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Kissed by the darkness

I will never forget the first time the cave went dark. We were at Owl's hole, a beautiful cenote not too far from the beach. A long steel ladder was the only way in and out of the crystal-clear blue pond sitting at its bottom. We were there for a training dive with a clear plan: Yolly and I would dive as a team and Cristina would be “the cave fairy”, which is a nice way to say she would harass us for the whole dive.

I knew the drill, but it worried me. Cristina was a very experienced cave explorer and she was old-school. And like any other successful cave explorer, she believed it was precisely her being old-school that made her live to tell her stories. I knew her training style had the only purpose of keeping her students alive, but it certainly did nothing to put me at ease.

The memory of our first lights-out drill was still fresh in my mind and it wasn't pretty. The hardest part of diving blindfolded is managing your buoyancy, hovering weightless is almost impossible when you can’t see. So when Cristina tested us for the first time, we found ourselves frantically kicking, dragging on the bottom, yanking the line out of place and killing each other a few times. In two words: it was stressful and humbling, way more stressful and humbling than I thought a training dive could be. "Its’ OK, It’s not real training if students don’t kill each other a few times" Cristina commented, but I could tell she was not happy.

Today was the day we would get a second chance to get it right, the only second chance one ever gets in a cave diving career. I swam in first, leaving my thoughts, doubts and fears at the surface and entering cave with a clear mind. The line, the light, the cave: that's all there is.

The first few meters in always feel like twilight and soon the only visible light was from the beam of our torches. The cavern is huge, so big it’s impossible to see the other end. I laid the line, zigzagging over a rock-fall, then mid-water and to the sign. “STOP unless cave trained” I read as we swam past it.

A few meters deeper I find myself hovering above what looks like a layer of oil floating mid-water. It’s a halocline, the boundary between fresh and salt water and, like a liquid lens, it warps the shape of anything you see through it. As our fins disturb it, vision goes blurry, like we have no mask. My hand reaches for the line for a second, until we're through and can see again.

The cave is all white, of a chalk so soft that it crumbles as you touch it. Even bubbles, percolating through the rock, make the ceiling flake, creating a mineral snowfall in the blue halo of our LED lights. It's magic.

We move slowly, breathe slowly and think slowly. Everything in the cave has a new dimension. As we reach what looks like the end of the chamber, the line makes a sharp turn into a vertical opening that leads deeper into another section. It’s tight and I have to turn sideways to slide in. At the bottom is a small tunnel of black spongy rock: it’s fossilized coral and it’s as beautiful as it is sharp. The passage winds East for half a mile, finally connecting to a puddle in the middle of the jungle known as Mermaid's Lair.

As I keep swimming further in, restriction after restriction, my brain is in a state of absolute focus. The line, the light, the cave means your sense of awareness needs to be at the highest. Besides monitoring time, depth and gas reserves, you must never loose visual contact with the guideline, keep an eye on your buddy's lights and look at the cave so that you don't ram into it or kick the silt off the bottom. We are 400' in, in a tight tunnel, and my brain is spinning with information and adrenaline. After the third restriction, we turn around.

On the way out I can see Yolly's lights but Cristina's are off: she is hiding. She must be hovering around me in the dark and I know what this means. As soon as we leave the coral tunnel, Yolly's light goes dark, immediately after I hear the click of my switch. Darkness hits us like a punch in the ribs.

Fight or flight! my instinct is screaming as I take a deep breath. Stress alters your breathing pattern, which affects your buoyancy, which stresses you further into a vicious cycle. You have to train your instincts, exhale, clear your mind and feel what the cave is trying to tell you. I grab the line, only connection to the exit. Losing the line in the dark, would pretty much be a GAME OVER.

It's dark. Not dark like a moonless night, or like a spooky basement in a country house, it's dark like we are blind divers in a bucket of black paint. When the lights went off, all that tension, all that alertness disappeared. There is no gauge you can read or cave to look at, and kicking up the silt, all of a sudden, is not a big problem anymore. When lights are off you are relieved of all decisions, because you are out of options. All you have is a line in your hand and some gas in the tanks: there is only one thing you can do: follow that line out and hope your regulator does not go dry before you see the light. It's dire, but it's simple.

I close my eyes, push back all the thoughts that want to come out and clear my mind. Suddenly feel warm and comfortable, like the cave just wrapped me in a soft sensual hug. I can feel Yolly's hand grabbing my elbow, the guideline locked in my right hand and the noise of my own bubbles. My breathing is slow again, and so is my heartbeat.

We start swimming, slowly, inch by inch, until my left hand hits a wall. If I remember correctly this is the huge boulder in the middle of the chamber, after which is the hardest part: a long mid-water leap to the rockfall, with no ceiling or bottom to feel. I grab Yolly's hand and place it on the next pitch of line and we keep going. Kick after kick, the line starts running on my fingers, faster and faster, effortlessly. It feels natural, like a dance. The closer we get, the smoother and faster we move, until a chill runs down my spine, and my eyes start tearing, it's joy, euphoria, excitement: I could follow this line for ever. As we reach the rockfall, Cristina taps me on the head, it's the end of the drill. I open my eyes and see the bluish halo of the exit. Like waking up from a dream, I almost don't want to turn my light back on.

As we leave the water, I climb the ladder out, drop my tanks on the truck and run towards the beach. The wind is blowing in my face and the light from the cloudy sky feel so bright it's blinding. It's the most beautiful light I have ever seen. Today I became a cave diver.

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