Lake Ilopango: Diving Another Central American Volcanic Lake

EL SALVADOR–Pacific Paradise dive boat on the shores of Lake Ilopango. Fuji X100f.

By Andrew J. Tonn

SAN SALVADOR – Sometimes it is hard to get a sense of terrain and space while driving.  You know you are on a road, in the desert, or mountains, or a forest.  You know you are going somewhere, but the overall picture is indistinct, at least until later when you look at the map, your photos, your memories, and piece the whole thing together.

This is not the case for the road between San Salvador and Guatemala City.  I had never driven the route in my own car but had taken it several times in a bus, from one city to the other and back again.  Leaving Guatemala City you travel up and over the mountains through a misty zone of pines and hardwood, crossing the rim of mountains separating the two Central American countries.  When you crest the mountains, you drop down to a hot plain that calls to mind parts of Texas and Mexico, distinct from the cool Mayan highlands.  The highway is not straight but somehow feels that way.  Up and over the mountains, across the plains and valleys, a stop at the border, across a river, and into El Salvador.  The road continues on, close to the coast but never so close as to see the ocean, until you join the sprawl of San Salvador or turn off somewhere along the way.

We turned off along the way, west towards the ocean, until finally the deep blue Pacific appeared like a lake hovering between a gap in the mountains.  There were signs for La Libertad and Surf City and I rolled down the windows, turned off the AC, and the heat and smell of the sea and the land flowed through the car.  I was traveling with two friends who both worked at La Iguana Perdida on the shores of Lake Atitlan: Danny from Switzerland and Giada from Italy.  Danny was one of the Dive Instructors who I had been training with.  In a few weeks he was pulling up stakes and moving on to Indonesia.  Giada was the hotel manager, not a diver, and just wanted to see El Salvador.  Over the last months I had been researching different places to dive in the region.  My own dive experience is somewhat unusual.  I had been certified at Lake Atitlan some 15 years ago and had recently completed my Advanced and Rescue Diver courses on the way to beginning my Dive Master.  While I have been underwater in the Caribbean and elsewhere, a huge part of my diving has been at that curious, cold, beautiful, and murky Mayan lake.  Danny was about to finish up the better part of a year leading nearly daily dives in Atitlan and had been underwater there several hundred times.

Not that freshwater diving is that unusual an activity, but many, if not most recreational divers get their certificates somewhere tropical and salty.  They might, if traveling through, do a dive or two in Atitlan out of curiosity and, according to the instructors, even experienced divers sometimes struggle with the cold fresh water where it’s hard to see, the air is thinner, and buoyancy more difficult.

EL SALVADOR — On dive site Cerro Quemado in Lake Ilopango. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Danny and I were both fascinated by the prospect of diving in another Central American volcanic lake and we were signed up to do two dives in Lake Ilopango.  Ilopango, like Attitlan, is a caldera, the result of a massive volcanic explosion.  Both lakes are quite deep, with Atitlan at about 1,120 feet and Ilopango at around 755 feet.  Atitlan’s massive eruption occurred some 80,000 years ago but Ilopango only between 410 and 535 AD which would have a great effect on life in the region and perhaps affecting the climate around the world.  Atitlan is in a rural part of Guatemala, is surrounded by three massive volcanic cones, and stands at 5,125 feet at lake level.  Ilopango, at only 1,480 feet, feels peaceful and remote at lakeside, but is basically within San Salvador.  Both are beautiful places though nothing I have ever seen can compare to Atitlan and its phantasmagoric clouds, mountains, and colors.  Another difference is that Ilopango has both islands and rock formations piercing the surface of the lake.  Atitlan had at least one island in the distant past, submerged a millennia or more ago.  But that’s all on the surface.  We were interested in what lay below.

EL SALVADOR — Down in Lake Ilopango. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

We were staying on the coast at the Pelicano Surf Camp, a two-story shack, open to the heat, breeze, and mosquitoes and full of backpackers, surfers, and the sound of waves.  Longboards lined the rafters, and the sand floor of the downstairs bar and common area was a menagerie of dogs, cats, and chickens.  There were tents pitched on the floors and people lounged in hammocks.  Giada had a bed in a dorm room.  Danny and I shared a private room, made private by the addition of a bedsheet strung on cord.  I was reminded of the line from many an action movie about being too old for this, but I took off my sandals, put on my bathing suit and found an empty hammock.  I opened a book.  A chicken was staring at me.  Life could be worse.

Danny had arranged the dives with San Salvador-based Pacific Paradise Divers and I was up before dawn the next morning.  The mosquitoes of El Salvador seemed to treat repellant as a delicious DEET-based sauce.  It was tropical hot even in the early hours of the morning, the bed was somehow both too hard and too soft, and there was a cat sleeping by my head.  We had to arrive at the dive shop by 0730 anyway after close to an hour drive into the city.  There was no point in sleeping in.  Sunrises on Salvadoran beaches are worth getting up for and I cleared my head jogging in the surf line.

