“Hey Pepe, what does ‘Next of kin’ mean?”
“That’s the person we call in case you die man.”
“Bring it on!”
I certainly love an adventure, might be slightly addicted to challenges and “Bring it on!” is usually my attitude when facing them. Whether driving an old Mercedes from Germany to South Africa or managing my IT startup while crossing South America in an old Land Rover Defender, I usually keep calm and not many things push me out of my comfort zone.
Little did I know, that while I was sitting there in the back of Pepe’s car, filling out the necessary paperwork to start my SSI Freediving Level 1 course, I would be only a few hours away from going through one of the scariest and most challenging experiences of my life. Even harder to imagine, that I would actually utter the words “Pepe, I don’t think I can go on with this”.
Marcela from Colombia sits next to me, Mari from Argentina in front, both of them seem to be passionate about freediving and have done it multiple times.
“So, Fabian, this is how it works: On the first day, we first go to a beautiful cenote and you only dive horizontially, just a couple of meters deep. Then on the second day, you do the more difficult part, going down to 10 or 13 meters. Really, there is nothing to worry about, Pepe has been doing this for years, there will be nothing you can’t handle even as a beginner”.
“Yeah sure, sounds good.” I managed a weak smile. Usually, when people tell you not to worry, it’s because they know you will. And later, I would.
“So, you studied the theory yesterday, do you have any questions? Feel free to ask me anything you want to know”.
“What I found fascinating is the whole thing about the impulse to breathe and the mammalian diving reflex. Can you wrap that up for me again?”
“Sure, here it is in a nutshell: The most important thing for you to understand is, when you’re in the water and you feel the need to breathe, it is not because you are running out of oxygen, it’s not cause you’re about to die, it’s because of the high concentration of carbon dioxide in your blood. That is what triggers the impulse to breathe. You can stay below the surface much longer than you think”.
“Kind of like tricking your reflexes you mean?”
“Yeah, and speaking about reflexes, this is where the Mammalian Dive Reflex comes into play. The Mammalian Dive reflex needs two things: Your facial area has to be wet, and your body needs the urge to breathe in. That’s why we train holding our breath while lying on the surface of the water with our head emerged, some people even train it sitting at a table and putting your face in a bowl, just remember never do it alone!”
Moments later, I’m in the wetsuit, the ridiculously long plastic things on my feet extending my legs to super efficient fins. In front of Casa Cenote is the clearest water I have ever seen, a sort open air tunnel system about four to six meters deep. The first time I submerge I am struck by the incredible beauty. Giant fish swimming very close to me, I feel I could grab them. So much to explore, this time horizontally, much easier, and so much to see now. Never seen mangroves from underwater. “Watch out for the crocodile”, Pepe goes. “Yeah right”. A couple of seconds later we hang out on the same stone as the crocodile and take pictures. You don’t have to go deep as a free-diver. You learn, better said, practice how to stay longer underwater, you can swim through beautiful underwater tunnel systems with awe-inducing marine life passing by.
The next day, I find myself sitting on a boardwalk, back in the wetsuit and dipping my feet in the water, creating small waves with the giant fins. A huge circular water area stretches out in front of me, with a smaller, circular shaped black hole in its middle.
“The black hole right there is 85 meters deep, thats why the sign says you shouldn’t swim across that line. People drown here. If you dive down, the deeper you get, the less buoyant you become, and at some point you just sink faster and faster, and most people don’t have the strength to swim up again.”
“Alright everyone, we will swim to the middle of the black hole, we put the buoy there, you go down first Marcela, then you, then Fabian”.
“How deep do I need to go?”
“To get the license you have to go to 10 meters and back, a couple of times, also completing some exercises, like rescuing me when I black out and taking your mask off underwater.”
I am beginning to get nervous. I remember the deepest I had dived without an oxygen tank was 4.5 meters. And now I was going down to 10? Well, if that’s what the course says, it should be ok. I cling to the buoy while Pepe does a breathing exercise which I am supposed to mimic. Breathing in 4 seconds, breathing out 8 seconds.
