By Christophe Le Maillot
We knew from their big smile that on this rainy November day, Daniel Riordan and Bernie Birnbach had just 'kicked ass.' It took them slightly more than two hours to add 1,700 feet of knotted line to the 400 feet already existing from a previous Franco-Portuguese expedition led by Christian Thomas and Claude Touloumdjian.
Sistema Minotoro, as it is now known, is situated 5 kilometers South of Puerto Aventuras on the land of Don Inocencio. It is nested between Sistema Taj Mahal to the south and Sistema Actun Koh to the north.
Three new cenotes
The following day, a team consisting of Bernie Birnbach, Kate Lewis and myself drove back along the rough road in hopes of further exploration. The steep collapse and an unfinished ladder made our entry slow and precarious. The 15 minutes following our immersion were spent battling the numerous restrictions, which form the beginning of the main upstream passage. Fine silt was pushed quickly behind us by the flow of water contracting through this smaller part of the cave. From a shallow 10 ft, the passage dropped levels to 34 feet and opened widely from side to side. With Kate and Bernie up front, we quickly found what we were looking for - A colorful clothespin left the previous day, indicating the first lead. Heading southwest through virgin cave, the tunnel now opened slightly. The small decorated room seemed grander just knowing it was being unveiled for the first time.
This larger passage ended and once again we found ourselves inching through restrictions. Bellies rubbing, we were careful not to damage the ceiling of fragile formations. We continued in our thrill of exploration with the compass reading Northwest when we found another opening, later being named Cenote Estrella (Star). Hitting two-thirds, we began surveying the 1,500 ft of newly laid line.
One week later, in continuing the exploration, Bernie and myself headed due North down another promising passage. We reached 42 ft, swimming now in a well-defined halocline and were able to see fresh water moving steadily on a heavier layer of salt. White walls of limestone emphasized the visual effect. This section ended in a room measuring over a hundred feet across! (A northeast passage originates here and on a later dive, was connected to the main upstream line, forming what is now a popular 75-minute circuit dive named La Vuelta (The Turn). We picked up our passage on the other side of the room and continued North. Six hundred feet farther brought us to a large ceiling collapse now known as Cenote Escalera (Stairway). Numerous attempts have failed to find a way through this mass of unstable rock. Our 1,600 feet secured, we carefully noted prospective goals on our slate and surveyed out.
After nine month of exploration, Sistema Minotoro still gives up new passages. Most of the downstream part is severely restricted and only side mount configuration will allow passage. Bernie Birnbach completed most of the work in this area following an earlier dive by Bil Phillips and Sam Meacham. He also added 2,000 feet to Cenote Escondido (Hide and Seek), situated barely 150 yards from Minotoro's main entrance but fell 200 feet short of a connection. At the time of writing, Sistema Minotoro along with Escondido comprises of 6 cenotes and 12, 500 feet of surveyed passage.
Connection to Taj Mahal?
Sistema Minotoro's proximity to Taj Mahal, made us wonder about a possible connection. After an arduous land survey we decided to investigate from the Taj Mahal side. Bernie Birnbach, during our second dive connected both siphon parts of this System adding 600 feet of line. We made 8 consecutive attempts to move SE towards Escondido and Minotoro but the tiny leads and loose rocks never seemed to give way. We fell short by 300 feet but discovered with joy and pride, another new section of Sistema Taj Mahal.
2/9/00-Sistema Minotoro is now accessible to visiting cave divers and the road to get there has been greatly improved. The downstream area is "spagettied" with line and plans are being made to simplify routes in order to ease navigation.
Parking Lot Collapse
By Fred Devos
Most unique dive site
A paved parking lot behind the tennis courts of Puerto Aventuras more than likely takes top position on the list of unique dive sights. In the fall of 1997 a new cave system was found- with some help from the automobile and construction industries.
Puerto Aventuras is a tourist development area consisting of condominiums, hotels, shops and restaurants overlooking a man-made marina and complete with a nine-hole golf course, and white sandy beach.
The combination of the weight of cars and the relentless pounding of a future condominium being built more than likely contributed to an eight foot by five-foot area of parking lot collapsing to reveal a tube of clear water flowing toward the sea. Or perhaps it was the wrath of Mayan Gods battling the onslaught of modernization. In any case, the temptation to enter was too great. First to dive this new system were Luis Fernando Martinez and Alejandro Elizondo. Kate Lewis, Yair Azubel, Bernd Birnbach and myself made further exploration and mapping dives.
Because of its proximity to the sea, flow and visibility vary greatly with tidal patterns. Various sponges and clams decorate the bland colored walls while albino lobster, octopus, and bristle worms sneak through the brackish tunnels. Finds include bones believed to be of a young crocodile and more than one empty Coke can. The stark contrast between nature and development continued as a second entrance was found when Kate Lewis and myself surfaced in an area of the marina now being used as a dolphin enclosure.
Beneath shops, restaurants and hotel
The developer's nervous surprise could be expected when the finished map was presented. Passages up to twenty-five feet wide run eighteen feet below three restaurants, two streets and several antiquity shops and apartments. Our downstream line ends below the front lobby of an expensive hotel while the upstream tapers beneath the first tee-off for vacationing golfers! To our dismay, the filled in parking lot once again caters to cars; not cavers, but now, new hope exists for even the laziest of explorers. Just spend time in a Mexican bar or restaurant and who knows…. maybe one day, a new cave system will find you!
Click for a map of the Valet system.
3/9/00- In August of 1999, Valet politely opened its door once again with the re-collapse of the parking lot entrance. Yair Azubel and myself made two dives to discover over 2000 ft of a new upstream section we named "Vintner" and we resurveyed existing lines to help with future development decisions. Shortly thereafter, the persistent cave entrance was again sealed and cars have their parking space back. If nature allows, Exploration News will tell of future dives made in this very unique system. -
Sistema Actun Koh
By Fred Devos
Sistema Actun Koh (Cave of the Puma) was initially explored in 1996 by German Mendoza and a group of French divers including Christian Thomas, Claude Touloumdjian and Edsel Rios.
The cave lay dormant until, in the spring of 1997, Christophe Le Maillot, Bernie Birnbach, Kate Lewis, Yair Azubel and myself began diving the system. Eight thousand feet of un-knotted line was replaced and surveyed with many jumps and 'T's being eliminated. Dental floss used for mapping purposes littered the floor of the cave and many frustrating hours were spent in its removal. Our goal was to allow other divers safe access to this new site. We learned a great deal about exploration as we spent the following 8 months doubling the size of the system to over 16,000 feet.
