Journey to the|
Center of the Earth
Cave Diving in the Yucatan Peninsula
By Karl Shreeves · Photography by Wes Skiles|
The Mexican Riviera-Cancun south along the Yucatan's Caribbean coast, including the ferry jump to Cozumel-rides high on the tourism wave. Its sun-and-fun reputation sits solidly on flawless beaches, exotic Maya ruins, high rise resort hotels and a favorable exchange rate. It's the place to go for sunbathing, snorkeling, partying and, of course, scuba diving. |
In addition to all its other attractions, the Yucatan Peninsula is perhaps the world's premier cave diving destination. It is home to the world's longest underwater cave system, Nahoch Nah Chich, with more than 42 miles of mapped passage so far, and its runner up, the Dos Ojos system, with 35 plus miles. Here the names Car Wash, Ponderosa, Sac Actun, Chak Mol, Mayan Blue, Naharon-names that ring a bell with cave divers around the world-label some of the finest cave dives on the planet.
Even 15 years after cave diving sprouted here, cave divers still routinely find unexplored passages; it's one of the last places on earth you can go where no one has gone before. That's one of the reasons I'm here-to explore virgin caves. My buddy Grant and I plan to dive off the beaten path. That means enduring tromps through summer jungle-literally hundreds of mosquito bites, dehydration and heat exhaustion. Lowering tanks down holes by rope. Climbing ladderless rock walls. Loading horses with gear to traverse roads too rough for Range Rovers and too long for human labor. And sometimes getting buffeted by gusts of land-owner politics. It all goes with the territory.
The first thing a cave diver notices about the Yucatan is that, geologically, it's a huge piece of water-filled Swiss cheese. More than a playground for cave divers, this giant aquifer holds one of the world's largest natural freshwater sources; it supplies everything from faucets in Cancun hotels to crude hand pumps in the countryside. The Yucatan literally and economically floats on water.
The aquifer may be almost everywhere beneath your feet but access isn't. You enter Mexican caves through cenotes-placid windows in the aquifer often leading to thousands of feet-miles-of branching cave passage. Resulting primarily from cave ceiling collapses, cenotes (pronounced "seh-NO-tays") range from small, unimpressive pools to huge round holes that look like small lakes.
At the typical popular cenotes, you drive up, pay around 40 pesos per person (about $4.60 at this writing), park within 50 feet of the water and prepare your gear, sometimes in palapas (thatched roof porches) if there's no natural shade. Cenotes tend to be steep sided and you find ladders and/or stairs for access. At some cenotes, Maya helpers lower your gear into the water 15 to 20 feet below via pulleys or on ropes slung over tree branches. But aside from palapas, ladders, stairs and platforms over or next to the water, you won't find much else in the way of development at the popular cenotes (though there are exceptions).
Inside, spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, flow stone and stone straws decorate the caves. They range from the delicate to the massive, from natural chandeliers that look as if they would crumble in a breeze, to cave-created sculptures that look as if they could stop a glacier. But they can't and the cave diving community embraces a look but don't touch conservation ethic akin to that of open water diving on coral reef. It's the type of beauty you find in non-submerged caves, which these once were, because decorations like these only form in air. Evaporating water left minute deposits of limestone, which accumulated over hundreds of years to produce the stalactites, stalagmites and other formations. Then the sea rose, lifting the freshwater table on sea water, until the caves filled completely, now slowly dissolving the beauty the water once created. If you break coral, it may take years and years to grow back. If you break a stalactite, it will never grow back.
Which brings up haloclines-abrupt transitions from fresh water to salt water. In many caves, you begin the dive in fresh water and as you descend, drop into a sea water layer-how deep depends on how close you are to the coast and the time of day. Even miles inland, the halocline rises and falls with the tide. It's a distinct transition that looks like dropping into oil from above or ascending into air from beneath. Once disturbed, as when following another diver single file (quite common in cave diving, of course) the halocline mixes; it's like trying to see through Italian dressing. Space allowing, you try to swim next to your buddy, not behind.
Geared for Yucatan Caves
In addition to the lights, cave line reels, etc., in most quarters double tanks and cave diving go hand in hand and that's true in the most popular Yucatan caves. Most of the popular dives don't exceed 70 feet in depth, making twin aluminum 80s more than adequate compared to the much larger and heavier tanks used in Florida's deeper caves. Several area dive centers rent doubles to certified cave divers, and in the breathtaking giant rooms of the most popular caves, that's all you need for a 30 to 90 minute dive.
Virgin exploration of anything but a newly discovered large cave requires fitting through tight passages, often for hundreds of feet, sometimes until the cave squeezes shut and sometimes (hopefully) re-expands or connects to another cave and cenote.
