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Mayan Magic: Cavern Diving in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

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Southern Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is the ancestral home of the Maya people whose ancient cities and monolithic temples can be found everywhere from Cancun in the North to Honduras 800 miles to the South.

Yucatan

Sunlight streaming through Punto-de-Luz

The region consists of a gigantic limestone cap riddled with hundreds of subterranean rivers which over the millennia have carved out beautiful caves and passages on their way to the sea.

Over time some cave roofs have collapsed revealing open bodies of water called Cenotes which the Maya believed were gateways to the underworld and the home of their Gods.

Today they allow adventurous divers access to a magical flooded world where they can marvel at intricate limestone formations and dazzling light shows.

In February 2015 a group of fourteen current and former members of Southsea SAC (BSAC 009) set off to discover what makes the caverns of the Yucatan such a special place to dive.

As we were all experienced divers, our aim was to enjoy a “Rolls –Royce” tour of the area’s subterranean dive sites under the expert guidance of professional cave guides Lanny and Claire Vogel of Underworld Tulum, packing in as much diversity, quality and adventure as possible.

Day 1: Car Wash & Gran Cenote

Feeling our way

Having been met by Lanny and Budgie (yes, the same Budgie who skippered Top Gun out of Portland back in the day) we drove to Underworld Tulum’s base to be briefed on cavern diving protocols, divided into teams and acquainted with our cavern diving kit.

I was part of “Team Claire” led by cave diving expert Claire Vogel.

Our first Cenote dive would be at “The Car Wash”, so called because local taxi drivers used to wash their vehicles in the cenote’s clean, fresh water.

Being Cavern diving novices we began with a check out dive in a relatively open and unbreakable training area within the site, where we could safely practice basic cavern diving techniques and hone our trim and buoyancy skills before venturing underground.

Exercises successfully completed, an excited if slightly nervous “Team Claire” began its descent into the Cenote’s gaping maw to reach its hidden caverns.

Yucatan

Once inside the cavern system however, all apprehension vanished as we entered a magical realm straight out of Lord of the Rings and marvelled at the spectacular formations dripping water had created during the centuries these caves had been “dry”.

After 15 minutes underground we reached our turn around point and it was time to return to the light and the world of man.

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With the opening dive successfully completed we re-loaded the trucks and headed to our next site, Gran Cenote.

This dive provided more opportunities to refine our Cavern diving skills as the route was a bit longer, with slightly narrower passages and less natural light, though we did plan to surface in a large air dome complete with resident bat population to check we were all happy before continuing on.

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In the bat cave

After spending time watching the bats scoot about in the torch light, it was time to push on and complete our dive as another team came in to enjoy the show.

Day 2: Dos Ojos

Good buoyancy required

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Los Ojos site plan

The Dos Ojos site consists of two flooded tunnels which meet in a Cenote to form an underwater letter “Y”. When entering the system, the left passage takes you to “Bat Cave” whilst the right goes to the “Barbie Line”.

For our first dive, Claire led us into the right hand passage and onto the “Barbie Line” before continuing around the line’s circular route back to the entrance. As the line twisted its way through the cavern past spectacular rock formations, sometimes there was less than 3m of water between the roof and the fine powdery sand below making BSAC gold standard buoyancy essential to avoid dangerous silt outs.

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Narrow passages

On our second dive, we followed the left hand line into the Bat Cave cavern where conditions were even more challenging with only an average depth of 3.3m to play with. After finning through dimly lit passages for what seemed like an eternity, we emerged into a large domed cave with a small opening in the roof through which the sunshine streamed.

Cenotes 6

Under the hole was a large diving platform rising from the water on stilts. This had been built as a dive base by the early cave explorers who’d lower themselves and their kit into the cave using ropes dropped through the hole in the cave roof; real Indiana Jones stuff!

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Early diving platforms

Day 3: Angelita and Tajma-Ha

Two signature sites

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Angelita site plan

Angelita Cenote had long been on our cenote “bucket list” as not only is the site located in a beautiful setting, it’s also technically very demanding. Shaped like a tooth, the “crown” forms a large open water area whilst the “roots” slope down either side of a central mound to well over 50m.

An unusual feature of this site is the thick green layer of Hydrogen Sulfide-rich water permanently trapped between the fresh water above and the salt water below.

