Monday, September 17, 2012

Cenote Diving, Mexico

Mexican Cenotes

Let’s Go Underground!

A cenote is a deep natural pit, or sinkhole, characteristic of Mexico, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.  Cenotes are associated with the Yucatan Peninsular and some nearby Caribbean islands….

BUT they are so much more that that.  In Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsular there are hundreds of kilometers of explored and mapped cave systems linked to the many cenotes that thousands of people flock to each year.  There are also many more cave systems, and cenotes that have yet to be discovered (or opened up to the public), and many that lie on private property that are waiting to be explored!

Today, well if I’m being honest, on Monday I had a fairly interesting day of teaching scuba.  Whenever I teach a new course, I give the students a dive centre orientation, stating the safety rules concerning the pool especially.  Well this was no ordinary Monday, clearly, since after no more than 10 seconds after uttering the following words, the unthinkable happened – for the first time in Dive Centre Manly’s history….

“…so don’t walk along here, if you fall in I have to jump in and save you – however, if I ever fall in, you have permission to laugh…”

Well, it happened.  Fully clothed and before the pool heating had kicked in, I splashed into the pool after an almost slow-motion movie-style dramatic attempt at self-rescue…I was like a sinking ship, I went down…Splash!

Dripping wet I quickly changed into towel and cracked on with the course! What followed was a very enlightening day teaching two very enthusiastic new divers.  They were both very interesting to talk to, and both super keen to get diving.  One of them, who I shall rename her as The Peaceful Warrior, is going to Mexico next week, and naturally wants to dive in the Cenotes…

Gaffa, Chris & The Peaceful Warrior!

Since then I have been compelled to write about the cenotes that I fell in love with whilst travelling with Winnie earlier this year.  I will try hard to keep this as short, yet hopefully entertaining as possible…

What can I say that will not make me appear to be a travel guide, or a sales brochure?  The Mexican Cenotes are fantastic.  The water is warm and crystal clear year round and the Cenotes themselves have amazing significance to the Ancient Mayans, and are quite simply amazing places to snorkel, scuba dive or swim.  The addition of super cool stalactites and stalagmites, awesome natural rock formations both caused by millions of years of water seepage, dripping and erosion, makes diving in these subterranean wonderlands an experience of a lifetime.

Winnie and I used our remaining budget (plus a bit more) to spend some time in Mexico, and decided to base ourselves in Tulum for the duration of our diving portion of our Mexican adventure.  We chose Tulum for its central to the Cenotes location, and because we were recommended it by the Princess and Fabio, who had been in Mexico whilst we had been travelling through Europe.

Tulum has a lot of things to offer, from the adventurous zip-lining or jungle experiences to the sedate wanderings at one of the only Mayan Ruins located on the beach.  We packed our stay with multiple actvities – some of them with the other duo of travelling divers who dropped in to spend a few weeks with us, Keish – but that will be the focus of another post!!

So, we opted to do 8 dives in total, like I said we were scraping the barrel of our budget and this was the most we could do.  We did 2 dives with Keish, and 6 by ourselves.  The first two would have been better if we’d stuck to my usual high standards in selecting a dive operator – but we didn’t and went with the cheapest.  We also chose an operator based out of Playa del Carmen and this was obviously a crazy thing to do since Tulum is better situated.  The Non-English divemaster then proceeded to do two dives in the same Cenote (on marginally different dives).. 

The dives were good and were a great introduction to what Cenotes actually were.  We dived at Tajma-ha Cenote on this occasion.  The dive was great, warm water with a serious halocline and a small thermo cline, and even an air pocket called the Batcave which was pretty cool.  A Halocline is a visible salt to fresh water division in the water, when a diver passes between them there will normally be a visible blurriness or clarity depending on the direction!  A thermo cline is passing from warm to cool water (or vice versa) and as you pass between these you feel like you’ve just got in a warm bath, or an ice bath!!  Both are pretty interesting experiences for a diver, and to get both in one dive is awesome!  The dive was a standard route, in through the light zone to the “Alto / Peligro!” (Danger) warning sign and back.  The signs are placed at the entrance to caves at the end of the cavern/light zone and are designed to warn off untrained divers – an excellent idea considering the additional risks apparent in diving in overhead environments.  Specialist training is definitely recommended!

The experience was fun, and I know for one the Mr Keish loved every second, and so did WinGaz!  The dive was nice, and the idea of driving into the jungle falling into a hole and having a dive was fantastic!  The Yucatan certainly holds its lure over you once your there!

That said, Winnie and I were back in Mexico (after our mad dash around Belize with Keish) and this time we  stopped in Tulum on our own, back in the same Hostel enjoying some yummy Chedraui bakery goods trying to plan as much Cenote diving as we could afford… ahem!