Best cave dive north of Akumal
Averaging 35 feet in depth, large passages connect 4 distinct cenotes- Actun Koh, Bear's Den, Overpass and Fox Hole. Air domes and limestone daggers adorn the ceilings while a shimmering halocline hovers at 38 feet. Many conclude it's the best cave dive north of Akumal. Both the upstream and downstream lines form circuits and offer numerous jumps along the way. An area upstream, known as The Attic, tests a divers buoyancy control as depths rise to less than 5 feet, pinching you between the floor and ceiling. Wonderland, off the downstream loop, meanders through grand arrays of colorful pillars, flowstone and ancient waterfalls.
View Actun Koh 01-98
3/9/00- As with most underwater caves, parts of Actun Koh still await discovery. No-mount dives have been planned to possibly connect with neighboring systems and to push our reels farther into the unknown.
Discover the Unknown
By Fred Devos
It was June 1st 1998, the official start of the rainy season here in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Dive buddies Christophe Le Maillot from France, Bil Philips from Canada and myself were preparing to dive Sistema Del Mar (Of the Sea), a fairly new system. Its entrance is in a mangrove forest near the beach, a few kilometers south of Tulum Ruins where the Mayan civilization flourished until the 14th century.
Four months earlier Tamara Kendall, Ted Cole, Sue Sharples and Steve Keen made a few exploratory dives in this system but stopped because of bad roads and to concentrate on other projects.
Surveying and mapping
Curious about what they had discovered, we found ourselves bumping along the road to 'Del Mar' with a truck full of tanks and gear. Fighting rain and mosquitoes, we walked a short way to the entrance of Sistema Del Mar only to find a cenote filled with milk. The draining rainwater had tinted the water white. We discussed the dive plan and decided to survey the existing lines while eyeing up new leads for future exploration, as no map was available.
Hints of larger passages
Equipped in side-mount and each carrying an extra stage, the three of us descended through a small restriction and tied our guideline to an existing line. We immediately observed two unique attributes of this system. First we found the mangrove swamp above us made visibility less than normal. And second, the exciting discovery of an unusually high flow hinting of larger passages upstream.
Following the guideline upstream through a dense forest of stalactites and stalagmites, we found and later named two cenotes- Cenote Mangrove (due to its surrounding foliage) and Tarpon Cenote (for the unexpected startle of a large, silver-scaled specimen). Thirty minutes into the dive brought us to the line ending where a huge passage waited to be discovered. We decided to contain our curiosity and surveyed the existing line and its offshoots. After three hours, we surfaced with a slate full of data, a smile on our faces and the resolve to return soon.
Back home we punched the data into a computer and printed the first map. Our fellow explorers discovered about 6,000 feet of passage upstream to the North but no line had been laid downstream towards the ocean.
Bil went back to Canada so Christophe and myself continued the exploration on our next day off. We added 1,400 feet of line upstream, discovering larger decorated passages with coaxing leads in all directions. Also, we followed the downstream flow through a few restrictions and a lot of silt. The water cleared quite quickly and we spooled out 1,500 feet of line before the flow became too strong and we had to turn around to begin pulling ourselves out. We had just added 2,900 feet of line to the system. The high flow and numerous leads told us there must be much more to discover. And we were right.
During the months of June and July, Daniel Riordan, a good friend of ours, joined the project and we continued to spend our days-off emptying reels of knotted line. Sistema Del Mar now stands at 39,000 feet of surveyed passages.
Six tanks, five hours
Most sections are huge and full with formations. Some rooms are the size of soccer fields. Other passages taper to side-mount or even no-mount restrictions. Haloclines sit at 39 feet upstream and downstream at 22 feet. Although our push dives with scooters and six tanks often entailed five hours bottom time, we rarely required decompression. Sistema Del Mar has an average depth of 32 feet. We have discovered 14 new cenotes, all of which are hidden in mangrove jungle. This makes entry or exits impossible and so all of our dives begin and end at the original cenote.
14,000 feet penetration
So far, the furthest penetration from the entrance is 14,153 feet but set-up dives have been planned for further exploration.
Connection to the sea ?
Our goal in the coming months is to extend this awesome cave and to search for a possible connection to the ocean, making it the fourth system in this area with a dive-able passage to the sea.
3/10/00 - In December of 1998, three separate connections to the sea were established. and on March 13th, 1999 Bernie and Christophe connected Sistema Del Mar at 62,333 ft (18,949 m) with Sistema Esmeralda at 38,000 ft (11,552 m). It was renamed "Ox Bel Ha" and the explorers of both systems have joined forces as G.E.O. (Grupo de Exploracion Ox Bel Ha). This incredible cave has since grown to over 70 km along with the discovery of 42 new cenotes.
Sistema Actun Chen
By Christophe Le Maillot
Only the mosquitoes and ticks on these early April days seemed to enjoy the 100-degree humidity. Bernd Birnbach and I wish we were as well adapted to this environment.
A 45-minute hike through the damp, Yucatan jungle brings us to Cenote Kop, the main entrance of Sistema Actun Chen (Cave Fount). It is located 7 kilometers south of Akumal on the property of Don Lorenzo Ancona and his son.
The access is made difficult by the fact that all equipment must be lowered 25 feet down through a narrow crevasse.
200-foot wide room
The initial 800 feet of cave was small and unstable. Visibility quickly turned to zero. Several restrictions were only navigable in side-mounting configuration, and hopes for larger passage kept us squeezing forward against the steady flow of water. Continuing northeast, the cave slightly widened but revealed few of the beautiful formations so abundant in other nearby systems. Several hundred feet further, the walls suddenly disappeared from sight, and we found ourselves in a 200-foot wide room. This room was later named "La Mancha".
The N-W side of the cave kept us busy exploring and surveying. It was not long before we had emptied the reel. We observed a 12-foot stalagtite hanging down from the ceiling. On the way back, Bernie and I decided to scout east. We struggled passing through several small and nasty areas. Ultimately, the team discovered another1,500 feet of cave passage.
The exploration of Sistema Actun Chen started on April 7, 1998. To date, this cave has revealed 17,000 feet of passage. A halocline sits at 35 feet. The average depth is 38 feet with a maximum depth of 73 feet. So far, eight cenotes were discovered in Aktun Chen. The entrance to the cave is a 45 minutes hike from the main access road of Akumal.
VIEW MAP Actun Chen-07-98
2/9/00- Road access to Sistema Actun Chen has now been established and renewed exploration efforts are sure to reveal more secrets.
Connections to the Sea
By Fred Devos
SIZE TO DATE
Chuck Stevens, Eric Knofftal
Nohoch Nah Chich
Christophe Le Maillot, Bernd Birnbach, Daniel
62,333 ft *
We've always known where the water was going. The difficult part comes when trying to prove it. During the 15 some years of underwater cave exploration in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, only one dive from an inland system to the Caribbean Sea had been made. Recently it seems the Mayan Gods have been friendly and allowed us to prove another 3 connections!
