February 4, 2010 on the very small island of Caye Caulker, Belize, the alarm went off at 4am. Dark but not quiet, a surprising amount of wind rattling and flapping the large flat palms of the tree out my window. Was it raining? No, only the wind. Fear settled deep into my stomach within a few moments of the alarm as consciousness returned. Today was the day I agreed to dive the Blue Hole. Arrgghh. Why had I signed on for this adventure?? Because my two dear friends, Jeff and Steve, visiting from Boston, wanted to do it. Left to my own, I would not have chosen this particular dive. 130 feet below the surface, 2 hours off shore, a dark hole deep into the ocean floor, and an all day commitment to this terror. Oh and did I mention it is infested with sharks because they like the deep, cool water and the Blue Hole is their favorite spot? No, I would have chosen a nice little dive, close by, with lots of gentle sea creatures and pretty coral.
Bumping around the house in the pre-dawn, making sure to pack snorkel, sunscreen, water and some food. What else? Oh hell, it’s time to go and we can’t be late this time. The boat leaves promptly at 5:30am. Jeff and Steve already out the door and me clamoring to catch up. This would be my fate for most of the day: trailing behind in body as well as spirit. The last one to arrive, the last one to have my gear ready, the last one to get on the boat, the last one in the water…but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We set off. Here is what we looked like in the first five minutes off shore:
Sleepy and a little anxious but not uncomfortable. Not Yet.
Two hours boat ride you say? Well, alright, I agree. How bad can it be? We had taken a speed boat to reach Caye Caulker from the mainland at Belize City, it was about 45 minutes. I had no problem with the boat ride to see the manatees just the day before and that was an hour away.
Five minutes off shore, we reach the first reef that protects Caye Caulker from storms. “Hold on!” shouts our captain from above. I look around at our boatmates and our fearless (though slightly crazy) divemasters wondering innocently what he means. And then it hits me, the boat that is. Into the air, a momentary disconnect as we are suspended, and then WHAM! Rolling up the face of the next wave, airborn again, WHAM! Rocking side to side too, this little 40’ cabin cruiser and the open ocean, a match made somewhere in hell. All that wind rattling the palm trees overnight? Yup, a bit windier on the open ocean too. A LOT windier.
“Ha ha ha, only an hour and 55 minutes to go!” jokes CJ, one of the divemasters. I look at him like he is insane. Still in disbelief, I look around the boat and no one seems particularly disturbed. One girl looks uncomfortable as she clutches her boyfriend, but her face is relatively calm. I become aware of the look of panic that must be obvious on my face. Rocking left, up a wave, clearing into the air and then WHAM again, rocking right, taking on water from the side, the small side door comes unlatched and swings open, water gushes in toward the stern. I feel like I am inside a washing machine.
I now have a death grip on the seat beneath me, which is a fiberglass bench that wraps around the interior of the boat. Beneath the seat is a sharp edge, into which I grind my fingers for the next hour.
Jeff and Steve are both sitting in the very back, exposed to the elements (which consist of a lot of spray and the occasional stern flooding, as well as the direct hit of the wind), but they also have a better ride in this little boat, or so they claim. About 15 minutes into the boat ride, I have developed a pattern of flexing my legs when we go airborn and cushioning my fall back down onto the hard seat. With my hands, I grip the seat with all my might so as not to hit the roof. All in all, a pretty good workout, if only I could breathe! I look over at my friends, Jeff looks pretty calm. Since he is a boatbuilder by trade, I figure he would know if we were in danger, so I try to garner some of his calm by staring at him. Nope, not working. Still terrified. I look at Steve and he is sprawled on the floor! having been tossed there like a rag doll by the most recent wave. So much for the “better ride” being in the back. Great, just great.
The guy across from me tries to assure me that this is really quite safe, that he has been on much smaller boats in much larger waves. Right, not helping either. Then he goes back to his BOOK! I now stare at him as if HE were insane. Reading while traversing a gale storm in this cracker jack boat? Obviously can’t listen to a word he says!
Oh, what’s this now? One of the three overly-horsepowered engines is making a funny noise. “Oh, please, let the engine fail so we have to turn around” I pray silently. (When do you EVER pray for engine failure??) But no such luck, with a little tinkering the engine stops making the funny noise and we don’t even pause in our journey.
I find that I have a new empathy for my dogs whom I drag around this earth and had only days before put on a speed boat to the island. Poor Carrie! She is the most anxious, the most concerned with what is happening and how long the terror will last. I even took her by herself on a (totally unnecessary) canoe ride only two days prior! On today’s boat ride I feel captive and wholly at the mercy of others as I hold on for dear life and I understand that such is how Carrie feels much of the time in her life with me.
Suddenly, I have an idea! “CJ, are we going to go past any islands on our way to the Blue Hole?” I ask loudly enough to be heard over the roar of the engines but not so loud as to betray my fearful mind to everyone on board. “Yeah, we’ll go past Turneffe.” He tells me. “Can you let me off there? I’ll just wait and you can come back for me at the end of the day. I’ll be fine!” His look is quizzical. “I’ll still pay for the dives,” I offer at the end of my plea. “Ummm, we are not in the practice of leaving tourists on deserted islands,” he tells me with a smile, “So… no. It’ll get better once we get there,” he offers as reassurance.
