By Dalia Colón

For Jaime Hurtado, scuba diving brings relief. On social media, he posts glamour shots from dives: sharks and stingrays, fish and birds. The photos are a testament to the healing power of nature—something Jaime wants everyone to take advantage of when they visit Florida.

“It heals me so much,” Jaime said. “I feel at peace when I’m underwater—pain free. My back and knees don't hurt, and I just feel so free when I'm down there.”

But he wasn’t always the outdoorsy type. Born in Cali, Colombia, and spending his adolescence in Queens, New York, Jaime thought nature meant a city park.

After high school, Jaime joined the Marine Corps. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina but spent most of his time overseas: Kosovo, Kenya, two deployments to Iraq.

He returned to New York worse off. Homeless and “doing nothing with my life,” he couch-surfed and drank until he passed out. He lost friends in Iraq, and he struggled with survivor’s guilt. Eventually, he became suicidal.

“That was a dark moment in my life,” Jaime recalls. “My mom opened the door, and I had a pistol in my mouth. She jumped on me. She tackled me. The next day, she drove me to the VA.”

Veterans Affairs connected Jaime with group therapy and substance abuse treatment.

“As a guy and as a Marine, you’re too proud to admit that you have problems,” Jaime said. But he accepted the help, the friendships, the medications.

 “I felt like a zombie,” he said of the drugs.

‘That sounds fun’

In 2006, Jaime moved to Tallahassee to be near his parents and sister.

“I didn’t like Tallahassee at all,” he said. “I came here and I was like, ‘No, no. This is not my thing.’”

But he made the best of it, reconnecting with his New York girlfriend, Andrea, who had also relocated to Florida. They married in 2015.

While Jaime rekindled his flame for Andrea, he was also falling in love with the outdoors.

Friends told tales of hunting trips and scuba excursions.

“I was like, ‘That sounds fun,’” Jaime said. He tagged along on a camping trip with his sister, Lina, to Vortex Spring in Northwest Florida. Everyone else slept in an RV. Jaime slept in a tent, voluntarily.

“Just being out in the wild with nothing to worry about… ‘This feels good,’” he recalls thinking. “It’s gorgeous.”

The camping trip opened the door to other outdoor pursuits.

For the past two years, Jaime has been scuba diving with Life Worth Leading, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit that teaches scuba to veterans and people with disabilities.

“I have noticed tremendous changes in Jaime since he began participating in the SCUBA diving leadership program with Life Worth Leading,” said Jaime’s instructor, Gabrielle Gabrielli. “He is calmer, more focused, more positive, and has a strong sense of purpose, drive and gratitude. I am proud of him for realizing his value, for mentoring others and for becoming such an excellent teacher who positively impacts everyone he meets. Soon we will celebrate Jaime earning his prestigious divemaster certification.”

The leadership role is a perfect fit.

“It’s given me a sense of purpose, ‘cause now I help her teach other people,” said Jaime, who now works as service director for a management company. “It gave me back that sense of leadership. I was a leader in the Marine Corps.”

 A favorite Florida freshwater dive site is Vortex Spring.
-Vortex Spring

 

Favorite outdoor adventures

Of course, you don’t have to be a divemaster to explore Florida’s natural beauty. Among Jaime’s favorite freshwater dives are Blue Grotto and Devil’s Den Spring, both in Williston.

“I like springs, ‘cause it’s so refreshing. Then I don’t have to clean my gear after that, ‘cause it’s freshwater,” Jaime said. “Then when you go to saltwater, you just see completely different things than [in] freshwater.” He’s particularly enchanted by the coral reefs, fish and turtles.

When he doesn’t have access to diving, Jaime enjoys more low-key adventures. He bought a motorcycle. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his family bought kayaks and bicycles.

After a bad day, Jaime, Andrea and her 17-year-old son, Anthony, will toss the kayaks into the back of his truck and head to the Wakulla River, about five minutes from their house. Or they’ll grab the bikes and ride along the tree-lined St. Mark’s Trail. When time permits, they’ll venture farther from home. They like the Wacissa River for kayaking and the Coastal Trail for biking.

“Jaime has changed a lot since he started enjoying nature,” Andrea said. “He looks calm and more relaxed. He sleeps better, and overall [he is] a different person—happier and full of life.” He’s even off his medication.

Finding your next adventure

Ironically, Jaime uses technology to help locate places where his family can unplug. To find your next adventure, he recommends these resources:

Advice for other travelers

For other travelers struggling with mental health, Jaime recommends taking it slow.

“Just open your mind. With my anxiety and PTSD before, I would stay in the house and look through the windows,” Jaime said. “That was me. But I started conquering my fear.”

Even a 30-minute bike ride can boost your confidence. If you feel anxious, it’s okay to go back inside and try again later.

“I was really tired of being that person,” Jaime said. “You have to be willing to make a change. You have to be willing to beat the demons in your head that are telling you something wrong’s going to happen. [Tell yourself,] ‘Nothing bad is going to happen. I can do this.’”

And be patient with yourself.

“That didn’t happen all at once,” Jaime said of his love of nature. “It's been a long process.”

Once you’re comfortable with short outings, try a longer excursion. Jaime recommends a relaxing kayaking trip. Choose someplace with calm water, so you won’t have to fight any strong currents. And venture out in the morning, to beat the heat and the crowds.

“We can relax and do our own thing,” Jaime said of kayaking, which he describes as therapeutic. “Nobody bothers you. It’s awesome. Sometimes I just go by myself.”

Jaime’s next chapter

So what’s next for Jaime? He completed a triathlon in June, and now he and Andrea are training to compete in the St. Marks Duathlon. He’d also like to take a bucket list scuba trip to South Florida.

“I’ve never been to Key West,” Jaime said.

And he’s working on his pilot’s license, fulfilling a childhood dream of flying his own plane for fun.

For this New York city slicker-turned Florida outdoorsman, the sky’s the limit.

Places to Remember