VIEW MAP Dos Pies-07-98
VIEW MAP El Punto-01-99
VIEW MAP Del Mar-12-98
23/10/00 * Sistema Del Mar (now named Ox Bel Ha) has since become the world's longest underwater cave with over 44 miles (70 km) of explored passage and with 3 distinct exits to the sea. -.
New Cave Systems Discovered in PuntaVenado
By Fred Devos
On April 12, 2000 Cave Exploration began at Punta Venado located 10km South of Playa del Carmen. True to it's name, many deer (venado) still thrive in this area along with their predatory larger felines.
Yair Azubel and myself were shown several, promising looking cenotes of which 3 had easy access (less than 300m from a road). Another 2 would require horses and/or trail cutting in order to move equipment in.
Turtle Dump Cenote
After 30 minutes of hammering at 16 ft. with a maximum penetration of 300ft, line was reeled in and it was labeled a no-go. Five huge turtle skeletons were found in the cavern zone and were most likely thrown in by a guilty conesoir of days gone by.
Cow Dump Cenote
A short walk and déjà vu of the last dive resulted in another cenote being checked off the list. 15 minutes at 15 ft amongst the scattered bones of something bovine. Note: It's also important to know where caves do not exist!
A beautiful, virgin cenote where it is a rumored, pumas come to drink. It was a relief to find some going passage after a 1 km hike through the jungle and two minutes into the dive showed a depth of 100ft! - A very unique discovery as we were only 800m from the sea. Charcoal littered the floor suggesting evidence of a forest fire. Large passage headed NE with leads to check out later. Relaxed during 45 minutes deco before hauling any equipment back.
VIEW MAP Venado-04-00
Christophe Le Maillot and myself accomplished the hard work of hammering small leads from Cenote Chan Pek before discovering going passage headed N. From there, shallow, parallel phreatic tubes split to the NE and SW with similarities compared to Sistema Abejas near Tulum. On this first day, 2,500 ft of passage was discovered along with Cenote Rojo Ojo, and Cenote Pajaro. Sistema Carillo was named in honor of the landowner.
Sistema Carrillo came to a halt upstream at a major breakdown nearing Cenote Turtle Dump. Passage continued downstream along with the discovery of Cenote Chupa Hoop. Total length now exceeds 4,500 ft with nearly enough accessible passage to lead back mount cave divers.
VIEW MAP Carillo-06-00
Future dives in this area will concentrate on determining the scope of these two new cave systems and in producing maps.
Wet and Dry
By Fred Devos
When reading articles written by dry cave explorers, the stories often end with the disappointing discovery of water filled passage. On the flip side, when entering a dry cave, underwater explorers despair and move on when no water is found. Exploration at Punta Venado continues with the discovery of 3 more cenotes and several thousand feet of new passage. As well, a large dry-cave located 6 miles (9.7 km) inland has proved a worthy challenge and opens an interest in dry cave exploration.
Determining the extents of this young system will prove to be hard work, as solitary small tunnels seem to be connecting major NE-SW phreatic tubes. In other words, as soon as you believe you have come to the end of the upstream or downstream, a small tunnel leads to another, almost identical, parallel tube. It is believed that the further away from the coast we can get, the better the chances are of finding the classic, deeper, NW-SE passage which make up most of this area's cave systems.
Christophe Le Maillot and myself poked the small leads we had previously marked. After an hour of running into dead-ends we found a place where the ceiling was separated 2 feet from the floor and managed to squeeze through. We immediately passed a large phreatic tube with enormous white rock, beautifully sculpted by the river of water. I chose to leave this till later and pushed as far north as possible. Yet another tube took us upstream where it eventually squeezed down to "no-mount" size.
We had a tougher time in the downstream area but with determination we discovered 2 new cenotes ... Choco Pol and Belle. Passage length now exceeds 6,000 ft. (1,824 m).
The most exciting discovery was left for the drive back when we decided to sniff around a breakdown by the side of the road. A low-ceiling overhang lead to a pool of clear water and with now-empty tanks, snorkeling was our only option. The airspace pushed back another 40 feet (12.2m) in the dark. The floor fell away and the walls showed stunning white formations. A slight flow of water tweaked our interest further and we new where our next day off would be spent.
A local farmer pointed out this dry cave to Yair Azubel and myself back in July and this time I returned to further explore it with Daniel Riordan. Because of the area's low elevation, most cave passages are water filled, but when you move inland from the coast, the land rises allowing more cave to remain dry. The entrance is 12 feet (3.6 m) in diameter and 35 feet (10.6 m) straight down. Rappelling gear was used to reach the floor of the cave and ascenders were comically experimented with to eventually get us out of there. By leaving his gloves below, Danny doubled the challenge by having to go back down.
The system has about 1,000 feet (304 m) of walk-able passage with beautiful formations everywhere. One dagger-like stalactite hangs 14 feet (4.3 m) from the ceiling while pools of clear water are seen some 50 feet (15.2 m) below ground level. Especially spectacular are the many halactites and large rim-stone dams.
To feel the effects of gravity and to freely communicate with each other made this a very unique "dive" and has sparked an interest to further explore this and other dry caves.
Horses have been arranged to evaluate yet another of the cenotes at Punta Venado. Exploration will continue in Sistema Carrillo and a day is being planned for the first dives in the promising looking Cenote Camino.
Tunnels and Walls
By Fred Devos
Whether it's a dead-end or an endless passage, exploration answers questions. During this month we have responded to some but in the mean time created more queries. Punta Venado is proving a worthwhile challenge. To date we have entered five new cenotes and discovered another thirteen.
Hervé Gordon and myself spent the day testing a new, long-range dpv. and poking around the southwestern side of Dreamland. A steady flow of fresh water strangely pushed at us from the southwest and as this area had been explored in back-mount configuration, I was curious to see what could be accomplished by side-mounting our tanks. We were able to poke into two new passages but both dead-ended. Upon returning, the 100 lb (45 kg) scooter decided the dive was not over and refused to switch off.
Hervé Gordon joined Christophe Le Maillot and myself in the first exploratory dives in this recently discovered cenote. Tanks needed to be lowered by rope and a tree was used to climb down. Rain made for a muddy entrance and had tainted the surface with tannin. The water cleared below 8 feet (2.4 m) and we began to lay line heading northwest. We quickly came upon another entrance and tried to push around the muddy breakdown. Additionally. we concentrated on the eastern fortifications trying to find a downstream opening. Decorated walls pushed us north and to the same break-down hampering our efforts. A narrow fissure hinted to deeper cave being present but was too narrow, even in our side-mount configuration. After 40 minutes, we exited the water with 2,500 psi in our tanks. Although disappointing in size, this new cave is rich with beautiful columns, ancient waterfalls and by all three, was deemed worthy of the effort.
With still plenty of gas in our tanks, we opted for another push from cenote Chan Pek (small dog). Christophe introduced Hervé to the downstream area and they proceeded to add more line. Later, we returned to the leads that we had marked on the previous dive and found bedding plains heading upstream and downstream.
