Aca­pulco’s cliff divers jump into the un­known

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY SYL­VAIN ESTIBAL

Cliff divers in Aca­pulco say they never for­get their first time: the leap into the void, the feel­ing of fly­ing, the shock of hit­ting the wa­ter at high speed.

Across the gen­er­a­tions, whole fam­i­lies of divers have earned their liv­ing wow­ing tourists from around the world with the 35-me­ter plunge off La Quebrada, the rock face that looms above the Mex­i­can re­sort city’s Pa­cific coast.

But the seem­ingly fear­less dare­dev­ils who keep this eight-decade tra­di­tion alive now face a new kind of risk: their liveli­hoods are un­der threat from a wave of vi­o­lence sweep­ing Aca­pulco and scar­ing away tourists.

Nearly 500 peo­ple have been killed so far this year as drug car­tels wage war in the city.

The blood­shed has taken a toll on the tourism in­dus­try.

A decade ago, 150 cruise ships a year vis­ited Aca­pulco. To­day, the num­ber has fallen to around 10.

That is wor­ry­ing for the 62 full­time cliff divers who make their liv­ing at La Quebrada.

“The tourists need to come back,” said Mon­ico Ramirez, a 62-year-old re­tired diver whose son and grand­son now carry the flame.

The vi­o­lence doesn’t threaten any­one not caught up in the drug trade, Ramirez in­sisted.

“It’s mainly a set­tling of scores,” he said.

Guer­rero, the state where Aca­pulco is lo­cated, has had a year of ter­ri­ble press.

The state made head­lines over the shock­ing dis­ap­pear­ance of 43 stu­dents in Septem­ber last year.

Pros­e­cu­tors say the stu­dents were ab­ducted by cor­rupt po­lice in the city of Iguala, three hours in­land from Aca­pulco, and handed over to a drug gang that killed them and burned their bod­ies.

Aca­pulco has had its share of bad pub­lic­ity, too.

Sev­eral mass graves have been found on its out­skirts, and the leader of one of the groups search­ing for the 43 miss­ing stu­dents was shot dead just out­side the city ear­lier this month.

The un­rest spells bad news for the divers, whose salaries come from the ad­mis­sion fees tourists pay to watch them, plus tips and sales of food, drinks and sou­venirs.

The work pays about US$550 a month, ac­cord­ing to Ramirez, and comes with health ben­e­fits, pro­fes- sional train­ing and one day off per week — a great job for a coun­try where more than 55 mil­lion peo­ple live in poverty.

Oc­cu­pa­tional Haz­ards

It’s a job for peo­ple com­fort­able with risk.

As they stand over the abyss, pre­par­ing to thread through the rocky out­crops in a three-sec­ond free-fall, the divers have to time their jump to co­in­cide with an in­com­ing wave, or risk crack­ing their skulls on the rocky bot­tom.

The wa­ter is just four me­ters deep. They will hit it at 90 kilo­me­ters (55 miles) per hour.

“You have to vi­su­al­ize your dive,” said Ramirez’s 43-year-old son, Jorge.

Divers also face fre­quent in­juries, in­clud­ing de­tached reti­nas, rup­tured eardrums, bro­ken fore­arms and neck and back trou­ble.

“Divers’ sight gets worse over time, like pel­i­cans, which even­tu­ally go blind from plung­ing into the wa­ter and end up crash­ing into the rocks,” said Jorge.

“At first I was afraid of the sea,” said Jorge An­to­nio, Jorge’s 24-year-old son and the latest to carry on the fam­ily trade.

“But lit­tle by lit­tle, I came to like it.”

In the 80 years that pro­fes­sional divers have been tak­ing the plunge off La Quebrada, not one has been killed, said Mon­ico.

“That’s surely thanks to the Vir­gin of Guadalupe, who watches over us,” he said.

Be­fore each jump, the divers pray to a statue of the Vir­gin that sits atop the cliff.

Kennedy, Tarzan and Elvis

The tra­di­tion of div­ing off La Quebrada started with a dare be­tween lo­cal fish­er­men and soon be­came an iconic tourist at­trac­tion.

There is a whiff of nos­tal­gia in the sea spray around the cliffs.

In a small mu­seum, blackand- white photos de­pict Aca­pulco’s glory days, when the likes of John F. Kennedy, Frank Si­na­tra, Or­son Welles and Walt Dis­ney vis­ited La Quebrada to watch the divers.

The cliffs were made fa­mous by “Tarzan” star Johnny Weiss­muller, whose char­ac­ter jumped off them in the 1948 movie “Tarzan and the Mer­maids.”

Elvis Pres­ley’s char­ac­ter did the same in “Fun in Aca­pulco” (1963).

But nei­ther ac­tu­ally made the dives de­picted in their movies.

AFP

A cliff diver jumps at La Quebrada in Aca­pulco, Mexico on Aug. 14.

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