“Whenever you are ready, you take a full deep breathe and we go down. There’s a line going down from the buoy. When you go down, keep that line in front of your face. I will be on the other side so we are facing each other, looking into each other’s eyes. I am there with you. Whenever I make a noise like uh uh uh, it means you are at 10 meters, then you turn around and go up, but not too fast. And don’t forget to do the equalisation of your ear drums all the way while you go down”.
Up until this moment, I am not really scared. It is, after all, an officially certified course. 4 seconds in, 8 seconds out. 4 seconds in, 8 seconds out. One last deep breath. And I go down. Pinching my nostrils closed with two fingers of my right hand while trying to breathe out air through my nose in order to equalise the increasing pressure. I am diving down for some time when I think “How much further? How much further?”. I see Pepe going down right in front of me, the thin line between us. I know he is in control and I can trust him. It’s completely dark. All I see is the line and Pep’s eyes inside his mask. And then the contractions start. My stomach contracts, I feel an overpowering urge to breathe in, this is crazy, I am going to die. Uh uh uh. I hear Pepe signalizing we reached the mark, in panic I turn around and head up as fast as I can. Uh, uh, uh. Pepe again. He makes signs I should slow down. I can’t. Need To Reach Surface. Now. I look up, all I see is darkness. Then there’s light, I will survive. I break the surface and fill my lungs with sweet, fresh air. I am alive.
“Are you ok? Always make the ok sign when you get to the surface and say I am ok”, Pepe reminds me.
“Oh my fucking God, dude, yeah I’m ok, but I nearly died down there! How can this be the first thing people do? I felt I had to breathe in, I had contractions in my stomach, I nearly breathed in water.”.
“But you didn’t”. Pepe is completely calm, looks me in my eyes, he has a calming gaze, that of someone who knows what he is talking about. I relax. “You will not breathe in water, ever. When a human is close to drowning, the Instinctive drowning response kicks in. Your tongue automatically goes back and shuts the entrance to your lungs. You were very far away from breathing in or drowning, believe me, you just thought you will breathe in, you could have gone deeper without drowning.
“Well, I definitely do not want to go deeper”.
“Can we go to 23 meters this time”, Marcela asks.
“We’ll go to 20 for now”, Pepe responds.
I can’t believe what I am hearing. Is she really begging him to go to 23 meters when I nearly died going to 10?
They go down and come up again about a minute later.
Pepe points to Mari. “Now you, then Fabian and me go again”.
I am full of fear trying to use the minimum amount of energy possible, slightly moving my fins back and forth while maintaining an upright position in the water. The breathing helps. 4 in, 8 out, 4 in 8 out.
“Ok, you ready?” Pepe definitely is. I take a big breath and go down, just to cancel the whole thing after 1 meter and go up again. “What happened?”
“I don’t know man, I feel I didn’t take enough air. I can’t shake the feeling that I will need to breathe in on the way down”.
“OK, take your time, just take your time, breathe as long as you want, I am there with you, nothing can happen, I will be watching you the whole way down and back up again”. “Well, maybe you will panic and need to go up?” Even as I say it, I can hear how silly it sounds. Pepe laughs. “Trust me, I won’t”. Only later I would understand why Pepe would never panic.
4 in, 8 out. Total concentration. Nothing exists anymore. There is no world out there any longer. There is no childhood, no me, or being 36 years old, or being Fabian, CEO of an IT company – none of that matters. There is just the buoy, and Pepe’s eyes behind his mask, and the breathing, 4 in, 8 out. There is just this one moment. A deep breath in, and down I go. Pepe is front of me, and the moment at the buoy is also gone, and whatever will be there in 1 second is also not there, there is just the now, the total now as I have never felt it before…in my life, period. This time I am a little more calm, but when the hell do I reach the 10 meter, I can’t wait for to hear the reassuring sounds.
Uh, uh, uh! Pepe’s signal, finally. 10 meters, that is it! I turn around. I have the line in front of me, Pepe’s eyes right there, this time, I consciously try not to go to fast. Everything is dark, then more light. I hit the surface. I signal OK. I take one deep breath and hold it. That’s what you are supposed to do. When you hit the surface, you take one deep breathe, hold it 4 seconds, then another one, hold it 4 second, then breathe normally.
