While scuba diving has become a form of meditation for me, freediving has become my biggest challenge. One that I struggled with so much the first time around that I may or may not have cried a little. But allegedly, struggle is good for you and so I thought I should try it again.
When in Mexico the cenotes in the Riviera Maya provide a unique backdrop not just for scuba diving but also for freediving. One of the most popular is Casa Cenote, a cenote near Tulum. Here beginners of all calibers mix with snorkelers to explore the underwater mangroves and say hello to the famous local resident: Pancho, the crocodile.
Yes, that is correct: handing out at Casa Cenote equals handing out with a crocodile, the reason this cenote is so popular.
Freediving at Casa Cenote
Luckily I don’t know about Pancho yet when we meet Thibault our freediving instructor at Blue Life as well as Hannah and Diana my fellow students in the morning. For now, it is just another morning at the dive center and we pack our gear: freediving fins and mask (which has a smaller volume than a scuba mask), a 5mm wetsuit as cenotes near Tulum get a chilly 25 degrees, weights, and a buoy.
Blue Life offers various freediving courses including a one-day “Try freediving course”. Perfect for those who are short on time or want to try it first before committing to a full course. Since I don’t care for a diving certification at the end of it this offer is perfect for me as it is my last day in Mexico.
From the dive shop in Playa del Carmen, it is a 45 minutes drive to Casa Cenote and once we arrive we find a quiet spot to go through the physiology of freediving. On the beach, we practice equalizing and I am glad to realize that brushing up on my skills the night before comes in handy (check out this awesome video by master freediver Adam). We also discuss the breath up, necessary for any freedive, however, since this is a trial course we don’t go into detail.
Then it is time to gear up, my least favorite part of any dive and this one is no exception. While Casa Cenote is already crowded even in the morning, I take my wetsuit into the water to wiggle my way in hoping to look somewhat gracefully or having my antics stay undetected underwater. Once we are all suited up, we find a place by the shore to practice our first real underwater breath ups and for Thibault to time our breath-holding skills. Face in the water there is not much to see yet except for a few tiny fish who like to nibble on my fingers while I try to hold on to some mossy rocks. After ten minutes we have gathered a crowd on the street – while divers are a common sight around the best cenotes in Tulum, divers who motionlessly float on the surface are apparently not.
Afterward, it is time to explore the cenote and we make our way deeper inside. Unlike other cenotes in Tulum, Casa Cenote meanders through mangrove forests offering a mix of fresh and salt water. First things first: we pay our tribute to Pancho who is chilling in the sunshine in his resident spot, a lone warning sign next to him. He doesn’t seem bothered by us or the many other visitors who have come only to see him but disappears into the cool water after a while. Only now do I truly appreciate that he and I are going to be sharing this cenote for the next few hours and all of a sudden I am very happy to be wearing a 5mm wetsuit instead of a bikini like most of the snorkelers. Whether it would deter him, I feel like I am wearing armor.
But Pancho doesn’t seem the least bit interested in our underwater endeavors and neither in the scuba divers who are oblivious to him in the water below. He is heading to his second favorite spot, hidden even deeper in the mangroves of Casa Cenote.
While Thibault assures me that he has known Pancho since he was a baby and has never harmed anyone, I am relieved to be diving away from his watchful gaze; after all, freediving is all about relaxing not easily said and done when next to a crocodile.
We set up the buoy and get to work: breath up on the buoy, backflip and down the rabbit hole line we go. Unlike my first freediving attempts, there is no tennis ball to reach, no big blue to intimidate me. A big rock awaits in a few meters depths, easy to reach so I can focus on my equalizing, body position and learn to relax instead of trying to push myself.
We take turns going down head first or feet first, take our time to look around at the bottom and even let go of the oh so safe line to explore our surroundings once we are underwater. Upon coming up we discuss each dive with Thibault, evaluate what we did right and what can be improved upon. Unlike last time, I don’t struggle this time. I am not necessarily better (a year of no practice will do that to you!) but I enjoy trying a lot more. There is no goal to achieve, no certification waiting – just a new world to explore.
After a couple of hours, we collect the buoy and make our way into the mangroves. Amongst the mangroves it is quiet, one can see why Pancho prefers them as the snorkelers and swimmers stay on the main waterways. Even we don’t get to see him again and instead make our way through the branches and roots, penetrating the labyrinth of Casa Cenote deeper as we go.
Eventually, we are all hungry, a bit breathless and cold even in our thick wetsuits and Thibault leads the way out of the maze. Back at shore, we eat our lunch and pack up our gear. Diana and Hannah are chatting excitedly about their dives and their future as free divers. I am not as ecstatic but quietly pleased. I haven’t managed to dive for long or go very deep, but I managed to something even better – to relax while holding my breath and under the watchful eye of a crocodile. Not a small accomplishment if you ask me even if my face doesn’t show it.
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