Sistema Carrillo presently holds over 7,000 ft (2,128 m) of line and the remains of an ancient sea turtle proves a former link with the ocean. A restriction near the Chan Pek entrance requires the use of side-mount equipment. We suspect that future accomplishments here will arrive slowly now that all obvious leads have been pursued.
Daniel Riordan and myself loaded up gear on horses and with the help of Fausto the ranch hand, were able to get ourselves and minimal equipment to make the first exploratory dive in this far off cenote near the sea.
Back in August, when Yair and I had originally looked at this entrance we were startled to see a large Cubera Snapper guarding the entrance. We presumed there must be a passage to the sea. Now upon entering the water, this same snapper made a second greeting and a closer look suggested otherwise. Never in the ocean have I seen a fish so old and haggard looking and its milked-over eyes suggest it may be blind. Who knows how many years it has lived, trapped in this brackish cenote with no obvious escape to the sea.
Getting past the old Cubera the compass read Northwest. This direction generally denotes upstream, but this section of cave is littered with large tree trunks and scars on the cave floor tell of reverse tidal flows. Large crawfish scurried out of sight and light from the entrance disappeared. The floor started to drop, revealing a light halocline at 18ft (5.5 m) with brown tainted salt-water below.
There has been much speculation this year about similar brown water being seen in Sistema Ponderosa. Since it had never before been observed, initial speculation sided on human contamination and lead to water sampling and much publicity. Perhaps this second sighting being in a very remote area suggests more natural causes.
The passage continued deeper into a milky layer of hydrogen sulfide and the smell of rotten eggs permeated my skin. This area of cave was obviously stagnant. Large animal bones indicated an opening nearby but orange mangrove water blocked much of the light from the new Cenote Garafon. Pushing under the restricted collapse, revealed the welcome sight of a large lead to the west supplying clear water.
Flow oddly headed northeast and the improved visibility allowed string to quickly spool off the reel. Cenote Dobladillo was the end of the line and with 1,240 feet (377 m) of passage discovered, it was time to survey out.
Trails lead to another two nearby cenotes and indications suggest that Sistema Cubera will become larger on our next visit
VIEW MAP Cubera-10-00
Sistema Dos Pies
By Fred Devos
In early May, we finally found the remains of an old trail rumored to lead to a little known swimming hole. Ten minutes of swinging a machete brought us to the twin cenotes, which were later named Dos Pies (Two Feet).
Green surface water failed to hint at what lay deeper as we pushed my reel through a narrow crack. A passage seemed to be leading us east and within a few minutes we had passed the dim light of a third small cenote. A dark hole coaxed us northwest and we couldn't help but pick up the pace. I'm not certain who was more startled when my 50-watt bulb picked up the silver scales of a 20 lb (9 kg) tarpon. A large fish is the least anticipated sight during a cave dive and I'm sure that instinct and evolution had not prepared the Tarpon for a close encounter with a cave diver. Knocking the light from my hand, it bounced heavily off my shoulder before finding the way past.
The Missing Link?
We continued on this northwest trail and spilled line in ever widening passage. Limits on air turned the dive, and we had to leave the remainder of discovery for future days. Surveying out, we envisioned the possibilities. The immense Sistema Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) has downstream lines headed in this direction while slightly west lies Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich, the world's longest underwater cave*. During the past 10 years, divers from all over the world have made attempts to connect these two monstrous systems and now here we were, pushing our way directly into the middle of both! With this playing in the back of my mind, it was not difficult to muster the motivation to return.
Kate Lewis and Daniel Riordan each joined me for a dive, and by July we had managed to discover over 11,000 ft (3,300 m) of passage. The farther upstream we went, the larger the passage seemed to become, with some bedding plains stretching over 150 ft (46 m) in every direction without a column of support; A daunting fact seeing as the cars and trucks of highway #307 pass some 40ft (12 m) above.
Connection to the Sea
On July 19th, we hauled six tanks to the water and in side-mount equipment, proceeded to push through the downstream restrictions. Larger passage invited us farther in but we periodically paused to be sure we were able to swim out against the mounting current.
Before the dive I had loaded the reel with 1,500 ft (456 m) of line, and now noticed that the line remaining would take us but a few feet farther. This was to be our day of providence though as coconut shells on the cave floor and a dim light in the distance foreshadowed the coming surprise. It wasn't until our head broke the surface that we truly understood where we were. Dos Pies was now the only Mexican cave system besides Nohoch Nah Chich claiming a dive-able connection to the sea.
Dos Pies now holds 11, 536 ft (3,507 m) of exploration line, which connects six distinct openings. Most passages lack formations and although the average size is large, several restrictions limit back-mount divers. A significant flow of water comes from a source farther inland but as yet, the connection to either Dos Ojos or Nohoch Nah Chich remains but a dream.
VIEW MAP Dos Pies-07-98
* 27/10/00- Since the writing of this article, Sistema Ox Bel Ha has moved into the "longest cave" position..
The forgotten aspect of cave diving
By Christophe Le Maillot
One of the most important aspects of cave diving is the conservation of the environment. We are especially fortunate here in Q.Roo Mexico to have access to over one million feet of surveyed cave passage! Although impressive in size, most caves here are remembered for their beauty. Nohoch Nah Chich, Actun Koh, Sac Actun, Dos Ojos and Naharon are a few names on a long list of highly decorated systems. With the constant increase in divers visiting the caves, we have observed more damage.
The best way of preserving a pristine cave is not to dive it. By following a set of protective rules based on common sense, the speleology-diver can minimize the negative impact on the environment
Exploration can be the first dilemma, and explorers are perhaps the ones responsible for preventing future damages. Good line laying while choosing obvious tunnels and avoiding delicate areas is a key factor in protecting the cave. Survey data collected during exploratory dives are important for map making and in gaining insight to the areas aquifer.
Learning how to cave dive can have a brutal effect on the surroundings. Cave instructors are reminded of their role as educators. Safety first, but Cave Conservation a close second.
Many cave instructors are following unwritten rules on where to conduct drills. Specific sites are chosen to conduct critical skills. Visiting instructors are able to get information on the appropriate dive sites from instructors working in the area. It is unthinkable to perform out of light/air sharing exercises in highly decorated sections of Sac Actun, such as Cuzah Nah or Kalimba.
As well, get properly trained before trying advanced techniques. Specialty courses such as Stage Diving, DPV and Side mount are widely available.
Cave divers should know and understand their limitations. Underground journeys should be carefully organized around a divers level of experience and ability to perform in the water. Not all caves are suitable for newly certified divers or for divers still lacking good technique and dexterity. Also, it is the responsibility of group leaders and guides with a broader knowledge of the sites to assess the divers abilities when choosing which areas to visit. With over 70 different caves to choose from, finding one appropriate shouldn't be a difficult task. Purchasing the services of a competent local guide is the best way to visit the surrounding caves.
