March 8, 2022

Temple Cenote - Adventurer and Journalist Michael Menduno on a life of exploration and a rare passage to the underworld

Temple Cenote - Adventurer and Journalist Michael Menduno on a life of exploration and a rare passage to the underworld

Today I speak with Michael Menduno, one of the most accomplished ocean technology and dive reporters for the past 30 years. 

Michael’s work is everywhere. He is editor-in-chief of Global Underwater Explorers InDepth magazine, a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver and X-Ray magazine, and is on the board of directors for the Historical Diving Society.

Michael is also very active in the technical and exploration diving worlds which focus on more extreme forms of diving, from deeper depths to mixed gas diving, to simply pushing the boundaries of where humans have been underwater. 

When we spoke, Michael discussed how he came to journalism around diving, what he has discovered about why humans get in the water, and an incredible denote dive in Mexico that took him back more than a millennium in time.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

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Transcript

Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with a dive journalist whose work continually explores the outer boundaries of what human beings can do underwater. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.

Jason Elias: (00:52)
Today, I speak with Michael Menduno, one of the most accomplished ocean and dive reporters working for the past 30 years. He's editor-in-chief of Global Underwater Explorers InDepth magazine, a contributing editor for DAN Europe's Alert Diver and X-Ray magazines, and is also very active in the technical and exploration diving worlds which focus on more extreme forms of diving, from deeper depths to mixed gas diving, to simply pushing the boundaries of where human beings can go underwater.

Jason Elias: (01:19)
When we spoke, Michael discussed how he came to journalism around diving, what he has discovered about why humans get in the water and an incredible cenote dive in Mexico that took him back more than 10 millennia into the past.

Michael Menduno: (01:32)
My name is Michael Menduno, and I'm a journalist. Probably my mainstay has been reporting on technology and science, but I've decided to go back to my first love and just focus on diving. So I'm all in at this point.

Jason Elias: (01:46)
Michael, can you talk a bit about where your ocean connection comes from and how does that passion drive you?

Michael Menduno: (01:56)
I grew up in the Midwest. Learned to swim at an early age. When I was growing up, there was an outdoor public pool right in my neighborhood, right across the street. So I would spend my summers there.

Michael Menduno: (02:11)
So I went away to graduate school at Stanford University, and that was really my first exposure to the ocean. And I learned to dive when I was there. I was in engineering and mathematics, but there was the ocean and it was magical. I just wanted to be in the ocean all the time. And I think initially, it was just experiential. That feeling of being in the water, being in another world, that is a powerful part of my connection to water. But then there's also the science of it. The art and practice of it. And there's something about the human spirit as well because venturing underwater is really venturing into another world.

Jason Elias: (02:53)
One of the recurring themes in your work is the focus on the adventure, the exploration, and the pushing of human limits in the ocean. How did you come to focus on these types of stories in your writing and what was the path that brought you there?

Michael Menduno: (03:04)
I had been working in the computer industry. I was going through a divorce and needed a change in my life. And there was a citizen science group, engineers from Silicon Valley who had purchased a boat and were doing survey work on the sea banks off the Big Sur area. And so these dives were deep dives. At the time, the sport diving world was such that 133 feet was the maximum you should go. Nothing to see below there they said. And this group were doing these surveys to depths of about 40, 50 meters. They were doing decompression dives. Looking back at it was really scary equipment, but it was so exciting to me that I wanted to write about it.

Michael Menduno: (03:57)
So I pitched pretty much every dive magazine and no one would touch it. But at some point, Ken Loyst, publisher of Discover Diving magazine, agreed to run the piece. The piece was awful of caveats and warnings. Warnings do not do this at home. [inaudible 00:04:13] sport divers should never do this. But it whetted my appetite. And that led me to find out that there was no information about this new kind of diving going on. People in small groups around the world venturing out beyond the recreational dive limits and we're starting to experiment with mixed gas technology. But it was all kept hush, hush because you weren't supposed to do it. People wanted to go deeper. I met the whole story of diving, right? Go deeper and stay longer. And that kind of got me started on my journalistic career.

Jason Elias: (04:42)
I think in some ways you might be seen as a specialized technology or perhaps dive journalist. But what I think is underlying that is a sense of your celebrating exploration and the pushing of new boundaries for human beings. If that is true, what is it specifically about the diving aspect that intrigues you?

Michael Menduno: (05:02)
There's not a lot of divers in the world. Most of the world's water and the number of people who go under that water is probably .0001%. And yet, we're a very extraordinary group of people.

Michael Menduno: (05:28)
I do a lot of profiles of some of our members of Water Tribe. And that story often is people being touched by the underwater world and how it's changed their life, how it's allowed them to go somewhere where no one has gone before. I think exploration is really what has driven diving from the beginning. Whether you're a hardcore tech diver pushing some extreme limit in a cave or shipwreck down deep or just a recreational diver who wants to go out on the reef on holiday, we're just going underwater because we want to. Being in a different world, it touches everybody.

Jason Elias: (06:28)
Well, your passion for this kind of life is evident. And it's no surprise that that's where you focus your journalism. One recurring theme in most all of your writing is about the spirit of exploration. And I think you get excited at the idea of people pushing the boundaries of what can be done underwater and really all of that is in support of deeper experiences of human discovery you seem to be so connected with and that you write about so often. So I'm curious, is there a story like that for you where you felt some sense of discovery or exploration underwater?

Michael Menduno: (07:04)
I've definitely had some experiences that deeply touched me. I remember one with my cave diving instructor, Steve Gerard, back in the 90s in Mexico. So this one day he was going to take me to somewhere special. We drove into the jungle. Then we had to hike in, had to cut through some brush. And here's this limestone structure, stones piled up and sort of broken. It was a temple. And this was way back in the jungle. He called it Temple Cenote.

Michael Menduno: (07:50)
He had told me at the time only seven people had been here before you. And the base of the thing had lifted up as if a giant hand had come and just pulled the building up and there was just a dark hole, like a crawl space. It was hot. And we geared up in our tanks and wetsuits and crawled under this building. You had to crawl on your stomach because there wasn't enough room to go on your knees. And then there was a shoot and you dropped down and we popped down to maybe six meters, visibility cleared up. And then we started swimming in this passageway.

Michael Menduno: (08:33)
And so we swam back maybe 300, 400 meters in the cave. It was a pretty virgin passageway. You could tell very few people had been there because our bubbles created percolation and we were rained on by silt from the ceiling of the cave. And so we come into a little room. We're probably at about 18 meters deep and there was this rock. And on the rock is this small, five-foot-high human skeleton spread eagle on its back looking up. And it was just like, oh my God. These caves had flooded 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. So here was someone from 100 centuries ago laying there. How did this person get there? What was the story? Being able to reach out and touch history like that was just magical.

Jason Elias: (10:18)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to, what does the ocean mean to you?

Michael Menduno: (10:28)
Just being in the water, there's something magical about that for me. The world sort of falls away and it brings me into the now.

Jason Elias: (10:40)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep.

Speaker 3: (10:46)
I think that that is one reason why I'm probably drawn to sharks. Being a black woman, I feel like people have an idea of who I am. And so in a way, by working with sharks, I am combating negative stereotypes about sharks, just like I have been being a black woman.

Jason Elias: (11:06)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.