It was a clumsily metallic, semester-long class made up of SCUBA-diving theory and deep-end-of-the-school-pool-diving. I should probably disclose that this crumpled up period of experienced time was accompanied by a personal all-time-high of mushroom-munching, lucid dreaming, salvia-smoking, acid-dropping, psychedelic reading, McKenna lecture-listening, Waking Life-looping exploratory habits. In other words, it was during the “My Time is Melting” phase of inspiration. The strange, semester-long Salvador Dahli-like trip was majestically topped off with a sweet, creamy swirl of trauma, thanks to a SCUBA diving accident that almost pushed me over the slippery edge of life.
I guess, given the time constraints, the National Aquatic Service in Syracuse is usually left with no choice but to dump its fledgling SCUBA diving students into the tundra-temperature lake located even farther north of an already freezing, frost-covered Syracuse. The dim-witted SCUBA school provided us with cheap, penguin-colored wet suits and strapped us on with beat up iron belts and antiquated SCUBA tanks before our first open water test-dive. Like helpless, flapping baby birds in SCUBA gear we lined up like Emperor Penguins about to dive into the Arctic Ocean for the first time.
I remember the first dive roughly going according to plan. Aside from the loose-fitting dry suit; which freely welcomed the freezing lake water to creep into my suit and slowly proceeded to turn my body into a Popsicle. After re-emerging out of the water I was slightly shaken up by the fact that my first dive could’ve ended in disaster, but I quickly warmed up to the preeminent fact that I made it out alive, albeit frozen.
However, the second dive practically ended up in a life-ending debacle. We were swimming like a mindless school of guppies at the bottom of the lake when my regulator’s airflow suddenly clogged up on me without the slightest courtesy of warning. Submerged in befuddlement, I went on to take another desperate breath, but the regulator declined my seemingly annoying request for air, again. I had plenty of air in my tank and yet I had no idea why this was happening. What a convenient situation I found myself in. Not being able to utter a word or get the attention of anybody at the bottom of the dark lake only expounded to the amount of worry already on my shoulders.
This is when desperation peaked and I made the last batch of panicked attempts to inhale some air out of the scheming regulator with a greater voracity than a vicious crackhead sucking up the fumes of their last dwindling particles of crack in their pipe. After the last sequence of massively failed attempts my mind quickly flashed up all of my available survival options.
And so I looked up and started to swim up to the surface as fast as I possibly could. Four seconds into my ascent I couldn’t believe how slow I was going. It seemed like I was steadily travelling at about an inch an hour. I wasn’t even close to half way to the surface when I forced out the last hidden breath of micro-bubbles through my bluing lips. Beyond desperate for a gulp of air, I continued to flap my flipper-like fins as fast as physically permissible. My starving lungs were pleading and praying to the cold, stubborn water for one more sip of the inebriating molecular cocktail of nitrogen and oxygen. My tunnel-minded vision was looking up at the shimmering light dancing on the liquid surface about fifteen feet above my head. However the turtle speed I was traveling at was getting to me. Was this a joke? Was I dreaming? “I must be in a cartoon,” I thought. How can such a hopeless situation be possible? My oxygen-less head was about to explode as I inched my way closer to both life and death—the only two possible outcomes. Regardless of the ending, I couldn’t focus on anything else but the act of swimming upward. “Don’t even think about dying, just keep on swimming. If I pass out I’ll die. If I breathe now, I’ll drown and die. So just keep holding your breath and swim! Just keep going up and don’t die on the way.” Those were, more or less, the last conscious thoughts I had before the last gram-and-a-half of adrenaline flooded my brain and locked my mind into time-transcending focus as my fins continued to propel me upwards at motor-speed.
The flickering light at the surface became brighter and brighter and brighter, until finally, a second before my brain exploded and body imploded back to the bottom of the lake in a pile of "dead", I broke through the last millimeter layer of water like a gravity-defying dolphin and inhaled an orgasm-worth of air into my drying out brain and lungs. It literally felt like it was the first authentic breath I’ve ever taken in my life. Time stopped for an eternal second... But eternity aside, I quickly snapped out of my reverie as I realized the struggle continued as my tank and weight belt continued to drag me down as I tried to balance out my deficit of breath. Sixty seconds later and about 100 M from shore, I hit my BCD (buoyancy compensator) for the thousandth time and my lifejacket finally inflated. It appeared that my treacherous tank finally decided to start working again. (They later explained to me that my tank froze up on me. Thanks.)