The amount of divers per team must also be regarded as a possible treat to the fragile environment. It is unnecessary to overcrowd featured rooms or domes not big enough to turn around in without damaging the precious speleothems. The size of your group needs to be dictating your choice of caves.
When compared with exploration and learning how to cave dive, touring the underground realm should have the least amount of environmentally disruptive influence.
Configuration and Technique
Gear consideration and configuration is often overlooked. Poor equipment set-up will have a minimum but negative impact. Excessive redundant equipment, poorly secured, adjusted or organized is commonly observed around the local Cenotes. Cave diving in Quintana Roo has little to do with deep wreck penetration and so accordingly, you must modify your gear. Bad trim, too much drag and over-weighting will leave on the caves floor the unmistakable prints of a 150lbs Isopod (You!).
The lack of flow and decorated nature of most systems in Quintana Roo emphasizes the need for buoyancy control and good propulsion. Techniques used in other parts of the world, such as Pull-and Glide or Ceiling Walking will permanently damage these caves.
Stage diving when considered will extend your enjoyment of this beautiful underground realm. Your extra cylinders should be properly secured, close to your harness. With more equipment to think about, a better awareness is now required. The dump station for stage bottles must be carefully chosen to avoid dropping cylinders in fragile areas.
It is important to stress out the fact that too many cave divers are not following guidelines at "arm reach". As a result, swimming too far from the guideline is likely to increase the damage radius made to a cave passage.
Snakes ... but no ladders
By Fred Devos
Grutas Cascabel, Punto Venado
Cascabel is Spanish for Rattle Snake and it was a 6 ft (2 m) specimen I almost stepped on near the entrance of this dry cave system. 2 hours of exploration resulted in 743 ft (226 m) of passage in 2 seperate caves. Animal bones littered the floor near an ancient fire pit and at the farthest piont of penetration, a conch shell hinted to past religious ceremonies. See Map
Sistema Cubera, Punto Venado
A long hike and 2 more dives by Daniel Riordan and myself have brought the present total to 2,569 ft (781 m) of passage connecting 6 cenotes. See Map
Grutas de los Aluxes, Puerto Aventuras
This new dry cave is sure to become one of the largest in Quintana Roo. Miguel Vasquez, Tomas Mendozo, Jose Mis and myself have wiggled our way through 2,036 ft (619 m) of spectacular tunnels and flooded rooms. We were a bit surprised to find the lone footprint of what appeared to be a barefooted young child. The Mayan legend of magical dwarfs (aluxes) entered our minds as we tried hard to find a more logical explanation. Later we learned of another explorers previous visit with a young child, and the legend was soon dismissed. See Map
Don Angel, Puerto Aventuras
Although a very small system, a challenging dive was made through the shallow decorations leading from this tanin-tainted cenote.
Lavenant Cenote, Punto Venado
Some 5 miles (8 km) away from the coast, this impressive cenote required rapelling gear to get down to the 40 ft (12 m) deep water. A previous explorer had found 88ft of narrow passage. See Map
Daniel Riordan, Christophe Le Maillot and myself had an early start on this wild goose chase. 18 km down a very rough road was to bring us and dive gear to within 500 ft (150 m) of huge, clear water cenote. The pick-up truck made it no farther than 6 miles (10 km), so with the land owner in tow, we set out on foot. A 15 mile (24 km) round trip walk resulted in little more than worn soles and dehydration. We haven't given up, but on the next trip we will be sure to bring a better map than the landowner's faded memory.
Cenote Macanxoc, Coba
Situated at the foot of the famous Mayan ruins of Coba, this cenote led to less than 12 ft (4 m) of diveable passage in either upstream or downstream directions. I was actually pleased to find no connection to the nearby Laguna as it is home to several very large crocodiles.
Sistema Ox Bel Ha
Incredible progress has been made recently in what is now firmly ranked as the world's longest underwater cave. Several very successful mini-projects have resulted in the swelling of the present passage length to over 275,000 ft (83,612 m)!! For updated information on the exploration of Sistem Ox Bel Ha please visit the www.mcep.org.mx
Caves of Tinum
By Fred Devos
In late September, I was invited to join Jose Mis in exploring the cenotes and dry caves near his hometown of Tinum, located in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Cenote Kuun Xan
The first site visited was a large cenote on the ranch of Jose´s father-in-law, Don Josè Maria Dzul. An initial dive revealed a deep cone shaped sinkhole typical of this area. Descending to 30 ft (9 m) of depth, the visibility quickly cleared. At 120 ft (36 m), a debris mound poked up through a thin wisp of hydrogen sulfide revealing tree branches and the skeleton of a cow. Even though visibility was near perfect, the slopes plunged steeply to mysterious depths. Another trip with a different gas mix would be needed to safely explore deeper.
VIEW MAP Kuun Xan-09-01
Grutas Kuun Che
The memory of Jose's father-in-law was amazing. Five years prior, he had been shown the entrance to a dry cave and was now leading us through 3 miles (5 km) of dense jungle to the exact location of the small opening in the jungle floor.
Using a fallen tree, we shimmied down into the small hollow. Hundreds of bats streamed from two sloped tunnels leading from the room. The eastern passage met with water and our lights revealed hundreds of albino shrimp scurrying along the muddy bottom. The roar of a thousand bat wings echoed through the sculpted tunnels. We were able to walk another 100 feet (30 meters) before the waist deep mud bogged us down.
The western tunnel led us past an extraordinary site. A small side room had been deliberately sealed shut with rocks and mud. The wall had recently been broken into and holes dug in the floor hinted to looting.
The main passage ended in a clear water pool. Being a diver at heart, I had the foresight to bring a mask and in jeans, boots and a helmet, I dove below the surface. In the distance, under a small overhang, my light revealed four human skeletons! Excitedly surfacing I realized I was not the only one out of breath. Through gasps of air, Jose warned that there was not a single bat living in this section of the cave and that perhaps these human remains were of fellow curious explorers having breathed the stale air! We hastily surveyed back to the entrance.
On the return to the village, Jose's father-in-law decided it would be quicker to cut out to the highway and walk on the paved road. At 70 years old he nimbly navigated the rough jungle but scraped a knee when he tripped over the speed bump leading into town.
VIEW MAP Kuun Che-09-01
Sistema Ca'acal Chen
Later that afternoon, we concentrated on a known dry cave connected to a water-filled sinkhole.
From a small cavity in the jungle floor, a passage led southwest. Snow-white stalactites hung from a ceiling of smooth, sculpted limestone. At 2 sections, we noted partially dismantled, man-made walls, similar to those seen earlier that day.