The unfamiliar drive went better than I had hoped for, albeit with some flexible interpretation of local traffic laws.  We pulled into the lot, knocked on the door, and were greeted like old friends by Henry and Nuria.  I paid for my dives, helped load tanks into Henry’s old pickup, bought the T-shirt, chatted with some of the other divers, and we headed out following Henry to Lake Ilopango.  It took about an hour to cross the city and some more creative driving along the way, but soon enough we were on the shores of the lake.  It was a fine, sunny day with a strong breeze bringing the waves up.

The waves meant we wouldn’t be able to dive certain sites where it was difficult to get the anchor to hold.  It wasn’t a huge boat but big enough to hold our second tanks.  At Atitlan the diving is from a small, open lancha.  You enter the boat fully geared up except for fins, roll out and pull yourself back in over the low gunwale.  Being used to that rather austere experience made the day with Pacific Paradise Divers seem positively luxurious.  A ladder to get back in the boat you say?  A banana to eat after the dive?  I feel like Thurston Howell III in a wetsuit! (I mean no offence to AtiDivers at Atitlan, by the way, their style of boat diving there is exactly appropriate to the conditions!)

We loaded the tanks and gear and headed out to a jagged formation of rocks breaking through the blue water.  The site was called Cerro Quemado and there were several other dive boats nearby.  We rolled into the water and we swam a hundred feet or so to where Henry had told us we would dive.  There is always that moment of thrill and apprehension descending into a new and unknown site and I think it was particularly special for Danny and myself who had spent so much time diving in another, very special, Central American lake.  Ilopango was different and I think for divers less familiar with Atitlan, the differences might have been small but for us they were significant.  The water was clearer and there were schools of fish everywhere.  The water had a different smell and taste and was warmer.  The plants and algae growing on the rocks were different and though it was no Caribbean reef there were some subtle reds and other colors as opposed to Atitlan’s palette of greens and greys.

We descended to around 90 feet and there were a series of religious sculptures.  It was the first time I had seen manmade statues intentionally placed in the deep.  I had always thought the idea a little silly but there in the cool, dark depths of the Central American lake I found looking upon the cross, and Mary, various Saints, and the outstretched arms of the Savior curiously affecting.  There was something indescribably about kneeling on the rocky bottom, almost 100 feet below the surface, and saying a brief prayer to nothing but the sound of my own breath, that I find impossible to fully describe.  We explored the rock formations, searched for freshwater crabs, and swam through clouds of small fish until it was time to come up. 

EL SALVADOR — On the boat after the first dive, heading to our second where we circumnavigate Isla de Amor underwater.  GoPro Hero 8 Black.

The boat took us over to a small island near the shore.  The islet was perhaps 200 feet across and 100 or so feet high, a lump of tree covered stone called, “La Isla de Amor,” the island of love, accompanied by the local expression, “Two go up, and three come down.”  This turned out to be one of my favorite dives ever because of its form.

We rolled in just 15 0r 20 feet offshore in shallow water, descended to perhaps 30 feet, then swam around the Island of Love, going clockwise keeping the slope off the right shoulder.  In general, I love the idea of going around geographic features, sailing around the globe, circumnavigating bodies of water, circumambulating lakes and mountains.  It was an elegantly simple dive and great fun trying to mentally gauge how far one had come around an island one had only just seen on the surface and never before from below.  We passed the boat’s anchor line with plenty of air remaining, swam a bit farther, retracing part of the circle, then turned back and came up.

After removing our gear, several of us climbed the hill in our wetsuits, dripping lake water on the stone steps.  It didn’t seem that romantic a spot to me, but the view was nice, the sun was hot, and there was a good wind.  I thought I very much wanted to come back, to dive Ilopango again, see some of the other sites and maybe swim around the Island of Love another time. 

Central America Once Again

DEPARTAMENTO DE COPAN–While out in the backcountry of Copan Department, Honduras documenting medical brigades for a public health NGO in 2001, I found myself surrounded by a group of curious children. More and more kids gathered, wondering what the kinds inside the crowd were looking at. It was only me but I felt, just a little bit, like a camera-toting Elvis. Nikon F3, Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, Ilford HP5.

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY — There may be no place in the world more familiar to me than where I am now, here, back in Central America.  At this point I have lived abroad longer than in my hometown (at least in recent years) and anyway, my hometown isn’t my hometown.

A long time ago I wrote a story, which I will reprint here soon, called, “The Long Central American Goodbye.”  The title recalled a specific memory but in a broader sense how I was unable to say goodbye, how each trip to the region led to the next trip, each of them both expanding my explorations and revisiting places I had been before, getting to know them in a deeper, more complete way.  My experiences in Central America, centered around my work as a reporter and documentary photographer, led me directly to Sweden and Ukraine and in ways I consider those side journeys along the greater arc of my time in Central America.  As I write this I will clarify that by Central America I mean the three countries, so much in the news lately, referred to as “The Northern Triangle,”Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  I hope to visit the other countries that make up the region: Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but for the moment I am living in Guatemala and, with both Covid and work, more extensive travel is somewhere out in the future.