From above the layer looks like solid ground, from which the skeletal remains of trees submerged hundreds if not thousands of years ago emerge as if through a green mist.

Descending through the Sulfide layer to the dark waters beneath, we gazed at the drowned trees before returning to the light and making our way slowly back to the surface.

Yucatan

Drowned trees in Angelita Cenote

In the early days of cavern exploration, divers flying over the dense jungle looking for open water would drop streamers into the trees to mark any promising sites before walking in with all their gear to explore whatever they had found. Tajma-Ha was one of the many spectacular sites discovered in this way.

Billed as one of the most beautiful cavern systems in the area, our dive would take us on a circular route past two different Cenotes before returning us to the entrance/exit point.

We followed the guide line clockwise, skirting the Puntos de Luz air dome before moving onto the beautiful Sugar Bowl Cenote.

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The reflecting pool, Sugar Bowl Cenote

There we paused for a moment’s reflection on the sights we had seen before continuing on and back to our start point through more spectacular rock formations.

Day 4: The Pit & Pet Cemetery

The longest cave system in the world

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The Pit site plan

Located 6 miles from the nearest tarmac road in what was once dense jungle, The Pit was accidently discovered in 1985 by the Mexican Army who were conducting an aerial assessment of damage caused to the area by Hurricane Elena. Now known to be connected to the Dos Ojos system, it forms part of the third longest underwater cave system in the world (52 miles).

The site itself looks like a goatskin water bottle. A relatively narrow entrance leads divers into a large flooded cavern whose rock strewn floor lies some 40m below.

Staying close to the remaining cavern roof the route initially meandered its way around a large undercut passing beautiful stalagmites before spiralling downwards towards the bottom. At 28m there’s a white Hydrogen Sulfide layer through which a rubble hill protrudes like an underwater island. Approaching the end of our allotted bottom time we began our ascent, riding the shafts of sunlight as they slowly carried us up to the surface.

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The sunshine lift at The Pit

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Pet Cemetery site plan

Pet Cemetery, despite its rather macabre name, was one of the best sites we dived all trip.

Part of the longest system of underwater caves on earth (207 miles), we would dive the Sac Actun (Mystic River) cavern line route.

Running for 750 meters at an average depth of 4m, this dive was the longest and most technically demanding we had so far attempted.

Entering the system at roughly the line’s mid-point, we followed it in a loop, thoroughly enjoying the amazing rock formations and visiting a spectacular air dome before returning home.

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Air dome in Pet Cemetery

Day 5: Dream Gate

An amazing two for one

Located two miles from the Dos Ojos system, Dream Gate has an upstream and a downstream circuit providing divers with two great dives at one amazing location.

We split into two teams to tackle the upstream line travelling in opposite directions to minimise traffic through the narrower parts of the route.

The average depth was around 4m with the line skirting rows of limestone columns lined up like the bars of an old fashioned jail.

After about 15 minutes we surfaced in a small air dome, home to a colony of rare Mini Bats indigenous to this region. This was a very strange place. Vines climbed the cave’s stone columns towards the light creating an underground forest in which limestone pillars took the place of trees.

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Entering the upstream air dome

Our second dive was in the downstream cavern. Here there were many more columns, stalactites and stalagmites to navigate around than in the upstream section.

Sometimes the columns were so tightly packed they formed lattice like screens providing tantalising glimpses of potentially unexplored routes to tempt the unwary explorer from the true path.

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Is this for you?

Diving Yucatan’s Cenotes is undoubtedly an amazing experience and definitely not one to be missed. Cavern diving presents divers with some extra challenges however; in particular they should be trained and practiced in the techniques commonly used when diving in dimly lit, overhead environments and be able to consistently deliver excellent buoyancy control throughout their dives. If that’s you though, go for it, you won’t regret it!

Essentials

When to go:

January to March is Yucatan’s least humid period with average daytime temperatures a balmy 25°C. In the caverns the water temperature averaged 24°C, so a full length 3-5mm wetsuit was perfect.

Getting there:

Probably the easiest place for most UK travellers to fly into is Cancun airport some 75 miles north of Tulum and the main Cenote areas. The transfer time is 1.5 – 2hrs by coach/private car on well paved roads.

Flights are from £650 return with Virgin, including a whopping 56kg luggage allowance.

