Floating Toward Ecstasy: How One Man Overcame His Scuba Fears and Learned to Let Go

The fish are fine and all that, but the epiphany is the sensation of floating, of weightlessness. After two days in dive school, I know the term is neutral buoyancy, the state in which you are neither rising nor sinking, but that’s just the science. It’s like explaining why a fish is luminously blue, which doesn’t quite get to the wonder of it. Broad leaves of soft coral bend in the current, bowing in praise of my effort to inhabit their world. I hear the soothing susurrations of my own breath, and submersed just 40 or so feet below the surface, I have a feeling of mindfulness, of intense alertness within this aquatic womb.

“We ourselves see in all rivers and oceans,” wrote Herman Melville in Moby-Dick. “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.” Divers require no explanation. “I live to dive,” my instructor, Steven, liked to say. He was a Dutch expat who came for a visit when he was transfixed by the lapis lazuli sea in Playa del Carmen and decided he’d never leave.

When Steven first told me, I could see the water but I couldn’t relate, because after two days of watching videos and practicing in the pool of the Tank-Ha Dive Center, my first open-water dives made me want to go home. I hadn’t equalized my ears properly and felt the first atmospheric pressure like a vice-grip inside my skull. Once that resolved, an acute thought replaced it, that my life — my parents’ son, my wife’s husband, my children’s father — was hanging on a rubber thread linking my mouthpiece to my tank. One mistake or malfunction would set in motion a lot of logistics, such as how to transport the body and what kind of services and eulogies and, gee, I had meant to increase my life insurance, hadn’t I? It didn’t make me inclined to feel thanks for all the fish, and I even felt unkindly toward the divers who had all promised, every last one of them, “You’re gonna love it!” as if they’d been pledged to repeat the line as part of some fraternal code.

When I climbed back onto the boat 40-some minutes later, I was stressed, tired, and relieved, though the relief passed quickly as the waves started to make the boat, and my belly, surge and roll. Suddenly, even the briny smell of the sea was an unpleasant odor. “I’m feeling a little seasick,” I told Steven.

“You’ll be all right once we get back into the water,” he said.

Would he think less of me if I threw up or broke down? I might do either, or both.

Yet, I am a victim of a long-conditioned impulse to finish what I start, which runs on a continuum from the food on my plate to the ordeals that I enlist in.

Quitting, that is, wasn’t an option.

The Riviera Maya, south of Cancún along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, was more of an ideal than an ordeal. The jungle spread out, dense and rugged, a backdrop to what had been carved out and tamed into a vast playground with a fine white beach for a sandbox and toys such as speed boats and jet skis, mountain bikes and ATVs. At all-inclusive resorts, escapists luxuriate on rafts and chaise lounges, in poolside bars and Jacuzzis.

The biggest town, Playa del Carmen, used to be the ­jumping-­off point for Cozumel, the island that Jacques Cousteau, the father of diving, made famous in his early documentaries. In recent years, though, Playa, as it’s known, attracted those who liked its low-key attitude, and soon enough it had grown its own jamming central district of shops, bars, and restaurants owned and patronized by European and American expats and Mexico City transplants. Deeper in is a pueblo with real people and great prices. Within easy access are Mayan pyramids and ruins, eco-parks and caves, and freshwater pools under caverns called cenotes (see-no-tays) that are unique to the Yucatán.

After my four-day dive course, I decided to take a break from the water. I headed down the coast to Tulum, to see ruins of a once-great Mayan city and catch up with two mates, Macduff Everton and Charles Demangeat, who knew the Riviera Maya since before anyone called it that, when they were touring in a circus in the 1970s, Macduff as the knife-thrower, Charles as the human torch.

“How’s that work?” I asked.

“Trade secret,” one, or maybe both, of them replied.

They arranged rooms at Cabañas La Conchita, a bed-and-breakfast by the sea with thatched palapas around a sandy courtyard whose palm trees stand like architectural columns. There were no phones or TVs, and starting from 10 in the evening, no electricity, only candles and the music of the surf. The bright blue hammock on the patio lured me like a fly into a spider’s web, where once again I experienced that floating sensation. High above, a pair of big birds spread their wings and hung in the sky, as if they liked the view from that spot, and I probably hadn’t drifted off for too long because when I woke up, they were, improbably, still there.

Not too long ago, Macduff had published a splendid book called The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán (University of Texas Press, 2012). Charles, a writer and artist, spoke perfect Spanish and a good Mayan. They befriended a Mayan guide and herbal doctor named Candido, who offered to take us into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a 528,000-hectare preserve of tropical forests, marshes, rivers, and lagoons connected by a 15-mile canal cut by Mayans during their 1,200-year reign.

We piled into their rented compact and went in the mid-afternoon with Candido and his wife, Delfina, to a dock where they kept a motorized dinghy that skirted across some gloriously isolated lagoon, through a canal to another lagoon, until we reached a landing, the entrance to a jungle trail Candido bushwhacked for visitors like us.

The ground was soft, and trees, branches, and vines bent, twisted, and wedged into the canopy. Termite colonies grew like big black tumors on some trees. Other flora grew at every angle, along the ground, on other tree limbs, lurching for sunlight that struggled to penetrate the thick cover. The sun’s reflective glow on the foliage suffused the air with an emerald tint. There was a chirrup and steady crackle of insects, a busyness in this self-contained universe that you hardly noticed until it was broken by a coarse rustle, probably of some small animal, and that was followed almost instantly by a flutter of birds. What we were most aware of, though, were our own footsteps and the sound of branches brushing against one another as we pulled them back to carry on.

