Malpique: Where the soul is lost in black coral

A friend once wrote to me that he had lost his soul at some point on the outer reef of Malpique and has been searching for it ever since. Still and again, it pulls him there just magically into the depths.
Arguably lyrical, but fitting nonetheless: few places in the world have such an attraction for me. In that one deep crevice where the barracudas hide – I think a part of my soul got stuck there, too.

Torre de Malpique - the tower

The tower of Malpique, from below. Mystery, goal, signpost.

When you meet Malpique….

… then probably the first thing you see are the crosses, the canyon, maybe the wall, and if you dive really well the arch. Beautiful, fascinating – and the dive through the blue to the tower, feasible for normal sport divers, can already take off your shoes. For the technical divers, another dive site starts here.
Where the recreational depth ends, so does the tower, this lava monstrosity overgrown with black coral. From one side it looks like a heart, from above like a needle, as a shadow in the blue like a vague signpost. As such, you leave it to the side when you head for the outer reef – the really outer one, still far below the arch. And here you end up at a wall whose end is not visible. 50m, 60, – the view wanders deeper and deeper, into the endless blue. In a crevice stands a school of barracudas, guarded by a large amber jack, sometimes chasing back and forth or swimming in circles. It doesn’t take long, then you have to go up again.
The blue downward is in fact not endless at all. At 90m it turns into sand. From down there, the view up the cliff face is incredible: over 30m, the forest of black coral lies vertically on the cliff face. But you can not stay, it is only a few minutes that we may be guests in the depths.

But how do you get that deep?

Back then, when divers were still strong men with beards, when parents smoked with their children in the car, well, back then, of course, people already dived out there, with a single bottle on their backs, and without a computer, and most of the times that went well. Most of the time, at least.
Today, much has changed, and really often for the better. Also the safety thinking in diving: We want to be sure to resurface, and we want to resurface even if something goes wrong or we make a mistake. That’s why you don’t just do it like that anymore, but slowly move deeper with proper training. And every, really every single step of this approach is worth doing in itself.

The Barracuda Fissure in Malpique

“Just a little decompression”

The old hands like to claim that a bit of deco is part of the basic training and that you should just do it. You learned how to “calculate” deco dives anyway. Unfortunately, they often mean nothing more than that the person can read off a decompression table.
Others, however, the gods of tek, are convinced that from 30m onwards, trimix, a redundant gas supply, a long hose and two knives are needed. Everything always configured the same for everyone, of course.
I am quite sure that you can do both and much in between: dive the tower sometimes with mono cylinder, sometimes with trimix, sometimes with mono cylinder without octopus and sometimes with D12 and three stages in the water, or even with rebreather, several bailouts and scooter – it all works.

But what you should clarify if you want to do deco dives:

  • Can I handle problems underwater without surfacing and without grossly losing my buoyancy?
  • Do I have enough breathing gas with me to make the dive and handle any potential problems?
  • How high a risk of decompression sickness do I accept, and how do I assess the risk?

A few minutes of deco is not a technical dive…

Even today, you don’t have to become a complete tekkie just to hang out for a few minutes. There are trainings at the different federations to do deco dives and to use a deco gas. This brings you a whole step further, but you don’t have to change your equipment completely. At SSI this is the “Decompression Diver”, other associations have similar courses.

Somewhere, though, that has a limit, usually set at dives above 40 meters. The reason for this: the breathing gas supply and redundancy.

Want to dive deeper

If the 40m are not enough, more gas will be needed at some point. A double bottle on the back, or one on each side – just so it can withstand a rock bottom calculation. And you have to know your way around gases: Oxygen can be nasty, and you also have to like nitrogen.
With double equipment and two stages you can go far – but at some point, especially when helium prices come into play, even that reaches a limit. Then you think about just breathing the same gas over and over – the rebreather is suddenly sitting in the back of your mind, grinning happily at you.

Many tanks for one dive

Clear in the head: Trimix

It’s beautiful, really beautiful down there. But you usually don’t really remember what you saw during deep dives with air – the ones that are perhaps too deep. It was a bit gray in any case….
These are very clear effects of nitrogen narcosis. Once you are in the same corner with Trimix, the colors come into play: you can now see how the column continues, see the red and the green and the contours become clear again…. Those who first change at the bottom can experience how this veil is lifted. Kind of like what you can feel when you dive deep with air on the way up.

Of course, the stuff is expensive, horribly time-consuming, and only for a few minutes of bottom time – but, yes, really: it’s worth it.

The outer reef, deep

What you put up with

All in all it is a long way to the bottom of the outer reef. A bottle on the back, and off into the water? It’s not that simple anymore.
Dives with gases you can’t breathe on the surface take a lot of planning and a lot of preparation. First of all, we need a dive plan: Where do we want to go, how long, what gases do we need? They then have to be mixed, the equipment may have to be adjusted again, and only then can we get started. So, after you manage to actually be in the water with all the equipment. And you know you have to get out too….

But then you look up from below. Directly below you the sand at 90m, above you this wall that you have always only glimpsed from above. Vertically upward, you emerge again, toward the sun shining through the fir trees. At 60m you feel at home again, flat, almost at the top. And remember how deep it felt just two weeks before, with air.
Then, at that moment, I had to think about rebreathers. I have since been able to see the area and a few others with my JJ, and it was the best decision I have made in recent years. But that will be a new story.

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