Days 20-26 – Diving in Utila

I’ve definitely caught the diving bug since my last post. I last left off midway through the Advanced Open Water diving course. On day 21, I completed the final three dives which were the wreck dive, the peak performance buoyancy dive, and the night dive. For the wreck dive, our instructor chose to explore the Halliburton 211. The Halliburton 211 is an old cargo ship from the oil company Halliburton’s fleet. It was sunk intentionally just off the south side of Utila some twenty years ago. The intentional sinking was conducted at a time when all of the dive shops on the island were embattled in various feuds. Thus, it was meant to reunite the island under a common cause. The ship itself was massive underwater. We descended upon the stern and moved our way around the outside of the hull to the bow. Once reaching the bow, we moved to a large portion of the hull that was cut out and left for divers to swim through. I mismanaged my buoyancy when grazing through this part of the ship and hit the top of my tank on the ceiling. No major issues though. There were actually quite a few air pockets in the same spot, but I didn’t have the courage to stick my head or hand through any of them (probably a smart decision, as well). Next, we increased our buoyancy to swim through the captain’s bridge. Interestingly enough, people have submerged random bicycles all over the wreck since it’s sinking. The descent was over open water and the visibility was limited. This called for us to ascend using the dive boat’s mooring line. At roughly 50 feet, the surge and current picked up monumentally. Both myself and my buddy swam towards the mooring line for 2-4 minutes without making any progress. At this point, I abandoned streamlining and starting swimming with my hands. Eventually, we made it to the line. Then, of course, my mask flooded so I was forced to clear it. As I cleared it, the current swept me away from the mooring line. One of the other divers outstretched her hand just as I was exiting her reach. I just barely grabbed her fingers and she pulled me back. The whole thing felt like it took minutes but it actually happened over a few seconds. There really wasn’t any danger so it was funny experiencing it.

A short 45 minutes later, we descended upon a site called Moonhole for our peak performance buoyancy dive. This dive was one of my favorites, yet. First, you start by descending knees first to the bottom of the ocean floor. From here, you tweak your buoyancy to allow only your breath to slightly move your position up or down. I almost had an incident during this portion of the dive. When I was about half a meter from the bottom, I noticed a portion of ocean floor moving just below me. Turns out, it wasn’t the ocean floor—it was a yellow stingray. I hit my low pressure BCD inflator and inhaled deeply to initiate a small ascent. We all paused an observed the stingray for a moment after. Next, we all practiced hovering skills. This is when you are neither floating or sinking, but simply hovering in midwater. It took some time to alter our buoyancies and adjust our breathing methods but we all succeeded. We then moved to a series of challenges. The first challenge was to swim through roughly a 2 metered wide PVC circle at the bottom. We all made it through fairly easily the first time, so our instructor made it more challenging by having us swim through upside down. Next, we had to knock down a series of weights at the bottom using only our regulators. We had to nail our buoyancy so that upon exhaling our bodies would just float down enough to knock the weights over. Just at the time of this challenge, though, the surge picked up added additional challenge. Lastly, we did handstands and played frisbee in our hovering positions. Frisbee was tough because you never quite knew which direction it would go.

We got back to the dive center for a 1.5 hour break until the night dive. Most of us just snacked to avoid overeating for the dive. The night dive was absolutely incredible. Between spotting all the crawling creatures, squid, barracuda, and other fish, we spent 5-10 minutes seated at the bottom the ocean floor in darkness. I say darkness—and not complete darkness—because there was still some light. The light came from bioluminescent ostracods. These are tiny organisms that emit a small light to attract mates. They then join together forming long strings of “pearls” visible to the eye. The string of pearls were everywhere around us. They looked like miniature sections of Christmas lights floating around every which way midwater. It was an experience that left me in awe. It was an experience left me wanting to see it again. Our dive ended shortly afterward. Another interesting interaction that I witnessed just before the end was a squid about one foot long snatch a goby fish into its mouth. For whatever reason, it did not like the goby fish and spewed it back out. Since it was so dark, this was the only thing I could see at the moment. Later that night, a bunch of people went out to this bar built into trees in the middle of the island. I skipped this, however, because i was essentially falling asleep at dinner from the dives.

