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How I helped save a scuba diver's life

It was a beautiful day in California with my students, my safety diver, my partner/photographer and the co-owner of CapeCali headed to Catalina Island where I would teach my PADI Advanced Mermaid course. We imagined diving in the gorgeous kelp forest in Catalina, and taking mermaid photos after my students passed the open water session of the course. In this open water session they would show me their mermaid diving skills including their duck dives, backflips among other fun tricks and the mermaid rescue drill.

Since the water of the Pacific Ocean was icy cold we decided we would take photos and videos among the kelp later and just do our wetsuits and monofins for the time being while they finished practicing their skills.

Upon entering the water we noticed this was a busy scuba diver spot with tons of scuba divers getting in the water with their heavy gear. We could feel their looks as they watched us get in the water in our monofins, almost as if it were somewhat of a joke. We talked between ourselves thinking how much we take our mermaid training seriously despite of what any scuba divers may think and how the PADI Mermaid Program is equipped with much safety training that can make any mermaid safe including their mermaid buddies.

As I demonstrated the open water skills and my students would practice one at time, the excitement kept on building, thinking about the beautiful content we can get with this newly PADI Mermaid group to help push the PADI Mermaid Program, content that would surely make PADI proud.

Credit: NATIV Productions

Among my students were two of the PADI Staff, head of PR and Global Director, Julie Andersen and Samantha Pearson. I also had Rebecca Barboza who is a local California mermaid, and Elaina Thomas, a Catalina Island local, a PADI Open Water (Scuba) Instructor, who runs a mermaid photography business, also a fire fighter, who wanted to take my course and become a PADI Mermaid herself. As my safety diver, I had my good friend Chin Burger, a PADI Freediver Instructor and underwater stunt for the new Black Panther movie, who was there as my safety to watch out for any fishy situations that may happen. And last but not least, my boyfriend and photographer Darren Joshua Leonardi, who co-owns NATIV Productions with me, was there to take photos as content for my PADI Mermaid Courses. On shore we had the owner of our mermaid tail company, Cape Cali’s Kim Deichmann waiting for us.

We were just getting to the mermaid rescue skill portion of the course out in the chilly deep waters of Catalina when suddenly we heard a cry for help. At a distance we saw 3 scuba divers, two of them towing an unconscious diver. “He blacked out” they said from afar. As if we were on auto-pilot, Elaina, Chin and I swam quickly toward the divers, Elaina and I in monofins (mermaid tails) and Chin in bifins. Right behind us Darren Joshua followed, holding the underwater camera housing in front and swimming as fast as possible. Elaina got to the victim first where she noticed foam was coming out of the 70ish year old gentleman who was unconscious, Pablo Avila. Chin and I arrived at the scene about 2 seconds after when we saw Elaina giving the victim rescue breaths at the surface. That image was one I will never forget and it impacted me in a way so deeply, I know at that moment this was a real life-death situation. It was as though I was looking at a corpse. Chin and I quickly went in to help as much as we could. As she removed the weights I helped discard them. The weights were about 35lbs pulling me unapologetically under the surface. In the meantime, Darren, had arrived to the scene and began helping tow the victim along with Elaina, Chin, and one of the victim’s buddies, Javier.

I noticed the other buddy, was struggling at the surface right behind them, and he was hyperventilating. I then made the decision that while Pablo was in great hands, I needed to go help the distressed diver and prevent another life threatening situation and avoid having yet another victim. While we both struggled with the extra weights I told Josh (Pablo’s scuba diving buddy and Javier’s son) to discard them. “Just drop them!” but he hesitated. I insisted and he finally dropped them. I began towing him to shore, guiding him through calming breathing exercises so he didn’t black out from hyperventilating. Once on shore, Darren helped Josh who was exhausted but at least now calm, up the Casino Point steps.

On shore, the EMT performed compressions on Pablo, who arrived without breathing and without a pulse. After what seemed forever, they finally got a pulse. This must’ve been about 20 minutes from the moment the divers surfaced to the moment Pablo got his heart beating again. They transported Pablo to a decompression chamber. The EMT credited us mermaids for saving Pablo’s life, had it not been for Elaina’s rescue breaths and the team’s effort to get everyone on shore safely, the outcome could’ve been completely different.

I was still in the water with 3 students safe on a floaty who had to complete their course, PADI’s Julie and Sam, and Rebecca, who decided it was best to stay back and give space for the rescue. I thought “if I don’t finish the course with them now, when will I be able to?” So, with my heart beating fast and completely affected by the rescue I decided I will try my best to finish teaching them. They were worried and did such a great job at their rescues, we were able to quickly finish and get out of the water. Kim, co-owner of CapeCali (mermaid tail brand) approached us without knowing what had happened. It was so shocking to even explain. All of a sudden, Darren realizes he might have taken a photo during the rescue and quickly checked the camera to find an incredible shot he accidentally captured:

Credit: NATIV Productions

We had a few hours on Catalina Island left before we had to catch the ferry, but those few hours felt like a lifetime while we waited for news on Pablo’s state. We finally heard back with a “he’s conscious and well, and thanks the mermaids who saved him.”

Thanks to our photographic evidence and witnesses our story has now been covered by FoxNews and other media outlets. Inside Edition flew us Chin and I back to California to meet with Elaina and our rescued divers. Watch the episode here.

I am still shocked that this happened. I don’t think it’s something I will ever get used to. Six years ago I didn’t even know how to swim and thanks to all of the training I’ve done I am now able to help save a life. PADI’s CEO wrote a wonderful article here, and gave us a Recognition Award and Certificate of Excellence for our heroism.

I never thought I’d be called a hero. I guess now I can really say, heroes wear capes, but mermaid heroes wear CapeCali tails.

To learn more about my PADI Mermaid Courses, go here!

Follow me on Instagram @themermaidelle @mermaidcourses

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