By James Stairs
Managing time for most people on the Honduran island of Utila is a simple process: You scuba dive during the day and you party at night. If you want to shake things up, you can dive at night and hit the bars during the day.
Eating, sleeping and anything else you need to do fits somewhere in to the spaces in between.
The ferry crossing to the island is a muddle of tank-tops, high-fives, sunglasses and sunburns. The boat’s passenger deck packed to the gills with the young and the adventurous, amped on a cocktail of freedom and anticipation, charging towards the next stop on the pilgrimage down the Central American gringo trail.
Utila, the guide books say, is the place where, after weeks of bus rides and youth hostels, security warnings and Spanish lessons, you can let your guard down, grab your scuba diving card on the cheap and take the opportunity to cut loose.
If you want a nice hotel, sandy beaches and umbrella drinks at sunset you’d best head to nearby Roatan because, as one resident explains, outside of your basic Ten Commandments, Utila has very few, if any, rules to break.
It is a place that is unapologetically geared towards people who want to be young and have some fun.
The trip from mainland La Ceiba is a 60 minute skim across often-choppy waters. An hour in, as stomachs start to churn, you can see the bravado on the passenger deck seeping like a spilled drink on the sand.
As landfall approaches and the ferry churns towards the dock, anticipation levels recalibrate and the ebullient passenger mood visibly and audibly returns.
The young travelers leap off the boat, grabbing grimy backpacks and stray flip-flops, storming down the long cement pier under the scorching Central American midday sun. What waits for them is a gauntlet of tour operators and hotel workers who, slipping from the shady spots at the end of the dock in to plain view, hand out pamphlets advertising scuba diving courses and whale shark excursions.
Everybody needs information. For those who have booked ahead, directions to dive shops are given, for those who haven’t, negotiations begin.
Amidst the throng, a tall and quiet figure with striking blue eyes and a deep maritime tan cuts a distinct profile.
Mark “Tex” Rogers, a 44 year-old American, has lived and worked on the island for the better part of a decade. His company, Apnea Totale Free Diving, was, when it was launched, the only free diving certification course in Central America and the Caribbean.
Once almost exclusively populated by a passionate group of enthusiasts operating on the fringes of obscurity, free diving is undergoing a popularity explosion.
At its core it is as about as simple as a sport can get. It’s been around as long as people have lived with the sea, as long as there have been pearl divers and spear fisherman and reef watchers. There are no air tanks and no regulators, you can wear fins if you want but you don’t have to. All you really have to do is hold your breath and swim.
“Free diving is different for many people. For some people it’s about competition, about competing with other people or themselves. For others it’s about spear fishing, staying down long enough to get their fish,” Rogers explains.
The sport’s rapid growth is being driven by the fact that it has caught the eye of the massive and influential extreme sports subculture. A glance at free diving as a culture tells you that the elements are all there- an independent-minded and rebellious community coalescing around the sport, rapid emergence from relative obscurity, the presence of a very real, yet manageable, danger and the platform to perpetually push limits.
That much of the sport’s evolution is being broadcast in real-time by a new generation of cheap underwater cameras and video-sharing web sites hasn’t hurt the popular visibility of free diving either.
For the ultra-lucrative sports marketing industry, free diving is an attractive mix of the adventurous and the accessible. Sponsors are getting on board and careers are being made. A well-oiled hype machine is throwing its considerable resources behind a core group of professional divers who regularly reach staggering depths both in and outside competition.
Add in the fact that free diving is essentially an egalitarian endeavour- not reserved for the super-athletic or the youngest or the best equipped- and advertisers, sporting goods manufacturers and big media companies, who are always trying to access an audience through activities that hold mass appeal, have taken notice.
The result has been a dramatic rise in exposure for the sport, once perfectly comfortable nurturing itself from its quiet place on the fringe.
In January 2013, a report featuring champion free divers William Trubridge, a 32-year old from New Zealand and Tanya Streeter a 40-year old British diver based in the Caribbean, aired to a massive audience on the American Sunday evening news magazine 60 Minutes.
The CBS report shows Trubridge at a competition gulping air on the surface before he dives. “His lungs are now the size of watermelons,” the announcer intones, “and as he descends, they’ll be squeezed until they are no larger than oranges.” Cable sports networks have also sent camera crews to follow top free divers, producing slick documentaries for their huge viewing bases.
The stories follow a common script, profiling articulate, solitary and often-glamorous super-people pushing the limits of the possible. There are descriptions of what extreme water pressure does to the body and gripping tales of ruptured eardrums and underwater unconsciousness.
Almost surprisingly, amidst a media environment where hyperbole has become the norm, the narratives surrounding free diving are not exaggerated- to the normal person, the depth that the divers can reach, without air tanks, is truly hard to believe.
