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 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.
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.
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.