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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.

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

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

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

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

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

The sunshine lift at The Pit

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

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.

Yucatan

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.

Marine Life & Conservation

Exhibition: Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research

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From now until 30 October, the photo exhibition “Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research” features 21 photographs at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, as well as a digital edition.

Exceptional photographs highlight how innovative marine experts and scientists take the pulse of the ocean by exploring ecosystems, studying the movement of species, or revealing the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs. Scientific discoveries are more important than ever for the protection and sustainable conservation of our Marine World Heritage. This memorable exhibition comes ahead of the launch, in 2021, of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“Ocean Decade”). The exhibition was jointly developed by UNESCO and the Principality of Monaco.

The 50 marine sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, distributed across 37 countries, include a wide variety of habitats as well as rare marine life still largely unknown. Renowned for their unmatched beauty and emblematic biodiversity, these exceptional ecosystems play a leading role in the field of marine conservation. Through scientific field research and innovation, concrete actions to foster global preservation of the ocean are being implemented locally in these unique natural sites all over the world. They are true symbols of hope in a changing ocean.

Since 2017, the Principality of Monaco supports UNESCO to strengthen conservation and scientific understanding of the marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. This strategic partnership allows local management teams to benefit from the results obtained during the scientific missions of Monaco Explorations. The partnership also draws international attention to the conservation challenges facing the world’s most iconic ocean sites.

The exhibition invites viewers to take a passionate dive into the heart of the scientific missions led by Monaco Explorations in four marine World Heritage sites: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), and the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France). It is also an opportunity to discover the work of a megafauna census; the study of the resilience of coral reefs and their adaptation in a changing climate; the exploration of the deep sea; and the monitoring of large marine predators through satellite data.

To visit the Digital Exhibition click here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 7

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Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for the final part of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

Deptherapy expeditions do not just magically happen, they need planning and they need funding.  This expedition was funded by our long-term partners the Veterans’ Foundation.  The funding is part of a grant they awarded us for programmes this year, which were then put on hold because of COVID.

All charities in the Armed Forces’ Sector are struggling for funds. Deptherapy desperately needs support going forward and every penny counts.

We know what we do works and at the end of this blog you will find details of the research studies into Deptherapy’s programmes and how they impact on the lives of our beneficiaries.  This includes details that are hot off the press about the latest study that reports that what we offer through scuba diving and 24/7 support has benefits beyond those found in other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

Well tomorrow we fly home, late in the evening with the journey home for some of the guys who live up North taking around 15 hours after leaving Roots.

We want to make the most of today but with the tide running we are not going to be able to dive until later this morning which means only two dives today.

Oatsie and Swars about to start their sidemount dives

Things, however are really busy over at the dive centre with Swars and Oatsie putting their sidemount kit together for their training dives with Steve Rattle leading to their RAID sidemount qualification.  It has been nice to be able to offer the guys this extra training, given the amount of work they have put in this week.  They have needed to get through their theory quickly but given the RADI online learning system this has not been too arduous.

Steve came diving with us yesterday to get some more photos and was really amazed at the progress that Corey had made. He was quite open in his praise, as in his view Corey has gone from a non-diver to being a very competent OW diver capable of diving, unsupervised, with a buddy.  Praise indeed.

Other than the sidemount course we are diving as a group today: Corey, Keiron, Michael, Moudi and me. Corey has been given some tasks – SMB deployment on both dives and the afternoon dive will be a ‘naturalist dive’.  Guy Henderson has set Corey a task: ‘to identify three species of fish and record the time into the dive and the depth at which each one was spotted’.  Guy runs Marine Biology courses on the reef and knows where the fish are to be found, how long into the dive, and at what time.

The two Toms are getting put through their paces. They have walked their cylinders down to the entry point, but Steve sends them back to the dive centre to collect other kit they should have brought with them.

Our general dive goes well and the sidemount guys appear from their sidemount dive some 90 minutes after dipping their heads under the water.

Corey enjoying being a RAID OW20 Diver

Lots of bubbly chat at lunchtime, a group of really happy divers. Corey really has benefited from the week and over lunch thanked the team for making him a diver. He has very quickly become part of the family and after returning home he published an amazing post on Facebook about his experience.  Corey really gets Deptherapy and had soon realised that we see past mental and physical injuries and see the person inside and work with that person.  He also realised that we want beneficiaries to see their fellow beneficiaries in the same light.  He knows he now has another ‘family’ – a family of brothers in arms who have two things in common, they served their country and they have suffered life changing injuries or illnesses.