So after asking around, almost interviewing the dive operators to see what they offer, how it fits to what we want and if the guide would speak English well enough to help us (it feels so ignorant to ask for English speakers in Mexico, but I’d been trying to improve my Spanish the whole time, but was failing miserably).  We ended up in a dive centre run by a Belgian dude (Niels) and his wife.  The place felt almost homely and the fact that the owner could give us what we wanted, was prepared to negotiate a better deal since we had all of our own gear, and even offered me a job! - was all looking good.  We went away and discussed our options and decided on Niels’ Dive Centre – depending on your diving orientation they are called “Dream Divers” or “Tek Tulum”.  Clearly, after the experience we had with them both names fit perfectly.

Niels was mid-way through a cave diver course, and had a struggling student who required more time, and apologised for not being available to dive with us, but instead hired in a freelance UK diver.  Eric “Budgie” Burgess, a retired Royal Navy Clearance Diver, and very experienced Cave Diver / Instructor who had been living within the Mexican Ex-Pat community for well over a decade had the goods.  He had a chat on the first day, and we instantly felt good about the decision.

We wanted to stay away from tourist hot spots, to experience more private dives where we wouldn’t be part of “diver soup”, we wanted to be amazed.  All Budgie wanted was to make sure that we were:
µ     Safe Divers with good skills (buoyancy, fin kick techniques, communication and gas management) – Check!
µ     Happy with extended periods in overhead environments, following a line and using torches etc – Check!
µ     Nice, Fun, Happy people! – Check, Check, Check!!!

I got on really well with Budgie, he was an instantly likeable dive guide, trustworthy, safe and fun.  He wanted to give us what we wanted so dive 1 would be a “kinda” Check dive, then dive 2 would be based on that… WinGaz knew we’d have no issues there – Win breathes better than a fish underwater and well I’m me…so say no more!  We loaded the tanks, dive tubs and misc items into the back of Budgie’s old Ford Ranger Ute and off we went!

Dive 1 was at: Angelita Sink Hole. 
Max Depth 40m
Dive Time 33 mins

This dive was a weird and wonderful experience.  The sink hole has a salt water layer, a fresh water layer and between them a layer of hydrogen sulphide gas that is trapped.  It’s due to the decomposing wildlife that falls into the hole.  The gas cannot escape, and sits between the fresh / salt divide and looks like an eerie low budget horror movie effect – the only difference being that this gas stinks!  A stench of rotten eggs engulfs you as you swim down or back up through the layer, plus you look like you have missing body parts due to the density of the gas.  It makes for a fun dive.  
Decomposing Trees in the Hydrogen Sulphide Layer
The main highlight of the dive was when Budgie starting weaving his way through various squeeze-through swim through sections of the sink hole wall during ascent.  The gas layer started around 15-20m and lasted until you hit about 30m so it was a fabulous experience!

Dive 2 was at: Grand Cenote. 
Max Depth 12m
Dive Time 43 mins

Although we had requested a less touristy experience, Budgie did recommend the visit to Grand Cenote, and assured us that the dive would be spectacular – plus is was on the way from Angelita.

Since this (and most of the cenotes and caverns) are fairly shallow dives for recreational divers, we were offered a longer bottom time that the previous dive.  So in we splashed!

Cheeky Grins in the Air Pocket
Grand Cenote is a very beautiful cenote / cavern. Our tour led us through to a shallow air pocket (just out of reach of the tourist snorkelers) where we had a quick chat and looked at the bats in the roof of the cavern.  After this we were taken to the deeper, darker more overhead areas of the cavern.  We followed Budgie closely, since we were taking a more unique tour, just off-line (but near to it) so we could experience the darker recesses the cavern had to offer.  We travelled right up to the entrance of the “cave” zone and passes many a cruisy catfish swimming near to the tree roots poking down from the terrestrial world above us.

Grand Cenote has a multitude of stalagmites and stalactites to wow it’s visitors and we were no exception.  WOW indeed.

After day one we were guaranteed awesome dives from here on out… The first two were awe inspiring - amazing and I couldn’t sit still for excitement for the next dives J

Dive 3 was at: The Temple of Doom
Max Depth 20m
Dive Time 43 mins

Calavera cenote is the official name, but Temple of Doom is what divers tend to call it.  Cast your mind back to an old “Indiana Jones Movie” and see the cave that looks like a skull two “eye” holes and a large “mouth” hole entrance.  That is what Calavera looks like from above (birds’ eye view).  The Mouth was situated 3-4m above the water level, so a giant stride entrance was required.  Awesome! Plummeting 3-4m from the land into a hole!  This Cenote is a beautiful, the light and the darker colour of the cavern walls and the blossom of plankton on the surface make the water look initially brown, then green, then pitch black.  It is truly amazing to see.  The swim through sections and various cave entrances really were eye opening.  The arrays of stalactites and stalagmites were awesome to see.  Nature does some phenomenal work!  On this dive we did swim the the extents of the cavern zone, coming off-line for just a short spell.

Off-line is when you do not use the cave guide line.  This is not something that normally happens in Cenote diving in Mexico, the guides only do this if the divers are very experienced and have good control over gas management, buoyancy and fin technique – so Winnie and I felt very lucky to have had this opportunity.

Dive 4 was at: Aktun-Ha. 
Max Depth 18m
Dive Time 56 mins

Aktun-Ha is my second favourite dive in Mexico and the dive where Winnie captured a shot of me that earned her a second place in the global Dive Rite Photo Contest 2012.

Here is what Dive Rite have to say about Winnie’s winning photo:

“…We love this shot because the diver is floating in perfect trim, showing us the spirit of technical diving as he effortlessly glides through water within the eerie green glow caused by plankton above. This also happened to be one of the favorites among our Facebook fans top photo pics!...”
Who’d of thunk that!  Gaffa being in perfect trim!  Winnie’s photo will be displayed on the homepage of Dive Rite for the next 12 months – Well Done, baby you’re a celebrity now!

Prize Winning Photographer - Winnie Au Yeung

So, Aktun-Ha is a phenomenal dive.  It is usually broken down into 2 separate dives for the normal travelling divers, but our guide Budgie was so happy with our gas consumption, we decided to hit both dives in one.  For this dive Budgie deployed lines for us to follow since we were venturing into a cavern that can quickly disorientate the best of divers, plus you could end up in the Cave zone without realising it.  Aktun-Ha was the sort of dive you remember always.  Lots of amazing rock formations, swim through passages, cave entrances and dark spaces that look very inviting!  Due to the nature of the this dive, I followed at the rear and after turning the dive I led us out along the line whilst Budgie reeled it back in.  This was a great experience for me and I was very grateful for the added responsibility!

Dive 5 was at: Dos Ojos Cenotes. 
Max Depth 12m
Dive Time 62 mins

Again, we opted to head to a touristic dive location, but earlier than the regular tourists get there.  Again we opted to double up two dives into one.  Yet, again our Guide, Budgie blew us away!  Dos Ojos (means two eyes) is a fabulous day of diving that you should visit.  It was so good Winnie and I both bought a t-shirt!

Barbie for lunch?

We followed the “Barbie Line” which you later find out why, is because there is a toy Barbie Doll that has been placed into the mouth of a toy crocodile, on the line you follow inside Dos Ojos.  The “Barbie Line” leads you on a wonderful tour through the cenote, weaving between Stalagmites and Stalactites around fossilised rock formations and under arches that look fit for the underworld kings.  An amazing dive with lots of fish cruising around in the darkness.  I had to do it – I rubbed Barbies Boobies!  

As we moved into the second part of the dive, we began following the “Bat Cave Line”, which leads you under an air pocket frequented by snorkelers.  Again the light and shear formations make this cavern look spectacular, imagine the rich cyan and turquoise blues against a foreground of black silhouetted rock formations… Stunning!  This dive allowed us to take an extended penetration and enjoy more of what the Dos Ojos has to offer.  Again there were some Cave Entrances and their lines running off into the unknown.

Dive 6 was at: Dream Gate Cavern. 
Max Depth 8m
Dive Time 70 mins

For our final dive Budgie decided to take us to a rare and largely lesser dived Cavern, which he warned “Dream Gate is currently being looked at and should really be designated a cave.”  This is due to the fact that once inside you are completely outside of the light zone that would ordinarily define a cavern.  As lucky as we felt this was new to both of us, and we approached this dive with obvious caution.

Diver Warning & Briefing Signs - Such a good idea.

Winnie - "Okay"
Gaffa, Budgie & Winnie
The cavern itself was very remote, located in the heart of the Mayan jungle, accessible by 4WD or work vehicles.  The bouncy ride into it was along a trail that reminded me of an “Indiana Jones Movie” again!  We pulled up at what seemed to me like a crater in the ground surrounded by trees.  Dream Gate’s water level was down a steep set of stairs that descended down into the cavern’s sink hole like orifice.

The cavern is broken up into 2 dives, we did as 1:  Downstream and Upstream.  We started Downstream, then concluded with Upstream.  This was my most favourite dive of 2012, only just beating the Zenobia’s engine room by a narrow margin.  There is something amazing about the exhilaration you  feel when you surrender to the fact that you are beneath the earth’s surface!  It was the most tranquil, serene and deeply spiritual experiences of my life.  It is what inspired me to live in a more spiritual manner. 

Swimming through a vast network of stalagmites and stalactites, rock formations and little swim throughs; I even managed to linger behind and explore some of the recesses that were hidden from view.  Seriously this cave diving, it feels like something I could really get into. 

Peace and quiet below the surface, the world whizzing by above, not knowing we were even there!  As we followed our guide deep inside each portion of the dive I felt a longing that I had never felt on a dive before; I really wanted to explore.  I really want to stay for longer.  I feel like this cavern was connecting with me on another level!  Is that even possible, I don’t know, but I loved every second of this dive and I was so reluctant to exit into the light after 70 minutes!

I cannot describe the deep relaxation that came over me as we passed through the Dream Gate.  For me the name lives up to the experience – I was dreaming and this was the gateway to some massive spiritual awakenings.

Seriously, I have never been so excited about diving.  Cave Training is a definite must for me in the future…

I hope you enjoyed my brief recollection of diving in Mexico’s Cenotes, and look back in the future for more!

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