Underwater Transformation About Face Underwater Transformation About Face

Anesti – Army Veteran

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My name is Anesti Vega. I’m 41 years old and was born in New Orleans, LA, but most definitely call Oakland, CA home now, no matter where I am in the world. I am an ocean scientist focused on deep sea ecology, as well as a science communicator and educator in the areas of marine science, scuba diving, and water safety, with an emphasis on accessibility and inclusion for marginalized communities. As the Scuba Council Chair for Diversity In Aquatics, I am dedicated to making scuba diving a welcoming place for all, and I speak on the healing power of water in my own journey. My work is facilitated through a number of positions within the scuba diving and ocean science communities, including AAUS Scientific Diving Foundation, Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, and most recently as a Representative at the United Nations, serving on the Committee on Water for Healing, Justice, and Action.

I am an Army combat veteran, serving with the 101st Airborne Division and 7th Special Forces Group. I served tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Colombia. I joined the Army straight out of high school as a means of attaining some stability in my life.

My childhood was chopped full of violence, alcoholism, drug trafficking and abuse, prostitution, extortion and exploitation. It was a world of instability that brought me from an abusive home, to foster care, back to an abusive home, and homelessness at 16. I was struggling a lot.

so when the Army recruiter told me they’ll give me a paycheck, feed me, house me, and train me…. all that sounded appealing given my situation at the time. I planned on doing a quick four years since there weren’t any major conflicts, then 9/11 happened and changed everything.

Transitioning back into civilian life seemed to be a harder task than figuring out how to survive in war. Being a soldier and fighting in battle is all I really knew and that’s hardly applicable in this new world I had to live in, now as an adult.

Why did you want to participate in the Underwater Transformation Project?

It’s such an honor to be asked and included in the Underwater Transformation Project. I know first hand both the healing power of water, as well as the empowerment and self-esteem that comes with being the subject of art, front and center. This project combines both in a way that brings so much joy to those involved and I’m finally in a good place in my healing journey now where I can accept that I deserve joy as much as everyone else, so that’s a big part of why I agreed to be part of it.

What were your goals for the photo shoot?

My hope is that my story and photos, alongside so many other amazing people in this series, can be used to empower others that may be like me. To motivate them to find their joy in life and that they deserve it. To let them know they’re not alone in their struggles, and to not be afraid to ask for help. I want this to say to others all the things I wish were said to me earlier in my life.

How was the experience with an underwater portrait session?

It was such a beautiful experience to go diving with Erena. I always enjoy myself underwater, since no matter how bad things are going… a day in the water is still better than a day not in the water. And to be there with people who are such a bright light in the world like Erena is just a whole other level of comfort and happiness. The location was Neptune Memorial Reef and I had never been there before. It’s essentially an underwater cemetary, where people have chosen to, after they pass away, to have their ashes infused into a special concrete mold of something like a sea star or sting ray and placed at the site as part of building a large artificial reef. The second I found out years ago that this was a possibility, I knew right then it is what I would do. I half joke that in order for any and all of my descendants to come visit me, they’ll have to get scuba certified to do so. The thought of continuing to build and give life, especially in the ocean, after a life of advocacy for it is something beautiful to me as an eternal legacy.

How was your mood after you finished?

I was pretty serene after my dives. Being in the water always brings me peace, but it was also a whole day of chill vibes… the long drive down to Miami, the laid back boat crew and only being 5 people on the boat, the dives, and sitting down with good food and better company to catch up. It was so needed that day given all the challenges I’m currently facing.

What does WATER mean to you?

To me, water means life. It means healing. Where I was looking for my next adrenaline fix by diving with sharks, is where I found what I actually needed in my life. Being neutrally buoyant in the water and being hyperfocused on my breathing as it controls that buoyancy is what helped me to feel present in the moment for the first time in a long time. It gave me a glimpse of the feeling I could have if I were to focus on my healing and that’s what I did. It took me some time, but I got connected with a great professional that specializes in working with veterans as well as childhood trauma and I’ve been on the path of healing ever since. Water served as the catalyst for all of that to happen.

Do you think this experience could help overcome your trauma?

I would absolutely agree to do another photo shoot anytime! It was such a wonderful feeling afterward and I embrace any reason to get back in the water, especially with such a talented photographer and friend. The healing process of overcoming trauma is quite the journey and experiences like being involved in the Underwater Transformation Project are so imperative in their encouragement that let you know you’re on the right track.

How was Erena working with you?

I’m a person who is very process oriented. There’s not much I step into where I don’t have a plan, a backup plan, and a backup to that backup plan. Admittedly, it was a bit jarring at first to not get a whole lot of direction… about poses or framing or much of anything about the shoot. While being in the water is my comfort zone, I still stepped outside of it to be in the water with seemingly no plan and not knowing what to really do… but by the end, I couldn’t have been happier. Erena’s approach allowed me to eventually relax and just exist in the moment, just like my first experience with scuba. I found that the plan was to have no plan, to be natural and to exist and that’s when you allow the most beautiful things to happen.

Would you recommend underwater transformation to other survivors or anyone?

For anyone who has survived through any kind of trauma, it’s important for you to prioritize your joy and develop your self esteem and worth, no matter how selfish or guilty it may feel at first. That was the hardest part for me. To be part of such an empowering experience like the Underwater Transformation Project, it helps me to build upon all of that and I hope that everyone who can benefit from something like this can experience it as well.

What’s your dream?

My dream? It may be a bit corny, but it’s a world of caring. Caring for the planet that we live on, including our oceans, but also caring about each other. There’s so much conflict around the world that causes such immense trauma and I care deeply about humanity and what our future could look like without that. So yeah, hopefully that’s a better way to express all that than just saying ‘world peace’.

Anesti Vega
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