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Mark Rogers

Careers for Globetrotters: Freediving instructor Mark Rogers

By James Stairs

Seduced by the laid-back charm of the tiny island of Utila, Mark Rogers established the first freediving certification program in the Caribbean—and made the island his home.

Watch the freediving video here>

Time management for most people on the Honduran island of Utila is simple: you scuba dive during the day and you party at night. If you want to shake things up, you can dive at night and hit the bars during the day. Eating, sleeping and anything else you need to do fits somewhere in between.

The ferry crossing to the island is a muddle of tank-tops, high-fives, sunglasses and sunburns. The boat's passenger deck is packed to the gunwales with the young and the adventurous, amped on a cocktail of freedom and anticipation, charging towards the next stop on a pilgrimage down the Central American gringo trail.

Utila, the guidebooks say, is the place where, after weeks of bus rides and youth hostels, security warnings and Spanish lessons, you can let your guard down, grab your scuba diving card on the cheap and take the opportunity to cut loose.

The trip from mainland La Ceiba is a 60-minute skim across often-choppy waters. An hour in, as stomachs start to churn, you can see the bravado on the passenger deck seeping away like a spilled drink on the sand.

But as landfall approaches and the ferry chugs towards the dock, the ebullient passenger mood returns.

Once docked, the young travellers leap off the boat, grabbing grimy backpacks and stray flip-flops, and storm down the long concrete pier. A gauntlet of tourist operators slip out from the shady spots at the end of the dock to hand out pamphlets advertising scuba diving courses and whale shark excursions.

Amidst the throng, a tall and quiet figure with striking blue eyes and a deep maritime tan cuts a distinct profile.

Mark "Tex" Rogers, a 44-year-old American, has lived and worked on the island for the better part of a decade. His company, Apnea Totale Freediving, was, when it was launched, the only freediving certification course in Central America and the Caribbean.

A sport that was once pursued almost exclusively by a small, passionate group of enthusiasts operating on the fringes of obscurity, freediving is undergoing a popularity explosion.

At its core, it's about as simple as a sport can get. All you really have to do is hold your breath and swim. There are no air tanks and no regulators, you can wear fins if you like but you don't have to. It's been around as long as people have lived near the sea, as long as there have been pearl divers and spear fisherman and reef watchers.

"Freediving is different for many people. For some people it's about competition, about competing with other people or themselves. For others it's about spear fishing, staying down long enough to get their fish," Rogers explains.

The sport has caught the eye of the massive and influential extreme sports subculture which is helping to drive its rapid growth. It also doesn't hurt that the sport's evolution is being broadcast in real-time by a new generation of cheap underwater cameras and video-sharing web sites.

Add to that the fact that advertisers, sporting goods manufacturers and big media companies, all keen to reach a mass audience, have taken notice—freediving is accessible to nearly everyone, not just the super-athletic or the youngest or the best equipped. The result has been a dramatic rise in exposure for the sport.

“I’d run a couple of dive shops here and I realized that there wasn’t anyone [teaching freediving] so I came back here and made a go of it.”

In January 2013, the American Sunday evening news magazine, 60 Minutes, aired a story featuring champion freedivers William Trubridge, a 32-year-old from New Zealand, and Tanya Streeter, a 40-year-old British diver based in the Caribbean.

Trubridge is shown at a competition gulping air on the surface before he dives. "His lungs are now the size of watermelons," the announcer intones, "and as he descends, they'll be squeezed until they are no larger than oranges." Cable sports networks have also sent camera crews to film top freedivers. The stories follow a common script, replete with descriptions of what extreme water pressure does to the body and gripping tales of ruptured eardrums and underwater blackouts.

But, media hyperbole aside, to the normal person, the depth that the divers can reach without air tanks is truly hard to believe. At the September 2013 world championships in Kalamata, Greece, Russian diver Alexey Molchanov, battling cold water, won the competition with a record-setting 128-metre dive. His mother, 49-year-old Natalia Molchanova, won the women's dive by reaching 91 metres—also a new record.

Two months later, after 21 years of organized freediving events, the sport is dealing with its first in-competition fatality.

On November 17, 2013, American diver Nick Mevoli tried to break a U.S. record in the Bahamas. As he surfaced from a 72-metre (236 foot) dive, the 32-year-old blacked out and, en route to hospital, died from lung damage. He had been underwater for three minutes and thirty-eight seconds.