After 1,300 ft (400 m) the phreatic tubes narrowed and seemed soon to end. Then incredibly, the walls and ceiling disappeared as the passage exited the sidewall of a giant sinkhole. From 60 ft (18 m) above us shafts of light pierced through 3 small holes in the thin ceiling. Clear blue water replaced the floor. Dive gear was lowered and confirmed a depth of 70 ft (21 m) with a bottom circumference of some 330 ft (100 m). It was easy to feel small, as this room matched the size of a ten-story apartment building!
Dry Caves of Puerto Aventuras
By Fred Devos
I am a cave diver at heart and don’t wish to present myself as an authority on dry caves. I have no formal training in Dry Caving and my methods are certainly rudimentary and are tainted by my interest and experience in underwater cave exploration.
Wet or Dry?
If you look at many dry cave maps, passages often end with a symbol for water, and a question mark (?). Explorers had gone to the limits of the dry cave and were surely disappointed by the passage ending in a pool of water. Underwater cave explorers are similarly disappointed when they find a passage filled with air rather than water. In Europe, cave diving stemmed from dry cavers who donned tanks to continue exploration. Here in Quintana Roo, the trend may be opposite. Cave divers will often shed the tanks and explore dry caves.
The fundamental driving forces in why people explore dry caves or wet caves are the same: to discover and document a place previously unknown. It’s not surprising that a dry caver takes an interest in diving or a cave diver finds himself presenting the findings of a dry cave.
In the years I have lived in Puerto Aventuras, I have entered many nearby cenotes and mapped out the underwater systems leading from them. Local neighbors had also shown me many entrances with only a few inches of water covering the floor of a dry cave. Some of these entrances continued into spectacular passages and what coaxed me in was the hope that this would lead me to a deeper, water filled section requiring diving equipment. On these early excursions in dry caves, I carried a mask and scanned every puddle.
His hope for dive-able passage was soon over-shadowed by the beauty of the rooms and tunnels we traveled through. How could anyone be disappointed by not finding water!
Exploration and mapping of these caves has purposely included local neighbors and several have taken a keen interest in learning more about and preserving the beauty of the environment. Not enough can be said about the following people.:
It is difficult to claim having been the first person to enter a drycave, but Jan, a Dutch cave diver installed a guideline in the South Cave. Andy and Heather Beltram have followed where Jan left off and become avid cave explorers. They have installed lights and a table in the cave entrance on their property and invite friends to a unique social setting.
Don Miguel is a heavy machine oporator who lives 50 meters from one of the cave entrances.
Along with his son-in-law Tomas, they were active in some of the earliest ventures.
Daniel Riordan is an avid dry and wet cave explorer.
Twyla Wasmuth is a cave diver who has also found beauty above the water line.
My loving girlfriend Angelica Chimal Téh has donned the knee pads and helmut on more than one occasion. I`m sure a day of dry cave exploration must be one of the most unique dates you can ask a girl on!
Carlos Marquez Rodriguez, better know as Werro, is a farmer living in the jungle near the poblado. No one knows the complex jungle trails better than him and he is always keen to postpone his chores to rummage around in a dark cave.
Orlando Garcia Villanueva is in charge of maintenance at a local guesthouse. On his second day of exploration he showed up with a notebook and pencil and took detailed notes and sketches of what he was seeing.
Jose Mis (photo at right) constantly reads up on dry caves and works as a guide at Actun Chen. He and I have explored several other caves near his hometown of Tinum, Yucatan.
These people are all residents of Puerto Aventuras.
Dry cave exploration here is not reserved for an elite few who are technically trained. These caves do not require technical equipment or skills. There are few elevation changes and we have found that a helmet with headlight, hiking boots and knee and elbow pads are sufficient equipment to safely enter the environment. Exploration in this area can include people who may not have the means to be an experienced cave diver,and this opens the door to building environmental awareness within the local community.
This is not to say it isn’t physically depanding. It is much harder climbing through 1000 meters of rocks and mud than floating effortlessly during a cave dive. The saying holds true for dry caveing: Gravity Sucks!
Grutas de los Aluxes consists of 4 Cave Systems with 18 entrances and 3,814 meters of known mapped passage. Most likely some or all of these may connect.
To map out the passages, we first entered laying out a thin cotton thread tying it taught at every change in direction. The distance and compass heading between stations were measured using a fiberglass tape and handheld Suunto compass. Depth or elevation changes were not recorded as their minor differences were not seen to greatly affect the big picture. Sidewall, and floor to ceiling measurements were estimated. VIEW MAP
Much of the passage has water on the floor. Depth ranges from a few centimeters but in some areas is more than 1 meter in depth. Much of the cave is very active with water dripping from the ceiling and running down the walls. Stalactites, Stalagmites, and Flow Stones continue to grow. Roots from the jungle above poke through the ceiling. A spectacular Pliestecine Pool is referred to as the Wishing Well (photo at Left). A huge column resembles the leaning tower of Pisa (photo at Right), and many passages were named after the features found: Wind tunnel, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Graveyard, Haunted House. Entrances were named after features nearby such as Football, Bomba, Stable and Doberman.
The name “Grutas de los Aluxes” came from the first day of mapping, when Miguel Vasquez, Tomas Mendózo, José Mis and myself wiggled our way through 619 meters (2,036 feet) of spectacular tunnels and flooded rooms. We were a bit surprised to find the lone footprint of what appeared to be a bare-footed young child. The Mayan legend of magical dwarfs, or Aluxes entered our minds as we tried hard to find a more logical explanation.Later welearnedof anotherexplorers previous visit with a young child, and the legend was soon dismissed but the name remained.
A unique environment
These caves butt up against civilization and make for some unique sites and sounds. Many of the entrances are on disputed land with more than one party claiming ownership. A barbed-wire fence or a guard with a machete dictates delicate landowner relations. The South Cave runs under the federal highway and trucks and cars rumble above. The ground wires of an electrical installation poke through the ceiling. If you are quiet, you can here the noises of a family in their house above. Two of the wet entrances have pumps, which supply water to many households -mine included. Fifty meters away, raw sewage can be seen dripping from the ceiling and exemplifies the need for proper sewage containment and treatment.
A 27 year development plan will situate more than 50,000 people overtop of or near these caves and it is my hope that presenting these findings will help in the protection of this unique environment.
These findings were presented during the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey Convention held in Playa del Carmen on September 6th and 7th, 2002. - Ed.
The Fading Line
By Fred Devos
The connection between dry and wet caves in the Yucatan peninsula is becoming an exciting study point. Recent documentation has proven that the area holds much more cave passage (both wet and dry) than previously suspected. We will soon see dry caves being expressed in kilometers rather than in meters and some of these caves will connect with major underwater systems. As a result, the line separating dry and underwater cave exploration is quickly fading.
