A Mermaid’s Special Gift Of Lungs

Amelia de los Rios is a mermaid at Oceanarium Restaurant. Bob Beard photo

Amelia de los Rios has fond memories of her childhood summer vacations, and it was during one of these family vacations when she realized she was blessed with a unique gift.

“My dad was really good at holding his breath and used to swim across pools in one breath,” she recalls. “One day I grabbed his back and held on and crossed the pool with him with no problem. I knew there was something special about my lungs.”

De los Rios says when it comes to holding your breath, you have to fool your body and your brain that you’re not lacking oxygen or that you don’t need to release carbon dioxide. She says it takes her longer than the average person to feel that need to breathe again.

“Truth is, when you feel like you need to breathe, you still have plenty of oxygen left in you, but your body keeps asking and asking,” she explains. “My body takes longer to ask, which allows me to hold my breath longer than most people.”

It’s something she’s been aware of since growing up in Bogota, Colombia. What she didn’t realize was that gift would one day take her to Nice, France, where she would compete as part of the United States Freedive Team.

Freediving is a form of underwater diving that relies on a diver’s ability to hold his or her breath until resurfacing without the use of scuba gear or any external breathing device. Stephane Mifsud of France holds the world record for a Static Apnea, a timed breath-holding usually done in a swimming pool, at 11 minutes and 25 seconds. Natalia Molchanova of Denmark holds the women’s world record with a time of 8 minutes and 23 seconds.

De los Rios attended school in Wisconsin before moving to Hawaii seven years ago to pursue a master’s degree in second language studies at the University of Hawaii. A year later, she started working at the Pacific Beach Hotel’s award-winning Oceanarium Restaurant as a mermaid in the 280,000-gallon indoor oceanarium.

“People think I’m being silly or cheesy when I tell them I’m a mermaid,” she says. “Then when they come to see me, they say, you really are a mermaid!”

De los Rios says early this summer she decided to take a freediving course to help her become a better performer. She traveled to the Philippines to learn from a top professional in the industry. On the second day of training, she grabbed everyone’s attention.

De los Rios ready to dive. Ren Chapman photo

“I held my breath for 5 minutes and 50 seconds, which I guess is pretty good,” she says humbly. “We kept trying and I hit 6 minutes!”

Word traveled quickly about her impressive time, and she was invited to join Team USA despite only starting formal training in June.

“That means that I had to learn a lot if I wanted to compete against the world’s best,” says de los Rios, who also teaches Spanish at Myron B. Thompson Academy and art to elementary school-children at Honolulu Museum of Art.

“At first, I wasn’t planning on going because I didn’t have sponsorships to get to France. There’s no money in freediving; you only win bragging rights. I’m happy Pacific Beach Hotel offered to help.”

De los Rios says she trained extremely hard for a month and a half before Team USA left for the 2012 AIDA Team World Championships in Nice. The event marked the 20th anniversary of the international competition.

“As a team we didn’t do as well as we wanted to, but it was a great experience for me being with divers who have the world record or have had the world record,” says the 32-year-old. “It’s tough because you’re tired, you’re stressed and you’re in a different environment. I learned world champions perform under any conditions!”

De los Rios has since returned to work at Oceanarium Restaurant, where she continues to entertain guests in her role as a mermaid. She’s always delivered with a smile underwater, but these days her smile lasts a lot longer.