That death-defying moment of shock will stick with me forever, and it was responsible for instilling in me a fascination with breath. Which later played a role in my interest in pranayama, meditation and holotropic breathwork. But that’s another trip, entirely. After that weekend I threw away any future SCUBA-diving notions of adventure out the window. I convinced myself that not wanting to re-experience something like that again far outweighed any potential beneficial thrill I might get out of an underwater excursion. Throw sharks into that simple equation and SCUBA-diving completely fell off my personal map of the future.
So we fast-forward about four years and I find myself coming off of a Honduran boat to land on the island of Utila. The Bay Islands of Honduras are known around the world to offer up world-class SCUBA-diving excursions at irresistible prices. But I had absolutely no intention of going out for “a dive.” In fact, I promised myself I would stay as far away from that deadly scene as possible. What brought me to the island was a giant floatation tank, which claimed to be the largest float tank on the planet (Float Utila).
As soon as you start walking off the pier floods of SCUBA schools begin to harass you to wheedle you into joining their school. Armoring myself against the annoying assault, I tunnel out my face with my hands until I break away from the overly-aggressive crowd. In the midst of the chaos I heard a woman repeatedly cry out to me “where are you from?!” I managed to easily ignore every SCUBA school representative but her. I decided to entertain her curiosity by yelling back “Ecuador!” The woman almost had a shock-attack. She runs over to me and tells me she’s Ecuadorian as well, and how it’s an extreme rarity to bump into another Ecuadorian on the island. I cautiously believed her, knowing she would try to convince me to go to her school. She insisted to show me around the island, and since I knew nothing about Utila minus the floating tank center and the SCUBA diving fanaticism I took her up on her offer. She told me about her background story. She explained to me that about fifteen years ago her father came back to Ecuador from a lengthy business trip and told her about an enchanted island he had the privilege to visit off the coast of Honduras called Utila. She never heard of the island and decided to take a trip to Utila the following year to confirm his starry-eyed reporting. She ended up travelling to Utila and it turns out she never looked back. It’s pretty crazy that a place can captivate a person so much that they’d erase and replace their concept of home from one day to the next, but it clearly turns out Utila is one of those places. After telling her about my extreme disinterest in SCUBA, she assured me that the warm Caribbean waters would never freeze up my tank. And the Syracuse SCUBA school I was going to didn’t take the proper precautions to not only mitigate but eliminate those types of freak accidents I fell victim to with a specialty anti-freezing liquid that is generally applied to tanks entering cold waters. A couple of days later I decided she was right and I signed up for a series of morning dives at her school, Parrots Dive Center.
We took the boat out at around 8 PM one night and got a brief lesson on what to do once we hit the black water. The element of darkness added a dimension of confusion to the dive. Since the sea was rather rough at that time the motor boat was going to drop us off and abandon us to find calmer waters. We were instructed to backdrop into the dark sea and meet at about 5 meters down with our flashlights on. As we hit the water a radical disorientation began as the darkness overtook us. My body didn't sink due to some unwanted air in my vest and I began to float back up to surface. I attempted to vacate my vest of the air by raising my arm up and hitting the BCD when I heard the boat's motor right over me. I couldn't exactly see in the darkness so I jerk my arm back to my side to prevent the blades from chopping it off and sure enough my body begins to float up back towards the surface. I'm pretty sure I was about a foot or less from the motor blades decapitating me when the Swedish instructor managed to pull me down to her and fix the life jacket problem. "Strike two," I thought. When the three of us gathered together we turned off our flashlights simultaneously to see the bioluminescence of the phytoplankton. The German women were right, the ocean lit up in tiny neon lights, like a scene straight out of Avatar. Thinking about it, James Cameron is a an avid SCUBA diver, so it's no surprise as to where much of his inspiration has come from: the ocean. Diving at night was such a weird experience. Creepy creatures that you'll never see during the day come out to swim at night.
The next day we ended up doing a couple of morning dives around the Tayrona area. We had the unexpected pleasure of swimming with the sting ray featured in the pictures below.