Dos Pisos - September 2002
Robbie Schmittner introduced me to this underwater cave he has been exploring for several years. Although it is located directly upstream from Sistema Ox Bel Ha, a dive-able connection would be a definite challenge. More than a kilometer (3,300 ft) separate the two caves with new leads limited to small side-mount passages.
Xtabetun - October 2002
A nearby housing development has helped to provide access to 3 new cenotes near Puerto Aventuras. The most promising of the cave openings lead to only 14 m (45 ft) of restricted passage. The other two offered up no passage but are attractive swimming holes.
Las Palmas - Oct/Nov 2002
Benja Sacristan was the first to document this dry cave located in the Ejido of Playa del Carmen. On two subsequent visits with him and Jose Mis, we were able to establish 812m (2,665 ft) of passage. The term "dry cave" should be used lightly though as most of the passage is wet with many areas requiring swimming and the occasional dunking. VIEW MAP
Kaua, Yucatan - January, 2003
Jose Mis and myself were honored to be invited by highly respected cave biologist James Reddell to join him in his studies of dry caves near Kaua, Yucatan. We were introduced to David Mc Kenzie, Fortunato (Beto) Tuz Cantun, and Marcelino Reyes. The six of us spent an exciting day with local villagers exploring several new systems.
Two of these caves had definite similarities to a cave documented by Jose and myself the previous year. So the following day, we showed the rest of the team our piece of the new puzzle and all were amazed. Within a 10 square km (6 square mile) area we had discovered 3 systems containing a huge cylindrical room where passages ended. Imagine a narrow, 400 m (1,300ft) long tube exiting halfway up the sidewall of a "missile bunker" room measuring 45 m (150 ft) from floor to ceiling and half filled with water! VIEW MAP
A project is planned for the summer of 2003, where dives will be made to further document this phenomenon and as well in the hopes of connecting a certain large cenote to an enormous dry cave system nearby.
OBH Science Project - January 2003
Sistema Ox Bel Ha was host to a multi-dimensional science project. Chris Werner (Geophysicist), Brett Dodson (Biologist), Kris Esterson (Hydrogeologist), along with cave photographer Steven Auer and David Lennon joined Daniel Riordan, Chris Le Maillot and myself, along with Alejandro Alvarez, Sam Meacham, and Simon Richards in the pursuit of better understanding the world's longest underwater cave and the area's aquifer.
The Big Picture
By Fred Devos
Within a thirty-minute drive of Puerto Aventuras, there is more than 1 million feet of explored cave passage. Although this seems unbelievable, imagine what the future holds, as many feel that 90% of the caves in this area remain unexplored!
A Growing Database
In February, Daniel Riordan and myself ran up and down the coast locking in GPS locations of known cave systems and related features, hoping to learn more about the "big picture". In the past, oversized egos and personal agendas have stunted the effort of putting the puzzle pieces together, but now most active explorers are contributing to a growing catalog of raw data. I have recently dusted off my pile of survey information and sent it to James (Jim) Coke.
Over the years, Jim has contributed greatly to the understanding of this areas aquifer and runs an informative website dedicated to compiling speleological survey data of Quintana Roo. QRSS
It is all of our hopes to one day see a concise map showing the relationship between known caves so we can better understand the entire area's underground aquifer.
Ox Bel Ha- Winter Project
From December 9th to 19th, Grupo de Exploración Ox Bel Ha (GEO) went into the jungle to once again work at determining the extent of the world's longest underwater cave. On this project we didn't actually add line to Sistema Ox Bel Ha but rather concentrated on several nearby systems to reveal their role in the areas aquifer. Learn more about Sistema Ox Bel Ha at http://www.mcep.org.mx/
Twenty-four dives were made in Sistema Ayim, Naharal, and St.Andrés. We proved the existence of over 24,000 feet of new cave passage and discovered Cenote Ak'Al Che.
With a limited budget, we accomplished a great deal and look forward to another project this coming summer.
Punto Venado Dry Caves
Exploration continues in Punto Venado with the discovery of a beautiful dry-cave system. Daniel Riordan and I stumbled across a small opening in the wall of a major breakdown. With one light between the two of us, we were not equipped to push the limits of the system but did manage to get a peak at some beautifully decorated rooms and several small animal skeletons on the floor. We have since spoken with dry-cavers in the area who know of more entrances on the property and with their help will work at mapping these caves.
Don Inocencio has lived on his land for over 30 years. Over the past 4 years, many exploratory dives have been made from several cave entrances found on his property with passages running under most of the dense jungle. It was a surprise when he told Christophe Le Maillot that he had discovered a new cenote.
With descriptions of clear blue water, we raced a set of gear and a diver to the site. The jungle floor dropped to reveal a large breakdown with a promising cave entrance under the northwest wall. A small alter stood by the water and Don Inocencio explained the early Mayan belief in the Alux (similar to leprechauns) and how these altars were a way to appease these powerful midgets. It was a spiritual setting and more so once we descended through the rays of sunlight piercing the cool water. The crack opened to a large decorated cavern and the floor sloped toward a defined passage. A short amount of line kept greed from taking over and after 20 minutes, we returned to make a plan for the following day.
With help from Don Inocencio, we made a second dive in the newly named Sistema Mino-mi and added to the previous day's line. The passage was unexpectedly deep, soon narrowed and finally pinched shut. Returning, we poked around the cavern zone but the only water-flow passed through the muddy banks. It is unlikely that this system will grow larger than the present 1,098 feet (334 m), but no doubt more cenotes exist here, hidden in the thick jungle.
Photo shows Fred scootering
Sistema Ox Bel Ha: Quintana Roo's newest giant
By Christophe Le Maillot
This is a short description of the 1998 to mid-1999 exploration project of the Ox Bel Ha Cave system (a connection between Sistema "Del Mar" and "Esmeralda"). Using different configurations, approaches, and techniques, we patiently discovered what potentially could be the third largest underwater cave in the World.
A cave of this proportion offers a variety of distinct features.
-A shallow portion (25 to 34 ft) is encountered from the main Cenote (Del Mar) up to 5000 ft upstream in a W/NW heading. The very swampy surrounding gives the cave a black coloring, very similar to Sistema Naharon. Various decoration can be observed throughout the cave. Shallower rooms seems to present more features. Eight different cenotes are scattered over this large area. A light flow can be felt at all times.
-Very large tunnels and huge chambers in the most western
direction before Cenote Canales. The average depth is 40 ft and the deepest section (Orion) is 47 ft. The halocline is found between 42 and 45 feet. Flow is always present. There's a beautiful Cenote 9000 ft upstream from the main entrance: La Familia.
-A northern lead with a wide tunnel and complex side passages. Many breakdown areas and tanic domes (blind cave fishes and isopods are often observed there) made for an interresting dive. The halocline is observed at 40 ft. The maximum depth is 55 feet.
