The Blue Hole - Dive Report

Belize, August 2002


It was the deepest, darkest hole imaginable; A chasm that fell away deep into the inky blackness. It had been forged out of solid rock as caverns, hundreds of thousands of years ago during the last ice age. For eons, water filtered through the rock and into these great stone cathedrals, breeding multi-colored stalactites and stalagmites. Then, one by one they collapsed in on each other, creating a chasm four hundred feet deep. As Earth’s swollen polar ice-caps receded, the warm Caribbean ocean swept in to fill the chasm with boiling white hands, the last rays of sunlight struck the chasm’s floor. Then, as the limestone broke down, it began to rain tiny fragments of rock, which slowly began to fill the great Blue Hole.

Glyn Collinson stood on the white deck of the Pro Dive, peering down over the aluminum railing into the water. Down there I could see where the line of yellow sand ended abruptly, spilling into impossibly dark water. ‘A bottomless pit of mystery’, the brochure had said.

As far as I was concerned, it was bottomless. Recreational divers were limited to one hundred and thirty feet, well short of the four hundred and eight required in order to touch the bottom. However, all summer long, Kirk and I had competing for the deepest dive. Currently, the record stood at 111 feet, but I knew that today they could easily break that. What I didn’t want was for us to spend the entire dive fighting over who went deepest, we would waste all their precious bottom time and put ourselves in danger.

I strapped the heavy dive computer to my wrist and powered it on, holding it close to my air tank so that the radio receiver built into it could get a solid lock on the transmitter. The tank’s pressure flashed onto the liquid crystal display. The computer would also report depth, bottom time, ambient temperature and rate of ascent. With this information, it would calculate how long he could spend at whatever depth I was currently at. ‘3020 psi’, more than sufficient air for a trip to the bottom of the ocean and back. 

“Sure, it may look deep,” one of the other divers announced, “but nothing compared to the one I did in ‘76 ” Larry was an ex-marine who prized himself on having pulled a lot of dead guys out of holes. It is said that black is slimming, however the wetsuit that his gargantuan body was squeezed into gave testimony to the opposite. It wasn’t the kind of figure that you would expect from someone who was going to routinely go through tight spaces. Whilst he started talking about his glorious adventures back in the service, my mind started it’s usual defense to the anxiety that I was feeling, it wandered back to the endless classroom sessions in dive school.

There are two things that limit how long a diver can stay down. The first is oxygen. The reason that divers can’t use giant snorkels is because the deeper you dive, the greater the pressure of the water around you. The SCUBA equipment automatically supplies air at ambient water pressure, so the deeper you dive, the faster you burn through a tank.

The second is nitrogen. In 1863, men working deep under the New York mud to excavate the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge began to fall ill to some terrible disease. The reason for this was that the chambers in which they worked had to be filled with compressed air to keep out the Hudson River. Upon being brought back to the surface, some men were struck by paralyzing pains in their joints. They called this sickness the Grecian Bends, as victims were often bend double with pain. However, the reason for this was not explained until the 20th Century.  When someone breathes air under pressure, the nitrogen in it is dissolved into their bloodstream. This causes Nitrogen Narcosis, the mild symptoms of which are very much like being drunk, lack of co-ordination and response time as well as impaired judgement. If this pressure is suddenly released, the nitrogen will attempt to rush out of it, like bubbles from a shaken soda bottle. The bubbles lodge in joints, causing tremendous pain, and if they get into the heart or brain, paralysis or death. Thus, all diving ascents must be slow to allow the nitrogen to be carried out naturally.

“Alright,” the divemaster said, jolting me back to reality. “Welcome to the Blue Hole. This one is real deep, starting with a drop off from forty feet that goes right the way down to the bottom.” The man held up a hand drawn map of the site and pointed as he talked. “We will go down fast to one hundred and thirty feet where stalactites come down from this overhang. We will stay there for a maximum of twelve minutes, starting from the time that the first pair gets there. We all need to keep together and watch each other for signs of Nitrogen Narcosis. To make sure that you all keep an eye on your depth, the dive pair who goes the deepest will buy a round of drinks for everyone back at the Island.”

‘Great’, I thought, ‘so much for pushing our depth limits.’

“Any questions?” the divemaster asked. No-one spoke up. “Right, everyone get suited up, get in and wait on the surface.” With the briefing over, the divers dispersed and went about finding their kit. Glyn walked into the shade where a man in his late forty’s was strapping a BC to an air tank. His ruffled straight black hair, just beginning to surrender to it’s silver destiny. 

“What do you think Kirk?” I asked

“About what?” he asked.

“This round we will have to buy if we go ahead with our plan.” I leaned closer, conspiratorially. “I don’t want to spend money on these people.”

Kirk thought about it for a moment. The group of divers was essentially a bunch of spoilt, rich dentists who had too much money on their hands. They could afford their own bloody drinks.

“We will see.” Kirk answered. 

“So when we get down there, we are going to lock arms and hold the computers together?” I asked.

