It was the first time Said Marjane and his friends had gone free diving near the Eagle’s Nest, in a pool of water in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in Weeki Wachee better known as the entrance to a dangerous cave-diving site.
Around 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sang Nguyen, 32, Marjane, 20, and four of their friends were preparing for their final dive, Nguyen said. Free divers hold their breath and dive as deep as possible without air tanks.
After what authorities estimated had been 15 to 20 dives over the course of several hours, the group gathered around a buoy they had anchored near the shore.
Marjane was going to go for his personal best, Nguyen said, and his goal was to descend to about 80 feet below the surface.
All six descended. Nguyen, who said he doesn’t always like to push himself, went down 40 or 50 feet and came back up.
He said he saw that all the other divers had come up, but didn’t see Marjane.
"That’s when I started panicking," Nguyen said. "I knew something was wrong."
Nguyen said he knew Marjane could hold his breath for up to four minutes. It had been three minutes already.
The other divers went back down to look for Marjane, but couldn’t find him. Nguyen said he swam to shore to get his phone and called 911.
First responders failed to locate Marjane on Wednesday night, so the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office called in a civilian dive team. Divers located his body Thursday morning, 150 feet below the surface, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Marjane was pronounced dead at the scene, deputies said, and his body was transported to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Leesburg.
Marjane was an international student from Morocco living with his aunt in Sanford.
The investigation remains active.
The Eagle’s Nest site, which looks like a small lake from above ground, also serves as the entrance to an underwater cave system notorious for its dangerous cave dives that have left at least a dozen dead since 1981.
But Marjane’s group wasn’t there for the caves, his friends said. They only wanted to free dive.
Jonathan Dickinson, owner of Florida Freedivers in North Palm Beach, described free diving as a recreation in which divers take a single breath of air and dive below the surface.
"The goal and objective is to leave the surface," Dickinson said. Oftentimes, divers wear wetsuits and carry only a mask, snorkel and fins.
A typical breathhold is about 30 seconds to a minute and a half, Dickinson said. The average dive depth is 10 to 15 feet for new or untrained divers and 45 to 60 feet for trained divers. Divers who go deeper than 60 feet must learn to equalize their ears, which can become more difficult the deeper they get.
The sport can be safe, if done properly, Dickinson said. Dangers include blacking out underwater or become overweighed with equipment, he added.
"You have to be very cautious," Dickinson said. "You have to pay attention to your body."
The divers stayed at the scene until 7 or 8 p.m. Wednesday night, Nguyen said. On Thursday, he and two of the others were driving to New Smryna Beach, where they planned to meet with other divers to remember Marjane and talk about the good times.
The small group had been diving together for at least a year, he said.
Marjane’s friends remember him as motivated and constantly pursuing new things, including free diving.
He was one of the best free divers in the group, Nguyen said. He wasn’t afraid to make new friends, he knew how to make them laugh, and he helped them out when they needed it.
Marjane and his fellow divers lived and worked in Orlando, Nguyen said, but traveled throughout Florida to dive. Marjane loved fishing and swimming, and free diving was a good mix of the two.
"He just loved it," Nguyen said.
Marjane was staying with his aunt, Hajar Raissouni, while he studied in the U.S., Raissouni said Thursday afternoon. She was reluctantly fielding phone calls from news outlets and from hospitals asking for organ donations. Raissouni was making preparations to ship Marjane’s body to Morocco.
Times staff writers Carl Lisciandrello, Devin Rodriguez, Josh Solomon, Daniel Figueroa contributed to this report.