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Saturday
Jul012017

Into The  Deep

 

When the prospect of coming to Belize to work with Frontier was first presented to me, it was the opportunity to learn to scuba dive that excited me most, as I’m sure is true for many others who come here. As a photojournalist, with my primary focus being on travel and wildlife photography, I need to be able to go wherever the story is. So, being limited to working only on land would be an obvious limitation to the types of jobs I can take on. But aside from the practical advantages of being able to work as a photographer underwater, I have long been obsessed with marine life. Though my life’s path took me in another direction, I initially planned on studying marine biology when planning my university studies. I, instead, ended up choosing filmmaking and photography to study at school. But now, it seems that in so many ways, my life has come full circle. It has been my experience in filmmaking and photography that has led me back to the marine world, and for the opportunity to enter the deep.

Before I ever donned a single piece of diving equipment, I suspected that scuba would
be something I could easily fall in love with. I have long loved being in and on the water, as well as having a deep fascination with all things that swim. But, the prospect of scuba also intimidated me. From the outside, it seemed incredibly technical as well as hazardous. The technical aspects, I was confident I could come to understand in time. But, there seemed to me something all together unnatural about a person staying underwater for almost an hour without coming up to breath! Several years ago, I was in a band with a young man who did construction diving for a living, and the stories he sometimes shared were harrowing. Terms like “the bends,” and gas narcosis were foreign to me, and therefore all the more concerning. And, so it was that when I arrived in Belize and signed up for my Open Water Certification classes, I did so with both excitement and apprehension.

On our first confined water dive for the class, when I took my first breaths underwater, it
was exhilarating but also a bit frightening. I had to overcome a primal urge to return to the
surface to breath the open air, even though I was breathing just fine underwater. For the open water certification, we had to master several key skills, such as clearing a flooded face mask underwater, breathing from a free-flowing regulator, and swimming several meters with no mask on at all. These skills were all a bit intimidating to take on, but for each skill, as the instructor would gesture to me, signaling it was my turn to try each skill, I went ahead and found each one to be far easier than I had expected, and also extremely rewarding to complete. But, as these shallow water dives progressed, and my classmates and I achieved each requisite skill, I knew that the final challenge would be perhaps the most psychologically challenging; the deep water dive. Diving in shallow water is low-stress, because you know that should anything go wrong, you can just swim to the surface. But, as you go deeper, the distance from the ocean floor to the surface of the water becomes so much that most people could not swim it in a single breath.

And even if one could, surfacing at that rate is extremely hazardous, as you do not give your
body the proper amount of time to decompress. So, one must learn all the skills necessary be
able to handle any mishap or emergency while remaining underwater.
On the final dive for the Open Water Certification, the deep dive, my heart was beating
fast as we suited up and prepared for the dive. My instructor, by this point, had come to trust me and my abilities above some of my other classmates. And so it was often me who he asked to complete each challenge first amongst my class or to enter the water and descend first. This was the case for this dive as well. As soon as I was suited, I was in the water first. Hanging onto the buoy line that held the boat and marked the dive site, I looked down into the depths to see the ocean floor far below me over 60 feet away! But before I had a chance to second guess myself, my instructor was telling me to descend and wait for the rest of the class on the ocean floor. Not wanting to show my apprehension to him or classmates, i put my regulator in my mouth, deflated my BCD (inflatable vest), and began making my way down the buoy line to the ocean floor below.

Regulating my air pressure in my ears as i descended, much as you would do if driving
high into the mountains or riding on an airplane and feeling your ears pop, I moved down the
line hand over hand, making sure to keep my breathing slow and regular. The first thing that
came into my view aside from the coral structures below me was a school of bar jacks whose
beautiful blue color and darting forked tales made me forget myself for a moment. As they
darted away, I continued my descent, and soon found myself arriving at the ocean floor. I looked up to see how my classmates were progressing, and for that moment they were all still on the surface, and I was alone in the depths and overcome with a sense of wonder and beauty that washed all of the apprehension from my mind at once. I forgot about my nervousness and fear, and was filled with a desire to be there in that moment forever. I was touching a place on this earth that I had never even come close to before, and the excitement of exploration and experiencing so many new sensations was palpable.

Suddenly, as if in response to my bewildered and starry eyed state, a large remora
appeared directly in front of me. A remora is a type of fish that attaches itself to pelagic fish or other nomadic marine species, living off the scraps of what they eat. And this remora seemed to think I might be able to hitch him a ride. He hovered directly in front of me, looking me in the eye, and then tried taking a nibble of my GoPro. Amused by its curiosity, I was content to let it continue to explore me. But, the remora became distracted when my classmates began to reach my depth. It seemed to take a special interest in one of my classmates in particular, a girl named Joy from Australia, and made a B-line straight for her. She, not knowing what a remora was, panicked, and began swimming backwards franticly.

The remora, sensing her fear, was emboldened and went for her with increased voracity. I glanced up at my instructor, who was still a fair distance away, and he motioned towards me, and then punched the water in front of him. I got the message. I swam over to Joy, put one hand on her shoulder, and as the remora came towards us, I gave it a swift left hook! The remora received the message, and hurriedly swam off. I looked at Joy through my mask and we shared a laugh underwater, which was also something I did not know one could do.

As the rest of the classmates and the instructor reached the bottom, we began exploring
the reef and were rewarded with a rare experience. We encountered, not one, but three
different sea turtles, and all from a different species. The first we saw was a hawksbill turtle, who was curious enough to swim right up to me and hover there for what felt like several moments. Next, we crossed paths with an Olive Ridley sea turtle, the very same species with which I was working very closely on the beaches of Costa Rica. But it was the third turtle that truly took our breath away. Swimming right up to our group came an ancient and giant male loggerhead turtle. It was encrusted with barnacles and had several remoras attached to its shell. The turtle was as long as I am tall (and I’m six foot one inch), and its massive shell must have been between four and five feet wide. But most impressive was its gargantuan head, for which the species is named. Like a turtle caricature, his head was disproportionately huge compared to its already enormous body. And with a placid gaze that exuded infinite wisdom and experience, it approached our group, hovered there in front of us for several moments, and proceeded to inspect each one of us. In my mind, this ancient creature, whose bloodlines dated back to the age of the dinosaurs, was the gatekeeper of this mystical watery realm. And as he completed his inspection of our group, he seemed to give his approval of our presence, and leisurely moved his massive paddle shaped fins and swam off into the blue.

We all knew that such a dive was rare, our having encountered so many interesting
animals on just one dive. And it is undoubtedly something I will forever remember, not just for having seen so much beauty, but for it being the dive that pushed me head over heels into
falling in love with scuba diving. No longer did I feel apprehension or nervousness, only
excitement and wonder (as well as a healthy dose of respect for the inherent dangers of diving).

Since that day, I have decided to complete the Rescue Diver Certification while here in Belize and to pursue becoming a Master Diver before the year is out. It is my hope that I can continue expanding my skills as an underwater photographer and cinematographer so that I can continue to experience and explore the beauty and majesty that exists just below the surface of where we reside every day, a place that one can experience for themselves by entering the deep.
By Ben Blankenship – Belize Field Communications Officer 

 

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