So it feels both strange and completely normal that I am here in Guatemala and writing about Central America.  It feels inevitable, to tell the truth, and only strange because this time I am here with my family, kids, dog, car, stuff, and a job that pays slightly better than itinerant documentary photographer.  So it is more than just me and a backpack, camera bag, and whatever organization I was working for but that feels pretty natural as well.  That was my life then and this is my life now, a life that has taken me to India and Nepal and Mexico and other places, unconnected to those previous adventures.  Those were not side trips from Central America as were Sweden and Ukraine because I had the rare grace in life to satisfactorily finish a thing.  I long had the idea that I wanted to do a photo exhibit of large format prints, a retrospective showing the best images from all my trips to Central America, not focusing on one country or one relief organization.  After I got married and was living in Columbus, Ohio I met Gina, an art agent who became a great friend and made that show happen.  I exhibited more than 40 images, blown up to 20 by 30 inches (or more) interspersed with textiles and carvings and other artifacts I acquired along the way.  I even made a last trip down, not long before the opening, to make a few images that had never been seen before.  It neatly tied the whole thing up, ended more than ten years of work and wandering.  As I said black then, that didn’t mean I will never come back here, but it meant that cycle of trips, that time in my life, was over and I could go forward to new things.  Which I did.  Not too many months later we were in India.  Two and a half years after that we were in Mexico, complete with a full Spanish language course.  Two and a half years after that and I am sitting here in Guatemala City writing these words.  Hello again and goodbye to all that.

SPECIAL GUEST POST: Dive Computers or Dive Tables? That is the Question

The author after receiving her Open Water Scuba Instructor certification in southern Mexico near Tulum.  Author’s bio, Social Media links, and business contact at the end of the article.  Photo courtesy of the author.
 
PUERTO RICO — Dive Computers or Dive Tables?  That is the question… No need to think too much about the most popular and probably best answer: Dive Computer.  Yes, a Dive Computers will make your diver-life much easier; it eliminates much of the time you need to plan a dive, its algorithm allows you to get more out of your dives, more bottom time and less surface time between immersions (Surface Intervals).  They come with all sorts of different, convenient features, and depending on the model and price range there are an incredible array of options to choose from: you have the very basic computers, and others with different settings like Enriched Air or “EANx,”some that automatically adjust for altitude, type of water, etc.  Some are more conservative than others, and some you can adjust the algorithm to be more or less conservative.  All new computers will measure your depth and time underwater and quite a few other variables with greater precision than old fashioned tables and analog gauges.  However, no matter what you choose as your dive computer remember: Always read the manual before use!
 
Now, that I sound completely on the side of Dive Computers let me tell you why you should understand and use Dive Tables.  Why have the tables become so unpopular?  Well, because of computers, obviously!  But do you know that tech divers use dive tables along with carrying more than one computer? Why would they do that?
The author, Christina Lorenzo, underwater near her home in Puerto Rico.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Because even the best of computers can fail.  The most simple recreational dive can go wrong and the types of deep and complex dives inherent to the tech diving world have added risks of their own, they’re deep!  They’re complicated!  More pressure, more risk!  Dive equipment is made to last, but nothing is perfect and the more complicated the dive the more that can go wrong.  But this is why I would argue that even recreational divers who never plan to go very deep or penetrate caves or wrecks should still pay what amounts to professional attention to their knowledge and equipment.  I don’t mean that every recreational diver should sport two (or three) computers, four cutting devices, and carry a canister light with two backups–rather to approach one’s own training and gear with a serious eye.  Scuba diving is great fun but it does carry some inherent risks: risks that can largely be mitigated by good training and proper knowledge.
 
As a professional diving instructor I’ve learned not to continue a dive with only the Table if the computer fails.  If your computer fails you should end that dive.  However, you can definitely use Dive Tables for the rest of the days you’ll be diving.  Also Dive Tables or RDP/eRDPml are great to understand and make use of, if your computer is not built with EANx and, or Altitude settings.   No matter what you choose, you have to learn to read (and understand) both: your Computer(s) and the Table(s).  
 
Recently I took the Altitude Diver Specialty in Lake Atitlán in Guatemala with ATi Divers (big shout out to the only dive shop around the lake and my Instructor Daniel who is an RDP genius)!  Being a “sea-level” Caribbean, shallow-water  instructor myself, I had pretty much put the Tables in a trash can until the day I had to learn to read the RDP Table in a theoretical manner for the Altitude Specialty.  It fascinated me and finally I can say I understand them and their importance.  In conclusion, exercising  your mind and keeping it at work should never be a thing of the past!