“When they both read 131ft, we come up. That way we both hit the same depth.” Kirk said.

The dive:

Soon I was suited up and standing on the fold down metal ledge that hung out over the back of the boat. A few stray second thoughts came through my mind, but the time for them had been back in England in the planning phase, not here, thousands of miles from home on the edge of the precipice. I shuffled up to the edge and looked down into the water. Far below a sleek dark shape moved against the yellow sand. All around him me, waves crashed against the circular coral reef that enclosed the hole. The time had come. I placed my right palm flat against my mask and regulator and in with other hand held my BCD inflator. With no turning back, I took a deep breath and stepped off the platform.

I fell. Your brain never really has time to register this, because it only lasts for a fraction of a second before you run out of open air and crash into the ocean. All around your mask, thousands of white bubbles rise from the explosive force of your impact, obscuring your view of the bottom. Suddenly the great crippling weight of your tank disappears. The BCD, an inflatable air jacket that controls your buoyancy, stops feeling like a tight and heavily laden backpack and turns into an inflated harness which pulls you back up to the surface before your brain has time to work out what is happening. As I bobbed up like a cork, I tapped the top of my head to signal the divemaster that I had made my transition from a human to an inflatable dinghy safely. Pro dive was only a few feet away and I finned back to the rail to collect the yellow block that was my prized MX-10 underwater camera. With all the bulky gear, divers are never aerodynamic and surface swims in particular require a great deal of effort.

With a crash that underwater sounded like a clap of thunder, Kirk made his entrance into the Ocean and signaled an “OK”. The two swam out together to the other divers, huddled around the anchor buoy. The air inside a diver’s mask is hot and moist and the tempered glass gets very cold, causing condensation to build up which clouds your view. Commercial “de-fog” is available, but all contain noxious chemicals that you wouldn’t actually want to get into your eyes. It is much cheaper and easier to use a bit of spit and a quick rinse in the ocean. Once, we actually got complaints from some flabby woman who had the cheek to demand that we stop this “disgusting habit”. That dive we had made double sure to make our mask de-fogging the most audible we could manage.

With a clear mask, I put my face underwater and scouted around. Dark against the white hull and shining double propellers of the Pro Dive was a great Barracuda. A salt-water relative of the Pike, the Barracuda looked mean with a row of vicious-looking teeth and a down turned mouth. I thought about getting a photo, but declined. Who knows what I would find down there, and he would probably be there when we got back.

The divemaster had arrived. The moment we had been planning for months was here. Grasping my BCD controls, I let all the air out of my BCD. With it gone, the lead weights that I wore around my waist won their battle and dragged me downward towards the sandy shelf.

The surface slid away, a shining mirror or rippling light. I swallowed to equalize the pressure in my ears and sinuses as the pressure built. Suddenly free from the surface and surrounded by liquid space, all sound became muffled, the distant thrum of a motor and the crashing of the waves my companion. I looked at Kirk and gave him an ‘OK’ hand signal. Cocooned within the warm Caribbean sea, I watched the bottom of the orange buoy shrink as the line that secured it to the ocean floor slid past. The bottom rose to meet me as I gently touched down on what appeared to be the sandy ledge of an Alien world. Bubbles rose from the other diver’s mouths, gathering in size as they rose in jellyfish-shaped disks to erupt at the surface. I turned around to look out at a deep blue sky of liquid space. Creatures swam through it, brightly colored fish that busily went about their way, ignoring us completely.

The divemaster swum out over the edge and beckoned for us to follow. I swallowed, and kicked up off the sandy floor to swim out over where the sand ended in a rim of purple sea fans. Then with a final signal to Kirk, I stopped finning and dropped.

Thirty feet, the fans slipped away, the last traces of life on the rock wall that vanished into the gloom. The pressure mounted and I equalized my ears with a pop. Looking at my depth gauge, I saw the depth increasing by three feet per second, in diving terms practically a suicidal plunge. The currents rushed past and I could hear the blood singing in my ears. The world became darker, colour fading from the diver’s wetsuits. In such warm waters, Kirk and I didn’t see the need for them and so wore T-shirts and swimming shorts under our gear. The red “IPX” on my shirt had long since faded, and now the yellow of Kirk’s shorts was dimming. It suddenly struck me that at such great depths, they would be in a world without colour but for blue, black and white.

The plunge continued; a group of shapes free falling towards blackness, trailing streams of bubbles with all colours fading. On one side was lifeless gray rock wall, on the other, deep blue Ocean. My eyes stayed steadily on my depth gauge. Looking up, I realised that the comforting sight of the rippled surface had faded into the blue. We were now totally cut off from the topside world, committed to our descent.

One Hundred Feet. I remembered when that had seemed like an impossibly unattainable depth, and here we were racing past it on our way to an even deeper destination. 

One Hundred and Twelve feet, ‘there goes the record’ I thought. We were now in un-explored territory, deeper than we’d ever been before.

