Saturday March 30, 2013
Today was the day we were going to Dean’s Blue Hole, the deepest in the world at over 600 feet, with two world champion free divers, Ren and Ashley Chapman. Having just met us yesterday, they graciously offered to cart the four of us with them down to the hole where they go to practice almost daily. Loading up our masks, fins, snorkels and wetsuits, we crammed everything into the trunk of their car, and then proceeded to pack the four of us into the back seat. The drive was only 30 minutes, and Stephanie offered to sit in Brian’s lap while I squeezed into the middle between them and Brian. Speeding down Queen’s Highway to the south end of the island, we’d go for miles without passing anything at all, and then a few houses here and there. For being such a large island it only has about three towns that are heavily inhabited, and between them seem to be just a few small shack type restaurants. The drive seemed to go by fairly quick, with all of us still interested in the roadside scenery, but as soon as we pulled up to the hole the four of us spilled out of the back seat and went to grab our gear from the trunk.
Matt was the first one in the water, throwing on his fins and slinging the camera over his shoulder while the rest of us stood on shore and chatted. I was the next to gear up and go in, and after Brian and Stephanie took a little hike around the surrounding cliffs, they too made their way into the hole. What I had originally expected from it and what it turned out to be were completely different. I don’t know why, but I had assumed you’d be able to see far into the depths of the hole, almost as if it would be backlit for my viewing pleasure. What it turned out to be instead was a big black hole into which you could see nothing. Overall I think this helped with my swimming over it since you couldn’t even get close to telling how deep it was which eased my fears of falling into a black abyss, but as they say, you can just as easily drown in 30 feet of water as you can 300. So back and forth I went swimming across it, occasionally trying to dive down a little bit to get a better glimpse of the fish swimming around. Ren and Ashley were on the clock with a few students learning the art of free diving, so while they weren’t hanging around with us while we swam around, giving tips on how to dive a little deeper, they didn’t mind if we swam all over, as long as we were not to loud or distracting the students trying to dive.
Here’s a little set-up on what goes on there. Just in case I’ve gotten a few of the facts wrong, feel free to correct me, Ren or Ash. In the middle of the hole is a large platform with weighted lines running from one end to the other, and a pulley system at one of the edges. While teaching or practicing, a line will be lowered to a certain depth in the water with a weight at the end of it. After staying on the surface of the water for 30-60 minutes to acclimatize to the water and work on breathing techniques, the diver will work their way down the line, tapping the weight to mark they had gone to the desired depth, and then slowly work their way back up the line. Each time they come back up they need to give assurance that they are ok, and after a few minutes, they’ll go back down again. This is done over and over, each time with the weighted marker going further into the water and causing the diver to have to go a little deeper to reach it. I think (don’t quote me) that after enough general practicing like this has to be done, the diver doesn’t need to walk themselves up and down the line, but will just run one hand along it as a guide and they freely dive down. All of this is done without any kind of oxygen supply, just a single breathe taken by the diver.
Matt made a few attempts on his own, near the side of the hole and not the line, just to see how his skills were. He was able to touch a little ledge before the bottom really dropped off, and that’s supposed to be about 30 feet deep. I’m not very good with equalizing, my ears will always start to pop and I haven’t been able to work out that issue, so at the moment I’m about a 10-15 foot diver. When we tired ourselves out we went to sit on the platform, and Ren demonstrated a few breathing techniques, simulating a 200 foot dive. It was very impressive, and as easy as they say it is to learn, I have a feeling I won’t be diving deeper than 20 feet for a long, long time. We also got into a conversation about flippers since Ren was wearing a kind that we had never seen before. They were extremely long, looked to be made of carbon fiber, and had botties that laced up around your feet. When Matt asked to try them out, a mass flipper exchange began with all the guys trading around their flippers to see how they were different from their own. Ren’s were very long and flexible, Matt’s were medium and hard, and Brian’s were short but flexible. The real fun came when one of the students visiting from Austria, Jacob, lent the guys his practice fins, which looked like one big flipper. Matt had a blast with those, swimming quickly back and forth over the hole and performing dolphin kicks.
Stephanie and I sat off to the side of the platform, her soaking up the sun while I practiced diving board-esque dives off the back side of the platform. Then it came time for something I knew I couldn’t avoid. Something I had said earlier in the day that I would do, and there was no backing out now. With Matt and Brian next to me we jumped back in the water and made our way over to the side of the large cliff that hung over the blue hole. We were all going to make the 30 foot jump from the top down into the water. Down at the platform it didn’t look very high at all and I knew the water was deep enough to support the jump. But as I climbed barefoot higher and higher up the jagged coral, that water was starting to look very far away. Once I got all the way to the top I looked over and got naucious, unsure if I’d be able to go through with it. Brian was the first to jump off, in a spot about 5 feet lower than I was. He plunged into the water and then surfaced again, swimming back to the platform where everyone was still sitting. Although it took a moment of contemplating, Matt was the next to go, following the same pattern. Now I stood at the top alone, my heart thundering in my chest, but knowing I could not face the shame of walking back down the hill. Taking a deep breath, I knew there was enough water below to support me and no rocks to accidentally bounce off on my way down. I leaped off the side where the feeling of vertigo only lasted for a second before I caught control and remembered to go in with my toes pointing, and then splashed into the cool deep water.
Coming to the surface I expected a hero’s applause from everyone who had just witnessed my death defying jump, but all I got were a few claps from my friends and a sedated “Oh hey, she jumped” from anyone else watching. I was still on top of the world though, as this had gone much better than my rope swing jump into a river about ten years ago, something Matt’s still surprised I survived.* Almost tempted to do it a second time just because I could, I instead opted to sun myself on the platform before swimming back to shore so Stephanie and I could beach comb while the guys continued to swim and dive. In the early afternoon Ren and Ashley piled us back into their car for the ride home, but not before stopping for the island’s best conch burgers along the way. I told Matt we could not leave the Bahamas before I had the chance to get one. The food was delicious, the company was great, and I was so worn out that I didn’t even make it to ten o’clock before passing out.
*When Matt and I were about 18, we went with a group of friends to a rope swing that dropped you into a river. Instead of jumping from a tree that was right next to or hanging over the water though, the tree we were using was on a 20 foot bluff above the water, also set back about 20 feet from it. When it was my turn I grabbed onto the rope, took my feet off the tree stump that was giving me my backwards momentum, and went flying towards the water. Except, I never made it that far. As soon as I had gotten to the point that I was past the bluff but not yet to the water, my arms couldn’t hold on any longer, and I let go, dropping 20 feet to the ground below. I landed on my butt in hard sand, a little shocked, but otherwise ok. Knowing that this incident might scare me from rope swings for the rest of my life, I got back up to do it a second time. And the same thing happened!! This time I made it into about six inches of water though, still on my butt in soft sand and small stones. Once again I was not ingured, but I had not been able to jump from high places into water since then.