How To Nearly Die Scuba Diving in the Great Blue Hole, Belize (Caye Caulker)

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Last year I visited Caye Caulker; a sunny small island in Belize which is catered for tourists but isn’t overran or ruined by them. (Or maybe I was just lucky with timing a none-peak season – I went in July).

Seeing so I was fond of my newfound pastime of scuba diving it made perfect sense that I would sign up for a dive in The Great Blue Hole – one of the most famous scuba diving destinations in the world with a very possible chance of seeing hammerhead sharks.

Belize

 Photo by Joe Barland

Fond – yes. Expert – no. Total novice. Apart from my first exam in Borneo, I’ve only dived around five times and I grew in confidence with each one. I’m an awful swimmer so I already started with a fear and it was a fear that I got over. Whilst paying my money to the dive master I told him repeatedly, that the last time I dived was in Japan over a year ago – and more importantly that I was worried that I was rusty, asking if he could just keep an eye on me.

Do you ever get the feeling that someone is not listening to you but they’re saying the right words to shut you up? Yeah, that’s what was happening. Caribbean folk are so laid back that they’re almost living in last week. He just wanted my money in his hand and my words fell on death ears. I felt antsy as we got on the boat.

I introduced myself to the other lads, all European and it wasn’t long before the scuba diving dick-measuring contest took place…with me clearly having the weiner of the sea. It turned out that they averaged over a thousand dives – they were pretty much ninjas of the ocean and I was the odd one out.

Shit!

belize animals

Not to worry – my dive buddy is a dive master! What could possibly go wrong?

As we submerged ourselves into the water the dive master didn’t make any effort to stay by my side. I wasn’t wanting him to hold my hand or give me underwater canoodles or anything – just to stay nearby like all the other guys seemed to manage. I constantly played catch up as we swam under the cave and to the other side of this natural beauty of the Belize sinkhole.

Around half an hour, after a tight and claustrophobic squeeze through an underground tunnel – I saw a shiver of around twenty hammerhead sharks prowling roughly four metres below me as we were 40 metres below the ocean. I was in awe! Completely lost in the moment with these beautiful majestic creatures, I hovered over them and looked around to see if my dive buddy was as impressed as myself –  but he was AWOL and I was alone.

In a somewhat meditative state I got lost in the bliss of the moment as I watched these gorgeous beasts stalk the bed of the ocean. Then suddenly – my mask started sucking my face. I fought to breathe in vain while the suffocation took place and there was no one to be seen in sight.

For those who don’t dive – it’s not a case of just going to the top and getting your breath back. Your lugs can explode which is why we perform an emergency stop for a few minutes before returning to land every time. But of course, I had no air and I figured I’m pretty much dead already if I stay here with no spare mask, or anyone to help me so I may as well risk shooting to the top and hope my organs don’t explode.

As I scrambled with every part of me, 40 metres below the sea with water already in my body, coughing, convulsing and almost blacking out – there was a panic in me that I’d never felt before in my life. That this really was game over. Damn – I haven’t seen Bruce Springsteen in concert or tried magic mushrooms yet, it wasn’t supposed to end like this!

Roughly five metres towards the top – my dive master appears (finally) and grabs me. He’s making the hand signal to tell me to clear my mask. We are under water of course so I can’t say; “I don’t have water in my eyes you idiot – I’ve got no fucking air left you deserter!”

A scuffle continued and I managed to fight myself off him and get to the top. Obviously my lungs didn’t explode – maybe the guy grabbing me was a good thing. There are no words to describe how good it felt to breathe again.

Once I got my breath back fully, the guy and I had a disagreement about the whole thing on the boat and I had to be pulled off him as I was so incensed by his blasé attitude. Which is hilarious as he was built like a Samoan rugby prop and I had about as much energy as a hungry newborn kitten.

Playful dolphins which followed us as we first set off.
Playful dolphins which followed us as we first set off.

dolphins the blue hole

Conclusion

I don’t like to play the victim card and retrospectively I think the whole affair was 50/50 blame. He just didn’t listen or care and he didn’t stay nearby for when the shit hit the fan. But with all that being said and done (before I get any hate from diving experts cringing at my performance) – I am responsible for my life and I should have been more vigilant with my oxygen meter (if that’s what they are even called).

I’d happily name and shame the company but I can’t remember the name or find it on Google. I can tell you it wasn’t White Sands Dive Shop, Belize Diving Services, or Frenchie’s Diving Services.

Please don’t let my bad experience put you off scuba diving in The Blue Hole of Belize. It was an underwater heaven until this happened – and could have been one of the best days of my life if it wasn’t for incompetence on both sides. Sadly, my fear of water seems to have returned and I’m in no rush to scuba dive again unless I know the person I’m doing it with. in fact I’m lucky I ran out of air after I was under the cave or it would have definitely been lights out!

Song for the moment – The Day I Died, By Just Jack

Notable Lyrics

“The day I died was the best day of my life

The day I died was the best day of my life

Tell my friends and my kids and my wife

Everything will be alright

The day I died was the best day of my life”



Join the Conversation

10 comments

  1. ivy kriste Reply

    After reading your articles. I am started following you.

  2. Rylei Reply

    I’ve heard a lot of bad experiences there. Think I’ll give it a miss while I travel.

  3. Stuart Robbens Reply

    As an ex-dive instructor who’s had experiences similar to yours (nearly died from no/low air) I can honestly say that you were not at fault. I know of people who have died at the hands of incompetent and uncaring dive “professionals”! At the end of the day you paid for a guide, made him aware of your experience and training and he just didn’t care. Unfortunately in that party of the world and the part I used to work in (Thailand) safety is usually the last concern after money and unfortunately PADI and other drive organisations make no effort to check on the standards applied by professionals they certify…. It’s all about money! Best thing to do is find the name of the company and shame them on TripAdvisor and other web based media and then I’m sure they’ll improve…. No other method other than a loss of income will spur any action in this case.