One hundred and twenty feet. The sheer rock wall that had been our constant companion for the descent ended in an overhang. As I fell beneath it, I saw the gigantic stalactites that were the objective of our dive. I didn’t have time to gape, it was time to slow down. I grabbed the BCD controls with my left hand and felt for the familiar circular inflation button. For the second before I pushed it, I prayed that it would work. Inflator failures are unheard of, but if it malfunctioned there would be little that I could do to safely stop myself being dragged down into the murky darkness. I tapped the control once, and heard the re-assuring rush of compressed air enter my jacket. 
It would take a few seconds for the air to have an effect, and so I waited. The plummet slowed to a crawl and I pressed the button a few more times until I hung motionless in liquid space.

Kirk swam up to me and we linked arms. Item one on our tightly time budgeted dive plan was to set the depth record. This had to be done quickly as we were nitrogen limited to a total of twelve minutes of bottom time. That was barely enough time to shoot off a few pictures, make a quick survey and run for it. As one we exhaled, slowly dropping down. Our computers clicked over from 130 to 131 feet. 


I swam upwards, using my arms to propel myself away from the record depth. However,  I suddenly noticed that my dive computer had registered “132 ft” as my maximum depth. Showing this to Kirk, he shook his head and showed me his computer, which still read “131 ft”. We linked arms together once more and again tried to descend to 132 ft to get Kirk’s computer to agree with mine. Again, we failed, Kirk’s computer clicking over to 133 ft. This was getting ridiculous, and so, on the basis of the ‘third time is the charm’ theory we tried once more. The depth increased, the computers clicked over to 134 ft. This time they stuck there.

Relieved to have that done with, we moved up and towards the side of the gargantuan stalactites. Their base wider than any oak tree I have ever seen, and their great length descending for hundreds of feet into the murk, they were a very impressive sight. With the arrival of divers under the limestone overhang, the bubbles rose into it and displaced the rock. Small particles began to fall like snow all around me. The next item on our list was to get photographs. Reaching for the camera strapped to my wrist, I unlocked the shutter control and thumbed on the heavy flash strapped to it’s side. The powerful YS-40A flash powered on with a high pitched electrical whine.

Kirk posed next to the thickest stalactite we could easily reach and I snapped a photo. Then, being very careful not to drop it, we exchanged places and I had mine taken.

The frantic mental post-descent checklist complete, I forced myself to relax and get on with a little scouting. It was cool and dark. Somewhere above us a brilliant sun shone, but down here it was perpetually twilight. Looking along the high wall, I saw the murky shadows of other divers but no fish or plant life. Everything seemed to be dead down here. I checked my bottom time. Eight minutes had already elapsed.

I had turned my attention to what I imaginatively dubbed ‘Stalactite-A’ and was feeling the roughness of its surface, checking for calcite or quartz deposits when Kirk tugged on my shoulder. I turned and he placed his hand side on to his forehead, sticking upwards. Excitement pulsed through me. This signal had only one meaning; “Shark.”

Looking out into the blue I saw the creatures. These were not the lazy and overfed leopard sharks which I had seen dozing in crevices on the reef, these were nine foot long Grey Reef Sharks. Their thick, aerodynamic bodies rippled with strong muscles, their black beady eyes staring unfocused as the pack investigated the intruders from above. Whilst not man-eaters, Grey’s are very territorial and are not to be messed with. They were too far away for a shot with the MX-10, but we had been strictly told to stick with the divemaster at all times. I wanted to approach, feeling no fear, just the thrill of the rare guest appearance. I always thought that I would feel more comfortable around a school of sharks than a solitary hunter; they seem to have a purpose, and it doesn’t involve me. My guess was that they were a group of females, who came to the isolated hole to provide a safe haven for them to give birth. To avoid eating their young, Grey Reef Sharks fast for the entire birthing season. However, since pregnant females (of all species) tend to be a little uppity and I didn’t want to be that close to one if she had a sudden mood swing. So I decided to keep my distance, in the certain knowledge that they would soon get bored and wander off.

Soon they were gone, fading like wraiths into the twilight.

My twelve minutes at the bottom of the Blue Hole were up. As one, the group began the long and slow ascent towards the sunlight. The speed of the descent had meant that I hadn’t cleared all the tiny passages in my sinuses properly and had begun to develop a pounding headache combined with a nausea that shuddered from my skull to my stomach. The ascent had to be slow to allow dissolved nitrogen to properly escape so I had plenty of time to snap photos of the occasional fish that wandered by. One lasting photograph that still hangs on my wall is one taken from mid-ascent, the brilliant sunlight silhouetting a giant angelfish.

And one lasting memory is the Five Grey Reef Sharks, fading into the dark on their way to give birth.


Post Script :

Six years after this adventure, a kindly diving instructor working in the Caribbean pointed (very nicely I thought) out that I couldn't possibly have seen Grey Reef Sharks (Unless, they were very lost) and were almost certainly Caribbean Reef Sharks...

... Drat.

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