Propelled by a sudden rush of adrenaline, I took one last step off the boat and dropped into the cool, dark water of the Blue Hole: one of the world’s most renowned scuba diving sites.
What my dive leader didn’t know was that less than 36 hours before, I had never scuba dove in my life.
I purchased a ticket to Belize last summer for the sole purpose of scuba diving the Blue Hole. The thought of swimming with sharks in what many consider the world’s number one dive site appealed to me ever since I read about the breathtaking adventure years ago.
For better or worse, the dive trip would cement a pattern. Over the past several years, my love of risk has pulled me around in search of the world’s most challenging and exhilarating adventures. From skiing back-country in Canada to running with the bulls in Spain, I crave that overwhelming pulse of adrenaline that only awakens in the most frightful of situations. Scuba diving the Blue Hole offered me one more chance to push myself to the extreme and capture that buzz again.
I embarked on the journey with my buddy Haydn, a friend who I had met while living in Spain. We both shared a passion for exploration, and although we only met for a few hours, when I asked if he wanted to join me for another international expedition, he jumped at the opportunity.
We found ourselves in the heart of Belize City, a mere 57,000 people in number, with no plan in mind. Our certification course (which I booked back in the states) was located at a Dive shop on the island of San Pedro, two hours off the coast of Belize City. Our ferry, however, didn’t depart until the following morning.
Full of zeal, we took to the streets of Belize City. Local after local harangued us to purchase their products. Eventually, we befriended a few locals who, after initially trying to sell us a pound of weed for only $15 dollars U.S., (Yes, a pound of weed), enlightened us about Belizean customs and culture. Our new friends even treated us to the local Steel Bottom special: a makeshift combination of the cheapest brandy and beer money can buy.
The next morning, we joined an overflowing crowd in the hull of a small boat bound for the islands of Cay Caulker and San Pedro. The ferry is virtually the only way to reach the islands and consequently is almost always sold out. Within two hours, our boat pulled into the island village of San Pedro.
We found our Dive Shop just a few minutes’ walk away. As we walked towards the ramshackle doors of the yellow shack, we made sure to avoid the scattered nails and holes that riddled the dock’s wooden planks.
We quickly registered, signed some paperwork and met our instructor John — a tall, dark skinned man, with a bit of a gut. He picked up our paper work, read it and paused.
“How bad is your asthma?” he asked.
“Not very.” We responded in unison, surprised at the question.
“Well since you marked it down, we have to take you to a doctor to get cleared.” John said in a bitter tone.
Haydn and I looked at each other and reached a silent agreement. “Forget it. Just cross it off. Act like we never put it down.”
And they did.
Good to know we’ve picked the right place, we thought sarcastically. At least we got the cheapest deal in Belize.
After watching just two of the required six-instructional videos, John ordered us to board the dive boat. We tore through a crash course in equipment preparation and boat etiquette, then suited up for our first ever dive.
Seated on the edge of the boat with my oxygen tank to the water, I somersaulted backwards over the boat’s railing and plunged into the warm water below. Tiny bubbles swarmed around my head like a halo, and the strange sensation of breathing under water only startled me more. I choked, surfaced and ripped the regulator from my mouth.
No chance I dive the Blue Hole. I thought. I can’t last 10 seconds under a foot of water, how am I to last 10 minutes under 130 ft!?
Breathe in, breathe out: My thoughts ran wild, seeking the answer to the underwater conundrum of respiration.
Breathe in, breathe out: I swallowed some water, choked and purged my regulator for help, filling my mouth with air.
Breathe in, breathe out: I focused on the mesmerizing motion of John’s hands.
After what seemed like an eternity, I felt my mind gradually drift from a frenzy of thoughts towards the muffled sounds around me. My breathing steadied and I let the water lull my body with its soothing current. The menacing sound of my regulator transformed into a hypnotic purr. By the end of the dive, I no longer felt helpless beneath the ocean’s surface.
We completed one more dive then returned to the dock for good just as the sun was setting behind the tattered island buildings. We spent the next hour schlepping around the city in search of the cheapest hostel. Ironically, we found our home at a quaint hostel just a few hundred feet from our Dive Shop. We found our beds in a cozy room filled with eight other travelers.
As luck would have it the package deal was non-refundable, so I had no other option but to persist. In desperation, I imitated John’s every move. I watched as he breathed slowly: In one fluid motion, he floated his palms to and from his mouth, emulating the steady swell of his lungs. The entire time remaining perfectly buoyant.
After settling in, we felt obligated to explore the night life. On tired legs, we stumbled around the beach until we chanced upon what has long been considered the island’s most famous spectacle: “The chicken drop.”
From within the bellows of a cacophonous crowd, we watched as a wild chicken aimlessly wandered around a fenced in grid of 100 numbers. The drunken gamblers around us toppled over each other and screamed at the chicken, ordering it take a shit on the numbered square they had purchased.
We made sure to join the fun as well and purchased five squares of our own. Unfortunately, our bets never cashed out, but we made sure losing didn’t drag our night down. Thankfully the chicken was never harmed.
We rose around seven the next morning, got dressed, and met John at the dock an hour later.
He greeted us with our written final exam, coming less than 12 hours after we had begun the course. Luckily, we had, in fact, studied the night before after returning from the chicken drop.
It must have helped because we both passed. Then again, maybe John just passed us…
By 8:30 a.m. we were back on the water preparing for our second officially logged dive, and by noon we were embarking on our third.
Our third officially logged dive was the first time we dove to 60 feet — the deepest depth permitted for Open Water certified divers. The dive site was known as Shark Alley; the name suited the experience.
