Aug. 17 2011 10:37 AM

This is why those heads are bobbing off the coast of La Jolla

Graham Miller scampers with a stone, under the sea.
Photo by John Cocozza photography

Stop by a certain surf break in La Jolla and you might catch a curious sight. Between 10 a.m. and noon, June to October, walk the long walled ramp between two houses to the beach, and on the water maybe you'll see a few snorkeled heads bobbing before the break. Watch a while and you'll notice they're not always paying attention to the view below or bothering to use the snorkels; they're taking turns disappearing before bursting back through the surface long enough for one violent gasp, then disappearing again. Every now and then, instead of a gasp you'll hear a whoop, a shout of elation. Or a chorus of encouragement.

When the heads finally drag their bodies from the water, they might be in wetsuits, maybe not; maybe they'll be wearing booties, but they'll probably be barefoot. Ask them what they saw and they'll say, “Not much.” Maybe a fish or two. But they won't be bummed. Ask a better question or let them talk, and they'll turn to the topic of rocks. You might not understand a word. For that, you'll have to grab a suit and mask and join them.

Or check the web: underwater rock running. Find a video of two muscled men playing leapfrog in clear water on crystal sand. Or that scene from everyone's favorite surf-chick flick, Blue Crush, where three girls turn themselves into one mermaid with the help of Hollywood and a stone. It's big in Hawaii and Thailand. Big-wave surfers and North Shore lifeguards use it to train. You get the idea and don't have to worry about actually trying it. Except there's a video shot in San Diego by local photographer John Cocozza.

“I was on the beach and the tide was coming in,” Cocozza says, about how he got started four years ago, “and there were all these rocks around. So I started building a little sea wall. Then I wondered, With enough rocks, could I build a break?”

Eventually, he moved underwater, where the rocks are lighter, but the air less plentiful. Instead of a break, he built a circuit training session, a loose core of rotating participants and a large pile of rocks.

Cocozza's workout has three phases. The first is “breath hopping,” meant to simulate getting caught inside a break and to rip open your lungs. Dive down, pick up a rock, squat and hold as long as you can; then, with the rock, jump to the surface for a breath. Sink to squat, repeat 10 times. The second phase is running around the pile of 80 rocks, more or less depending on sand, using breath hopping in case you need air. Phase three is running from the pile to the reef and back, preferably without a breath.

Join them, and it might be you, Cocozza, Tamena Watts, DJ Mikey Beats and Kevin Bacon Brown. Show them your bloated foot, caused by stepping on a stingray the other day, and they'll be stoked. It's a good day, cloudy but not too cold, good visibility.

In the water, Cocozza points out that it's shallow enough to breath-hop on one foot. He'll even hand you a rock. Underwater, you won't bother worrying about your foot when it's time to breathe.

Cocozza says it's all about building panic response. “As soon as you start freaking out, you burn through your oxygen,” he says. “And then you drop the rock.”

You'll jump, you'll breathe, you'll sink. You'll do it again. You'll help dig up and tidy the pile. (“It's like Jenga,” Beats jokes). You'll kick and get kicked back, get confused and carried away, swim back, down, up. You'll follow everyone to the reef. You'll see people pop up where you didn't expect them. “Whoo!” they'll shout.

Your bum foot keeps you off the reef, for now, but you'll get a good run to the pile, forget your foot and the shit you stepped in, forget about air, forget about breathing, forget how weird you all look from the shore, forget the current is helping you move, forget you aren't supposed to be here, in the ocean, under the surface, running weightless, holding a rock.

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