I had heard mixed reviews from people who had dived The Blue Hole, the dive site made famous by Jacques Cousteau. An ancient cenote that was filled in by ocean that plummets over 450 feet to the ocean floor: a giant hole a quarter of a mile across in the reef, a massive underwater cave.
Some said that it was the best dive of their lives. Others said it was nothing special: so dark that you could barely see anything and not much in the way of sea life. And another who described it to me on the night before my own experience, as “descending into the dark pit of hell.”
One thing I knew for sure. This dive was deep- 45 meters or 145 feet at its maximum. So deep that our total bottom time would not exceed 8 minutes. The descent and ascent takes the majority of the dive to complete and therein, as I later found out, lay the real thrill of The Blue Hole.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I dreamed that my climbing buddy came over to my house in Seattle and told me it was time to get up for my summit attempt of Mt. Everest, and I kept replying that I couldn’t go today because I had to dive The Blue Hole.Two of my passions that I both fear and love combining in my subconscious.
We set off at 0530 (what does the 0 stand for? Oh My God its early!), our coffee and cinnamon bread being denied the opportunity to digest as we launched over waves in a spine-battering two hour boat ride to the dive site.
My fear was dissipating and was being replaced with excitement. This was going to be a day to remember.
We were given the dive plan and advised that its best to try and descend as quickly as possible to allow for the most bottom time. A “Freefall” descent was how it was described, equalizing constantly as we plunged 145 feet down through the blackness. We were warned that many divers get “narc’ed” at this depth: essentially having too high a concentration of nitrogen in the system which can lead to nitrogen narcosis, and the giddy, irrational, and slightly high feeling it can produce. He showed us the signal for warning our dive buddies that we were getting loopy in the head.
But what if our buddy was equally loopy?
We’d all heard the stories of people so “narc’ed” that they removed their regulators and tried to feed the fishes with it. And there’s only one way to find our if you’re susceptible to it too.
Feeling a bit jittery in the water, my dive master was kind enough to hold my hand on the descent. He raised his BCD hose in the air, asking if I was ready.
Now or never.
Down, down, down we went. So far, so good. No issues with my ears, which gave me a great sense of relief. The only other battle was a mental one. Fighting your brain that’s telling you you shouldn’t be underwater, let alone falling into the blackness of a submerged giant cave. Fighting it’s interpretation of the visual information on your retina. And trying not to think about the eerie feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Once at maximum depth, I will never forget what I saw and experienced. Giant 30 and 40 foot stalagmites that reached up forming a tunnel attached to the outer wall of the Blue Hole. Swimming through the tunnel, with other divers up ahead, clearly visible, but darkened by shadow. Looking off to the right and seeing nothing but the chasm of water below, and…if you looked closely, the figures of seven or eight reef sharks circling the void expanse.
This was unreal.
After what seemed like only a brief moment, my dive master gave the thumbs up to signal that it was time to start ascending the wall. I really wanted to linger, but I knew that I was getting low on air.
Up, up, up I kicked, this time focusing my attention on the reef sharks circling me below and off to the side- trying to keep aligned with the wall at the same time. This was just incredible.
At 30 feet we took a five minute safety stop in a shallower part of the reef that had some smaller fishes to enjoy and observe. I had done it! Almost at the surface now.
Time to breathe real air. I came up, inflated my BCD and removed my mask to reveal a giant grin on my face.
Where: The Blue Hole Dive site, about two hours east of Caye Caulker, Belize
When: March 29
How: Frenchie’s Diving, Caye Caulker
Cost: $350 BZD (includes 3 dives, lunch, and transport, 530am-4pm