Christina Lorenzo Agront.  Photo courtesy of the author.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR — I recently met Christina Lorenzo at La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala where she was working on her Altitude Specialty.   Christina, who is currently back in Mexico working on her Master Scuba Diver Trainer rating, wrote the following article as something of a companion piece to my last article on dive watches following discussions we had on diving and, ideally, how one should train.  Christina is one of those restless, polymath adventurers you seem to meet at places like Lake Atitlan.  Based out of Rincon and Aguadilla Puerto Rico, she ran track and field in college, was part of the national Roller Derby team, traveled to Dallas for the Roller Derby World Cup, established herself as a hairdresser with a specialty in colorimetry, and discovered scuba diving through her clients.  She decided to go for dive certification in Mexico close to the cenotes she’d been wanting to see for years.  The pandemic lock-downs were starting and she booked the very last flight from the closest airport before travel was shut down for over a year.  “That was the best decision of my entire existence,” she told me, adding, “I met Xibalba through the cenotes, did my Rescue Diver course with a local crocodile, dived the second largest coral reef in the planet, and wrecks, and caverns… I became a Divemaster and finally an Open Water Scuba Instructor.  On a recent trip to Guatemala’s Atitlán Lake, I found a place where you can feel inspired again, it made me realize I could take my diving farther than just Open Water Scuba Instructor.  Life is too brief to just dream about what one could have achieved.”  
 
Follow Christina on Instagram at scuba_closet and her website www.scubacloset.com.  Contact her via e-mail about diving and dive training in Puerto Rico at scubacloset@gmail.com or by phone at 01-787-452-8415

A Single Photo: The Baba of the Cave in the Last Village in India

MANA, INDIA–The Baba of the Cave greets pilgrims and gives blessings to those who ask from an ancient cave in Mana.  Mana is a village in Uttarakhand, a few kilometers from the major pilgrimage center of Badrinath.  The small village, roughly 40 kilometers from the Tibetan Plateau, and often referred to as, “The Last Village in India,” has an outsized presence in Hindu mythology.  It is not far from the headwaters of the Alakananda River, which along with the Bhagirithi, is one of the two major tributaries that join to form the mighty Ganges.  Leica M-P 240, 50mm F/2 Zeiss Planar ZM.

The Dive Watch: a real tool for the scuba diver or relegated to desk duty?

By Andrew J. Tonn

Guatemala City — Whether you ever take them underwater or not, these are three purpose built dive watches more than capable of use as a scuba diving tool. While dive computers have rightfully superseded using a waterproof watch with a timing bezel (the Doxa also includes the U.S. Navy no-decompression table on the outer bezel ring) and dive tables to track your dives, a good dive watch is a great backup timing device. In many cases it is also quicker and easier to get your elapsed time with a glance at your watch, and every diver should learn how to use dive tables in order to understand what their computer is doing. From left to right: The Seiko Prospex SRP777 “Turtle”, The Deep Star 1000 from Deep Blue Watches, and the Doxa Sub 750T Professional. Shown with a vintage Wenoka diver’s knife, a Poseidon BlackLine mask, and Pelican 1150 case. Photo taken with a Fuji XT-4 and Fujinon 35mm f/2 lens.

GUATEMALA CITY — Is the dive watch still valid as a tool for scuba divers?  The short answer is yes.  It absolutely is.  Before I begin to tell you why it is and why if you are a scuba diver you should probably wear one, first let me explain what a dive watch is.  There are many “dive style” watches that look the part but are not.  To really be considered a dive watch there is a series of standards (ISO 6425) a timepiece must meet including 100 meters of water resistance, a timing device (such as a unidirectional bezel) protected against inadvertent rotation, a certain quality of illuminated markers in dark conditions, etc. Before the advent of dive computers, a watch that could survive the water pressure, track the elapsed time of a dive and/or a decompression stop, and be read in low light, was an absolutely essential survival tool.  It, combined with decompression tables, some good old-fashioned math skills, a submersible pressure gauge and an analog depth gauge (which tracks both current and maximum depth) served the same purpose as a modern dive computer.  I find it somewhat ironic that most diving kits include an analog console with submersible pressure gauge and depth gauge but exclude an analog timing device.  Now before anyone gets in a techno-huff, I absolutely believe in using a dive computer and I own two of them, the professional Shearwater Perdix with wireless Air Integration and the more recreationally oriented and smaller Atmos Mission One (so no scuba luddite am I).  However, I also wear a dive watch while diving (and usually out of the water) and I think new students should be trained to use dive tables and analog gauges as well as computers.

In general, I think the Open Water course is too short and has grown ever lighter on some all-important theory and technical aspects (the boring stuff) (also the stuff that keeps you safe, alive, and uninjured).  I think it is very difficult to really understand what a computer is actually doing and telling you without learning the process the older way.  This is true for many things, such as the exposure triangle in photography and starting a fire in the wild.  The U.S. military has had problems when land navigation (map and compass skills) are no longer taught because everyone has high-tech GPS abilities.  GPS is incredible until batteries die, a system is hacked or goes down, electronics fail in austere environments or, well, it’s just wrong.  Then it is a very good thing to know how to use a paper map and a good old-fashioned battery-free compass (and also a watch unattached to any system other than your wrist).

