When Myth Becomes Legend…
Every sport has personalities which transcend and go beyond the ordinary.
These individuals, with their unwavering courage and persistence, their incredible vision and steadfast commitment to their beliefs, have left an undeniable footprint in our hearts and memories.
In basketball, Magic Johnson & Michael Jordan, in Football, Tom Brady & Peyton Manning; in Soccer, Pele & Messi, in Formula 1, Ayrton Senna & Michael Schumacher.
In the ever evolving world of action water sports, legends, both living and dead, have also made a positive impact, leaving a legacy of excellence and commitment.
They may not be as famous as the mainstream sports heroes mentioned above. But their contributions cannot be denied.
In surfing: Laird Hamilton & Kelly Slater; in windsurfing: Peter Cabrinha and Robby Naish; and in extreme deep SCUBA diving, Jack Cousteau & Sheck Exley…when myth becomes legend.
It is because of this very reason, for their efforts, vision, and courage, that they stand out from the rest.
That is why, when one of these bright luminaries’ lives is suddenly and inexplicably snuffed out, the entire watermen community suffers, mourns and saddens.
For these are the rarest of individuals, almost super gifted, and to see their like again is very unlikely. Sheck Exley was such a rare individual.
Calculus Teacher, Karate Expert and Seasoned Cave Diver… At age 23!
Sheck Exley was born on April 1, 1949. His first cavern dive was at barely 16 years of age.
Diving has always been an expensive sport to practice. Cavern and cave diving even more so, since it demands special equipment and redundancy (two of each piece of equipment, in case of an unforeseen event).
Exley financed his passion by teaching math and calculus at a local high school in Florida. He also served as an aquanaut for 8 days aboard a Hydrolab Underwater Habitat in the Bahamas.
By the time he was 23 years old, he had accumulated 1000 cave dives under his belt.
At age 42, near his unfortunate passing, he had amassed a total of 4,000 dives.
He was also one of the few divers to survive a 400 ft dive (120 m) in open water, on simple compressed air.
He is one of eleven people, and the first, to dive below 800 ft (204 m), doing multistage decompression of up 13.5 hours, never suffering from Decompression Sickness.
Exploring The Deep Corners of The Earth…
Sheck Exley pushed the limits of extreme deep diving.
Like Reinhold Messner, Exley became famous by pushing the limits of the possible.
His expeditions into Nacimiento de Rio Mante (Mexico) and later on in Bushmansgat (South Africa) paved the way for extreme technical diving, “advancing our understanding of diving at great depths“.
In fact, Exley was so dedicated to the perfectionism of extreme deep diving, that he actually purchased Cathedral Canyon Spring, in Florida.
Once installed, he began the exploration of the spring system, which resulted in a world record penetration of nearly two underwater miles.
This alone was a tremendous accomplishment for the young diver. The fact that he made it solo in eleven and a half hours was a testament of his technical ability and sheer courage.
Rio Mante & The Sink Hole at El Zacaton…
For a few years after Cathedral Canyon Spring, Exley excelled at pushing the barriers of extreme deep diving, both in depth and distance.
His incursion and experimentation with Trimix diving El Nacimiento De
Rio Mante (Mexico) allowed him to descend to a depth of 881 feet (another world record) without feeling the effects of nitrogen narcosis or oxygen toxicity. Trimix also shortened decompression times significantly during ascents.
It wasn’t until his expedition to Bushmangat (South Africa) that Exley suffered his first deep diving incident.
In 1996, he reached the bottom of Bushmangat but soon after he experienced a severe case of high pressure nervous syndrome. He suffered from uncontrollable trembling and blurred vision.
Having recovered from his bout with HPNS, Exley soon joined Jim Bowden, a 52-year-old adventurer and dive instructor from Austin, Texas, to sttempt a descent into the world’s deepest sinkhole: El Zacaton, Mexico.
This was it. If the Andrea Doria was considered the Everest of technical deep diving, due to its complexity and multi faceted approaches, El Zacaton was considered the K2…treacherous, unforgiving and deadly.