His death has further thrown into the spotlight the sport's risks, both inside and outside of competition. Stories emerged of Mevoli's obsession with going deeper and deeper and questions have been raised about whether competition regulators are doing enough to protect freedivers from themselves.

The media attention surrounding Mervoli's death also brought attention to the risks non-competitive freedivers are taking. There are no official statistics documenting fatalities outside of competition but newspaper obituaries from coastal towns around the world detail numerous deaths attributed to the sport.

Many in the industry are concerned that people drawn to try freediving may not be aware of how dangerous the sport can actually be. The only way to keep people safe, freediving enthusiasts argue, is to make sure they receive proper training.

While it is hard to argue that the extreme image of record-breaking glory currently being projected to the world has not driven the growth of the sport, Rogers explains that the sport actually has another fast-emerging side that has nothing to do with competition at all. To a rapidly growing group of non-super-people, freediving is a source of relaxation and an avenue towards self-awareness, kind of like underwater yoga or meditation.

"For me," Rogers explains, "and the emphasis that I've put, it's more about discovering a little bit about your own mind and physiology and the link between the two. It's about going in and finding the sensations that we associate with survival and learning how to observe them without reacting to them. It's a kind of meditation. That's what I try to pass on but if someone wants to compete or spear fish, what I teach will help them."

The native of Lubbock, a city in Northwest Texas and about as far away from island life as one can imagine, Rogers came to Honduras in the round-about way most perpetual travellers get anywhere.

After graduating with an English degree from the University of Texas, he hit the road and, over several years, travelled much of the world, matching jobs to locations. He taught English and yoga, ran a traveller's hostel and earned a steady income teaching scuba diving at resorts around the world.

In the Fall of 2001, he was in Turkey preparing to head to Egypt to dive and instruct. The 9/11 attacks on New York City altered his plans. "With all that was going on I figured that weren't going to be many tourists in Egypt so I headed back to the U.S., got a car and ended up driving down to Honduras," he remembers.

"I'd been to the region before. I learned how to dive in Roatan. I was planning on going there but ended up on Utila instead and kind of got hooked on this place," he laughs. "It has that effect on people."

Having been a scuba instructor for eight years, Rogers happened upon freediving by chance after tagging along with some friends in Thailand.

"As soon as I tried it I was instantly hooked," he says and, in 2008, started the certification process with the idea of teaching the sport for a living. By 2010, he was working as a freedive instructor at a school in Thailand. A year later, he launched his own business using years of industry connections and experience to get the new school off the ground.

Utila is a tiny place—a few streets, a couple of small beaches and enough dive shops, bars and restaurants to keep the tourists busy. It's one of those places that travellers happen upon and, sometimes without even noticing it, they stay on and find a home that fits. As a long-time resident of the island, Rogers has seen the businesses that have worked and those which haven't.

"I'd lived here for years," he explains. "I'd run a couple of dive shops here and I realized that there wasn't anyone [teaching freediving]. I knew there were places where we could get both the depths and the calm conditions on the sea that you need for the sport so I came back here and made a go of it."

He set up shop from the ground up, working out of a local scuba diving centre. Marketing was simple: with no competitors, he attracted clients through social media and by word of mouth. Some people just showed up, having heard through the grapevine about the guy they called "Tex" teaching freediving on the island.

"It also helps that Utila is one of the busiest islands in the world for intro-level certifications and that's good for me, as the people who are interested in diving are often interested in freediving also."

Today, Rogers runs his business out of Gunther's Dive Shop, a Utila scuba diving institution.

Life on the island is quiet, largely insulated from Honduras' volatile reality as a country plagued by political and social unrest. Walking around Utila, it's hard to reconcile the tranquil environment with the country's recent history.

In 2009, after a military coup, political chaos erupted across the nation and the Honduran army imposed martial law.

Eventually, bowing to international pressure, the military stepped aside and a new president was elected. But the coup d'état badly damaged the country's already precarious economic and social stability. Today, the country ranks as the second poorest in Central America.

In addition, Honduras is located along the international transit route connecting South American cocaine producers with drug cartels located in Mexico. Gang violence plagues most urban areas in the country. As a result, Honduras holds the nightmare-inducing distinction of being the country with the highest murder rate in the world.

