Sixteen years before she became an undersea pilot, Diana was a 10-year-old girl digging mud pits in the mountains an hour south of Caracas, Venezuela. Her parents, Alvaro Garcia and Pili Benito, raised their three daughters in a secluded tropical forest with no electricity. Alvaro, an anthropologist, had constructed their home, “La Finca” (the farm), from mud, concrete, wood, and tile. Pili, a chef from Spain, prepared most of the family’s meals with fruits and vegetables from the family garden. They also kept birds, cats, dogs, and honeybees.
Growing up, Diana spent many days with her father maintaining La Finca, learning to repair doors, toilets, cars—anything that broke. After her siblings went away to school, she had no trouble entertaining herself. When she wasn’t leading solo expeditions in the jungle or playing MacGyver, she sought out new reading material, devouring books throughout the day: Aquaman comics, anything by Jules Verne, and a towering stack of National Geographic magazines—her “yellow library.” At night, by the light of a kerosene lamp, Alvaro would read to her from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Diana’s first exposure to the exiled submarine captain Nemo and his seafaring adventures. While her father read, Diana could hear the pitter-patter of gecko feet as they scampered across the roof, chasing some bug or spider. It was a sound she would never forget.
On special occasions she visited her grandmother’s house in Caracas to watch movies. The Little Mermaid was her favorite, though she couldn’t understand how Ariel could possibly want to live on land—all Diana wanted was to be a mermaid living in the sea. That was why she dug the mud pits. In her landlocked corner of Venezuela, swimming in sludge was the closest she could get.
In the distance, manta rays the size of kitchen tables and more hammerhead sharks on the hunt glide by.
Her fortunes changed when she turned 12 and accompanied Alvaro up the Orinoco River to stay with the indigenous Warao tribe as part of his fieldwork. They traveled for five days in dugout canoes on the outskirts of the Amazon. Diana cooed at playful pink dolphins and learned the pack-feeding habits of voracious piranhas lurking beneath the surface. During her time with the tribe, a fishing people who lived on stilted homes above a delta, she often went swimming. “In the water, I fell immediately in love,” she says. “Completely free, calm, amazed, disconnected from everything. I wanted to live underwater forever.”
Diana, 12 years old, on the Orinoco River with members of the Warao tribe.
Hundreds of miles away, tensions were building in Caracas. After a failed coup attempt on the regime of Hugo Chávez, the streets were clogged with strikes and protests in which 19 people were killed. When Chávez returned to power two days later, he expropriated unoccupied residences and announced he was giving them to the poor. One of those residences was a second home Diana’s father had painstakingly constructed in the jungle over the course of nearly a decade. The instability caused Alvaro to fear for his family’s safety. They fled to Spain without savings or work permits.