"I call it being 'in the zone,' " explained Dan Hodgins, a 34-year-old instructor at Divetech's free-diving certification course on Grand Cayman. "You're in harmony with the water. You can hear a parrot fish chewing on the algae. As your heartbeat slows down and you get a cool sensation in your arms, you can literally feel the switch-over from terrestrial to aquatic."
This metamorphosis from human to merman was a supposed perk of free diving—also known as breath-hold diving—one of the latest extreme sports to lure Americans into pushing their physical envelopes. Unlike skysurfing or in-line speed skating, free diving has a mellow, natural vibe. Simply put, it's scuba diving without the equipment. Pressurized tanks are traded for quicker descents on a single breath with only a mask, weight belt, and fins, leaving no telltale air bubbles to scare off skittish fish.
Although free diving is as ancient as Mesopotamian and Theban pearl diving, until recently it had been at the same pioneering stage as scuba in the 1940's, when divers would simply grab an air tank and hose and take an uneducated plunge. These days, free diving has its own courses and certificates. Dan was weaving his dreamy evocation of swimming the depths in a classroom equipped with a whiteboard, colored markers, and video monitors at the Divetech operation on North West Point Road. "We've PADI-ized it," Dan said, referring to the standardized system of certifying scuba divers.
Free diving does have its hazards, and a two-day introductory class is advisable for anyone contemplating what Dan likes to call "tweaking our mammalian diving reflex." The most common and lethal danger is SWB, or "shallow-water blackout"—losing consciousness just before you break the water's surface because of oxygen deprivation. Its best preventive, also derived from PADI, is the buddy system. Other hazards include burst eardrums, cramps, disorientation, and panic. Of course, diving with an instructor greatly reduces the risks.
One of the prime spots for learning is Grand Cayman (population 40,000), circled in part by a single flat road with driving on the left, since it's a British territory. The island has little crime, no taxes, and nearly 600 banks—many of which are simply mail drops for offshore holdings—clustered in and around its manicured capital, George Town. Grand Cayman appears to have achieved suburban peace of mind at the expense of the more raffish, Rasta-infused sensuousness of nearby Jamaica.
Located south of Cuba and including the smaller Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, the Cayman Islands are actually a series of sweeping underwater mountain peaks. Steep reef walls drop off within swimming distance of shore. Soon we'd encounter Turtle Reef, filled with gorgonian coral, orange elephant-ear sponges, and sea whips and plumes, as well as a fantasia of yellow, pink, and purple fish. Meanwhile, through the tiny window of our classroom, the water's edge beckoned with the allure of instant gratification. A darkly tanned Florida State undergrad gave us a contact high the first morning when he swaggered in still dripping, having just come up from a dive, and bragged that he'd be returning for a "free-dive spring break." A bond trader from Santa Barbara sitting next to me, after figuring out a particularly dry equation about pressure and depth, couldn't help but plead, "Let's get wet!"
By 11 a.m., we did. As I struggled to fit my light-blue fins over black neoprene booties in the powerful undertow of the turquoise sea, I ran through the fundamentals: put on mask and snorkel first, then perform as many tasks as possible facedown in the drift. Dan wisely devoted our first effort to a snorkeling survey of the 60-foot-deep reef wall. As I kicked my legs to move forward, I spotted schools of blue chromis, yellowtail snappers, and multicolored parrot fish. I got worried when Dan, in what seemed a Tarzan-wrestling-the-alligator stunt of underwater breath-holding, disappeared into a cove 45 feet below, then emerged 30 seconds later, clutching the tail of a lemon stingray. I quickly learned that without any training at all, I too had at least half a minute of expendable air in my lungs, as long as I stayed calm and focused.
That afternoon we ventured to a 15-foot-deep dive site closer to shore. Through the magnifying screen of my mask, I saw a rope snaking down to a sandy bottom that seemed to be dozens of feet below. Dan's dive-side manner was reassuring: "Just do what's comfortable." Wearing an eight-pound weight belt, I overcame a clutch of resistance and shimmied down the length of rope. By the end of the morning session I could hold onto another rope strung along the sea floor to a count of five-one-thousand, six-one-thousand… The longer I remained underwater, the more my mood became a mix of "Yippee!" and overarching calm.
