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
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
“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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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...
images ARE NOT MINE!!! They are from: http://www.bluedive.com/gallery.html