Once my attempt to negotiate my way off the boat had failed, and I knew that I was stuck, I started to accept the situation with all of its elements. It had been some 20 or 30 minutes since the treacherous ride began and at least it wasn’t getting any worse. I began to chant inside my head, some of you might call it “praying.” “Relieve me of the bondage of self,” I repeated over and over to fill the space in my mind. I found the tune and most of the words to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” which also gave me some peace as I hummed it, not even audibly over the motor but the action helped to quiet my heart. I was scared, but there was nothing I could do about it and at least I was with my friends! So I began to babble to Steve, who, after his fall from the seat in the back moved over towards where I was sitting and I closed the distance so that I could sit next to someone I knew.
When we reached the Turneffe islands, about half way to the Blue Hole, they provided a glorious respite from the beating ocean swells.
Focusing on breathing, I was even able to look about and take in the scenery. This was a big change!!
This is what Steve looked like as he pointed excitedly to a silvery flying fish!
Next we glimpsed a pod of dolphins dancing through the waves. Moving calmly through the islands gave me the rest I needed to prepare for our reentry into the open ocean. It did not get any worse that the previous leg of the journey and an hour later we arrived at our destination.
The Great Blue Hole:
Not much to look at from above!
Unlike training dives where the instructors lead you by the hand every step of the way and make sure you are comfortable, here it was: “Put on your gear, perform your checks, do your buoyancy test, and meet over here by the bow of the boat.” I was dawdling, wanting to be at the back of the pack, closest to the divemasters who would bring up the rear. As such, I was the last off the boat, hastily swallowing a spoonful of peanut butter to reinforce my physical body, whilst my friends were getting ready to go.
The big step off the boat, in full SCUBA gear is really fun. With the tank on the back, you have to step way off the boat or you will hit the gunwale and the tank will smack you in the back of the head. I take this big step and, despite the weight of the tank and my weightbelt, I am buoyant with my BCD, have my snorkel on and am able to breath through my regulator. I go through my checks, hurrying more than I would like because I am the last, but at least I do not have much time to think about the dive itself. The air flow is easy, my weight and buoyancy seem manageable, my mask is fog-free. I swim around to the bow just in time to hear the divemaster leader say, “Let’s go down!”
My heart begins to really race and I feel it pounding in my chest. Everyone is below the surface and I have to go too. No sense staying up here by myself. I empty my BCD and begin to slowly descend.
Thirty feet below the surface I look up and see clearly the outline of the boat through the clear green-blue water. All the bubbles released from the divers beneath me careen up toward the surface. I think, “I should just bail out now, go back up, and from this depth I won’t even have to do a safety stop.” But as I consider this wimpy idea, I take no action and thus continue to descend.
Below me: getting darker, and narrower. All the other divers are below me, ahead of me. I have to catch up because to be alone is not a safe option. The next thing that hits me is the COLD. No one mentioned this! The water must have dropped 20 or 30 degrees in a matter of inches. And it was a lot darker, a deep blue. I can still see but not very far.
I float, continuously deeper, trying not to shiver from the shock of the cold and the insurmountable fear. Below me, I make out an outline, “Is that a shark?” It s a very large sea animal but I cannot make out if it is a shark or not. Honestly, the marginal increase in my state of worry is not much at this sighting. I rationalize that a shark, or a large fish, which was at least 20 feet away and not paying me the slightest bit of attention, was not a significant problem. (Note: This turned out not to be a shark. However, a large white shark WAS spotted on this dive by CJ, who caught it on film with his underwater digital recorder.)
The next time I look at my depth gauge, it reads 100 feet. OMG! My breathing, having slowed to a good pace momentarily, is fast again. I have never been this deep. I am acutely aware that if something goes wrong at this depth, and if I am not very near to another diver, preferably a divemaster, I will die. To my left, and about 10 feet below me, I make out the silver shortie wetsuit of Greg, the most friendly, happy and capable divemaster in our troupe. Here is a picture of Greg looking as he usually does!:
He looks at me and gives the signal to ask if I am okay. I answer with the signal to signify “more or less.” I also give him the okay signal because I am not having a problem yet, just a lot of fear!
The best way I can explain this fear is to say that it was a fear of fear. My gear was working, I was not having any cramps, I was able to equalize my ears as I descended. Other than being cold, everything was physically fine. But I was afraid that I would become afraid and not be able to stop myself from doing stupid. I have been a certified SCUBA diver since 2005 and I have always felt that it is a very safe activity. I believe that the only way to hurt yourself is to freak out and do something stupid. Like ascend too quickly (which causes the bends), or see a shark, panic and flap around so as to ensure the shark sees you and decides to check you out. As long as I keep breathing, remain physically calm, and stay with the other divers, nothing much can go wrong.