Back into the water for the afternoon dive and Corey identifies the fish and records the details on a slate.  The two Tom’s complete their second dive and qualify as RAID Sidemount Divers. Great!

Kit packed away and it is time to return to the camp for a few well-earned last night drinks.

I am often asked why we use Roots as our exclusive base for diving. I have mentioned before that it offers us an ideal retreat, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We are secluded and there are no distractions such as late-night bars etc.

Roots Accessible Room

The second reason is the amazing welcome we receive from Steve, Clare, Moudi and the team.  We have been going to Roots since 2014 and many of the staff have become good friends, they understand our needs and are the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

The third reason is the huge investment Steve and Clare have made in making the resort and dive centre accessible for those with physical injuries including those who need to use wheelchairs.  All our beneficiaries can enjoy Roots and, in fact, love it here.  The reef is perfect for us and in non-COVID times we can travel to the Salem Express and other dive sites to enjoy more of the Red Sea experience.

Accessible toilet on the Roots beach

After discussions with the team I was very proud to be able to tell Corey that his progress had been such that we were inviting him on the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust sponsored two-week Marine Biology Course at Roots in June 2021. There is lots of homework to undertake under the guidance of Dr Debbie McNeill of Open Oceans and Corey will be sent the Red Sea Guide which is the basis for study.

While on that programme, Corey with fellow beneficiary Dale Mallin, will complete his RAID Advanced 35 course.  This all builds to a 10-day Red Sea liveaboard in 2022, onboard Roots’ new boat Big Blue where 18 beneficiaries will compare the coral and aquatic life on the wrecks of the SS Thistlegorm and the less known SS Turkia that is to be found in the Gulf of Suez and is rarely dived.

Paul Rose, our Vice President, is supporting the programme and is seeking the support of the UN and the Royal Geographical Society. A comprehensive report will be submitted to our partners in the project and to the Egyptian Authorities.

Last night and chill

What we do works:

In recent years there have been three academic studies into our work:

2018 – A study by a team from the University of Sheffield Medical School.

2019 – A study by The Centre of Trauma at Nottingham University.

Both these studies reported very positively on Deptherapy’s work both underwater but also in terms of the provision of 24/7 support.

The following is from our press release which was issued on 26th October:

‘A new study into Scuba Diving Rehabilitation Charity Deptherapy’s approach to supporting Armed Forces veterans with psychological injuries such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the medium of scuba diving has been carried out by Petra Walker in conjunction with Hanna Kampman of the Posttraumatic Growth Research Unit at the University of East London.

This study, which used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), demonstrates that scuba diving has rehabilitation benefits beyond those found in other forms of sporting rehabilitation exercise. IPA is a qualitative methodology that examines the experiences of participants and has been used in previous studies of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) in para-athletes.

Petra is an experienced diver herself and was exploring the wellbeing aspects of scuba diving as part of her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology when she came across a previous study on Deptherapy. Past studies have mainly focused on the medical aspects of diving, so the opportunity to examine the mental health side of rehabilitative scuba diving was impossible to ignore. The full study is currently embargoed until it is published at a future date in an academic journal, but it follows similar academic research into the work of Deptherapy by the University of Sheffield Medical School (2018) and the University of Nottingham (2019).’

This is amazing news and sets us apart from other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

We are currently working with our VP Richard Castle who is a Consultant Psychologist and our Dive Medicine Advisor Mark Downs to identify further areas of psychological and physical dive related research.

We end the week on a happy note.  A young man who has learned to dive properly with a RAID OW 20 certification, a new RAID Master Rescue Diver, two new RAID Sidemount Divers, 5 new RAID O2 Providers, many assessments for our DMs but most of all a week of learning, of making new friendships, renewing old friendships, and building on our family ethos.

Until we meet again…

For us, Deptherapy is a journey, a journey that continues to push boundaries in the use of scuba diving in the rehabilitation of those suffering life changing mental and/or physical challenges.  On our journey we want to change the way the scuba diving industry views diving for those with disabilities.

In the new year, we will be launching, with our diver training agency partners RAID, a new and exciting adaptive teaching programme that will offer diving to the disabled community. We can’t wait to share it with you!


Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at www.deptherapy.co.uk

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