Into the Abyss and Beyond…
And so, on April 6, 1994, two of the world’s most skilled extreme deep divers plunged into the dark, murky waters of El Zacaton. (For an unsurpassed, detailed account of the Zacaton dive, please refer to this article by Sports Illustrated).
Suffice to say that Bowden and Exley were both determined to reach the 1000 ft milestone. This was their descent; their K2.
Many months of detailed planning and logistics had come to this moment.
The proportions were staggering: if you were to place the Empire State building inside El Zacaton, one could step onto its main observation deck where the observers and reporters were standing.
And thus began their descent into darkness.
After eleven minutes, Bowden had reached 898 feet when he noted that his gas reserves were lower than expected. Deciding to abort the dive, he ascended, going through a 9-hour decompression period.
Exley went on, the water so dark that he never knew of Bowden’s decision to abort. He would remain alone to the very end.
18 minutes into the dive, one of the safety divers, closely watching the bubble stream of both divers, noticed that Exley’s stream had stopped. What followed remains one of sport’s greatest mysteries.
The Mystery Unfolds Before Disbelieving Eyes.
Exley’s wife, Mary Ellen, descended to 279 feet to verify if the flow of bubbles had been diverted by some obstructions or ledge but they had not.
El Zacaton had taken a singular human life and left very few clues.
What happened to Sheck Exley during those 18 minutes?
Typically, a demise of a solo diver, under such adverse circumstances, left very few leads to go on. The people that knew Exley were certain of one thing: he did not panic.
Cave diving is to open-water scuba as flying an F-16 is to piloting a Cessna, and Exley was the ultimate definition of grace under pressure, even under the most harrowing of circumstances.
Breaking The Sheck Exley Code.
As if to defy El Zacaton’s deadly clutches, three days later, Exley’s body was recovered when the guideline was pulled from the cave.
What the rescue team saw left them speechless: Exley’s body appeared to be wrapped intentionally with the guideline, around his arms and valves of his dive tanks.
His dive computer read a depth of 879 feet.
It is speculated that Exley, seeing his imminent death, proceeded to do this in order to prevent any rescue attempts. At these depths, it would be suicidal.
It was also concluded, after a careful analysis of the incidents leading to Exley’s death, that he probably suffered from HPNS (oxygen-induced tremors and incapacitating).
But where the mystery really tightens its grip is with the primary dive tanks.
For reasons which remain unknown even today, Exley’s primary dive tanks became depleted sooner than calculated. It is conjectured that he had to switch to his “travel mix”, clearly not suited for such depths, exacerbating an already dire situation.
It is also believed that he also tied the surrounding guideline to stabilize a failed ascent attempt. His BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) was unable to fill with air from his “travel mix”, making things even worse.
At some point, many experts believe, Exley lost consciousness, eventually leading to his death.
One thing that everyone who has studied his untimely death is that there is no single factor that leads to tragedies like these, but more likely, a series of disastrous events.
These events result in situations that not even experienced individuals like Sheck Exley could have foreseen.
Reckless daredevil or pioneer and visionary?
Whatever you want to make of Exley’s life, one thing stands true above all. He left a legacy of safe, responsible practice in an inherently dangerous activity.
He pushed the limits and thrived in extreme situations. Like Schumacher, Hamilton, or Baumgartner, Exley knew exactly the risks of his craft.
Just like an experimental jet pilot, a great measure of his job was pushing the limits of what was possible.
In the end, Exley paid his awesome, jaw-dropping intrusions into the deepest places of the world with his life.
But isn’t this search for the unknown, this fiery curiosity, to see what is just beyond the next cave, part of what sets us apart as a species? We are explorers.
And as long as there are watery chasms to explore, there will always be that thirst for exploration. Like Sheck Exley? Probably not. He stands in a different dimension, in the halls of human exploration, along with Messner and Scott.
What do you think? When do you push to transcend? Or would you rather take a step back and let others take the risk?
Reckless risk is suicidal; some say, however, that this kind of risk is its own reward, whatever that means.
Calculated risk, on the other hand, is the path taken by explorers, pioneers, and visionaries throughout human history. Where do you stand on this?
Please offer your thoughts on the space below. I am looking forward to reading your comments on this!
Thanks for reading and I hope you liked this article.