Imagine a world in which you're surrounded by water; hundreds of feet of water above and below you, embracing you like a liquid hug.
You turn to the side and a fish is in your face, looking at you curiously.
Scuba divers have experienced such a world. Anyone who has gone snorkeling can imagine a version of this.
Now imagine the same scene without an oxygen tank, without a snorkel to bring oxygen to your lungs.
That's the world which Rachel Novak has come to know.
"It's really beautiful," Novak, 33, said. "After a while, you become negatively buoyant, usually around the 60-foot range. It's like skydiving in slow motion. The ocean is enveloping you in its own way. As you're floating up, the surface is like glass."
The former Klamath Falls resident said freediving — the sport of exploring depths on one breath — is a completely different way of seeing the world.
"I'd love to go back to Crater Lake to free dive if I can get the correct permits," Novak said.
Through freediving, Novak has certainly had one-of-a-kind experiences such as swimming with mantra rays and whale sharks, but the sport last year brought her a completely unexpected opportunity: That of performing in a major motion picture.
Around November 2021, Novak said she saw an ad posting on a freediving memes page on Instragram.
"The posting said 'Looking for people comfortable modeling in costumes on breath hold. Working depth 20 feet.' I have a pretty strong background in freediving so I applied," she said.
A few weeks later, a man named Chris Denison called Novak and interviewed her.
"He didn't really tell me what he was interviewing me for," Novak said.
She stated Denison told her to board a flight and she didn't know what she was getting into until the flight landed at the same time the contract appeared in her email inbox.
"When I finally landed, the contract arrived in my email and it said 'Black Panther 2,'" Novak said.
Yes, Denison was the stunt coordinator for "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," which was released into theaters Friday, Nov. 11, and Novak had been hired to be a stunt performer in the movie.
"I was very, very surprised," Novak said. "I knew that Avatar 2 was looking for freedivers at some point, but I wasn't aware of underwater characters in the Marvel franchise yet."
Due to a non-disclosure agreement, there wasn't much Novak could say about working on "Wakanda Forever," but she stated it was fun meeting fellow freedivers.
"I got to meet the actors and provide safety instruction if it was needed," she said. "My primary role was performing underwater stunts."
Novak said she worked on the project for months and that a few days before the worldwide premiere, she was invited to attend a cast and crew premiere of the film.
"It was a good opportunity to get to reconnect with colleagues and celebrate our work on the film," she said. "I can say that I was involved in some of the underwater scenes."
Novak's name is listed in the credits, something she admitted to be excited to see during the premiere.
"They listed the names alphabetically, though, so it went by pretty fast. I was like 'Oh my god, that was me!' and then it was gone," she said.
Novak was born and raised in Klamath Falls — where her parents, Jerry and Sally, still live — and attended college first at Oregon Tech and then at Oregon State.
In 2007, she decided to enter the Miss Klamath County-Miss City of Sunshine Scholarship Program through the Women's Scholarship Foundation of Klamath County.
"I went into that because my dad had lost his job and I saw a flier at OIT and said I'd go into it for the academic and athletic scholarships," Novak said.
Novak said she "accidentally won" the Miss Klamath County pageant in 2007 and then won Miss Sunshine in 2010.
"I was awarded more than $15,000 and that helped finance my schooling to become a pharmacist," she said.
In 2010, Novak graduated from OIT with a bachelor degree in biology. She then attended Oregon State University from which she graduated in 2014 with a doctorate in pharmacy.
"I still work as a pharmacist to cover peoples' vacations or maternity leaves," Novak said. "And during the pandemic, I was working fulltime because the performance jobs I had dried up."
In addition to her recent work on "Wakanda Forever," working as a pharmacist and freediving, Novak is also a professional mermaid.
Novak's path to becoming a mermaid began while she was at OIT. There, she said she got into fire performance as a hobby.
While competing for Miss Klamath County, they didn't allow fire performance but it opened the door for a contract with a circus in Las Vegas.
"Mermaiding was another skill to add to the set," Novak said.
As a professional mermaid, Novak teaches about conservation, performs at aquariums and private parties and has appeared at notable public events such as a Seattle Mariners game and a DMX performance.
She also attends birthday parties for children as a mermaid. There, she said she uses her personal experiences of finding plastic in the ocean as a way to teach children about conservation and steps they can take to help.
"It's rewarding," Novak said. "It's a fun way to use art and athleticism to share a message. Also, having a background in freediving and mermaiding allows me to do more technical work."
Novak's teaching jobs also extend beyond conservation. She's a certified freediving instructor as well.
As a freediver, Novak can dive to a maximum depth of 135 feet on one breath and she can hold her breath for more than five minutes.
She said that learning to freedive is slow and progressive.
"The human body is actually very well acclimated to freediving," she said. "Learning to freedive is a lot about relaxation and what your body is capable of doing. A lot of it is just about learning how to do it safely."
She said that her students can usually hold their breath for 30 to 35 seconds and that through her instruction, they usually are able to double that time.
"It's dependent on physical training and their background," Novak said.
To become one of Novak's students, go to her website at www.aquanautsfreediving.com/thesailingsiren.
The coldest water she's dived in was 34 degree Fahrenheit, but Novak said that she has trained to withstand the colder temperatures.
"In that temperature, you're wearing a wet suit which provides thermal protection," she said. "And if you're at a lake and it's windy, once you're below the surface, the water is calm. It's calm as long as there is not a current in the water you're diving in."
Throughout her life, from growing up in Klamath Falls to excelling in athletics and academics to winning pageants and then moving around the world for work, Novak said had her parents to think for instilling curiosity and guiding her and not being too afraid whenever she tried something new.
To current Klamath Falls youth, Novak encourage them to stay curious.
"Curiosity and the desire to learn will get you very far in life," she said. "My parents always told me that the worst someone could say in life was 'no.' If you have the desire and the persistence, you can still make your dreams come true."
Novak also credited an unusual aspect of her childhood for her success: Being bullied.
"I was an academic nerd so I was bullied a lot," she said. "As a kid, that was the best thing to happen to me because I learned how to be comfortable with myself. If something messes with your self esteem, learn a new skill and make a positive of it."
Through that mindset, Novak has increased her life skills and then used those skills to travel the world. She has been to Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico, Guatemala, much of Central America, Iceland and Europe while working in the performing arts or tourism.
"The most efficient way to get around the world is through a job," Novak said, explaining that she'll work as a pharmacist for six months or so while learning a new skill then she'll find a job that requires that skill and the job will take her to a new part of the world.