Multiple World Diving Champion Orlando Duque is standing on a group of rocks known as “The three musketeers”: Three peaks that stand about 50 meters high and overlook the middle of the Pacific as a part of the Island of Malpelo. On this small piece of land, 30 hours away from the Colombian coast by boat, five uniformed Army officers live among a million crabs, more than 10.000 birds, and reptiles similar to those of prehistoric times. Deep in its waters, hundreds of hammerhead sharks complete a picture of a place like no other.
It’s been a long-time dream for him to be standing on this cliff, more than 20 meters away from the water, on top of an infinitely beautiful sea. Ever since diving was child’s play, when he was ten years old, he longed for this moment. Now Orlando opens his arms as if taking flight. In the background a countdown can be heard: Ten, nine, eight… his eyes focused on the water, awaiting the precise instant when the wave arrives and tells him it’s time to jump. Seven, six, five, four. He’s surrounded by two photographers, a cameraman, three expert climbers, two of his best friends and other divers like him. Three, two, one. He puts his arms up, bends his knees and lets go. A perfect flip in mid air followed by a clean, triumphal entrance into the water.
The trip towards that fulfilled dream had begun four years back, when Orlando and his long-time friend Daniel Rincon visited the island and its curious inhabitants. During their travels, they searched for possibilities, for ideal locations for his dives, for working conditions good enough to make their illusion a reality. They asked for all authorizations needed to operate from this very important global natural sanctuary.
Malpelo is not only a rock floating in the middle of the sea. It’s the biggest open fishing zone in the tropical Pacific. It’s the only natural habitat to unique and threatened marine species, and one of the most popular scuba diving venues on the planet. In 2006, UNESCO declared the island a World Heritage Site. Now, on this day, Orlando Duque makes it his own site by jumping from three unthinkable points. Arriving here won’t be the hardest thing.
Orlando and the entire team start their journey in Bogotá, with an initial stop in Cali. It is here where “The Duke” was born and raised years before becoming a citizen of the world and king of all heights. Time is running out. Cali will be the last point of nourishment and comfort before leaving civilization and facing the seas to attempt a feat he has dreamed about his entire life. After three hours of turbulent road, a van packed with 12 people and the equipment needed to capture the entire adventure, arrives at the port of Buenaventura. This is the last destination on land. We embark. The night passes by and so does the “Sea Wolf”, a ship with all the necessary luxuries for sleeping, eating, and living.
Now come almost ten hours of ocean to Gorgona prison island, the only stop before Malpelo. We arrive at dawn. The day at the former prison transpires in total peace. Orlando walks around the old structure consumed by jungle. A few minutes of Scuba in crystalline waters and the incomparable pleasure of listening to the whales cry under the sea. The “Sea Wolf” parts once again. The inhospitable island that is our final destination is now 20 hours away.
Anxiety begins to take over as the morning hours tick by. The captain announces that in a couple of hours, Malpelo will appear on the horizon. And does it ever. Noon arrives and so does an impossible iceberg made of volcanic rock, floating almost inadvertently on the tropical sea. Nothing can be seen except birds and rocks.
Once there, with the ship steadily tied to its buoy, there is one mission for the day: search and find. We must look for spots where Orlando can show off his magic by air and sea. We must find the way to do it in a location where no man executed activity should be done, a place never designed for humans. Three Zodiacs take off and travel around the island. Orlando, Eber and Dany, all friends and fellow divers, signal and suggest multiple options up high. Daniel, Rafa and Juanda, the hikers in charge of safety, analyze all access points. A little Rappel here, a little climb there.
There’s no need to get too close to the rocks in order to realize it will be tough. The erosion, precipitation, winds and climate have turned the island into a death trap. The rock is decomposing and fragile, contradicting its strong appearance. There is no shore to disembark. The sea is never calm. Demski and Rozo imagine their photos being difficult. Thomas Miklautsh and his video team know this won’t be anything like “9 dives”. The effort will be the same for all involved. The zodiacs return at dusk, we eat dinner and rest. The “Sea Wolf” sleeps, us not so much.
The third morning begins with a closed meeting. A map is enough to locate the chosen ground and its best lighting options. Orlando lays down the itinerary for the day. We leave for the Three Musketeers, our first location. Hours prior to our departure, the hiking team has found the way to reach our summit. Daniel jumps out of the boat, swims and climbs the rock from the water. He puts the first safety elements in place so his coworkers can finish the job. Orlando arrives. He jumps from the boat, swims and reaches the rock. A harness awaits tied to a rope that will simplify his 27-meter climb. The day is gray and the ocean rough. It is now Dany and Eber’s turn to jump in the water. The same harness keeps them safe while they ascend in one solid effort.
