Burr Hole to Blue Hole: A Surgeon's Desert Diving

Summer had come and gone, and   I’d foregone diving for a conventional family vacation. Meaning, I hadn’t been in the water in over sixteen months, not since Cozumel in 2004.   Although it was winter I schemed, and finally decided to look into a quick trip to Baja California for freediving with the Solomons outfit.  

The website and photos looked appealing.  The Solomons wrote articles for Deeper Blue and seemed to know what they were doing.   They seemed to be reputable.  I made inquiries, and Maria-Teresa made the unexpected suggestion that I consider freediving with Aharon Solomons in New Mexico rather than in their home waters of the Gulf of Baja.   Instead of plane reservations for La Paz, I booked for the LaQuinta Inn in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

After an exchange of views with Aharon, a plan was set.   A middle-aged freediving duffer Oklahoma neurosurgeon would rendezvous with an Israeli international freediving expert in the small New Mexican town of Santa Rosa to freedive in an ancient freshwater spring, the Blue Hole.

I’d become a certified SCUBA diver at age 14 (in 1967) and have continued  diving since then.   In medical school I arranged for an elective in Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. It was, of course, a thinly-veiled excuse to go diving. 

After graduation, I joined the Undersea Medical Society, and following my residency in neurosurgery I finally became an accidental freediver in the Caymans in 1986. I’m aware of shallow water blackout and its physiology,  but lacking a freediving buddy I’ve taught myself and dive alone.  Beginning with the old SCUBA mask and fins and no real freediving resources, I slowly came round to a small mask and old ScubaPro Jet fins with dives to 60 feet.  Tanya Streeter came into the picture during one such family vacation in the Caymans. Tanya was gracious and gave me a video of her record dive, which quickly made it apparent that there was a lot I didn’t know. A few years later, my daughters and I took a brief freediving course over a weekend with noticeable improvements in breath-holding times and depth.  This led to a personal best of a 70-foot dive for 80 seconds in Bonaire.

So, in view of my isolation, infrequent dive trips and mostly self-taught skills, I agreed with Aharon’s proposal of a four-day session to work on freediving style and techniques. It seemed…eccentric to drive from one land-locked town in Oklahoma to another in New Mexico, but one must be flexible when it comes to freediving.

I loaded the car with four wetsuits of varying thickness, four masks, hooded vest, gloves, a thermos of coffee, books-on-tape and launched a seven hour drive west to the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. 

After overcoming some local and regional telecommunication problems, I met Aharon and the rest of the group, which included two other DeeperBlue contributors: Cliff Etzel and Nico Danan.   Cliff was in search of underwater video material for his latest projects and Nico, a citizen of the world who is French but lives in Santa Fe, was practicing his monofin technique.  They’d had some practice already, while I was incommunicado and strung out from the road.

We began with a didactic session.  Aharon introduced his Twenty Safety Rules, which were not quickly skimmed over.  I decided not to, eh, disclose to Aharon those of my misadventures that confirmed the wisdom of several these rules. 

Aharon’s rules are based on human nature (don’t dive alone and don’t Rambo to depth) and physiology.  The foundations of each rule and the consequences of violation were covered in detail.  Some of his rules were directly applicable to my own diving adventures.  

As an example, I occasionally equalize on ascent, assuming that my squeaky ears benefit from a gentle Frenzel on the way up.  It had never occured to me that the squeaks had anything to do with re-expansion of the air I’d taken in on the surface and compressed during the descent.  The bell went off. Aharon was right.

Another example was the emphasis on surface ventilation, not only to optimize O2 and CO2 (of course !) but to also begin apnea with a dive- reflex-enhancing bradycardia.  

I was given an assignment to read his Freedivers Course Manual overnight.

My introduction to the Blue Hole came the next day. Okay, it’s nothing compared to its oceanic namesakes: pretty unimpressive.  In the midst of eastern New Mexico’s typical brown and beige rolling terrain, it’s a spot of deep blue spring-fed water amongst the rocks on the side of a hill – in a Santa Rosa city park.   There’s a non-descript concrete block building with the air station for SCUBA divers, and a large parking lot which is usually empty during the winter except on weekends. The spot is not much bigger than a large swimming pool but is 81 feet deep, a constantly cool 61 degrees Fahrenheit year round and clear due to a constant flow of 3000 gallons per hour. At the surface the visibility extends to about 30 feet.   Below that the visibility clears notably. 

It felt closer to 51 degrees. Not balmy at all.

As the certified rookie and official student, I started out with pulldowns on the line.   Cold water and specific directions on techniques made the early going a bit tentative, but as I adjusted to the training situation things did come along.   Progress was slow, but safe and steady, and Aharon’s critiques and comments were specific and accurate.

The Hole was deserted: we had the whole place to ourselves.   I adjusted to the unfamiliar wetsuit hood and made mask adjustments to minimize leaks. My comfort depth was a bit below 30 feet and was limited due to the combination of an unfamiliar style and  concern about ear equalizations on the very first day.    While I did have some drive to “make a dive”, I was quite content to pull down and up the line.   I attended to details of technique and style and felt them to come along well enough.  The stress was mild, motivating and manageable.  

I did find that my longstanding freediving posture of neck extended  on descent to look forward did not meet Aharon’s approval.  The proper style with a non-extended neck in a neutral position did seem to make equalization a bit easier.   This correlated with one of the Safety Rules and related to the definite but subtle effect of neck position on the soft tissues of the throat and, especially, the Eustachian tubes. 

Before finishing for the day, Aharon wanted to see my finning technique and I was instructed to perform vertical finning.   I proceeded to do so while being videoed.   I thought I performed rather well, perhaps even exceptionally so. Aharon, on the other hand, immediately felt that my fins were wrong and later, a review of Cliff’s video did show that the fins were too stiff.  What a teaching tool the video is !   I could see what Aharon was seeing.  The fins were a disappointment, since I was quite proud of them.  Back home I’m regarded as an old ex-scuba diver that has perhaps suffered from too frequent, low-grade occult type II DCS events, leaving me befuddled and fixated on freediving.   Humoring me a few years ago, my friendly dive shop  obtained what we considered to be super trick, high-powered, state-of-the-art, carbon blade Mares Pippin Attack Fins.   Gee, they are too stiff.  I was consoled by the offer swap out the carbon blades for some more suitable Sporasub blades.

Continued Next Week…