Sites off the beaten path lack convenient roads, making handling heavy double tanks awkward. For these reasons, many exploring cave divers (including Grant and me) use sidemount, single tanks worn on the right and left under each arm. This configuration allows you to squeeze through spots where doubles won't fit, remove a tank if you get stuck and generally do things that 90 percent of other divers consider insane. It's also easier to handle the tanks when you have to tromp through the jungle.
On this trip, Grant and I dive with four, two on each side. In some of the big, popular caves we could use doubles, but it's easier to stay in one rig. Besides, you never know when you might see a promising squeeze.
On the Beaten Path
Grant and I stop first in a popular cenote, Chak Mol, named for the Maya god of rain. It's my favorite shakedown site for checking out my rig before heading to more challenging spots. Also, we are visiting Chak Mol because we believe it might connect to a small cave we plan to explore on the coast a few miles away.
Chak Mol is spectacular for many reasons, but about 1,500 feet back it offers Xix Ha Tunich, a 42 foot Godzilla tooth of a flow stone dominating one wall of an enormous room that's about 20 feet deep at the ceiling and 80 at the floor. Xix Ha Tunich is not only Chak Mol's most impressive feature, but perhaps the most impressive cave feature in all of Mexico. It is the largest known speleothem (cave decoration) in the country. And that is in a country with no shortage of spectacular caves.
Farther down the Yucatan coast lies Dos Ojos, an impressive system with huge caverns, a large entrance and immediate access to dive center services. Dos Ojos is the main entrance to the world's second longest underwater cave (known as the Sistema Jacinto Pat, though most cave divers call the entire cave Dos Ojos). Nearby, Ponderosa and Taj Mahal are popular caves, known for their beautiful rooms and decorations; both have spectacular speleothems so close to their entrances that they're popular for cavern diving and cavern tours.
Roll down the coast still farther, pass the Maya ruins of Tulum, head inland toward the Coba ruins and you find three of the most acclaimed cenotes practically next to each other. Car Wash-so named because taxi drivers used to scrub down their cabs there-is the place where it all started. The first to get cave diver attention, its Room of Tears still ranks as one of the world's most stunning cave diving sights; the Chamber of the Ancients holds a prehistoric, pre-Maya altar from a time when the cave was dry and inhabited by humans. Because of its archaeological importance, no lines lead to the Chamber, which reduces traffic there. On this trip, Grant and I make two dives into Car Wash, sliding through Satan's Silt Hole (guess why it's called that) in low and tight spots most Car Wash visitors never see.
Although Car Wash has been explored the longest, those who don't mind squeezing continue to map new passages, a fact Grant and I discover as we follow a line to where it's even tight for sidemounts. Later we learn most of this new line was laid by Chuck Stevens and Dan Lins, two local cave instructors known for their ability to squeeze through ultra tight passages.
Grand Cenote-Sac Actun to the Maya-has the reputation as perhaps the best decorated of the on the beaten path caves. It is a popular cave dive and also a popular spot for cavern dives and cavern tours. Just down the road from Grand Cenote lies one of the newest cave discoveries, Vaca Ha, which is Maya for "cow water." Local lore has it that a farmer found the entrance while rescuing one of his cows from a watering hole, only to discover the hole went down into the deep dark. Vaca Ha's mouth looks like a modest and uncenote-like water filled hole no more than 10 feet across with a ladder sticking out, but it leads to an extensive, heavily decorated cave system.
Off the Beaten Path
Seeking the lines less traveled, Grant and I turn our attention to the harder to reach spots-harder owing to distance, difficulty and sometimes special permission (for those not normally open to the general cave diving public).
Discovered in 1988 by cave diver Mike Madden, the centerpiece among gems, Nahoch Nah Chich (Maya for "giant bird house") is arguably the most beautiful cave dive in the Yucatan. It is the most on the beaten path of the off the beaten path caves and getting there is a bit of an adventure. You hike two kilometers through the jungle (remember your mosquito repellent) on an old Maya road that could even stop a Hummer. The main entrance lies in a large cenote in a Maya ranch that, in many respects, differs little from what it looked like 300 years ago. Tours include soft drinks and horses for carrying your gear. They are available exclusively through Nahoch's guardian, CEDAM Dive Center in Puerto Aventuras.
Because of its fragile decorations and potentially confusing 42 plus miles of maze-like passage, only fully qualified cave divers may dive Nahoch, though snorkelers may explore the mouth and basin. The strategy works: despite more than a decade of hosting visitors, Nahoch remains nearly pristine. I've made the hike more times than I can count and it's worth it every time.