I freely admit that while not being a luddite, I am a traditionalist.  I love watches, in particular dive watches, and I think they have a Romance about them that echoes the early days of scuba diving, the adventures of Jacques Cousteau, frogman commandoes, and Mr. Bond himself.  I think this is why they are perhaps the single most popular style of watch, even though relatively very few are owned by actual divers and even fewer are ever taken underwater.  You may never become a certified diver, you may never wear your dive watch under the waves, but just the presence of it on your wrist gives you hope through long days at the office where there are never any undersea knife fights or octopus attacks, and you never seem to catch a glimpse of Ursula Andress emerging from the Caribbean in a white bikini.  So, I will also freely admit that one reason I wear a dive watch is that seeing it underwater, strapped over a wetsuit opposite my fully modern computer, gives me a lot of joy.  It makes me happy knowing that my watch, of all its brothers and sisters out there, got lucky enough to be used as designed.  But I digress…

First and foremost, the dive watch is useful as a backup.  If you set the timing bezel before entering the water it provides a reliable, ever-present count, of how long you have been submerged.  You look at the watch, a device that both shows you the time and reminds you of its passage, and you can tell at an instant how many minutes you have been underwater.  A dive computer gives you all sorts of valuable information, most certainly including elapsed time, but a watch basically just does that one, all-important thing.  And to me anyway, its very presence reminds me to be aware of time (and then depth, and then air-pressure)… to remember my status as a visitor in the underwater realm and the fragility of my existence there.

I also found it very useful during my recent Rescue Diver course where I had to run a search pattern based on time and depth.  We were looking for a “lost diver” or in this case we were actually looking for a real lost object (a weight pouch someone had dropped a few weeks earlier).  One of the Instructors knew roughly where it had been dropped: somewhere on a fairly steep, muddy slope rising from the depths up to the rocky shore.  So, I began the search at a certain depth, and we followed that depth (using the computer reading) for three minutes.  Then we would ascend about 10 feet and swim the opposite direction for three minutes.  I found, in this case, that tracking time using my watch’s second hand was easier than using the computer.  So, I concentrated on the depth readout number on one wrist and the time passing on the other and… we found the missing weight pouch.

So, is a dive watch the mandatory piece of kit as it used to be?  Well, no, it is not.  I do believe, however, that it functions as both a useful backup and a practical tool, in its own right.  Used correctly, it can make you a better, safer diver and let’s face it, it looks a lot cooler than wearing a computer on your wrist, especially while telling tall tales after the diving is over.  Best to leave the computer to fully dry off and charge for the next day’s diving.  You can leave it to your watch to tell you when it is time to go to bed as you regale the palm-thatched bar with stories of mutant sharks, near-escapes from giant squids, and the increasingly uncommon underwater knife duels with agents of shadowy international criminal organizations.

Diver Down Again

LAKE ATITLAN–Practicing my buoyancy after more than a decade above water.  This photo was taken by my Dive Instructor Juan De Garay with my GoPro Hero 8 Black.

GUATEMALA CITY– I remember my first time.  That first time sinking under the water and thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t breathe underwater, and on faith in the equipment taking that first breath. The dry air flowed through the regulator and filled my lungs.  I heard the hiss of the inhalation and the loud bubbling exhalation and then the next breath and for the first time was able to look around without the immediate thought of getting back to the surface.  The thought that followed was, how long can I stay in this place?  How long can I make this wonder last?  It wasn’t very long, a few minutes, but longer than anyone can hold their breath.  There were no fish, no coral reefs and no danger from sharks or kraken or marauding enemy divers.  We were safe in the pool at my military school where an Army diver was giving a demonstration and a pitch for his specialty.  It might not seem very exciting but if you have never drawn breath underwater then you have no basis of comparison.

I had wanted to learn to dive since I was a kid growing up on the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau but it was one of those things that seemed far off, a thing one did someday when one was grown and older.  But then I found myself grown and older at the tail-end of a documentary project in Central America.  I was staying at my favorite hotel in all the world, La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  I had been coming to The Lost Iguana for several years at that point and they had the only dive shop on the lake (ATi DiVERS).  As I would sit in a sun-shaded chair with a cold beverage or watch the clouds change over the volcanoes from the safety of my hammock, others would appear, heading for the dive boat clad in wetsuits and tanks and I would feel rather lazy, left out and feckless by comparison.  I was still in my 30s, but I had realized there were no real retakes and that there really was no someday.  I had already traveled a fair bit, lived overseas and had had a few real adventures along the way.  Those made realize how quickly time passes and how much effort it takes to make any little trip, let alone the grand adventures people put on lists and dream of from their desks and chairs and die without doing.  There I was, with the money, the time, and the opportunity so I got out of my hammock when the divers returned and signed up to begin the next day.

LAKE ATITLAN–This long exposure was taken at dawn with a Fuji XT-4 and a 14mm f/2.8 Fujinon.

Lake Atitlan is a volcanic caldera lake in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala.  A mega-volcano exploded some 84,000 years ago leaving an immense hole that filled with water over time, forming a lake over 1,000 feet deep, (essentially bottomless in term of scuba gear and its recreational diving limit of 130 feet).  Atitlan is surrounded by villages with populations of the indigenous Mayans (today predominately the Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel groups) who have lived there and considered the lake sacred for thousands of years.  Rising from the shores of the lake are three volcanoes in the 10,000-12,000 foot range: Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro which would have been tiny hills compared to the original volcano that formed the lake below them.  Over the years, the lake level has risen and fallen drastically and ancient Mayan cities have been found, one at a depth of around 100 feet on what would have been an island some 2,000 years ago.