At the September, 2013 world championships in Kalamata, Greece, Russian diver Alexey Molchanov, battling cold water, won the competition when he dove 128 metres, or 420 feet. His mother, 49 year-old Natalia Molchanova, won the women’s dive by reaching 91 metres, or 299 feet. Both dives set world records in their respective disciplines.
Two months later, after 21 years of organized free diving events, the sport faced the challenge of dealing with its first in-competition fatality.
On November 17, American diver Nick Mevoli tried to break a U.S. record in the Bahamas. As he surfaced from a 72 metre (236 foot) dive, the 32-year old blacked out and, en route to a hospital, died from lung damage. He had been under water for three minutes and thirty-eight seconds.
The death threw the risks of the sport in to the spotlight. Stories emerged of Mevoli’s obsession with going deeper and deeper and some divers openly wondered if the sport’s competition regulators were doing enough to protect free divers from themselves.
The media attention stemming from the death also brought in to light the risks free diving enthusiasts habitually take outside of competition. There are no official statistics documenting free diving fatalities outside of competition but newspaper obituaries from coastal towns around the world detail numerous deaths attributed to the sport.
The simple reality that anyone associated with the sport is grappling with is that, even for the untrained and inexperienced, free diving is an easy and cheap sport to try- all you really need is an interest, access to a boat and water. While this accessibility has contributed to the sport’s popularity explosion, many in the industry are growing increasingly concerned that people drawn to try free diving may not be aware of how dangerous the sport can actually be.
The only way to keep people safe, free diving enthusiasts argue, is to make sure that people new to the sport have access to proper training.
While it is hard to argue that the extreme image of record-breaking glory currently being projected to the world has not driven the growth of the sport, free diving, Mark Rogers explains, actually has another fast-emerging side that has nothing to do with competition at all.
To a rapidly growing group of non super-people, free diving is less about pushing limits and more about finding a source of relaxation and an avenue towards self-awareness, kind of like underwater yoga or meditation. It’s a place to learn about your body, to find a quiet space while you explore some boundaries and, as an added bonus, you can keep your eardrums intact while you do it.
“For me,” Rogers explains, “and the emphasis that I’ve put, it’s more about discovering a little bit about your own mind and physiology and the link between the two. It’s about going in and finding the sensations that we associate with survival and learning how to observe them without reacting to them. It’s a kind of meditation. That’s what I try to pass on but if someone wants to compete or spear fish, what I teach will help them.”
From a small scuba shop on the edge of town, Rogers teaches the fundamentals of the sport to groups of visitors, showing them how to be safe and how to extend the time of their dives. The direction students take with the lessons once they are completed, he explains, ultimately depends on who the person is and what they want to accomplish.
The native of Lubbock, a city in Northwest Texas and about as far away from island life as one can imagine, Rogers came to Honduras in the round-about way most perpetual travelers get anywhere.
After graduating from the University of Texas, he hit the road and, over several years, traveled much of the world. Jobs matched with locations and, over the years he taught English and yoga, ran a traveler’s hostel and carved out a steady income teaching scuba diving at resorts around the world.
In the Fall of 2001 he was in Turkey preparing to head to Egypt to dive and instruct. The 911 attacks on New York City altered his plans. “With all that was going on I figured that weren’t going to be many tourists in Egypt so I headed back to the U.S., got a car and ended up driving down to Honduras,” he remembers.
“I’d been to the region before. I learned how to dive in Roatan. I was planning on going there but ended up on Utila instead and kind of got hooked on this place,” he laughs. “It has that effect on people.”
He also happened upon diving without air tanks by chance. “I was a scuba instructor for 8 years before I got in to free diving,” he explains. “I was in Koh Tao, Thailand with some friends who were doing a course. I actually just kind of tagged along and, as soon as I tried it I was instantly hooked.”
Like all great and unexpected passions, free diving would slip under Rogers’ skin and in to his soul, eventually leading him to places and decisions he never envisioned.
He was soon free diving as often as he could and, in 2008, started the certification process with the idea of possibly teaching the sport for a living. Things moved relatively quickly and he achieved all the levels could, becoming a free dive instructor in 2010. He worked at a school in Thailand before launching his own business a year later, using years of industry connections and experience to get the new school off the ground.
Utila is a tiny place. The island consists of a few streets, a couple of small beaches and enough dive shops, bars and restaurants to keep the tourists busy. There is one ferry in and one out every morning and afternoon from the mainland. The people who live and work on the island are laid back and often hilariously off-kilter.
It’s one of those places in the world that travelers happen upon, and, sometimes without even noticing it, they stay on and find a home that fits. As a long-time resident of the island, Rogers knew the local culture, had relationships in the community and had seen the businesses that had worked and those which hadn’t.
