Tito gives a little whoop as his friends help him, already strapped into his diving gear, slide from the boat into the smooth, cyan water off Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.
“I feel closer to what I am in the water,” he tells me later.
Tito, who grew up swimming, kayaking, fishing, and surfing in the bays of the Sea of Cortez, has had little occasion to feel close to the ocean—or to himself—since being paralyzed in a car accident five years ago.
Twenty-four-year-old Tito, whose full name is Roberto Alejandro Ramírez Rivas, is a native of La Paz, the state capital of Baja California Sur, Mexico—a long, narrow peninsula draped in tranquil beaches and bright island cliffs, glinting with schools of dolphin and fish, rafts of sea lions, and migrating blue whales. (Travel to the Sea of Cortez on a National Geographic expedition.)
Its stunning marine landscapes and global value as a “natural laboratory” even earned this stretch of the Gulf of California recognition from UNESCO. Though ecotourism is on the rise here, the city of La Paz remains somewhat off the path beaten by tourists who flock to Cabo San Lucas, two hours down the coast. (See National Geographic scientists swim with sea lions in the Bahía de La Paz.)
For Tito, however, this city of some 200,000 people is not just an afterthought to more popular destinations—it’s his home, a familiar backdrop to childhood adventures, but also to great personal tragedy.
In November 2011, Tito went to a party. At the end of the night, the friend driving him back offered to give someone else a lift as well. While heading homeward, favor complete, the driver hit another car, spun, and collided with a traffic light. Tito had been sleeping in the back. The impact fractured several of his vertebrae, paralyzing him.
Initially quadriplegic—that is, unable to move below the neck—Tito almost immediately began an intense regimen of therapy and rehabilitation. With daily effort, he has regained some mobility in his arms. A lover of sports and the outdoors, Tito was pursuing a university degree in physical health at the time of the accident. Now he must rely on others to get through day-to-day life on land.
But in the water, two limbs can be enough.
In January 2016, the Argentina-based project Buceo Sin Barreras (Diving Without Borders) invited Tito to participate in a no-cost assisted diving course through its local Mexican branch. Over a dozen indoor sessions and several sea dives later, Tito’s earned his professional certification—and regained the sense of peace and wonder the ocean has given him all his life.
A year into his diving career, Tito spoke with National Geographic about his path to recovery and what the sea gives us.
What has your recovery been like?
[After the accident] I was in the hospital for three and a half months. I haven’t stopped physical therapy since then, so I can continue improving like I have up to now. And, well, it’s a long, slow process, and while I’m doing this [diving program], I also do the therapy to be better every day.
Scuba diving is separate from my therapy. But it definitely influences my recovery, because, in terms of the physical, it helps to be submerged in the water, because I can change position after being seated in a wheelchair almost all the time. It also helps me in that it excites me, it makes me feel—I don’t know how to explain—I feel closer to what I am in the water. I feel different, and it helps me keep going.
What’s your relationship with the ocean?
La Paz is very beautiful! I’ve always really liked the ocean, the beach, and here we have some really great beaches. Whatever activity or sport you can do [in the water], I tried to do. Even when I was a kid and didn’t yet know how to swim, I liked to be near the water, just to be there.
Growing up, my love for the ocean kept growing. I’d fish, kayak, swim, do a little surfing—the waves are pretty small, it’s a calm beach. I worked hard at swimming in high school. In 2006 I had the opportunity to compete up north, representing my state of Baja California at a national level in a swimming competition.
What’s it like to scuba dive?
Excellent. [laughs] Very pretty. It’s another world, what the sea gives us. It’s a paradise.
We dive for about an hour, more or less, a group of four or five friends. We see a lot of fish. All sizes, small and big. There’s a boat sunk there, so you’re together with a lot of marine life. It’s really pleasant to see all those things for an hour, in your friends’ company.
What an experience.
[laughs] You should motivate yourself to do it! We’re here whenever you like.
This interview was translated from Spanish, and has been edited for length and clarity.