The Deep Blue
Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt, Mandy Ramsden, Fiona McIntosh
Finning to the edge of the hole, I peer over the sandy lip and feel a shiver of vertigo. It’s like looking over a precipice. Breath quickening, I fin further out, till I’m suspended above the abyss. Then, squeezing air from my BCD, I start falling.
Lying 10km off the Belize mainland, Ambergris Caye inspired Madonna’s song ‘La Isla Bonita’ and in 2014 was voted by TripAdvisor as the best island in the world. On first impressions, it was hard to see how. Once the haunt of pirates and whalers, it was now overrun by American retirees, living in mock Venetian condos and careering around the dirt roads in golf buggies. The middle of the island was an impassable mangrove swamp, the beaches were choked with dead sea-grass and there was a pervasive odour of blocked drains. Fortunately, the reason for my visit wasn’t on the island, but off it.
Just after dawn, I boarded the reassuringly large dive-boat Papa Tomas, for the 100km journey out to Lighthouse Reef. The day was undecided, with a light breeze flicking up white horses and some purple clouds billowing on the smudgy horizon. There were 15 of us diving, and the racks on the lower deck were fully stocked with air cylinders and BCDs.
Initially, the skipper kept inside the reef, but after passing Caye Caulker we headed out to open sea. There was a moderate chop - and no doubt salty sea-dogs would have played quoits out on deck – but for an experienced landlubber like me it was like The Poseidon Adventure. Beyond Turneffe Atoll, we ran diagonally to the swell, pitching and yawing with abandon. By now, only the crew were still chatting. The rest of us sat with jaws clamped tight, trying to focus on the see-sawing horizon. Intermittently, a green-faced diver slithered down the deck to hang over the side.
At long last, the rolling subsided and we entered the calm waters within Lighthouse Reef. Five tiny specks of land strung together by coral, the atoll is home to a rusting lighthouse plus some rustic abodes for conservation rangers and eco-tourists. Smack in the middle, surrounded by shallow turquoise water, is a deep indigo circle - 300m in diameter - like a giant inkwell.
The Blue Hole was made famous by the pioneering French scuba diver, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who started diving with home-made gear in the 1940s and co-invented the aqualung. After serving in the French Navy, he then forged a career filming his underwater exploits for television, travelling the globe with a close-knit circle of companions plus his wife Simone, who sold her family jewels to help pay for his ship, Calypso.
In 1971, Cousteau sailed from the Galápagos Isles to Lighthouse Reef, via the Panama Canal, intent on exploring the mysterious Blue Hole, which according to local lore was bottomless and inhabited by monsters. To assist with this task, he brought an array of his aquatic inventions, including several mini-submarines and underwater scooters.
My stomach’s no sooner back in its proper place, than the dive master is chivvying us to kit up. We’re diving in two groups and mine is first off. Fins and mask on, I waddle to the stern and take a large stride off the back, slapping into the limpid water. After checking my buoyancy and air, I slip beneath the surface, descending to a sandy shelf to join my group. Finning to the lip of the hole, we hover over the void. Then, I release air from my buoyancy jacket and start falling.
I watch my depth gauge tick over: 25m - 30m - 35m - 40m. It’s like being in free-fall. As the wall races by, the colours dissolve and I enter a twilight world. The pressure grips my body, my mask squeezes my face and drawing each breath becomes harder. At 45m, I squirt some air into my jacket to check my descent. The circle of light now looks a long way above; below is pitch black.
As my eyes get accustomed to the gloom, I can make out huge hanging columns and, behind them, a deep cavern. Cautiously following the dive master, I slip inside. It’s like entering a side-chapel in a Gothic cathedral. The only noise is the hungry suck of my breath, followed by the rumble of my exhale, releasing clusters of bubbles like silver jellyfish. It’s eerie, but at least there are no monsters lurking.
During their two-month stay at Lighthouse Reef, Cousteau’s team thoroughly explored the Blue Hole, piloting mini-submarines down to the bottom, which they recorded at 145m. They didn’t find any monsters, or indeed many other creatures, since the still water within the hole isn’t conducive to sea-life. Nevertheless, the adventure wasn’t without its fair share of excitement, with Calypso running aground as it entered the shallow atoll; one of the divers passing out at 40m and having to be dragged unconscious to the surface; and a mini-submarine getting wedged in a grotto, to be rescued by another one using its pincers. Cousteau’s divers also went down armed with pickaxes to retrieve a hanging column, which turned out to be a stalactite, indicating the Blue Hole was once a cave above water, before the Ice Age ended and the sea-level rose.
Partly due to this geological insight, the Discovery Channel rated the Blue Hole as ‘the most amazing place on Earth’ and – though I’m now getting suspicious of superlatives – it’s certainly a fascinating dive. Fascination notwithstanding, however, you can’t spend long at these depths and it’s soon time to ascend. Besides, two of my group are running low on air, having to share from other tanks via emergency regulators. Weaving through stalactites, we make our way back to the wall and start gently finning up towards the circle of bright light, our portal back into the living world. When my head pierces the gossamer sheen, I emerge into warm sunshine and syrupy fresh air.
In the course of the day, we dive two more sites at Lighthouse Reef, which are not as deep or famous as the Blue Hole, but far more abundant in sea-life. Finning through canyons and coral gardens, we see shoals of shiny jacks and electric-blue parrot fish, moray eels fluttering like green pennants, gangs of inquisitive nurse sharks and a couple of morose-looking groupers. Giant turtles paddle alongside us, stingrays float gracefully by and a sleek black-tipped reef shark circles in diminishing circles, before slicing past, brushing my fins.
In between dives, we disembark for a picnic lunch on Half Moon Caye, a palm-fringed sandbar straight out of the ‘Bounty’ bar adverts, populated by dishevelled red-footed boobies, vain frigate birds inflating their extravagant scarlet gullets, and giant iguanas ineptly disguised as tree bark.
Having solved the mystery of Lighthouse Reef, Cousteau and his merry band sailed off to dive more blue holes in the Bahamas. Cousteau was now at his zenith, with millions of households tuning in to watch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and John Denver writing a tribute song, ‘Calypso’. Thereafter, however, things started taking water. When viewing ratings slipped, ABC ruthlessly pulled the plug on Cousteau’s costly television series and it was an increasing struggle to fund his ambitious trips.
The expeditions themselves were also becoming less fun, with Calypso’s crew worn down by tight production schedules and several fatal accidents, including a sea-plane crash in the Tagus River in 1979, which killed one of Cousteau’s sons.
In December 1990, his wife, Simone, died of cancer. And one month later, Cousteau revealed he’d raised a secret family with his long-term mistress, whom he promptly married. The next few years were taken up with lawsuits between his various families. In 1996, Calypso was accidently rammed and sunk in Singapore Harbour, and the following year Cousteau died of a heart attack.
Our journey back from Lighthouse Reef is far smoother, running with the wind and the swell. Everyone’s tired but elated, with glazed eyes and loopy grins. It might be the sight of dolphins playing in our wake, or wooziness from the nitrogen in our brains or, alternatively, the generous rum punches served up by the crew, known locally as ‘panty rippers’.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer