletes that grew up in La Paz and the Sea of Cortez (Mexican board diving champion and Olympian Paola Espinosa’s dad was actually Estrella’s competitive swimming trainer when she was a little girl, and the two champions remain friends) and their love for their home town is helping to fuel growing interest in La Paz as a destination for top competitions in many sports including stand up paddle boarding, water polo, swimming and, of course, diving.
But unlike her fellow champions in other sports, Estrella doesn’t worry so much about the march of time. One of the greatest female free divers of all time, Natalia Molchanova, became the first woman to dive 100 meters (328 feet) at the age of 44, and continued to dominate the sport for another decade. (Her son Alexey swept the Big Blue competition in La Paz and is the reigning world champion.) So that means that for the foreseeable future, Estrella can continue to both compete in oceans around the world, and create the knowledge and ambassadors to help protect them. Saving it all for the generations to come. That’s what truly makes the champion Estrella Navarro Holm the Star of the Sea of Cortez.
To learn more about Estrella and Big Blue please visit: