On my first open water SCUBA dive I was terrified to even jump off the boat. It was a wall dive and the thought of venturing so close to the deep blue had me squeezing for my Papi’s hand throughout the entire experience. I was only ten years old at the time.
Almost twelve years later, instead of trembling at the thought of a wall dive, I’m discovering the land—er, so to speak—of cavern and cave diving. I’m trading in my vast ocean for confined darkness and desperately searching for my Papi’s hand once again. Because this time, if something goes wrong you can’t just swim up to the surface and get back on the boat.
Cenotes, Spanish for underwater caverns and caves derived from the Mayan ts’onot, is essentially a backyard swimming pool for many residents of the Yúcatan Peninsula here in Mexico. The extensive system of caves and caverns is among the largest in the world and boasts crystal-clear water coming all the way from the mountains of Nicaragua. The ancient Mayas used cenotes for a number of reasons (including sacrifice…leading to the discovery of skeletal remains at many cenotes) but today cenoteculture is a little different than it was back in the day. While Mayas used theMot Mot bird to find these fresh-water havens, today you’re almost guaranteed access to a cenote when you purchase a piece of land. Most of the cenotesattract SCUBA divers, tourists, and scientists but even the locals jump in on the fun and host a sort of “pool party” or backyard BBQ that you would expect to find in the States—just with this Maya twist.
The first cenote I ever dove was Dos Ojos right outside of Tulúm a few years ago. It was everything you would expect in a cavern/cave dive: lots of stalagmites/ctites, complete and total darkness, and beautiful cuts of sunlight streaming into the opening. I can remember hoards of tourists, dive groups rotating in every ten minutes, and picnics on the overhang of the cave ceiling.
(Entrance to Dos Ojos)
Coming back to Tulúm had me itching to try cenote diving again. We dove two in one day—Gran Cenote and Car Wash…
It’s always colder than you expect it to be. And thinner, if that’s possible. It’s almost as if you’re cutting through the water rather than pushing and pulling against it. You’re weightless and for a moment you forget that you’re underwater; instead, you’re floating effortlessly in this quiet space where only your breath is heard.
Darkness looms ahead and as the golden stalagmites and stalactites welcome you into the cavern, the feeble flashlight that ventured down with you seems to grow stronger with every kick. But still there’s darkness. It’s as if it’s feeding off of your light and steadily swallowing you whole. Your heart quickens but not even claustrophobia can set in because the darkness has consumed any and all physical barriers. And it’s just you. Following the set of flippers in front of you. Hoping that they don’t disappear.
But then you turn the corner and swim towards the entrance. The most beautiful blue light beckons you back and the darkness suddenly forms the shapes of the limestone structures you saw at the beginning. You’re floating again. The flashlight has served its purpose and with each stroke your hungry eyes roll over formations that before the darkness hid. There’s a sensation that you are the first one to see this light and these formations. It’s as if this cave were discovered by you and yet you can feel the weight of time—other eyes have been here before. But it’s quiet. No one is there to claim the discovery as their own. All you can hear are your bubbles. The only reminder that you’re underwater.
(Looking towards the opening. Photo Cred: www.flickr.com/photos/xoto)
It looks and smells like the lagoon from The Black Lagoon books that I read when I was a kid. There are bugs jumping on the surface and every so often a fish blows up bubbles from the murky deep. This is not your typical cenote. It was dubbedCar Wash because local taxi drivers used it for just that. But hidden beneath its dingy exterior is a cenote unlike any other in Mexico.
The first five meters are warm and cloudy. For a moment you are completely alone in the mess of yellow-green and this new sort of blindness has your body acutely aware that it is sinking.
Suddenly your feet are cold. Then your legs, your torso, your arms, and then finally your head. The water is crystal clear under the thick layer of algae and schools of small spotted fish dash away as you sink another few meters. The transition has you dazed for a moment as you take in this alien world: thick seaweed coats the dusty floor of the lagoon and the entrance to an uncharted cave sits up ahead with a thick, beautiful cloud of lime green and electric blue. Fallen tree branches stand at the opening of the massive cave and their black arms twist eerily into the cloud.
To enter the cave you have to drop another few meters and swim around the fallen tree branches and alien cloud. The limestone here is black with what appears to be gold patches. Intricate formations of the stone give the entrance an almost tarnished Baroque quality that only further suggests this alien, submerged world was built not born. Complete darkness comes almost immediately when you venture further in and only the alien light serves as your beacon home.
There are no fish here in the cave, no movement past that cloud of green. Even the freshwater turtles that dive down into the lagoon turn away from the entrance. There is no life down here—at least none you can see.
(Looking towards the opening, green cloud and all)
For more information on measures being taken to protect the cenotes, you can visit (and support!) SAVE: Aguas con los Cenotes at http://saverivieramaya.org/take-action/aguas-con-los-cenotes/