But on Utila and nearby Roatan, the only real indication of Honduras' social and political discord is the occasional patrol by two decidedly non-threatening soldiers who occasionally drive up and down the main street in a golf cart.

As hammocks sway in the light breeze of a lazy afternoon sun, the dock at Gunther's Dive Shop is a quiet refuge from a busy world. Scuba instructors clean tanks and load boats, tourists show up to ask about diving packages, island residents pop their heads in to say hi.

In a room off to the side of the shop, Rogers and two students are talking about breathing techniques and hypoxic limits, swim strokes and water pressure. Unsurprisingly, his teaching style takes a serious but laid-back approach.

Divers are taught to focus on their breathing and how to relax their bodies and slow down their heart rates. There is no hyperventilating before a dive. Instead, there is a relaxation process the diver embarks on. They are taught to breathe from their stomachs to maximize the amount of oxygen in the blood.

"I emphasize the meditative side of freediving where you observe sensations on the body and look at them in depth but you learn not to react to them," he explains.

No matter how experienced a diver is, a natural panic sets in at some point during a dive. Carbon dioxide levels naturally rise in the body. For inexperienced divers, muscles tense up and the urge to breathe kicks in. The training tells you not to listen, to understand the urgency, to know that the body is just adjusting and that it will pass by focusing on the techniques.

“I tell students not to worry about how deep they go, not to worry about how long they stay. The point is to relax. Once the students learn to relax, the depths and the times come naturally.”

While descending, Rogers explains, the body undergoes significant changes, mainly due to water pressure and oxygen deprivation. Your body loses buoyancy and is pulled downward. You must constantly equalize the pressure in your ears to prevent burst eardrums.

Once you've reached the depth you want, you turn and smoothly swim back to the surface. Divers are taught to keep a controlled pace on the ascent to conserve energy, maximizing efficiency, allowing time for oxygen to slowly return to the lungs which are expanding rapidly as the diver gets closer to the surface.

"The biggest danger in freediving is hypoxia," Rogers explains. "This means not enough oxygen getting to the brain if the breath hold is too long or the dive is too deep. Sometimes a diver can have what we call a samba, or loss of motor control. In those situations the diver needs assistance from another diver."

Incidents where divers lose consciousness underwater, Rogers says, are what give freediving the reputation of being dangerous. Blackouts often happen near the surface, at the end of a dive, when a diver miscalculates how much air they have left or comes up too fast.

"These risks are why you never dive alone," he explains and, despite pursuing a sport that involves intentionally depriving yourself of air, blackouts are not inevitable, he insists. With thousands of dives under his belt, Rogers has never once lost consciousness.

The lesson over for the day, the small class joins the gathering at the Driftwood Bar and jokes quietly about their breathing assignments in preparation for their dive the next morning. There is a subtle, but noticeable, sense of apprehension.

Rogers says nearly everyone, even experienced scuba divers, is nervous before their first freedive. It's very different from scuba and anyone who claims otherwise is either not being completely honest or hasn't been listening as closely as they should have been.

"We drop the lines down, start out gradually, easily, not pushing ourselves at all," Rogers explains. "I tell students not to worry about how deep they go, not to worry about how long they stay. The point is to relax. Once the students learn to relax, the depths and the times come naturally."

Rogers knows that thrill-seeking is part of the allure of freediving, and that much of his potential client base is drawn from the island's core tourist market—the young party crowd from the ferry.

"We have a lot of young people coming to Utila and they're pretty excited about diving and want to try something new," he explains. "Sometimes they come to the class and kind of have that "extreme" thing going on and they usually end up surprised when we slow the students down and explain to them that when they access that relaxation, that's when you achieve depths. Pushing yourself only works in the sport to a certain extent and then you hit a wall."

As the sun begins to dip towards the horizon on Gunther's dock, Rogers heads inside the shop to organize some gear for the next morning's dive. As the ever-present conversation veers back to current affairs, a couple from the United Kingdom walks down the dock and grabs a seat at the tiny bar. Because Utila is that kind of place, they slip right in to the rhythm of the discussion.

After a while, someone gets around to asking them what they want to do on the island.

One of them mentions that she'd like to do some freediving.

A scuba instructor, laden with tanks, walks by heading in to the shop.

"I'll tell Tex you're here," he laughs, disappearing around the corner.

Watch the freediving video here>

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