Freediving in Mexico, at the Zanka Open Zihuatanejo 2021

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In the crystal-clear waters of the cenotes, a sport has found an ideal ambience, the freediving. This technique consists of performing immersions without scuba gear, thus the name freediving. There are two options to freediving, vertically or horizontally. Vertical, or Free immersion is performed in the ocean, and Dynamic, or horizontal immersion, in a swimming pool. Both categories require training with a certified AIDA instructor.

Freediving is different from Scuba diving; Scuba is a recreational activity and Freediving is a sport for which constant training is needed, and it is performed to achieve a higher rank among competitors and following strict guidelines to prevent any injury. Freediving has a young female representative in the Yucatan; born in the small town of Ciudad del Carmen in the Gulf of Mexico, Camila Jaber relocated to Puerto Aventuras, in the Mexican Caribbean, where she has excelled in her category, achieving national records, and is a well-known ambassador for the  Great Maya Aquifer project, that researches and preserves the hydrogeological system in the Yucatan, México. This year, Camila, along with several professional freedivers will participate in the Zanka Open Distance Freediving Competition, from August 13th to the 15th at Zihuatanejo, México.

Figure 1 Camila Jaber performing a Freedive vertical immersion  © Archivo Camila Jaber

In Mexico, freediving is practiced following the international guidelines of AIDA, the international association for the development of freediving. There are national competitions both in open water and in Olympic pools; and each year they garner a wider audience and attract competitors from different countries; positioning Mexico as a tourism spot where Sports have found another niche. A pioneer of freediving is Alejandro Lemus, who holds an excellent international ranking, and is the organizer of the Depth competition Xibalba in the Yucatan sinkholes, and Olmeca, a Distance competition in the Olympic pool in Veracruz, Mexico. He will also be a competitor at the Zanka Open in Zihuatanejo in mid-August 2021.  

Figure  2 Alejandro Lémus performing a freedive constant weight immersion  © Archivo Alejandro Lémus.

A tourist destination that chose to position as the hotspot of freediving in Mexico is Zihuatanejo, in the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero. This traditional fisherman village has in its vicinity the integrally planned center Ixtapa, a mini version of Cancun, México. Nearby there are two of the best beaches for surfing, Saladita and Troncones. Marine observation is very popular; Zihuatanejo is in the migratory route of Humpback whales, and popular for the sports fishing of marlin and sailfish. It is very enjoyable for kayaking and snorkeling, and you can enjoy rappelling into caves in the nearby hills. Accommodation and meals vary from the economic plan to the all-inclusive. Zihuatanejo also offers a safe and fun nightlife. It is connected to Mexico City and Acapulco by a network of roads and has an airport with international connections. 

Ilustración 3 Aerial view of the Zihuatanejo Bay © Ixta-Zihua oficial

Zihuatanejo is a place that has kept its essence; dodging the obstacles that have presented, such as the bad reputation of being near an organized crime territory such as Acapulco and most of the state of Guerrero, where Zihuatanejo is located. But in Zihua, the local population has been wise enough to keep a safe distance from this problematic situation and in here you can still find a family-oriented place where everybody knows each other. The surfers have made of this area a must-stop and their laidback attitude has contributed to the magic vibe of this town that still sparks the traditional Mexican charm.  

In 2018, a group of local divers gathered to organize the Zanka Open, the first Distance Freediving competition, at the Zihuatanejo Olympic pool; and in a very successful alliance with the local tourism board, they managed to position this event in the international Freediving Competition Circuit and Calendar. Each year, the Zanka Open attracts more participants from around the globe and a bigger audience both local and from many other places. Due to the 2020 pandemic, there was no competition last year, so now the local people, or Zankas, as they call each other, are more than ready to host this event with renewed enthusiasm and will certainly be the best hosts. 

Figure 4 Dynamic freediving in Pool.  © Archivo Alejandro Lémus.

We contacted Pako Ibarra, the event organizer. He is a certified PADI Scuba and Freediving Instructor, that has continued with his professional training to meet the standards of a sport that requires discipline and commitment, which differentiates a calculated risk from a negligence. During our conversation, he recalled how, in the beginning of his Scuba diving training in Mexico City two decades ago the freediving technique was not as understood as it is now. 

Figure 5 Pako Ibarra freediving instructor. © Archivo Adventure Divers Mexico.

Freediving as a sport is differentiated from Scuba diving because the latter is more a recreational activity that while it requires basic training and ideally certification to perform, do not require constant training and its goal is not to improve a personal mark or scale up in a ranking. It is a matter of time for Freediving to be incorporated to the Olympic games. Freedivers are very committed with their sport, their training, and their performance, and are looking forward to shedding their reputation of risk-takers. At the beginning of the freediving history, it was more dangerous than it is now to perform a free dive. Nowadays, the effect on the body is better understood and with the adequate training, freediving can be performed with minimal risk. The distance version performed in pools allows the divers to perform safe immersions, in which constant training translate in better personal marks and a higher ranking, without risking the health of the competitors. Anyone interested in learning freediving can join a certified AIDA center and request a training course and achieve a certification. Currently, freediving is performed in Zihuatanejo, Tulum, Veracruz, and Chiapas also has a delegation present in every competition. This year, at the Zanka Open 2021, they are expecting the arrival of international participants. ¿. 

Figure  6 Artistic Freedivers in a sinkhole. © Mattias Duvault

While freediving, you will enjoy a plenitude that is hard to put in words. While achieving better personal goals, or scaling up your ranking are a great motivation, freediving training also allows surfers to be more confident while in the water, they can resist longer periods underwater, thus mastering bigger waves; also, underwater photographers can shoot better frames, since the bubbles from the scuba gear scares the fish away, while when freediving the fish stay still. 

The 2021 Zanka Open will be performed in pool only; but for next year there will be activities in open water as well. From August 13th  to 15th, the competitions in different categories; the opening and closing ceremonies and all the activities will be open to the general audience. The freediving guild has grown, and undoubtedly this year new international contenders will join. Zihuatanejo is now positioned as one of the Freediving locations in the Competitions circuit. 

For more information on Freediving or the Zanka Open 2021, please click on the following links: 

adventurediversmx@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/ZankaOpen 

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