We descended into a pile of large Reef sharks that encircled us like the ropes of a boxing ring. Most divers keep their hands by their sides as to avoid contact with wildlife — a fundamental rule of scuba diving — but of course, our instructor made sure to set a new precedent. As mindless students imitating our teacher, we too reached out our hands and touched the shark’s dark gray hide.
We spent a great deal of time swimming across the ocean floor as well. I explored the dark crevasses hidden within the coral reef and chased the schools of fish that waded in the distance. At one point, I stopped and turned from the coral so that only the ocean itself remained in my field of vision. I watched as tiny white particles fell like stars across a backdrop of endless blue. I felt like I was on another planet entirely.
We dove twice more that day before heading back to shore. At about 200 yards from the dock, John suddenly threw me from the boat. He yelled back:
“Swim back to shore. It’s part of your certification.”
The water was shallow, and I was exhausted. I might have walked a bit. Good thing I’ll be able to breathe underwater, I thought.
We took our identification pictures later that evening with Haydn’s new phone. They didn’t have a camera nor a system apt to process our certifications. John told us to email him the pictures and that he would certify us when he got home later that week. We worried that we might not be able to dive the Blue hole without official certifications, but John assured us otherwise.
The loud melodic tone of my phone’s alarm buzzed at 5:00 a.m., but my body was already awake, nervously preparing for the day’s adventure. I gathered my essentials in my backpack and set out for the dive shop with Haydn. A small breakfast awaited us, along with a family of four snorkelers and two fellow divers who would accompany us on our journey.
The sun was just breaking over the ocean’s horizon when we boarded a rustic two-story boat bound for the infamous Blue Hole. For the next two hours, I watched as the horizon leaped up and down across my sight line.
Initially, I enjoyed riding the ocean’s powerful waves and even chuckled at a fellow scuba diver vomiting off the back of the boat. But after trying to walk around myself, my feeling changed. I suddenly joined the ranks of my nauseous friend and, in an effort to regain equilibrium, focused on nothing but the stagnant sky.
As I laid on my back, my mind raced, attempting to calculate my odds of success and failure. My ear was partially clogged and I had a bit of a cold — two things the certification stressed should absolutely restrict a diver from diving. Not to mention the fact that Haydn and I weren’t even officially certified yet.
Suddenly the rock of the boat faded and the boat engines slowed to a dull roar. Our dive leader braced himself against the ladder from above and directed us to prepare our equipment. It took some dexterity on the choppy waters, but eventually, we all sat at the stern of the boat, eagerly awaiting instruction. It was the first time Haydn and I had assembled our equipment on our own.
In a loud, clear voice the dive leader yelled:
“My name is Columba. Our first dive today is The Blue Hole. We will descend to a depth of 135 feet for nine minutes. If you cannot make it down in two minutes, turn around. You will not ruin the trip for the rest of us.”
Columba did not care how much we had paid. He did not care how experienced we were. His sole job was to safely lead the expedition to the desired depth of 135 feet. Those who could not make it, he stressed, must return to the boat.
Haydn and I exchanged a nervous but euphoric glance. We suspected the dive might reach 135 feet in depth, but we feared the dive leader might restrict us from surpassing 60 feet – our certification’s limit.
Our mission from the start was to experience scuba diving to the extreme and we knew we had come to the right place: A place where deep descent was encouraged despite restrictions. We were not qualified for this dive, nor did we feel prepared, but as the dive leader screamed over the boat’s echoing engine, we had no other choice.
I watched as Haydn leapt from the back of the boat and disappeared beneath the water.
“Get up!” The dive leader screamed.
I rifled up and inched towards the back of the boat with anticipation. Then, like stepping into a cold shower, I too walked off the ledge and into the water.
After a few moments spent checking our equipment, the dive leader gave us the go ahead to descend. Haydn and I exchanged one final, excited glance then bolted like seals straight down, fearing we might not make it to 135 feet in time.
We passed over the southern side of the Blue hole and journeyed into the darkness below. Schools of fish and colorful ocean flora flooded our sights. The dive leader, a few feet in front of us, occasionally looked back to assess our progress. We made sure we were right by his side.
Suddenly the dive leader leveled off his buoyancy and motioned us to follow suit. Aside from a slight change in temperature, we had no idea that we had already reached 135 feet in depth.
Our dive leader took off towards the underside of the southern wall, spearheading our journey. Together we swam through a series of intimidating stalactites, weaving past their sharp crystalline formations with only itches to spare.
The stalactites themselves were colossal. I couldn’t help but stare at the intricate patterns of rock and algae formations growing along their sides. I have never seen so many shades of green.
I floated by the last stalactite and emerged into the darkness of the Blue Hole where I joined the rest of the divers. Every diver was staring in the same direction, focused on something in the water below. The dive master got my attention and pointed at the source of their fixation.
Just a few feet away swam a large Blacktip Tiger shark. It was dark gray and more than 10 feet long; a powerful creature that glided elegantly through the water. Fortunately, the beast never came close enough to taste the rubber of our equipment. It simply circled around us then disappeared back into the darkness, just as it had arrived.
Nine minutes passed quickly and our dive leader motioned us to ascend. Like a magnifying glass, I stuck to the southern wall of the Blue Hole and scrutinized every last piece of seaweed and coral that I could. At one point, I even spied a Venus Fly Trap-like-fish hauling in its meal for the day.
We surfaced just under 21 minutes after we had entered the water. We had officially conquered the Blue Hole and experienced the deepest permitted depth for the most advanced certified divers.
My almost idiotic pursuit of adrenaline dragged me to Belize in hopes of conquering one more extreme adventure. What I learned, however, was that scuba diving is actually one of the most tranquil and relaxing activities on Earth. By the end of my trip, scuba diving became an escape to another world, a mind blowing underwater biome.