Halfway to the Nahoch main entrance lies one of the newest areas of exploration in the Nahoch Nah Chich cave system. Just make an abrupt jump off the road into the bush, zigzag through a barbed wire fence, slip/slide down a hill, hopscotch over the army ants, slosh through a short bog, twist between two boulders into a small pool that disappears under a massive rock overhang and you're in Mike's Promise. Makes you wonder why no one dived it years ago.
With Maya guides helping us schlep our gear, we clip in our tanks and descend, slithering on our sides through a 10 foot long narrow slot at 30 feet we call the keyhole. Mike's Promise opens up into a beautiful cave, going from tall, irregular passages to low and wide passages to an expansive cave that's so huge, you wonder what holds it up. It is one of the most impressive parts of the Nahoch cave system, though not as decorated as the main entrance.
In the past year and a half, divers working through Mike's Promise have put in thousands of feet of new line. We head toward the first of three lines we hope to extend, about 2,500 feet back. But on this trip, it's not to be. Grant's light dies unexpectedly about 1,700 feet in. We exit safely but frustrated, all the more so when, the next morning, owing to some political vagaries, access to Mike's Promise slams shut, squashing our plans. To me, local landowner politics remain an incomprehensible, non-Euclidean geometry in which a straight line is the longest distance between two points. Given the vital role the aquifer plays in the Yucatan's future, denying access to its exploration is like refusing to let someone plant your field for free.
No matter, we'll work a different system. Grant and I return north to dive Mujara and Chok Hal Al, two systems we believe may connect. Mujara is part of Chak Mol; although a major cave entrance, perhaps only a dozen divers have actually dived Mujara because it is little known and logistically cumbersome.
Driving down the dirt road leading to Chak Mol, we tuck our car into a small turnout, unload and hike our gear back (it takes six trips) along a trail you'd never see if you didn't know to look. It's hot-95°F and 100 percent humidity-and the mosquitoes flock to us, despite a generous slathering of undiluted DEET, as we clamber over the remains of two ancient Maya walls. About 150 yards back, we find a cenote that's a near-perfect cylinder, about 15 feet across and 15 feet above the water. Mujara has no ladders, so Grant gears up (except for tanks) and plummets to the water. I lower our eight cylinders singly by rope, then a basket with our lights and reels. In my wetsuit I'm nearing heat exhaustion by the time I finish; plunging into Mujara's cool water revives me.
After gearing up at the surface, we descend. Mujara quickly opens and at 40 feet we swim through air-clear water into a chasm that would permit buses to pass each other. We head downstream, toward Chok Hal Al (we hope). For the first 1,200 or so feet Mujara remains expansive, then begins to tighten and head upward, until we're in passage too low for doubles and only eight feet deep. Tree roots hang around us like giant beards; were there no rock, we could touch the jungle floor.
Mujara eventually squeezes us off; we head out and, with plenty of air left, run line on side trips into offshooting passages. In an obscure hole very near the mouth, Grant leads through a restriction into a small room filled with stalactites and ceiling straws; it is Car Wash's Room of Tears in miniature, but untouched.
We surface after two and a half hours. Slipping out of my gear, I hang off my tanks and light and scale straight up Mujara's walls-as much as an adventure as the dive, though much shorter (fortunately). My fingers bleed from rock climbing with water-softened hands and by the time we haul up all our gear and lug it to the car we're exhausted, dehydrated and covered with mosquito bites-and yet have no doubt it was well worth it.
Our next dive takes us to Chok Hal Al, a small, tight cenote with limited access through private property, but Grant has "connections." Chok Hal Al differs from most cenotes because it opens into a small bay in the ocean. We enter from the sea, swimming into its outflow. Perhaps ten people have been in Chok Hal Al, with the first serious exploration accomplished a few years ago by noted cave explorer and videographer Wes Skiles.
It's about a 45 minute swim to the end of a line that Grant started on a previous trip, leaving it in "going" passage headed toward Mujara and Chak Mol. I tie on my reel, with a wide open virgin cave before me. About 100 feet of line zips off my reel; I tie at a turn, spin out another 25 or so feet, turn again and Hal Al dashes my hopes, dead-ending 30 feet later into a long, tight passage less than a foot high. Through the course of several dives, pushing other tunnels and offshoots leads us repeatedly to the same low, tight cave-always headed toward Mujara, which itself pinches down to the same type of low, tight cave. Hmmmm.
Perhaps Chok Hal Al connects with Mujara and Chak Mol, but if so, it waits for another day. Grant and I return home satisfied with what we saw and accomplished, knowing that untouched recesses await our next visit to Mike's Promise, Mujara, Chak Mol-or one of dozens of other caves. We'll be back.