A lot of time has gone by in between all the climbs. The sky is still gray and the water turns even rougher. Everyone is in position and the countdowns begin. Dany is first. His dive has a calming effect. Eber follows. He jumps. His body is suspended in mid-air and his face looks defiantly at the sky. He flips backwards and gravity does the rest. His splash is almost unnoticeable. Orlando Duque closes the morning round. His entrance into the water is clean and triumphant.
On that same day, the third of our adventure, we attempt to access and jump from location number two: “The cathedral”. The natural arch of stone that gives this place its name is as spectacular as the dives that will be attempted from it. In order to bring the necessary equipment to the improvised platform, it is necessary to use a rusty old ladder attached to a rusted elevated harbor. A long 20-minute walk through loose rock is yet another obstacle. Everyone is very careful with the small animal inhabitants that are sometimes more visible than the rocks that show us the way. This time Daniel and his team have planned an effective and delicate descent. Everyone is equipped with harnesses and ropes searching for position. An unfortunate step gives a small rock an impulse to jump down and land on Thomas’ head. It’s nothing serious but is serves as a warning. Minutes later a much bigger rock comes loose and lands in the middle of the leading group. It’s nothing serious, again.
Although everything seems easy, the sun is setting and the jump is not yet a reality. Light becomes scarcer by the minute. Eber and Dany know there will be no time for their attempt. Orlando goes alone, finds the spot and descends. His jumping platform is no bigger than 20 centimeters squared. His only support now is Daniel and the rope that keeps them together. It’s starting to rain. Nerves take over. Orlando, carefully and with some difficulty, gets rid of his harness. He has no more than ten seconds. Daniel begins the countdown. His jump is impeccable as always, but scarier than ever. Hours later, back on the ship, “The Duke” speaks about the jump. It is not common to hear him talk about diving with fear in his voice. By now we all know that Malpelo is not a place for mistakes.
The morning of day four calms us and gives us strength to face what’s ahead. After all, swimming and diving with barracudas and hammer sharks is a gift us mortals never imagined even asking for. A nice group outing is our last activity before leaving the ship full of optimism. Orlando flies underwater, just like he does in the air. The Cathedral awaits once again.
Today the sun shines. The descent and organization are easy thanks to the experience on day 3. Everything flows, from Eber and Dany’s jumps, all the way to the champ’s own leap. Demski’s and Rozo’s images are also flawless, just like Thomas and Richard’s cameras. Two hours of lunch and rest make everything seem like it makes sense. We return to the island. The plan now is to walk to its highest point. The climb takes almost an hour. The itinerary says that from there we can Rappel to reach the third and last location chosen to jump: a small crystalline bay known as “The fridge”. Not even five minutes have passed at the summit and it’s evident we chose wrong. The path chosen was not the most ideal way to get there. With no time to lose the hikers board one of the zodiacs. They go around the island as the afternoon takes its last breaths to assure themselves that the next morning everything will go as planned. Once again with no light and what seems like too many obstacles, the champ attempts his jump. The water’s depth is the right one, the height also perfect. The sun is now gone and falling from 27 meters high, Orlando claims pleasantly that tomorrow will be another day.
The end of our Malpelo experience couldn’t have been better. Our session at “The fridge” is the perfect conclusion to all we imagined and worked for. Orlando and his musketeers’ jumps fill the air with color and spectacle: They change heights, jump in tandem, surrounded by applause from the few privileged spectators present. The light was perfect, the sea surprisingly calm. At around 6pm the “Sea Wolf” ships off to known territory.
There were many lessons. … “Malpelo is a place for which we will never be ready”…”Our prize has been to come out unharmed”…, “being able to come home with our work well done”… The conversations on the way back are filled with opinions and shared experiences.
In a place where everything is either strange or difficult, or both, you have to learn fast in order to have success. Whatever the case, the truth in this occasion is that the dream that a boy dragged to those rocks, along with beliefs and bravery, has been fulfilled with the help of all these professionals and adventurers. His next dream could be cold, or wilder than ever. Either way, he will make it a reality, and surely, he will make it look easy, just as he has always done with all his impossible dives.
Pictures by Camilo Rozo and Ray Demski courtesy of Red Bull Photofiles.
Story Courtesy of Red Bull Photofiles.