I did my Open Water training around 2005 under the tutelage of the woman who founded La Iguana Perdida, and I could not have asked for a better instructor.  It is a far more difficult place to learn than the Caribbean.  That is a good thing; it makes you a better diver.  The water is fairly cold and you wear a heavy two-piece wetsuit.  It is more difficult to maintain buoyancy in fresh water and there are additional considerations related to your decompression tables because of the altitude of around 5,000 feet.  The water isn’t always murky but, in my experience, visibility varies between two and six meters.  I am always asked, by divers and non-divers alike, what there is to see, often in dubious voices, and all I can think is that the world is full of oceans full of pretty fish but there are very few volcanoes to dive in.  At some places the cliffs go from air into water and drop very nearly straight to black.  Other areas are more shallow at first, with beds of mud and reeds inhabited by small lake fish and freshwater crabs.  Then these too drop off to black.  When I first dove in Atitlan there were tiny, nearly invisible freshwater jellyfish with tiny red dots at their centers, but on my recent dives I saw none and the Dive Instructor said that he had heard of them but had never seen them either.  There are schools of sunfish and the elusive, non-native black bass introduced in the 1950s which have ruined the native ecosystem, and there is, of course, a lake monster in the form of an enormous serpent.  In places, identified by a fine white algae, you can put your hands into the thick silty mud and it is hot, so the volcano in which you dive is not quite dead after all.  There are submerged docks from when the lake was many feet lower and rock formations and if that isn’t enough then perhaps you should head back to a reef somewhere.

LAKE ATITLAN–Dive Instructor Juan de Garay on the Ati Diver’s boat as we return to dock and La Iguana Perdida after a training dive. GoPro Hero 8 Black

I did those dives back then and loved it almost more than anything I had ever done.  I went directly to Utila in the Caribbean a week later and did a series of dives there.  I nearly went back the next year to do my Dive Master course but I chose to travel and work on medical relief projects with a doctor I was dating instead.  I returned to Atitlan over the next few years and dove the lake more and then life intervened.  They were mostly good interventions but they didn’t afford many opportunities for scuba and my skills were becoming as rusty as an untended dive knife.  Anyway, I had been busy moving to Sweden, moving back from Sweden, getting married, having a son, moving to Virginia, moving to India, having another son, exploring the Himalayas, moving back to Virginia, moving to Mexico, photographing bullfighters, exploring Oaxaca and ten-thousand other things in between.  Any time I thought about diving, which was often, I took solace in the fact that my life was very far from unadventurous.  I might not have been breathing underwater but I wasn’t seeing life from an easy chair.

When we found out our next job would be back in Guatemala I immediately thought of Lake Atitlan and La Iguana Perdida and working toward my Dive Master if not beyond.  I made lists of all the places from my previous life I wanted to show my wife and sons, lists of all the things I had wanted to do in Central America but not accomplished in the past, wrote letters to friends about how this transition would be the easiest on record as I already spoke Spanish and knew the area.  Then Covid arrived and the transition from Mexico to Guatemala wasn’t so easy and the pandemic was (and still is) raging.  Nothing I wanted to do was as easy as I wanted it to be, but then again it never is.  There was one small setback after another but mostly they came down to the fact that I wasn’t traveling the byways of Central America with nothing but a backpack and a camera bag and days or weeks in between anywhere I needed to be.  In place of a backpack and a camera bag I had a house and a car, a wife and two kids, a dog and a full-time job.  Add in Covid restrictions, the months passed, and I still hadn’t gotten any farther underwater than the lap pool in our housing complex.  In the meantime I read about scuba diving, read the theory and gear and physics and history.  I found a YouTube channel I liked (Diver’s Ready) and watched the videos there.  I subscribed to PADI’s magazine and I swam laps.  I swam and swam and regained the fitness I had lost after Covid lockdowns began.  I bought some fins and a dive computer and a vintage press photo of Jacques Cousteau to put on my desk so I didn’t forget.  Finally the time was right and I was as ready as I was going to be.  I put in for nearly a week of leave.  As it once had been, I packed my camera bag and my backpack and closed the door behind me before the sun had risen.  I took a small bus from Guatemala City to Antigua, then on to Panajachel, a boat took me to Santa Cruz, and I walked onto the patio of La Iguana Perdida.  People looked at me from their hammocks.