The next day I completed my two extra adventure dives. The first dive was drift dive along a coral reef wall. A drift dive is when you drop into the water into a current, ride the current the whole dive, and then get picked up by a boat at the end. I was really excited for this one, but my excitement was mitigated by recurrent mask problems. I exchanged my mask at the surface for a bigger one. Initially, the mask felt great on land. However, once submerged in the water, the mask leaked on the right side every 30-60 seconds. Resultantly, I was forced to clear my mask constantly. I still enjoyed the dive because we saw a myriad of marine life (and a sea turtle), but I was very frustrated. The second dive was over a small shipwreck called Ron’s Wreck. Next to the wreck was a huge coral bed and several moon holes. This was one of my favorite dives of all time. We spent most the five between 12-18m, but the surge was incredibly powerful. It was really fun to just let my body drift with the surge. Several times through the dive, I focused on buoyancy and “Buddha-posed” above coral formations. It was so relaxing. At one point, a school of blue tang (more commonly referred to as Dory) swam right beneath me. I did absolutely nothing the rest of the day besides contemplate on what I would do for the next few days.

Ultimately, I decided to embark on my toughest challenge yet—enroll in the Rescue Diver course. Those who have completed the course share that it is both the most challenging but rewarding course in scuba school. You learn how to anticipate and fix problems in and out of water. The course is completed with what is called the “Hell Dive.” I’ve heard so many stories about the Hell Dive, but from what I’ve learned so far, you’re paired with a Divemaster who simulates anything and everything that can go wrong underwater to both you and your buddy. Your job is to stay level-headed and fix all these issues. With excitement and a slight amount of terror, I enrolled in the course. At Alton’s Dive Center, the Rescue Diver course is 2.5 days. The first day is an EFR, or Emergency First Responder, and CPR certification course. You learn how to treat people using both primary and secondary care. The goal is train people to treat non-life threatening issues and sustain life until emergency services arrive. The second day is rescue diving theory and diver unresponsiveness training. The theory outlines 5 chapters of a rescue diver textbook that took several hours to complete. On the third day, a test is taken over the theory portion of the class. Then, you are in the water from about 10-5. The morning occupied with confined water training where you practice encountering a nonresponsive diver, surfacing, and towing to the boat while giving rescue breaths. The afternoon is occupied with two different dives: 1) missing diver search and surfacing unresponsive diver in open water, and 2) the Hell Dive.

Day 26

I’m now writing this portion of the post after completing the rescue diving course. I am officially a certified rescue diver. Myself and one other girl (Sam) from the states were enrolled in the class together. The course was somewhat tiring but so much fun. All of the confined water training and theory was put to test yesterday in the open water dives. We boarded the boat around 1PM and headed out to the dive site. Piling on the anticipation, the boat broke down about halfway out to the dive site forcing us to return back to Alton’s and switch boats. Some of the divemasters and divemaster trainees had fun with us while we were waiting for the second boat to arrive. They repeatedly “slipped” off the dock and needed saving. This gave us practice throwing life rings and making emergency swimming rescues. I have to say, I’m deadly accurate throwing life rings. It’s my go to in emergency situations. After about a 30-45 minute wait, the boat arrived and we headed back out to the familiar dive site Moonhole. Moonhole is a giant circular sand patch surrounded by sloping coral walls. There was an open water class on the boat with us, too, so we had the chance to help them all with their gear and teach them subtle hints. That was a good experience.

Our first dive was the missing diver search and surfacing an unresponsive diver. It began by Jess, the lead divemaster, diving down and submerging our makeshift missing diver named Jerome. Jerome was an empty milk jug tied to a weight belt with one fin. Jerome was a bad diver. Sam and I jumped in the water and began discussing which search pattern to use. Our options were either a U-pattern search or an expanding square. Since we didn’t know which direction Jerome was in, we chose the expanding square. We paused momentarily in our descent as a sea turtle swam into our midst. Sea turtles generally do not cross into Moonhole very often, so we were pretty lucky. After only two minutes of conducting our search pattern, we spotted Jerome embedded in a small patch of sand in the coral reef. We quickly swam over to him, finishing our missing diver search in only three minutes. Granted we were lucky because the visibility was tremendous, but we still set the record for fastest find. The previous record was four minutes. We wanted to register the dive as a real dive, so we had to have at least 20 minutes of bottom time. We spent the remaining time swimming around and trying skills like disconnecting our BCD’s inflator and reconnecting it.