High above, a pair of big birds spread their wings and hung in the sky, as if they liked that spot.

For all the shade, there was still hardly any reprieve from the moist heat, and the lagoon looked like a big refreshing pool as we sat on tree stumps and Candido told how the jungle was the raw material of the society. The wide leaves of palm trees provided housing, the roots and barks and tendrils gave medicine, and the world a context for rituals and customs. He was amused by the matapalo tree, or strangler fig, which attaches itself to mature trees with two arm-like vines and hugs the tree — to death. “Like a wife!” he teased. Delfina laughed, hugging him for a photo, like a matapalo.

We climbed back into the dinghy and retraced our route across the lagoon to another canal. At the entrance was a stone ruin that was once a Mayan customs house. It was one of 23 archeological discoveries in this UNESCO World Heritage site. Some date back as much as 2,300 years. Traces of blue-green paint on the wall, faded but visible, and small decorative flourishes carved into the walls were signs of the life that was here once.

On the way back, Candido showed us how to lay out our life vests flat like lawn chairs and drift on our backs in the current. He said he’d meet us down the canal. We flopped out of the boat and floated, just us and the fish, a gnarled mangrove to our left, a grassy savannah to our right. The world was in harmony. The late afternoon sun shared the sky with an almost full moon. The temperature of air and water was harmonious.

“I’m worried,” I said. “I’m so relaxed, I could fall asleep and drown.”

“Life,” Charles said sagely, “is full of worries.”

The plan was to hire a fisherman and see the Tulum ruins from the sea at sunrise, but in the morning the surf was churning, and I didn’t have any Dramamine. Then, good news. The fisherman, thank God, had twisted his ankle and couldn’t go, and I returned to drift in my hammock until the ruins opened.

We arrived ahead of the tour buses, so we had the walled complex of temples and palaces to ourselves and wandered around the perimeter on a rocky bluff above the sea. The Maya who dominated the region for more than 1,200 years were advanced, like many other ancient but later conquered people. They built massive pyramids, such as Chichén Itzá and Cobá, which for the Maya were temples rather than tombs as they were for the Egyptians. Their hieroglyphs show that they acquired a deep knowledge of abstract mathematics and of astronomy, producing a 365-day calendar based on their observation of the sun. Tulum, the only Mayan seaport ever excavated, was inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

Pale traces of colors still speckle some of the murals and frescos that once adorned the walls, giving hints of its past glory. On one lintel is a figure tumbling from the clouds. The signpost calls it the “Descending God.” Divers have called it the “Diving God,” though the Mayans cannot claim credit for scuba. I squint at it from behind a rope 15 feet away.

“You see the head?” Charles says, tracing the outline in the air. “There’s the body. You see it?”

“Yeah, yeah. I think so.”

“You can see it better on the internet.”

All the region’s rivers are underground, and as the water travels through the limestone, it forms the cenotes.

It’s hot, and we cool off with a pre-noon chelada (lime juice, beer, and ice; chela is a Yucatán slang for beer). Then we go to Gran Cenote. All the region’s rivers are underground, and as the water travels through limestone toward the sea, it forms the cenotes. The Maya regarded them as sacred, and so do many divers. They say the water is so clear that other divers look like they’re floating in mid-air, but this is cave diving, the sport’s equivalent to skiing’s double-diamonds, with a real risk of wandering into inadvertent darkness, and it takes some mastery to manage it safely. The more doable alternative is to snorkel in the caverns that have air pockets, and of these, Gran Cenote is considered among the best. You’re basically swimming in a hollow with decorative speleothems, natural stalactite formations on the walls and ceiling that, with some imagination, seem to transform into other shapes.

I was okay with snorkeling in the lighted areas, and even if I had had dive gear with me, I don’t think I could have willed my body to cross into the darkness.

I had, as I said, stuck with the scuba training mainly out of pride about finishing what I started. When I had planned this excursion, I had visions of actually entering the cenotes with scuba gear, but I quickly saw there was no way I was going to achieve anything so ambitious. Indeed, peering into that darkness, I no longer even wanted to. Now my goal shifted to something much more modest. I just wanted to get past fumbling with equipment and my own anxiety so that I could enjoy the diving and understand why people connect to something in the water. So, a few days later, I geared up and went back into the open water at a reef called Moc-Che.

After my third dive there, something clicked and my training earlier in the week started to kick in. I think it began when I realized the equipment was working and that I knew how to work it.

Once that trust was established, I began to feel it, and then the scales fell away from my eyes and I began to see stuff. A shoal of diaphanous white and yellow fish, two huge lobsters under a rock, two flounder playing dead on the sandy floor, an eel poking its face out from a hole in the reef. A big surly-looking creature passed, which was especially exciting later when I found out it was a barracuda.

By the fourth dive, I didn’t see why we had to get out of the water, since I still had at least five minutes worth of air in my tank.

“There were a lot more fish today,” I observed.

“No,” Steven said, “they were here yesterday.”

“Really? I guess I was more comfortable.”

“Listen, you only have to remember one thing, and you’ll be okay,” he said. “Whatever happens, just remember to keep breathing.”

It’s not, now that I think of it, a bad life lesson.

Todd Pitock is a regular contributor to the Post. His last article was “Storm-Chasing on Vancouver Island” in the September/October 2016 issue.