“I’d lived here for years,” he explains. “I’d run a couple of dive shops here and I realized that there wasn’t anyone [teaching free diving]. I knew there were places where we could get both the depths and the calm conditions on the sea that you need for the sport so I came back here and made a go of it.”
He set up shop from the ground up, working out of a local scuba diving centre. With no competitors teaching free diving, he attracted clients through social media and by word of mouth. Some people just showed up, having heard through the grapevine about the guy they called Tex teaching free diving on the island.
“For learning, I think Utila is one of the best places in the world. Competitors like to go the places with the most depths. My deepest training sites are between 50-60 metres (180 feet) deep. Most competitors like to go to the spots where they can go really deep but for learning, this place is one of the best.”
The location has worked well for him. For people who want to figure out things at their own pace, he reasons, the sea is calm, the water is warm and the atmosphere is not intimidating.
“It also helps that Utila is one of the busiest islands in the world for intro-level scuba certifications and that’s good for me as the people who are interested in diving are often interested in free diving also.”
Today Rogers runs his business out of Gunther’s Dive Shop, a Utila scuba diving institution.
Life on the island is quiet, largely insulated from Honduras’ volatile reality as a country plagued by political and social unrest. Walking around Utila, it’s hard to reconcile the tranquil environment with the country’s recent history.
The country of eight million people made international headlines in 2009 when a constitutional crisis led to Manuel Zelaya, the democratically-elected president, being deposed during a military coup. As the world watched Zelaya try in vain to return to the country, political chaos erupted across the nation and the army imposed martial law.
Eventually bowing to international pressure, the Honduran military stepped aside and elections were held several months later. A new president was elected but much damage had already been inflicted. The coup d’état badly damaged the country’s already precarious economic and social stability. Today, analysts report that Honduras has stagnated and the country ranks as the second poorest in Central America.
In addition to the instability brought on by the 2009 political crisis, Honduras faces the ongoing social cost of its location along the international transit route between the South American cocaine producers and the drug cartels located in Mexico. Gang violence plagues most urban areas in the country. As a result, Honduras holds the nightmare-inducing distinction of being the country with the highest murder rate in the world.
Despite the overwhelming problems facing the nation, Utila and nearby Roatan remain largely insulated and tourists flock to both islands to enjoy the warm water and lively nightlife. On Utila, the only real indication of Honduras’ social and political discord is the occasional patrol by two decidedly non-threatening soldiers who occasionally drive up and down the main street in a golf cart.
“There’s a lot of freedom here,” Rogers explains thoughtfully. “Utilians are very kind and tolerant people. It’s really small so we all kind of know each other and put up with each other here. We all kind of let each other live and let live.”
As hammocks sway in the light breeze of a lazy afternoon sun, the dock at Gunther’s Dive Shop is a quiet refuge from a busy world. Scuba instructors clean tanks and load boats in preparation for a planned late afternoon dive, jumping in and out of the wide-ranging conversations that spring up around the driftwood bar on the dock. Tourists show up to ask about open water diving packages, island residents pop their heads in to say hi and others just come and go.
In a room off to the side of the shop, Rogers and two students are talking about breathing techniques and hypoxic limits, swim strokes and water pressure. Unsurprisingly, his teaching style takes a serious but laid-back approach.
As he breaks down a dive into often-minute details, the students, both experienced scuba divers, listen intently. You can see them visualizing the dives as they begin to better understand the free diving process.
Rogers goes though the different categories of competitive free diving. Constant weight divers can use fins and weights (or not), swimming straight down using a drop rope as a guide but they have to keep the weights on when they surface. Free immersion divers use the guide rope to pull themselves down as far as they can go. Variable weight divers use a weighted “sled” which pulls them down before swimming back up under their own power. No Limits divers use whatever they need to get down and up- they often use the sled to get down and then inflate a bag to help them get up faster.
The world record for No Limits diving is 214 metres or 702 feet.
“I’m not involved in the competitive side of the sport,” Rogers later explains. His personal best dive depth is 54 metres (177 feet) – an accomplishment he modestly downplays. “If there is any competition for me,” he shrugs, “I guess it would be just be against myself. “
Although it’s not his focus, he knows that many people who seek him out are drawn to the competitive side of free diving.
“I tell my students that if they want to get in to competing, then this is a good place to start. My students are generally beginners,” he adds. “They are people who won’t know much about free diving, so if I start emphasizing competition, that’s going to generate tension and create this feeling of having to push and that’s not the best way to learn. There is always time later to go for the depths.”
