Stories about mermaids that are capable of seducing the most intrepid sailors with their enchanting beauty have been told for ages, and they still abound today in children’s books and adventure movies.
There are those who would wager their most precious treasure to refute a claim of a mermaid sighting. These mythological beings, half woman and half fish, are supposedly a figment of our imagination. However, in Cuba, we have one….
Her name is Deborah Andollo López, she is Cuban through and through, and she is more mermaid than woman: in addition to her handsome figure and charming face, she has award-winning diving abilities and talent.
At 45, Andollo is one of the most distinguished athletes on the island, despite the fact that she has devoted a large part of her career to a discipline that is not part of the Olympic Games and that is not very well known internationally: apnea diving, or breath hold diving.
She holds 16 world records in four different divisions of apnea diving; she also won the 1996 Marine Oscar and was voted World’s Best Diver in 1997.
This modest blonde woman began swimming at the age of 4. When she was 11, she got started in synchronized swimming, which she practiced for more than a decade.
A year after captaining the national synchronized swim team that won a bronze medal in the 1991 Pan-American Games in Havana, Andollo decided to leave that discipline and became an underwater photography model. However, the woman also known as the “Mermaid of the Deep” was not satisfied; she began diving deeper, and eventually reached the heights of fame.
She threw herself completely into deep diving, a very risky activity that only a few hundred very select people in the world are capable of practicing successfully.
Andollo, who is also known as “Neptune’s Bride,” says she feels a very close connection to the ocean — it seduces her.
“I was born to live with the ocean and its deepest secrets. I’m Cuban, and like any good Cuban, I have spent the best moments of my life in the ocean. The fact that I’m from Havana brings me even closer. From a very young age, I was immensely attracted to that world fully of mystery and goodness.”
In a little over a decade, she became the woman who could dive into the depths using with nothing but a deep breath; her exceptional lung capacity of six liters (!) allowed her to hold her breath for more than four minutes at a time, and she set an absolute record (for women and men). In addition, she practiced yoga, which gave her the mental endurance needed for remaining calm at the bottom of the ocean.
Andollo, who was born in the Cuban capital on May 9, 1967, says that practicing deep diving/apnea was the only way to be in the ocean every day, learning about the different species that inhabit it and the wonderful phenomena that characterize it.
“My first immersions had a big impact on me. I was fascinated by so many fish, so much silence, tranquility and majesty. The perfection of the ocean makes us feel small and vulnerable,” she explains.
In May 1992, she began the long road down to the depths, diving 50 meters in the modality of free diving, in which the descent and ascent is carried out purely with the apnea diver’s muscular strength and a strong dose of courage.
“Apnea is an activity that cannot be accompanied by fear. I’m not afraid of sharks; I respect them. They are adorable animals, very important for the ecosystem and marine biodiversity, although it is very wise to respect them. But there are tons of dangers in the ocean besides sharks; for example, there are the currents, the depths, darkness, loneliness.”
In 2001, Deborah decided to enter the world of scuba diving, and she did so spectacularly: she dove deeper than anybody ever had without a mask or fins: 74 meters, in the modality known as free diving. Not even the most famous male divers had reached that depth.
Andollo, who is also nicknamed “Queen of the Caribbean,” is president of the Cuban Federation of Subaquatic Activities (FCAS), and she passionately defends the environment and the sustainable coexistence of human beings and nature.
“For me, commitment to the ocean is important. I am always fighting to protect it and to raise awareness about protecting it from human voracity. In that sense, I think that there is still a lot to be done in Cuba regarding marine parks and protected areas, even though there is a great deal of political will.”
Andollo has two children — a 13-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl — and says she has always pursued happiness without limits. “Cuba is my land and my sea.”
Proudly, she says that her oldest child, Ernesto, has become a wonderful apnea diver, and can now dive 13 meters deep.
In 2004 and 2005, she returned to modeling, this time accompanied by cameraman Rigoberto Senarega, during the Week of Underwater Photography in the Atlantic, and in 2004 she won the award for Best Model.
Currently, Andollo lives in Isla Cozumel, Mexico, but that does not stop her from feeling very passionately about the island where she was born and achieved her great triumphs.
“Cuba is where my parents and my best, true friends live, and where the ocean is more tranquil than anyplace else. It is a meeting point for the most intense encounters of affection. It’s where I was born and where my children were born, so, it will always be where we are from. Thank you, Cuba!”
In Mexico, she is making one of her dearest dreams come true: the Academia Blue Yemayá, an academy that teaches free diving. Andollo and her husband, Eric Testi of France, are its co-presidents and administrators.
“We work in the diving area of the marine park on the island of Cozumel, which has the second largest coral reef in the world.”
Deborah is a modest, unassuming woman who is familiar with the positive and negative aspects of fame.
“Being mobbed on the street bothers me a little bit, because I prefer tranquility, but that’s the price that has to be paid, and above all, it’s the best way to pay back all of the affection that people show me all the time.”
“If you were to ask me to describe fame in Cuba in a word, I would say, ‘wonderful.’ I’ve had poems written for me, I’ve been painted, I’ve been presented with wooden carvings, and once an elderly man said to his wife, ‘Touch her, she’s not made of plastic, she’s real.’”
“The most meaningful moment for me may have been when people wrote me letters after the auto accident – in 1996 – and sent them to the newspaper. One little girl wrote to me, ‘Get well, because you’re our mermaid."
Twice included on the list of the country’s top 10 athletes (1996 and 1997) and chosen as one of the 100 Best Cuban Athletes of the 20th Century, Andollo received the Platinum Pro5000 Diver Award in November 2011, a prize that is granted to outstanding divers who have completed more than 5,000 dives.
This beautiful woman, fascinated by the ocean and gifted with supernatural talents, says there are many things she would still like to do, and that free diving is a fascinating activity, a passion that she enjoys sharing with others.