“This was much better, next time try to use only your legs to go down and up, leave your arms close to your body. We will do this one more time, then we start the exercises, you need to take of your mask and come up blind and you need to rescue me”.
I am at the buoy again. “Ok, we will go down to 10 meters. Then I will black out, I will float in the water, not moving. And you save me. You swim next to me, put one hand behind my hand, with your other hand you close my mouth and my nose, then you swim up”. “Man, how the hell will I do that. Whenever I am at 10 all I can think of is swimming up. There is no way I am gonna swim across to you, let alone pull you out of the water”. 4 in, 8 out, 4 in 8 out. Fear, this feeling I am not very familiar with, now creeps up my spine. I go down. When I hear the uh uh uh, all I want to do is to go back up. But Pepe simulates a black out. I look at him in panic. I can’t do this. I can’t stay longer here, I need to go up. I swim up in panic, way to fast.
“Man, I can’t, I can’t do this, all I want at 10 meters is go up, in panic.”.
“No worries, breathe slowly.”
“Do I have to do this to get the certificate?”, I ask Pepe when he is back from Marcelas turn.
“Yes, officially you need to save me and also take of your mask during another dive”.
“I really don’t know if I can do this”.
3 minutes later. My turn again. “You have enough oxygen, you can do it. It’s the CO2 that is telling your body you will soon need to breathe again, but that is not true”. I go down again, Pepe fakes a blackout, I swim over, grab him, close his nose and mouth and bring him up.
“Are you ok? Signal ok”. “I am ok!”. Euphoria. This was, by far, the hardest thing I had to do in the last couple of years, and I did it! An incredible feeling overcomes my whole body. The girls go down one last time and we all swim back to the boardwalk to take a break and do a breathing exercise.
On the first attempt, I am able to hold my breath for 1:35 minutes, 1:55 during the second try. This is incredible. The human body, the mammalian diving reflex, how you can trick your reflexes and push yourself to new limits.
“So what’s the deepest you ever went, Pepe?”.
“90 meters free immersion, that means you pull yourself up on a rope. I am trying to be the best in Latin America, going to 70 meters without fins”.
“He is second best in Mexico”, responds Marcela.
I am speechless. I get it now. Pepe does competitions on this.
“Did you ever blackout?”
The girls and I exchange looks while a strange silence overcomes the boardwalk.
Pepe clarifies: “I did some 6000 dives, only blacked out during competitions and never under water, almost everyone who blacks out does it after coming back to the surface. There are multiple safety divers observing you underwater. If anything happens they are there to save your ass in one second. Several people are ready at the surface too, including a doctor. If you black out it’s just a couple of seconds and you are back. I never had to be reanimated or anything, never saw anything in a competition who needed artificial respiration, you’re just gone for some seconds at the surface. If you follow the rules, freediving is perfectly safe”.
An hour ago I would have thought he’s nuts. But now, having been down there, I get them, better said, I feel them, I am one of them.
Down there, in the deep blue dark, there is nothing else and when you overcome your fear and surrender, time slows down, only the now exists, and the deeper you go the more the I is being lost. When I came up to the surface after saving Pepe from his simulated black out, I felt I had disappeared. Gone somewhere else. And when I came back I was different, it was healing.
Something had changed forever. Maybe the feeling that from now on the trials and tribulations above the surface will just be a little bit easier. That nothing could harm me up here. And even now when talking about this with friends, or with strangers who I have just met, I have to fight back my tears, or just let them roll. It is good to be vulnerable. And being down there, did it exactly that to me, it made me vulnerable, from 0 to 100, in 13 meters and 47 seconds. It almost seems like, the more vulnerable we are, the more alive we feel. And who knows, maybe pushing life to the edge here and there is actually not a bad idea, just a little. Some dance until sunrise, some climb rocks, some dive deep. As someone I once met on a roof top in Morocco once put it: “I love sitting on this edge, you can always fall down, but your sight and heart reaches so much further”.
4 in, 8 out, 4 in, 8 out, I didn’t stop breathing this way for the rest of the day and sometimes I still do it. And I long for going down there again. Just a little bit deeper, pushing myself a few more meters more down, into the calming, soothing darkness where time stands still.
I’ll be back there soon. Close to the edge, so alive.