Into the Deep - Diana Garcia Benito

DIANA GREW UP ON A FARM in the middle of the jungle with no electricity, far, far away from the ocean. But she had read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and she fantasised about being Captain Nemo, piloting the Nautilus. Fleeing the socialist revolution of Hugo Chávez, in 1996 she arrived in Spain without any money. Ten years later, after securing a double major in marine and environmental sciences, Diana now pilots submersibles to explore the deep ocean. We recently caught up with Diana in Bali where she is taking time off to become a freediving instructor. We know you will be inspired by the stories she shared with us.

OG: What is it like to be a deep sea submersible pilot?

Diana: I have achieved a huge goal in my life, becoming a submarine pilot is a dream come true for me. My passion is the ocean and being able to explore it in a magnificent way is something I barely can express with words. I feel very privileged as there are few people in the whole world who can explore the deep sea every day.

OG: Tell us about your journey to become one of the very few female submersible pilots in the world.

Diana: It was a long and hard path in a purely male dominated career. Women are not very welcome in general. I had to prove myself to the point of perfection to be able to enter the training program. I had to fight for the position because the regulation of the company was: no women allowed. During candidate training on-board a super-efficient vessel my schedule was 24/7, and during the short breaks or nights I would keep studying. This position required not only piloting the submarine but also learning how to be a skiff driver, support diver and a boat crew. I learnt everything from scratch. Eventually after almost a year, I finished my training and I was fully transformed into a mariner and a submarine pilot. I had many responsibilities including being the Cruise Director of the submarine, helping to teach other pilots, and collaborating marine research with the University of Costa Rica.

OG: Tell us the coolest thing you have seen during your deep sea dives.

Diana: Everything down in the deep sea is astonishing, but I am most fascinated by the Siphonophores from phylum Cnidaria, individual zooids that live together as a colony with diverse roles inside the colony. The shapes, colours and movements just blow my mind. The jellyfishes down there shine with the submarine lights, and come in hundreds of colours, forms, and sizes; each one of them is unique and peculiar-looking. Another amazing creature is the deep water Prickly shark (Echinorhinus cookei). It is such a majestic animal, with slow movements, an unusual shark shape (the dorsal fin is all the way to the back of his body and is flat on the bottom), very rough skin and huge, dark grey eyes. There are always incredible encounters to be had.

OG: Who is the most famous person you have taken to the deep sea? How deep?

Diana: My life hero is Dr. Sylvia Earle. I had the honour of being her pilot in Cocos Island on March 2015 where we went to 310 metres. This was one of the most incredible dives I have ever done. Normally there are no night dives with the submarine, but on this occasion, it was late afternoon when we started the dive so on the way up, it was completely dark, and the bioluminescence around us was spectacular. It was like crossing the Milky Way with millions of shiny stars and galaxies. Discharging bubbles activated the light in the plankton, so I was playing on the way up by inflating and releasing the air from the bladders of the submarine to generate more bioluminescence. The experience was unforgettable.

OG: Tell us about your childhood.

Diana: I grew up in Venezuela away from the city on a farm two hours away from Caracas. My parents had land in the middle of the jungle with no electricity. We were almost self-sufficient and produced our own vegetables, cereal, coffee, and honey, had a rain water collecting system, and kerosene and gas lamps. Our ‘security guards’ were a pack of sometimes 12 German and Belgium shepherds with my dad and me as leaders of the pack. I spent a lot of time reading, immersing myself in the works of Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov, as well as comics and National Geographic magazines. I also really enjoyed playing chess, Legos, Greek mythology board games and memory games.

OG: You are also a freediver. How is freediving compared to piloting a submersible?

Diana: Freediving is a wonderful world. A singular way to explore the ocean, getting closer to the animals because they behave differently when I am not releasing bubbles, a more personal approach to marine life. The sensations while you are freediving are difficult to describe, it is you within yourself. Freediving gives you self-awareness and a deeper knowledge and control of your body. Piloting a submarine is a completely different experience. Inside a submarine you are dry, you can talk, you go deeper, and your life depends on a machine. In freediving, the contact with the ocean life is special and private. I cannot choose only one, I love both.

OG: What is your view of the ocean?

Diana: The Ocean is unfortunately an unknown world and therefore not loved enough. As a result, humans have taken from the ocean without measure. And now, the whole ecosystem could collapse. Even though marine conservation work is on the rise, it often happens when conditions have become too severe and almost too late, often requiring more drastic solutions. Increasing ocean awareness is still a very important cornerstone.

OG: What do you do when not freediving or piloting submersibles?

Diana: I love nature, I try to explore places, countries -- that is the reason I try to travel and discover as many new places as I can. I do a lot of sports like running, hiking, swimming, yoga, mountain biking and scuba diving. Another one of my favourite hobbies is reading.

OG: Who are your mentors? Who inspires you?

Diana: My mentors are my family. My older sister has taught me to think before acting, to look for options and solve problems, and to stand up after falling. My middle sister is the adventurous and fearless one who has supported me in all my crazy decisions. My dad is a historian and anthropologist, very methodical, intellectual and curious; he taught me discipline and good values. My mother, the pillar of the family, is loving and caring; she is the strongest link that unifies us. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

OG: What is on your bucket list?

Diana: My bucket list is extensive; I would love to travel the world, to the most remote places, to the deepest part of the ocean.

OG: If there is one thing you can do to change the world, what would it be?

Diana: I am already doing it. Small changes in your daily life can make a huge impact, and I act in accordance with my values. I share the importance of the ocean and what can be done to save it. Collaborating with ocean conservation NGOs and writing scientific papers are critical as well.

OG: What is your advice for aspiring deep sea pilots?

Diana: Follow your dreams, work hard, don’t let others put you down, don’t give up, keep the scale of your life tipped to the positive side, learn from errors, don’t doubt your skills and abilities, fight for what you want, and stay true to yourself.

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