Let’s start this off with the facts. I’m a PADI certified rescue diver. I have 40+ dives logged, most of them in the challenging cold water of the Pacific Northwest, in a semi-dry suit. I wasn’t ever sure I wanted to dive in the first place. I hate low visibility, I hate darkness, and most of all, I hate enclosed spaces to the point where I even hate simulated caves at theme parks.
All this is true. I agreed to join my husband on two dives through the cenote named Dos Ojos, “Two Eyes,” near Tulum, Q. Roo, Mexico. This dive required a trained cave diver (who is trained to go into the completely black underwater caverns like the ones that make up the underground river system in the Yucatan). We were allowed on this journey because this wasn’t a cave dive, it was a cavern dive, the difference being that there are exits (not that they are necessarily visible) within no more than a hundred or so feet from an opening to air. Sometimes, during the dive, light from above ground would illuminate these exits. Other times, it would be just you, your buddy and leader, and your flashlight, with rocks overhead and stalactites around you. It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had, and my first fresh water diving experience (requiring less weights in my BCD).
The first dive went pretty well, though I definitely wasn’t sold on the experience. The second dive was to the Bat Cave (and yes, there were bats on the ceiling when we popped up inside the cavern!) The dive promised to be a bit darker than the previous one, and it was. As we went through the sometimes narrow passages, following our guide, Victor, I had a moment where I heard a rumbling. Deep rumbles transmit well under water, and are at a frequency that surrounds you, with no direction to be ascertained. Victor had explained to us before going in, that in this kind of diving, especially, you get panicked? Forget about it. You’re done. You have to keep a cool head, or you’re never getting out alive. I heard that rumble, and it flashed in my brain, this cavern, it’s limestone, I’m diving in a sinkhole, it could collapse. I heard the rumble again. What is that? I imagined my final scene, trapped in a water filled cavern, unable to get out, watching my air gauge needle move closer to zero. It’s amazing how fast these thoughts can filter through your head, just seconds, maybe less.
I looked at Victor ahead of me. I remembered his words. Forget about it. You’re done. This rumbling cavern was less likely to do me in than my own mind, and Victor, our seasoned guide, swam in front of me care-free. Whatever the rumbling was, it wasn’t something he seemed worried about. As long as Victor indicates there’s no need to worry, then I’m just going to follow him. He’ll lead us to the exit. I’m just going to follow Victor.
At times I’m not convinced that I love diving. I do it as a form of mastery, because I’m compelled to do it with excellence. Then there’s the part that forces me to just really focus on yoking my mind in a way that I can’t do as well on dry land. Maybe it’s the pressure on my body, the focused breathing, the nitrogen narcosis that starts to impact my brain at 60 feet, I’m not sure. There is a parallel between the LSD trip and diving. There’s the otherworldly experience of floating, flying, being among other alien, floating and flying things, strange colors, forms, and dancing on the edge of life and death, staring into the face your strengths and weaknesses.
Walking to the edge of panic, and then consciously turning around and walking away from it, is such a powerful experience. At no point, in my dive, did I stop what I was doing, did I stop breathing, or act in a way that was dangerous to myself or those I was diving with. Victor talked a bit later about his training as a cave diver, about how he had to learn how to wrestle with that panic in order to be certified. Imagine being in a long, dark tube, your mask removed (so you can’t see), and one fin taken off, with your job being to get yourself back to the surface.
I have no interest in being a cave diver – but I have interest in that mastery over one’s psyche.