LAKE ATITLAN–A diver swims above me as I practice both buoyancy and taking photos at the same time as part of an underwater speciality class. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Too much time induces doubt.  I had thought about it for so long, here I finally was, and what if I couldn’t manage anymore?  I was swimming a mile or more every day in the pool but I was older.  What if my eardrums exploded?  What if I had some rare condition in which two atmospheres of water-pressure caused my head to implode?  Too make matters worse my youngest son, an absolute fish in the water, told his mother he was worried daddy was going to get lost underwater.  I went to my room and climbed into my own hammock.  I got out to have dinner and went back to my hammock to study the course manual and think dark thoughts and went to bed early.  I got up at dawn.  The surface of the lake was smooth and gunmetal grey and I watched the sun rise.  Juan, the Dive Instructor, met me at breakfast and we went over some of the knowledge before going to suit up.  There wasn’t any more time to wonder or worry.  The dive shop behind the hotel hadn’t changed in 15 years and I was pulling on the heavy wetsuit pants and then the top and the booties.  I connected the BCD to the tank and the hoses to the BCD and the first stage to the tank and I was opening the valve and checking the air flow, checking the tank pressure, resetting the depth gauge to zero, and putting it all on.  We walked to the front and then I was standing in purposeful gear while the people in their hammocks looked on.  We went to the dock and into the boat and I got my fins on, squirted anti-fogging solution into my mask, rinsed it with water scooped from the lake.  I splashed cold water onto my face and put the mask on, sat up on the edge of the boat and put air into the BCD.  I put the regulator in my mouth, held it and the mask with one hand, put the other behind my head.

“You’re ready,” said Juan, and I rolled backwards.

LAKE ATITLAN–It is a victory to be back underwater and to have 2000 psi left in your tank… GoPro Hero 8 Black.

How to Keep a Journal (and be a Better Photographer)

05 May 2021         Wednesday           0911

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY (HOME)—Keeping a journal seems to be one of those ideas that the world repeatedly rediscovers.  Lately, I see it mentioned in articles on wellbeing, mindfulness, and productivity, and as a way to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of the pandemic.  These are all well and good and potentially effective but keeping a journal, is still something surrounded by confusion and fear which is unfortunate as it is once of the few activities accesible to almost anyone.

I have been keeping a journal off and on since I was  a freshman in High School and (without stating my exact age) I can say that means I have some years of experience in the process!  I have also lived most of my life professionally involved with the written word, studying English Literature as an undergraduate, Writing for my MA, and working as a newspaper reporter, an independent journalist, and media director for international relief organizations.  My current job requires a high level of organization and more technical, official reports and, obviously, I continue to write on my own as well as for various online publications.  And like everyone else I am trying to navigate the waters of the pandemic and the ongoing process of figuring out my own life.  Along the way I have learned a few things about keeping a journal.

I am not one for including too many disclaimers.  Obviously this is my own opinion, my own process, and you are free to use or discard any part of what you read here.  But I do mention it here for a reason.  A journal is a very personal thing and writing for many people is an activity fraught with uncertainty and misconceptions.  Lots of articles recommend you keep a journal but very few offer any good advice on how to do that.  Here is what I have learned in a life spent with letters.

First, and most practically, you need a journal.  Keep in mind that if money or access to buy a dedicated journal is an issue, all you really need is a pencil and some paper.  I have my preferences, which I will elaborate on, but any cheap spiral-bound notebook and #2 pencil is essentially as functional as anything else.

I have a strong preference for the regular, black, 8 by 5 inch Moleskine (or it’s many imitators) (WalMart sells one by Mead that is probably better made and definitely a bit cheaper).  If you’re not familiar with the Moelskine I will tell you why it is the best.  First of all it is a great, practical size.  I like the smaller Field Notes booklets for lists and notes (and longer writing in a pinch) as they fit in a pocket.  The Moleskine, however, is a good trade off between having enough space to get your pen or pencil moving across the page and fitting neatly in a bag or purse.  I find it slips perfectly into the back pocket of my Domke camera bags and can be held in one hand to take notes.  The Moleskine has a couple other features that makes it, for me, the journal of choice.  It is a standard, first and foremost, that has been made for decades.  Once it is full, it can go nearly on a shelf next to its predecessors.  My earlier journals were randomly bought and a disorganized mishmash of sizes and colors and cover materials.  Second, the physical book has several simple but well-thought-out features: an elastic band to keep it shut, a place-marker ribbon, and, to me the most important feature: a pocket inside the back cover that can be used to store receipts, ticket stubs, and other ephemera acquired during the same period the journal was in use.

Now that you have your journal, the big question is what to write?  The answer, quite simply, is write anything you want to.  The journal is the first draft of your own history.  You can show it to anyone you want to, but it is not intended for anyone else’s eyes.  Back in writing school there was one classmate who loved penning un-ironic imitations of 1950s pulp science fiction.  He was a nice guy and very earnest and he loved those tales of ray guns and tentacled moon monsters that had thrilled a generation growing up on the cusp of the space age.  I have no problem with this nor should anyone else.  Having a peculiar genre of escapist literature that makes you happy is a good thing.  This guy, however, was taking a senior-level creative writing course designed for students wishing to become published writers in a different day and age.  The student objected during his critique that he could write anything he wanted to, letting us and the professor know that this was a free country and these were the things he wanted to author.  The instructor was very clear and gentle with him and used the moment to teach us all a lesson.  He said, “Of course this is a free country and you are welcome to write whatever you want in your journal, in private, for your own enjoyment.  But we are here to learn how to write for publication.  In that world you are writing for a public and for an editor and for publishers so in essence you are free to write whatever you want and I am free to grade and critique it as I want.”  Another mentor of mine, Dennis, the City Editor to my cub reporter once told me, “Listen to your editor, Tonn.  You can disagree with an editor—if you can explain why—but an editor will always make your writing better.”

