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. 

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.