Text by ADM Explorer Erik Foreman
Photography by Luis Ya Lamuaya
When it comes to inner-space exploration, being first is king. New records are set every day. Depth, time, distance, and exploration are all reasons to push the envelope and see what’s possible.

Ecuador is the part of South America that for most divers means diving Gordon Rocks in the Galapagos or Salinas on the Pacific Coast. I did some research and found that Ecuador is full of volcanoes, and several of them contain deep, unexplored lakes. Based on local legend, logistics, and a gut feeling, I identified one primary and two secondary targets: good chances to dive at altitude, test my Megalodon COPIS, and satisfy the possibility of future exploration. I packed my CCR, sorb, two aluminum 40’s, wing, back plate, harness, armadillo-inspired side-mount system, dry suit, and everything else I would need to conquer Ecuador’s highest and most fabled lakes.
Extreme solo diving is not for everyone; but for me, this only added to the challenge. How would I know my mix at altitude in the thin air of the Ecuadorian Andes? Mathematics. As a diver ascends from sea level, the percent of various gases that make up the atmosphere remain the same. However, the partial pressures of these gases decrease. How much is a matter of calculation. Not completely trusting my own math skills, I turned to the experts at Innerspace Systems Corporation, where Leon and Jerry immediately set out to answer my question. What is the partial pressure of oxygen in the 11,500-12,500 foot altitude range? Within hours I had my answer: 0.14 in air and 0.67 in pure oxygen. With this crucial information, anything was possible.

The logistics of diving closed-circuit in the middle of Ecuador include finding gas, finding the dive site, and finding help getting to the water.
Immediately upon arriving in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, I put the valves back on my cylinders and headed out to find some air and oxygen. I looked in the phone book for the address for ADA, a local distributor for Linde Gases. The doorman hailed a taxi, and Luis Ya Lamuaya drove up. Little did I know it at the time, but he would become my driver, navigator, negotiator, shore support, and best friend. He told me he was a former Ecuadorian prize-fighter, and from his stature, I had little doubt. We made it to the plant, only to find out it was too dangerous to fill on that day. We were then told that if we came back the next day it would be all right.

Hopeful, yet disappointed and desperately needing a pick-me-up, I asked Luis if he knew of a place to get tattoos.
For weeks, the vision of a beautiful mermaid with my wife’s face and the body of a shark had entered my mind during long hours of deco. A sacrifice of flesh somehow seemed appropriate. A mythical denizen of the deep with long flowing hair would, I hoped, serve as a special good-luck charm. Dark, smoky, and crowded, the parlor was just what one might expect to find in the back alleyways of Quito’s red light district. After a two hour artist’s translation of a fleeting dream to permanent ink on skin, I returned to the hotel to rest, confident I would be back in the water soon.

After two more days, several different supervisors, one hydro, and much pleading, Senor Juan Cova came to my rescue and supplied me with a cylinder of oxygen. I was told I would have to leave the plant and trans-fill my own cylinder on the street. We left the factory, drove around the corner, and using a state of the art portable blending station that Steve Rokicki of Submerged Resources, Inc., supplied me, we trans-filled, returned the other cylinder, and hit the road.

The highest and most technically challenging objective would be my first choice: the crater at Quilotoa. Approximately 9 miles to the north of Zumbahua lies the village and infamous volcanic crater Quilotoa with a serene mysterious green lake inside.

From the rim of the crater, you descend approximately 1300 feet through a deep cut in the wall before reaching the level of the lake at approximately 11,500 feet. With the lake itself over 950 feet deep, I knew most of it would be out of my reach, but still I dreamed of what the bottom might hold. We arrived to find the small village market deserted of other tourists. Since I was the first diver the locals had ever seen, they were eager to help. We gathered up all my gear and started the climb down from the greater rim.

At first glimpse, the dive site seemed a daunting distance, but after descending the steep trail for about thirty minutes and rounding a small bend, a couple of boats and a colorfully-dressed woman came into view. I reached the small sandy beach and dropped gear. Quickly surveying the dive site, I noticed that other than a thick mat of algae surrounding the water’s edge, the entry would be fairly routine. By this time, Luis and the rest of my gear had arrived. It was time to dive, so I donned my dry suit. The local men began to divide up my stuff, certain I was never to return alive. I pulled on my rebreather, and Luis began to stage me up. The women began to pray out loud, asking God to spare my life. I thanked them, needing all the help I could get.

Entering the water, I pushed the long, green, stringy algae aside. The bottom maintained a steep angle all the way to the shore. With compass set, light on, and camera ready, I gave the locals a wave, and slipped beneath the surface. Because of the low pH of the water, I had been told that nothing other than algae lived in this lake. But in any body of water this deep, who knows what might be hiding below? I slowly made my way into the lake, with visibility at 5 to 10 feet, crawling over car-sized boulders. I felt as if I were diving on the moon. At 101 feet, I turned left and began the search for treasure. Grey ash and striated cliffs punctuated by massive single boulders became common-place. At that altitude and depth, time to surface racks up fast. My VR-3 safely guided my way up, as a rush of emotions flooded my mind. With confused thoughts of exploration, conquest, accomplishment, sacrifice, and things still to come, the decompression passed faster than ever. Breaking the surface, my first sight was of a large crowd that had gathered eager for my return.

Immediately, a barrage of questions filled the air. “What does it look like? Are there any fish? Is there anything living down there?”

I had a few questions of my own. “How long before dark? How would I get back to the crater rim?”

I answered their questions and they answered mine. Bartering answer for answer, I yelled out, “It looks like the moon!”

“We have one hour before it gets very cold and very dark,” replied a young boy.

“No, I did not see any fish.”

“We brought donkeys for you to ride out of the volcano.”

Relieved I would not have to walk, I climbed aboard my trusty steed, Jose. I came to find out that Jose made that trip several times a day and knew the trail very well. Leaning completely forward and holding tightly to a rope, I managed to hang on even in the steepest sections of the trail. Reaching the top, I could see the long shadow of the crater rim stretching across the water to the far wall.

Night was approaching quickly, and a long four-hour drive back to Quito lay ahead. We finally reached the hotel. I said goodnight to Luis and rode the elevator to my floor, tipped the doorman, and, exhausted, I tried to remember every detail of the entire day’s experience. But I could only concentrate on getting to bed.

I ended up diving two other calderas, both remarkable in their own right, and, yes, I dove the Galapagos. I saw all the usual species including hammerheads, reef sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, penguins, sea lions, and various reef fishes. South America is fantastic for diving. I know I’ll be back soon for more adventure.

I would like to thank the following: Luis Ya Lamuaya - my guide, driver, and new buddy, Senor Juan Cova at ADA - for breathing gases, Mel Clark & Curt McNamee & Silent Scuba - for training, logistics and technical support,
Advanced Diver Magazine - for promoting technical underwater exploration, and my Mother - without whose support this trip wouldn’t have been possible.