But we are not talking about writing for publication.  We are talking about the journal you are interested in keeping.  So what do you write in a journal?  As I said: ANYTHING.  Really, anything.  I think this more than anything else is what keeps people from beginning.  There is a blank page of paper in front of you and it belongs to you and no one else.  So use it, fill it, it is your space.  This means it can be the first draft of your great novel.  It can also be a grocery list.  It can be bad poetry (or good, but most is bad).  It can be lists of the places you want to travel to, the things you want to buy, your favorites types of dogs in descending order of preference.  It can be free-form rambling about your hopes and dreams and plans.  It can be eloquent story-telling, one true sentence after another.  It can and probably should be all of these things (you can skip the dog thing if you want).  In other words this is a space for you to write whatever you want without fear that you are doing it right or wrong.  There is no right or wrong in how you keep your own journal.

That pretty much covers the psychological.  Here, however, on the practical side, I am going to give some more concrete advice.  In my experience, creativity is aided by organization and preparedness.  As with photography, I can go out and create freely because my camera bags are in order.  I know I have the lenses and batteries and memory cards and film (and the journal and pens) I need and where they all are and thus can concentrate on making images.  With keeping a journal I do several similar things.  First, as we already discussed, I decided on one type of journal and don’t deviate from that choice other than by some necessity.  Second, I have developed a way of beginning each entry regardless of what that entry might be and this centers my mind as well as provides continuity and reference information.  It is quite simple and I am including a photo of how it looks.  I write the date (in military/European format, ie: 24 April 1872) on the left.  In the middle I write the day of the week, and on the right the time of day (23:46).  Then, before the entry begins, I write what is in essence a newspaper Dateline.  The Dateline is the place from which a story is filed, written in all capitals (GUATEMALA CITY—).  Keep in mind that this information alone is a valid journal entry.  If you don’t have time or inclination for more you can still go back and see that, yes, on April 24 of 1872, at just before midnight, I was in Guatemala City.  I often go a little farther with the “Dateline” as well and add a more precise location if I think it important.  Remember that this is your information so your “Dateline” can read, “AT WORK,” or, “HOME,” or anything else that tells you where you were.

The most important thing (as it is for pretty much everything else in life) is to begin.  If you want to keep a journal then go get a blank book and start writing in it.  The above is only a guideline but it’s good to have guidelines, particularly for unfamiliar activities.  And really that’s all you need: blank paper (most conveniently in book form), a writing utensil, and the will to put the two  together in conjunction with your thoughts.

A Single Photo: A Bucket of Baby Sea Turtles

MONTERRICO–A local Guatemalan NGO prepares to release hundreds of baby sea turtles into the Pacific Ocean. Note, this is a color photo. The baby turtles are all black and grey. Fuji XT-4 with 35mm f/2 Fujinon.

THE LAND OF THE THUNDER DRAGON

By Chris Urban

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Chris Urban ©

Travel in the 21stcentury doesn’t often feel much like exploring anymore.   Just when you think you’ve had a real Indiana Jones type of experience hiking a wadi in central Oman, you run headfirst right into a Starbucks.  A few years ago, my wife and I were living in and had explored much of India.  We had just been to Everest Base Camp, had seen a lot of other parts of Asia, and were looking for new adventures.  It was around that time that we heard of Bhutan, “the Land of the Thunder Dragon.”  Everything about it called to us as travelers and explorers.  

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TRAVELS WITH LEICAS (AND THEIR FRIENDS THE NIKONS)


Mental Institution, Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Kodak 400CN.

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY–I was 11 or 12 years old and looking for my first camera.  My father told me, “Son, whatever type of camera you chose to be with is just fine with your mother and me just as long as it’s a Nikon.”

I had been perusing the centerfolds of camera magazines, ogling the Nikon bodies and yes, even the fine looking Olympus, Canon, Pentax, and Minoltas.  When my father was once looking to buy a camera, his photographic mentor Gino Rossi told him to buy the one he really wanted, to not compromise. My dad told me the same thing and what I really did want was a Nikon.  The others were pretty but they didn’t feel right for me. There was one caveat. I had read an article about Leicas and when I asked my dad about them he didn’t turn up his nose as he did at other brands. He said something about them being very good but too expensive — and for an 11-year-old about to spend his life savings of just over $100 that was the end of that.  I ended up buying a well-used Nikon FM black body. My dad gave me a 50mm Nikon f/1.8 E Series lens, since my life savings wouldn’t cover any optics, and that camera carried me years into the future — to work at newspapers and on my first international documentary assignments in Central America. Along the way it was joined by a Nikon F3 and a few other lenses, most notably the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.  Finally, the old FM and the newer F3 were joined by a brand new Leica M6ttl. That my introduction to the M system and this is the story of that journey.

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