Logistics:

Being a large group we contracted Underworld Tulum to source and deliver everything we required, from airport transfers to specialist diving equipment and guides. Their logistical expertise and “can do” attitude resulted in a totally hassle free trip, just what we wanted.

Diving Costs:

$150 USD per day which included a fully qualified cavern guide, all cavern diving equipment inc. twin sets, wings & regs (Single cylinders are also available if required), NITROX/Air fills, lunch (fruit, cake and soft drinks), hotel pick-ups, site fees and inter-site transportation.

Accommodation:

Underworld Tulum have six 2 bed S/c apartments for rent at their base near Tulum (prices from $80 USD per apt/per night). Should people want to make their own arrangements however, there’s plenty of accommodation around Tulum to suit all budgets.

Non-diving activities:

Many hotels organize mini-bus/coach tours with English speaking guides to nearby Mayan ruins (cost approx. $70 USD pp) and there are dedicated snorkeling areas at most Cenote sites.

David started diving in 1999 following a try dive whilst on holiday in Cuba and is now a BSAC Advanced Diver, Advanced Instructor and member of Leeds 115 club. Over the years diving has given David the opportunity to indulge his passion for maritime history, meet some amazing people, visit some beautiful locations and interact with some spectacular marine creatures.

News

Nauticam announce NA-A7C Housing for Sony a7C Camera

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Sony’s latest full frame mirrorless camera, the a7C offers the underwater image maker one of the most compact and travel friendly full frame systems available on the market today.  The a7C features Sony’s latest stellar autofocus and a much improved battery life thanks to its use of the larger Z series battery. The BIONZ X processor delivers superb low-light performance and faster image processing. For video shooters, the a7C features internal UHD 4K capture in the wide-dynamic range HLG image profile at up to 30p.

Nauticam has housed more mirrorless cameras, and more Sony E Mount cameras than any other housing manufacturer. This experience results in the most evolved housing line with broadest range of accessories available today.

Pioneering optical accessories elevate performance to a new level. Magnifying viewfinders, the sharpest super macro accessory lenses ever made, and now the highest quality water contact wide angle lenses (the WWL-1B and WACP-1) combine with the NA-A7C housing to form a complete imaging system.

Nauticam is known for ergonomics, and an unmatched experience. Key controls are placed at the photographer’s fingertips. The housing and accessories are light weight, and easy to assemble. The camera drops in without any control presetting, and lens port changes are effortless.

NA-A7C features an integrated handle system. This ergonomic style provides exceptional control access, even with thick gloves, with ideal placement of the shutter release and a thumb-lever to actuate the AF-ON button from the right handle.

Nauticam build quality is well known by underwater photographers around the globe. The housing is machined from a solid block of aluminum, then hard anodized making it impervious to salt water corrosion. Marine grade stainless and plastic parts complete the housing, and it is backed by a two year warranty against manufacturing defects.

For more information in the UK visit the Nauticam website by clicking here.

For more information in the USA visit the Nauticam website by clicking here.

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Blogs

BLUE EARTH – Future Frogmen Podcast Series – The Next Generation of Ocean Stewards: Lauren Brideau

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A series of conservation educational podcasts from Future Frogmen, introduced by Jeff Goodman.

The Next Generation of Ocean Stewards: Lauren Brideau

We have a new host, Dr. Colleen Bielitz, and today we’ll be interviewing a recent college graduate as part of our once-a-month episode that focuses on students: the next generation of conservationists, researchers, and activists.

What are the next generation of ocean stewards doing to protect our Blue Earth? Join us as we find out by speaking to Lauren Brideau, a recent graduate of Southern Connecticut State University. Lauren started as an undeclared major but soon found her calling, now she is part of a research team conserving life below water.  She is a prime example that if you want to defend our oceans and the creatures that depend on the sea to survive, now is the time to become part of the solution.


Richard E Hyman Bio

Richard is the Chairman and President of Future Frogmen.

Born from mentoring and love of the ocean, Richard is developing an impactful non-profit organization. His memoir, FROGMEN, details expeditions aboard Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s famed ship Calypso.

Future Frogmen, Inc. is a nonprofit organization and public charity that works to improve ocean health by deepening the connection between people and nature. They foster ocean ambassadors and future leaders to protect the ocean by accomplishing five objectives.


You can find more episodes and information at www.futurefrogmen.org and on most social platforms @futurefrogmen.

 

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