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.