Divers are taught to focus on their breathing, showing them how to relax their bodies and bring down their heart rates. There is no hyperventilating before a dive, instead, there is a relaxation process the diver embarks on.
They are taught to breathe from their stomachs to maximize the amount of oxygen in the blood, movements are slow and heart rates are brought down.
“I emphasize the meditative side of free diving where you observe sensations on the body and look at them in depth but you learn not to react to them,” he explains.
Every dive has similar elements. As the diver descends, carbon dioxide levels naturally rise in the body. For inexperienced divers, muscles tense up and the urge to breathe kicks in. The training tells you not to listen, to understand the urgency, to know that the body is just adjusting and that it will pass by focusing on the techniques.
During the dive you have to focus on equalizing the pressure inside your ears. Releasing small amounts of air along the way down allows the diver to avoid damage to the ear by ensuring that the pressure is the same on both sides of the eardrum.
As the descent continues, the diver’s body loses buoyancy and gravity starts to pull them down, making things a little easier. Depending on how deep they go, Rogers explains, the body undergoes significant changes, mainly due to water pressure and oxygen deprivation, that you have to deal with on the way up.
Once you’ve reached the depth you want, you turn and smoothly swim back to the surface. Divers are taught to keep a controlled pace on the ascent to conserve energy, maximizing efficiency, allowing time for oxygen to slowly return to the lungs which are rapidly expanding as the diver gets closer to the surface.
If you follow your instincts and rush to the surface, you face significant risk of blacking out as the oxygen pressure in the body drops the closer you get to the surface.
“The biggest danger in free diving is hypoxia,” he explains. “This means not enough oxygen getting to the brain if the breath hold is too long or the dive is too deep. Sometimes a diver can have what we call a samba, or loss of motor control. In those situations the diver needs assistance from another diver.”
While rare, deep water blackout, when a diver loses consciousness at depth, is also extremely dangerous.
Incidents where divers lose consciousness underwater, Rogers adds, are what give free diving the reputation of being dangerous. Blackouts often happen in shallow water at the end of a dive when the diver miscalculates how much air they have left or comes up too fast.
“These risks are why you never dive alone,” he explains. If there is an accident or a blackout and no one is around, there is a problem. Despite being involved in a sport that involves intentionally depriving yourself of air, blackouts are not inevitable, he insists.
With thousands of dives under his belt, Rogers says he has never lost consciousness.
The lesson over for the day, the small class joins the gathering at the driftwood bar and joke quietly about their breathing assignments in preparation for their dive the next morning. There is a well-masked, but noticeable, sense of apprehension with the two students.
No matter how experienced a diver is, Rogers says, beginners are always nervous before their first free dive. It’s just that different from scuba. Anyone who claims otherwise is either not being completely honest or hasn’t been listening as closely as they should have been.
“We’ll take it easy in the first day, diving down to about 12 metres (40 feet),” he explains.
“As we progress, we’ll go deeper, sometimes to 30 or 40 metres (98- 131 feet). We drop the lines down, start out gradually, easily, not pushing ourselves at all. I tell students not to worry about how deep they go, not to worry about how long they stay. The point is to relax. Once the students learn to relax, the depths and the times come naturally. If students focus only on depth at the beginning they’re going to tense up. We have to get rid of the tension and then they make it down on their own, easily.”
Rogers is happy with his small group. They are good swimmers, smart people and they seem to understand what he is teaching. The dive should be fun, he says. He likes it when he gets a group that doesn’t charge ahead, it makes things easier when they get on the water. He doesn’t have to change the way they dive too much.
He knows that thrill-seeking is part of the allure of free diving, and that much of his potential client base is drawn from the island’s core tourist market- the young party crowd from the ferry. He knows his job is to make sure that they get a solid understanding of the fundamentals of the sport while making sure that they still have fun.
“We have a lot of young people coming to Utila and they’re pretty excited about diving and want to try something new,” he explains. “Sometimes they come to the class and kind of have that “extreme” thing going on and they usually end up surprised when we slow the students down and explain to them that when they access that relaxation that’s when you achieve depths. Pushing yourself only works in the sport to a certain extent and then you hit a wall.”
As the sun begins to dip towards the horizon on Gunther’s dock, Rogers heads inside the shop to organize some gear for the next morning’s dive. As the ever-present conversation veers back to current affairs, a couple from the United Kingdom walks down the dock and grabs a seat at the tiny bar. Because Utila is that kind of place, they slip right in to the rhythm of the discussion.
After a while, someone gets around to asking them what they want to do on the island.
One of them mentions that she’d like to do some free diving.
A tattoo-covered scuba instructor laden with tanks walks by, heading in to the shop.
“I’ll tell Tex you’re here,” he laughs, disappearing around the corner.