Next, we each took turns surfacing an unresponsive diver from approximately 12m down. You begin by assessing the situation around the diver—looking for clues as to what happened or signs of immediate danger (moray eels, sharks, etc). Next, you approach the diver and try to get his or her attention. If the diver does not respond, you mount the diver’s tank with your knees and deflate both the victim’s and your BCD. This gives you full control. Then, you tilt the airway open. If the regulator is in the mouth still, you leave it in. If not, then you don’t waste time putting it back in. Next, you play the victim’s BCD inflator like piano keys switching back and forth between inflating and deflating. This ensures a slow and controlled ascent to the surface. Once at the surface, you establish buoyancy for the victim and yourself by inflating BCD’s and dropping weight belts. Once positive buoyancy is set, you take out the victim’s mask and regulator along with your own. Using the head tilt-chin lift method to open the airway, you analyze the victim for signs of breathing. If the victim is not breathing, you shout back tot he boat “Captain, captain, we have a non-breathing unresponsive diver. Call EMS, recall divers, and prepare oxygen. This starts the most tiresome part of the rescue—the tow. You start the tow by administering two deep rescue breaths followed by one every five seconds. If the diver is still unresponsive after 1-2 minutes AND the boat is more than five minutes away, you administer two large breaths again and then discontinue them. Instead, you focus all your efforts on towing the victim back tot he boat/shore as quickly as possible. If the boat IS within five minutes, you continue administering rescue breaths every five seconds while towing. You start to get into a groove after a while. This allows you to begin taking off the victim’s and your own BCD. The objective is to have all equipment off of both people before arriving at the boat so that primary care can be initiated as soon as possible. Towing the pretend victim was really challenging because we were towing against the current. Overall, however, this dive was heaps (as the Aussies would say) of fun.

The next dive was our hell dive. Problems begging right away on the boat as the divemasters intentionally equip their gear incorrectly. Conducting proper buddy checks (Beer, Whiskey, Rum, Always Fun) or (BCD, Weights, Releases, Air, and Final Check) ensures that everyone is equipped safely. Everything from the descent down was a blur to me. Essentially, almost everything that can go wrong underwater did go wrong in our hell dive. Here are some examples led by the divemasters:

  • Bolting to the surface
  • Taking off BCDs
  • Ripping out regulators
  • Unstrapping tanks
  • Throwing sand, etc.

The only rule was that they could not turn off our air. The purpose of the dive is to train and educate, so turning off air is just deemed dangerous. It was only a 37 minute dive, but I went through over 3000 PSI of air (thats a huge amount). We were constantly moving and solving problems. It was a blast, though. Ironically enough, one of the instructors actually slipped and fell off the boat when we pulled into the bay. I jumped in after her with a mask, snorkel, fins, and a life jacket. I asked her what happened and she said that I wouldn’t believe she actually fell in by accident. I told her she owes everyone a beer for it.

That night, a big group of us went out to Mango Inn again. It consisted of people from France, Holland, Germany,Australia, and the USA. Mango Inn is the place with buy one get one free pizzas on tuesdays. Myself and my busy Matt both smashed a large pizza.

I was coerced into making an appearance at a local bar that gives free “tequila” shots from 9-10. I say “tequila” because I can confidently tell you that was not tequila. It was gasoline.

I ended up embracing Mother Nature last night by sleeping in a hammock on the dock. I eventually moved to my room around 2 AM. This morning I used my two fun dives. It’s amazing how much more confidence I have underwater after only taking a two day course. I’m glad I decided to do it. I planned my exit poorly from this island so I have to complete a detour to get to Roatan by tomorrow morning. I fly out to San José, Costa Rica at 12:10 PM but the only ferry from Utila to Roatan is at 10:15. Now I have to take a ferry this afternoon to La Ceiba and then an additional ferry from La Ceiba to Roatan. I’ll be staying the night there tonight. Im really going to miss Utila. Stopping at this island was the best spontaneous choice I’ve made on my trip so far.

I also want to take a moment to discuss what’s going on in Guatemala. Many of the backpackers here like myself recently climbed Acatenango and El Fuego. We’ve been monitoring the tragedy from afar. I don’t even know how to put the way I feel into words about what’s happened. It’s just sad. It feels quite surreal that I was standing on El Fuego just over a week ago. If I had more time in my trip, I would go help. My thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted by the eruptions.

Countries I Have Met People From:

USA

Mexico

Germany

Belgium

Hungary

Costa Rica

England

Ireland

Switzerland

Belize

Israel

Czech Republic

Australia

South Africa

Guatemala

Nicaragua

Colombia

Taiwan

Japan

Italy

Canada

Austria

Norway

France

The Netherlands

New Zealand

Burkina Faso

Malta

Scotland

Brazil

Finland

Vietnam

Spain

7 thoughts on “Days 20-26 – Diving in Utila

    1. Wow after 21 posts I’ve just figured out how to comment back! You should absolutely do the rescue course. It was so much fun!

      Like

  1. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” – Thoreau

    Liked by 1 person

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