But right before we began this dive, the divemaster leader gave a little speech. In it he included something that went like this: “Now when you go this deep, sometimes you can go a little funny in the head. So try to ask for help from one of us before you, say, take your regulator out of your mouth and try to offer air to a passing fishie!” Everyone on board laughed, but I turned to Steve and whispered, “Jeez, SCUBA humor is about as funny as pilot humor.” And this little “joke” came right to the surface of my consciousness as I found myself at 100 feet and still dropping. What if I lose my ability to be sensible?
I see Greg swimming over to me right away. I point at my head, I’m quite certain that the look in my eyes conveyed the rest: fear. Greg takes a firm hold of my right arm, between my elbow and shoulder, with both of his hands, just as you might support an old lady across a street. I feel better right away. If I take my regulator out of my mouth, he will see me and stop me! It is such a comfort! My breathing slows, becoming deeper and more gratifying.
I look at my gauge again and see that we are nearing 130 feet. Up ahead I can see my friends and boatmates swimming happily in and out of the majestic stalactites that make this dive so unique. I look up: the rock outcroppings resemble a gothic church, gargoyles extending from stone walls into a twilight night. It is beautiful!
CJ swims towards up with his camera rolling, and what do I do? With Greg still clutching my right arm, I find I have a sense of glee and I begin to wave at the camera with my left hand. Like a kid on a ferris wheel, “Look at me!” 130 feet below the surface, smiling and waving! Next I turn to Greg, give the okay and he lets me go. I swim over with ease to the other divers and am pleasantly surprised when I catch up with Jeff, who is right behind the leading divemaster. I did not go under any of the stalactites, but I swam close to them and enjoyed watching my friends floatily zigzagging around them.
Having spent about 6 minutes of this dive in a personal mini-meltdown, I was able to enjoy the last 2 minutes of this 8-minute bottom-time dive. And then, it was time to ascend. Ahhh, we climbed. The light getting closer, brighter, and the water all at once warmer.
And so I survived the Great Blue Hole dive in Belize. I don’t think I will be afraid to dive again. We had watermelon on board and I am intently focused on it!
We did one more dive and then stopped for lunch at an island. I clutched my plate and stumbled, gratefully, onto the warm sand. I pulled out my iPhone, laid it down on the towel next to my head, and listened to Blackbird. I was calm and warm and on solid ground.
Steve said, "Oh your hair is looking wild again!" and then he took this picture:
This one is my personal favorite!! (What is he thinking? "Just goin' on a hike, in my wetsuit, gotta be prepared! Ooh look, a birdie!")
Starting out this return journey, I am in the back of the boat, in the sun but also close to the roaring motors. The ride is indeed smoother and I have the idea to improve my position further by sitting down on the floor just in front of me, in the well of the boat. I ask permission and then basically dive onto my hands and knees with about as much grace as you might imagine a 5’10’’ girl can muster on a bouncing, slippery boat. Some friendly laughter as I took my place in what I believe was definitely the best seat in the house.
The sun in the afternoon has a clear shot to me, I am largely protected form the breeze and the spray. I watch the whitewash extend from behind the boat as we rock side to side. The gunwales dipping but I find I am able to stay upright, vertical, by allowing my lower body to rock with the boat, my stomach remains calm, and my body is not disturbed. I am like a compass, no matter how much you jiggle me, I am still facing up.
Suddenly a lot of commotion and the captain cuts the engine! What now to disturb my afternoon reverie? A Whale!! In all my thirty-two years on this wild earth I had never seen a whale. We circled around and watched this beautiful creature, a Humpback, take some air and dive below. After this fun sighting, we all settled back in and continued.
Jeff decides, or perhaps gives himself over, to take a nap. “What did you do on your birthday?” “I stuck out my bottom lip and fell asleep!”
(Yes, it was Jeff’s birthday. Early in our journey I remember thinking, “If it was my birthday today, I would have cried before 7am.”) Instead, I laugh! How freeing to laugh out loud! I can feel the muscles in my stomach, tired from so much tension and strain during the morning, release and melt.
And Steve laughs too!
When I am not laughing, here is my view for most of the journey home:
As I sit and look at the ocean, I begin to contemplate.
The ocean is a higher power for me.
Always stronger and more powerful.
Fighting is useless.
But it continues to invite me.
To enjoy it. To ride it. To explore its breadth and color and life.
I must remember that the ocean is in charge, not me.
I cannot enter the ocean on my terms, always on the ocean’s terms.
But if I do so with respect for its power and all it has to offer, I will be given so many rewards and adventures and pleasures.
I accept the ocean for its power and majesty. I do not seek to alter the ocean in any way (although I did pluck a floating plastic bag out of its depths during one of the dives). I want to explore and have fun in the vast ocean being ever mindful that the ocean is in charge, not me.
Some might be able to replace the word “ocean” in the foregoing with “life” or even “God.” For me, the way I have written this is the most precise and articulate that I am able to be. I am and always have been a water girl. It is fitting that I should come to the understanding of acceptance in this way.
“Oh great ocean
Oh great sea
Run to the ocean
Run to the sea.”
-Bono (Exit, Joshua Tree)