NATE MENNINGER: 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: the world’s #1 scuba diving site.
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 with 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 moved me in search of the world’s most challenging and exhilarating adventures. From back-country skiing to running with the bulls in Spain, I crave that overwhelming feeling that only awakens in the most frightful of situations. Scuba diving the Blue Hole offered me one more chance to capture that illusive buzz again.
I left for Belize with my buddy Haydn, a friend who I met while living in Spain. We both shared a passion for exploration and though 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.
A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the heart of Belize City. Our dive certification course (which I booked back in the states) was located at a Dive shop in the island city 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 rubble streets of Belize . Navigating past the overly aggressive drug dealers, we eventually happened upon a quaint little bar. We befriended a few locals who, after initially trying to sell us a pound of weed for $15 USD, (Yes, a pound of weed), enlightened us about all Belizean customs and traditions. They 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 overflowed boat bound for the islands of Cay Caulker and San Pedro. The small ferry is virtually the only way to reach the islands and consequently almost always sold out. We nestled in for the ride and gathered what rest we could.
Two hours later, we found our Dive Shop in the center of town. As we neared the hut’s ramshackle doors, we made sure to avoid the scattered nails and holes that riddled the dock’s wooden planks.
Quickly, we registered, signed some paperwork and met our dive instructor, John — a tall, dark skinned man, with a bit of a gut and a stoic attitude. He grabbed 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. “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!?
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 breathes: slowly, he floated his palms to and from his mouth, emulating the steady swell of his lungs. The entire time remaining perfectly buoyant.
Breathe in, breathe out: My thoughts ran wild, seeking any answer to the underwater conundrum.
Breathe in, breathe out: I swallowed some water, choked and purged my regulator, 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 towards the muffled sounds around me. My breathing steadied and I let the water lull my body in motion. The sound of my regulator transformed into a hypnotic purr. I no longer felt helpless beneath the ocean’s surface.
We completed one more dive and returned to the dock 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 hostel just a few hundred feet from our Dive Shop. We found our beds in a cozy room filled with eight other strangers.
On tired legs we decided to explore the nightlife scene and ultimately stumbled 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 toppled over each other, screaming at the chicken and ordering it take a shit on their number.
We made sure to join the fun 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 awoke around seven the next morning, got dressed, and met John at the dock an hour later.
He greeted us with our written final exam, just 12 hours after we had begun the course. Luckily, we had, studied the night before after returning home from the bars.
Somehow, we both passed. I think John assisted our efforts…
By 8:30 a.m. we were back on the water preparing for our second practice dive, and by noon we were embarking on our third.
Our third 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.
A massive hoard of Reef sharks encircled us like the ropes of a boxing ring. Most divers keep their hands by their sides to avoid contact with wildlife — a fundamental rule of scuba diving — but of course, our instructor made sure to set a new precedent. As obedient students should, we emulated our teacher and grazed 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 schools of fish that waded in the distance. At one point, I stopped and turned from the coral only to lose myself in the ocean. 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.
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 any 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 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 swells even chuckled at a fellow scuba diver vomiting off the back of the boat. But after trying to walk myself, my feeling changed. I suddenly joined the ranks of my nauseous comrades 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 the odds of success and failure. My ear was partially clogged and I had a bit of a cold — two things divers should not dive with. Not to mention the fact that Haydn and I weren’t even officially certified yet.
Suddenly, the boat engines slowed to a dull roar and the uncomfortable rocking of the boat seized. 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 were all sat at the stern of the boat, eagerly awaiting instruction. It was the first time Haydn and I had assembled our own equipment.
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 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 behind him.
Suddenly the dive leader leveled off his buoyancy and motioned 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 others. Everyone 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. Scuba diving became an escape to another world, a mind blowing underwater biome.