    1. Anthony Middleton Reply

      Thanks for your support, Stuart.

      I do think a part of it was my fault as I didn’t think to check my oxygen, but this guy could not simply give a fuck about my well-being! I just wish I could remember the name to write a Tripadvisor post – I think a lot of my mind has blocked it out!

  4. K Reply

    Sorry man, hate to say it but 90% of it was your fault. Ok, you can blame your dive master if you like for your bad Blue Hole experience, but really, it’s your bad. If you’re inexperienced why did you stray from the group? Why didn’t you monitor your gauge? Why didn’t you buddy breathe with the dive master until you could surface safely? By shooting up to the surface from your depth you risked decompression sickness. If you’re a certified diver you’d know all of this. I have never, ever met a person who completely ran out of air without realizing it. It’s pretty extreme for a diver not to check his own air on a deep dive.

    I did a Blue Hole dive and a dozen other dives in Belize with no problems in our whole group. On every trip the dive master prepared us in advance with instructions – checking air was the #1 priority.

    It’s YOUR life. If you want to be irresponsible about it, that’s on you. Don’t blame the scuba industry of Belize for your experience.

    1. Anthony Middleton Reply

      There’s a Scuba Diva instructor in the comments who disagrees with you. I didn’t ‘stray’ from the group – I couldn’t keep up!

    2. Anthony Middleton Reply

      Also, I don’t totally blame him. I think it’s 50/50 and you haven’t convinced me otherwise. It seems you didn’t read the article properly.

    3. DaVig Reply

      (I know this is an old post, but just came across it)

      I’m sorry too. I agree with K; it’s 90/10 mostly on you. It sucks you had that experience, but it’s not a 50/50 responsibility. You have a higher responsibility for your own life. There’s really no such thing as a “trust dive” that you can rely on. Sure, there are some awesome DMs who are on-the-spot and will save your bacon. Awesome DMs are also not super heros; sh*t happens and if you don’t have the experience and equipment for a dive to handle an emergency then all bets are off. And of course there are bad DMs and bad dive outfits. But you always have a choice to dive or not dive. Your gut was already telling you what to do and you ignored it. Or you let your testosterone muffle what your gut was telling you (ha, you’re not the only dude – been there done that!)

      “Seeing so I was fond of my newfound pastime of scuba diving it made perfect sense that I would sign up for a dive in The Great Blue Hole”
      – I know “perfect sense” is a bit of sarcasm on your part showing you know it actually made no sense to do the Blue Hole after only five dives on an OW cert.

      “Do you ever get the feeling that someone is not listening to you but they’re saying the right words to shut you up? … I felt antsy as we got on the boat.”
      – Only five dives. I’m feeling antsy. What’s my gut saying? Don’t dive. Our bodies and sub-conscience have an amazing way of trying to keep us alive.

      “It turned out that [the other divers] averaged over a thousand dives – they were pretty much ninjas of the ocean and I was the odd one out.”
      – All others have much more experience than me. I’m the only one with less than 40 dives planning to do a “bottomless” dive. I didn’t get the warm fuzzies from the DM and I’m already antsy on the boat. Don’t dive.

      “As we submerged ourselves into the water the dive master didn’t make any effort to stay by my side … I constantly played catch up as we swam under the cave.”
      – I’m recently certified as an OW diver, only about five additional dives. I’m likely in over my head without attention from the DM if things go wrong. My suspicions about the DM not giving a sh*t about me are being confirmed. Turn the dive and ascend.

      “..after a tight and claustrophobic squeeze through an underground tunnel…”
      – ?&*%!! Now I’m in an overhead situation – no direct exit to surface. I should not have come in here without more training.

      “I saw a shiver of around twenty hammerhead sharks prowling roughly four metres below me as we were 40 metres below the ocean. I was in awe!”
      – I’m in about 40 meters – the max rec diver depth and well beyond the OW cert depth (and I know this because I knew when I got my dive cert that I couldn’t dive the Katori Maru since it was below my OW cert max depth.)

      “I am responsible for my life and I should have been more vigilant with my oxygen meter (if that’s what they are even called).”
      – Exactly! 100% (except for the “oxygen meter” part 🙂

      You can’t claim that you didn’t have an idea of the pitfalls and dangers of diving beyond your training. You obtained your OW cert – my guess is PADI from Kuching Dive Center. If it was a decent PADI course, there are like a hundred places where it warns about diving beyond your training. You were not totally naive nor unaware and you made a choice.

      All that said, I don’t mean to sound like a d*ick. It sucks you had a crappy DM but it’s great you were able to get yourself out without injury. But you made the decision to dive against the knowledge and gut feel you had telling you not to.

      And no self-righteousness here on my part. I did the exact same thing as a pretty inexperienced diver on some wreck dives in the South Pac; like the President Coolidge. I did multiple roughly 45-meter wreck penetrations on just an OW cert. Out group was lucky that the DMs we were with were experience, very careful, and very attentive. But if any sh*t hit the fin (ha), I probably wouldn’t be writing this. I look back now and realize what an idiot I was, lol.

      Happy diving dude!

  5. Mam Reply

    I bet you think I’m going to worry after reading this. You’re wrong .I still remember the phone call after you foughtTo get on dry land now that worried me Mam xx

  6. Vanessa Reply

    I like your writing style. I go scuba diving here every other year, I love the whole experience. I recently started using https://dive.site as a logbook in order to keep track of my dive sites. It’s cool that I can also search new dive spots or even add new my own.