Between dives, I had a chance to suss out the free-dive crowd. Some were the sorts of young men drawn to extreme sports, especially investment bankers on holiday. But most were middle-aged scuba divers who'd grown bored with the Darth Vader sound effects of their regulators—and hardly daredevils. "I'm far more adventurous with scuba than free diving," admitted Divetech owner Nancy Romanica, who has seen the number of free-dive trainees rise more than 25 percent over the past three years.
The following morning we moved to the more ambitious 33-foot rope, and Dan upped his pep talk to Captain Kirk—like intensity. "I want to take you to places you've never been before," he shouted as we tossed in the surf. This dive appeared far more daunting as I peered down into the blue-green swirl of an aqueous wormhole. Going down that deep meant that the pressure exerted on my lungs would be doubled. By now I was relying on skills I'd learned at meditation seminars: each descent required longer phases of inhaling and exhaling, of meditative preparing and visualizing. On one such dive I passed within range of a three-foot barracuda, which thankfully didn't bare its fierce buckteeth. (Underwater wisdom is that if you don't bother them, they won't bother you.) As I rebroke the sunlit surface, taking in a big gulp of oxygen, my dive watch informed me that I'd been down for about 15 seconds to a depth of 21 feet.
The second day was divided between land and sea. I surprised myself by being able to go without breathing for two full minutes in the classroom. As you train for greater depths, you must learn to hold your breath past the first few stomach twinges, and also to breathe more deeply using the diaphragm muscles. Doing a walking exercise, which simulates exertion underwater, I held my breath for 17 seconds. The payoff was an endorphin buzz, mirrored during my last dive that afternoon, when I descended to 25 feet and was down for 20 seconds. The pressure at those depths began to create in my inner ear the sensation of an intense airplane landing, so I decided to settle for my personal best rather than attempt the 33 feet required for an Open Water Free Diver certificate or the 66 feet for an Advanced Free Diver one. Returning to shore, I resolved next time to improve my ability to "equalize"—blowing into pinched nostrils on the way down, to clear the eardrums and allow even further devolution into what are usually fish-only depths.
Still tingling from two days of underwater yoga, I took a drive that evening along Seven Mile Beach, the lit strip of Grand Cayman crowded with resorts, to have dinner with Tanya Streeter and her husband, Paul. A native of the Cayman Islands, the 27-year-old Tanya took her first class at Divetech in 1997, descended to 95 feet within an hour, and went on to appear in the millennial edition of Guinness World Records for reaching record depths. Wearing no more diving accessories than I had, she'd descended to 220 feet off Sardinia, and, with a weighted sled, to 370 feet off Grand Cayman. (The emergence of free diving as a sport with different record classes and its own World Cup was spurred on by the rivalry beginning in the sixties between Italian Enzo Maiorca and Frenchman Jacques Mayol, the subject of the uneven 1988 movie The Big Blue.)
Blond, green-eyed Tanya, who has been photographed by Herb Ritts for a feature on female athletes in Vogue, didn't provide me with the superwoman's view of free diving I'd expected. Rather, she reinforced the feelings of low-key adventure I'd experienced myself while exploring the deep for those 48 hours.
"The competitive side is not fun; it's stressful," Tanya admitted. "But recreationally, free diving is wonderful. You can be calm and comfortable … It's like scuba, but with a spiritual side."
"I've been sitting on the bottom of the ocean and had an octopus crawl over my hand," interjected Paul, a spear-fisherman. "The fish just think you're part of the environment. They're not the least bit scared."
With the perspective of someone who can remain calm at 300 feet below the surface of the ocean, Tanya added, summarily, "If free diving is extreme anything … it's really just extreme snorkeling."
Divetech 857 N. West Point Rd., Grand Cayman; 345/949-1700. The two-day advanced free-diving course costs $250. For additional information on free diving, contact the International Association of Free Diving (305/981-1116; www.iafdusa.com).
Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman Resort & Villas Off W. Bay Rd., Grand Cayman; 800/633-7313 or 345/945-1234, fax 345/949-5336; doubles from $235. This sprawling colonial-style resort on Seven Mile Beach is one of the finest on the island.
Cracked Conch by the Sea 857 N. West Point Rd., Grand Cayman; 345/945-5217. Locals consider this fish shack the best in West Bay.