07/02/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

One Tiny Island, a World Record Human Pyramid

Off the coast of Honduras, 18 miles and a world away, sits Isla de Utila, the smallest of three Bay Islands. Known for its nightlife and regular underwater encounters with the ocean's gentle giant whale sharks, Utila attracts backpackers and SCUBA divers to its turquoise water. Dive shops and bars pepper the curve of colorful Utila Town's harbor like the houses lining fraternity row. Locals and visitors pledge their allegiance and demonstrate fierce T-shirt loyalty. For one week a year, these \shops unite to host the weeklong Utila Dive Fest and welcome SCUBA enthusiasts from around the globe.

This year's roster included a special challenge--an attempt to break the world record for the largest underwater human pyramid. Representatives from Guinness stated that the number to beat was 45, so the goal was set at 60 participants. Qualifications for the world record required that the pyramid be completely underwater and held for a total of thirty seconds, verified and documented by two timekeepers.

The Human Pyramid Challenge with Underwater Vision was a popular sign-up when the festival opened Saturday; more than 200 Dive Week passport holders jockeyed for coveted spots. Organizers set a start time of 8 am, knowing that island time stragglers might be ready for a dry land practice run around 9:30.


The cappuccino machine whirred overtime in the open-air bar outside Underwater Vision as the sun rose and everyone assembled in the hammocks under the dappled shade of almond trees. They selected a site called Moonhole, a favorite shallow sand-flat surrounded by a circular fringe of reef at 35 feet. Early organizers had set out at sunrise to rig lines and tripods to document the pyramid attempt. Boats from three dive shops arrived for the dry land practice. Everyone applied sunscreen, recounted the previous night's casino party after the Parade of Lights in the harbor and cracked jokes about setting the world record for the longest time to organize a world record attempt.

Finally, roll call began, and much like graduation, there was cheering as everyone signed the Guinness paperwork and collected their complimentary T-shirts. Organizer Els Van Zanten bellowed the rules from an elevated deck--four designated divers would assist with positioning, including one safety moderator, and use of PADI dive signals were reviewed to indicate anyone with equipment trouble or low air.

Surprisingly little complaining ensued when pyramid positions were assigned and the Caribbean sun was shining in full force as they lined up in a horizontal version on the beach volleyball court. Color-coded ribbons were given along with instructions to tie these to the left shoulder of the equipment.

The youngest participant, 11-year-old Hayden Hoffman, shot the crowd a surreptitious "ok" hand signal when he was positioned at the top between two stunning blondes from Amsterdam in matching hot pink bikinis and Ray-Bans. Els Van Zanten perched as the cherry-on-top and the pyramid was proclaimed a dry land success.


Then it was time to board the three boats tied in the harbor and head to Moonhole. The week's steady winds had slowed and the ocean was calm and the mood high as the crowd traveled in the direction of the climbing sun. Though everyone on board was a certified diver, this meant they knew communication underwater would be next to impossible, and there sixty-one pyramid participants, four organizers, two timekeepers and a dozen photographers -- so many things could go wrong.

Once all boats were tied to the moorings, the visibility was clear enough that the position line on the sea floor could be seen from the surface.


In a surprisingly seamless sequence of events, SCUBA divers moved to the rear of their boats as their ribbon color was called and performed final safety checks. Once in the warm water, they bobbed like human corks and paddled to the organizers, descending as a unified group. It continued in perfect order until all that remained were the boat captains, who pointed out a trio of spinner dolphins curious about what these crazy humans were up to as the photographers secured themselves on the bottom, waiting.

Despite the calm, there was an underwater current, pulling the pyramid dangerously toward the back and creating a sway and haze of sand from the sixteen on the bottom. Nick Nowak, a diver on the second tier, said the anchorman below him kept glancing up to see if he was tugging the first stage of his equipment intentionally. Twenty-three minutes from the moment the first row dropped in and settled on the sea floor, Els Van Zanten sounded the timing horn and hovered just above little Hayden Hoffman, her fins on the backs of the blondes, her arms spread wide as she teetered. Thirty bubbling, breathless seconds passed as the pyramid held strong. Timekeepers gave the silent ok, and Van Zanten sounded the final double blast, as photographers snapped their last stills and GoPro video footage, immortalizing this half-minute in time.


Squeaks and clicks of dolphins mingled with the muted cheer. The pyramid slowly broke formation and divers dispersed, like a stop-motion of a house of cards coming down. In less than twenty-five minutes of meticulously orchestrated underwater acrobatics, a world record attempt was completed.

Afterwards, divers milled about the bottom like guests at a wedding reception after the bride and groom have left for the honeymoon. Some swam off to use up the rest of their bottom time observing wildlife on the surrounding reef. Back on the surface, tanks hissed and divers stripped off their gear. The overwhelming mood was exuberant, as high as the noon sun when the boats engaged their engines. Divers were off to their next missions; a lionfish-spearing derby at Bay Islands College of Diving or donning their superhero outfits for the underwater costume party. One last round of cheering broke out as the three boats set off in different directions -- mission accomplished.