-Three connections to the ocean via similar but different routes. Going straight East, this complicated downstream becomes shallower closer to the sea. The flow gets strong towards the exits. Sidemount configuration is sometimes necessary to go through several restricted parts. The bottom composition turns gradually to sand. Seafans, coconuts, and shells are a constant reminder of the cave's proximity to the ocean. The fresh and salt water only mixes near the surface (about 8 ft). All exits are located approximately 400 ft away from one another. Snappers and Grunts are found in large numbers in the short cavern zones of the exit cracks. Tarpons were encountered a thousand feet inside the cave (always a scary surprise).
-Canyon areas past Cenote Esmeralda where the depth ranges between 50 to 80 feet. These deeper salt water passages are highly decorated and contain numerous fossilized sponges. The tunnels are big, with an average width of 40 ft.
A condensed exploration overview:
After a quick reconnaissance dive on the 3rd, we travel back the next day to enter Cenore Del Mar. The objective was to re-survey the existing line from previous French and American projects. These projects were led by Steve Keane, Tamara Kendell, and Christian Thomas. After completing the objective, Bernie and I laid 5,500 ft going straight east towards the ocean. This downstream section is characterized by narrow passages and strong flow (lines: Al Mar, E Gate, Cabanas, and Mosquitia). Diving S/SW from the Main Entrance (Cenotes Del Mar), a 3,000 ft loop was added (lines: Labyrinth, Lab Conecter, L Line). Working around the nearby Cenote Mangrove and Tarpon, 3,500 ft was laid due W (Kite and All Black lines). From existing lines (names Wassy and Wussy), in a N/W direction, we squeezed this time with our sidemount configuration through the small Coconut Drive and D.O.M. Sections for 2,000 ft of new lines.
No. of dives: 12
Total Bottom Time: 2085 minutes
Total line surveyed: 15,500 ft.
Total line laid: 12,150 ft.
Explorers: Bernie Birnbach, Bil Philipps, Christophe Le Maillot
We were excited by the previous exploration. We decided to focus on exploring further upstream. The cave in that area seemed to be the most promising for exploration. After 5 dives, we laid more than 10,000 ft. To the NW, we added to the map the following lines: KFC, Magic, Aves, Arbol and one Cenote: La Meza. The main passage turned west, to run 2,150 ft (Low Land line) to the beautiful Cenote La Familia. On later dives, the team progressed north from the Wassy Line. We encountered a shallow and decorated cave (DOM 2) at first, which extended after 1,000 ft to a deeper section (Rimet). The halocline was visible at 38 ft. During another two dives, we joined Bernie's Aves line with Rimet (Der Konnector: 900 ft), and found a lead going SE (Syphon Norte). Towards the end of the month, and during five long dives, Daniel Riordan helped us in pushing the Rimet section for another 7,400 ft. The end of the line is now 10,046 ft from Main Entrance.
No. of dives: 15
Total Bottom Time: 3407 minutes
Total line laid: 23,786 ft
Longest penetration from Main Entrance: 10, 046 ft
New Cenotes: La Meza, Victoria, De La Familia
Explorers: Bernie Birnbach, Daniel Riordan, Christophe Le Maillot
The objective for this hot summer month was to connect the cave to the ocean. From the shore, we observed four gushing fresh water boils coming out in the ocean from the direction of the downstream cave. The gushing water boils were separated from one another by a distance of approximately 400 ft. The first visible out-flow was located just a front of Cabanas Tulum. The existing eastern line from Cenote Del Mar: E Gate and Al Mar were going towards the sea but the strong flow made it challenging for the team to attempt a connection dive from inside the cave. The team divided into two diving groups. Both team entered the same entrance from the ocean side while following different tunnels. The flow was quite strong. Both teams finally connected the two side of the cave together at two different spots after only 600 ft (the E Gate line - exit 1). The other exits were eventually connected with the main cave: #2 after 550 ft of narrow passages; and #3 a few days later with a smaller entrance but a better defined tunnel to Al Mar section. However, Exit 4 was too restricted to squeeze further in. Only a few dives upstream were made during the remainder of the month, adding "Ball Park" to the end of "Lowlands" for another 2,450 ft (still going big W/NW), and another off shoot tunnel of 1,400 ft (Sickman's Passage) to the main "Rimet" Section.
No. of dives: 10
Total Bottom Time: 1270 minutes
Total line laid: 9,190 ft
Explorers: Bernie Birnbach, Daniel Riordan, Christophe Le Maillot, Fred Devos
September and October 1998:
The general objective was to continue with the exploration of the enormous "Ballpark" and "Rimet" sections. We used set-up dives to avoid losing too much time going through the first restricted part of the system with too much equipment. After a couple of failed attempts, we managed to extend "Ballpark" by 2,000 ft and finding a small cenote (Luz). On 6/10, we returned adding Orion to the chart for another 3,000 ft, and setting our personal penetration record to 14,000.
NNo. of dives: 6
Total bottom time: 1343 minutes
Total line laid: 5,000 ft
Longest penetration from Main Entrance: 14,000 ft
Explorers: Bernie Birnbach, Christophe Le Maillot
November and December 1998:
We discovered two interresting sections ("Blind wall" and "Black hole") from the main upstream tunnel. These two sections were running SW/S/SE for a total lenght of 2,800 ft out of the "Ballpark" line. Another line: "El Tucan" was laid from "Rimet" . This line ran SE..
No. of dives: 2
Total Bottom Time: 715 minutes
Total line laid: 4,500 ft
Explorers: Bernie Birnbach and Christophe Le Maillot
Total surveyed passage for the year: 58,000 ft
January, February and March 1999
A better land survey and a closer look at various aerial pictures, made the team realized the proximity of Sistema Del Mar with Sistema Esmeralda. In fact, Cenote "Luz" could potentially be part of "Canales". Cenote Canales is a long strip of interconnecting sink holes. We thought that from the "Orion" line we might be able to eventually connect to Sistema Esmeralda. Unfortunately, we were several times unsuccesful from this side of the cave. However on March 13th, we headed instead for the "Ball Park" section. Here, we found ourselves at a depth of 55 ft exploring 350 ft of beautiful cave. It opened up to a shallower breakdown area. We swam further in against what appeared to be a very encouraging flow. We battled restrictions for another 600 ft carefully negotiating unstable cave. We finally found afront of us an unfamiliar line (Paso de Lagarto). This line was laid several month before from Cenote Esmeralda. We finally accomplished the connection between Sistema Del Mar and Sistema Esmerealda. The connection between the two systems became Sistema Ox Bel Ha. We surveyed back to the main line. On the same dive, another 1,100 ft of tunnel was discovered from the end of "Ball Park".
No. of dives: 7
Total Bottom Time: 1459 minutes
Total line laid: 4,300 ft
Explorers Del Mar: Bernie Birnbach, Christophe Le Maillot,
Explorers Esmeralda: Sam Meacham, Bil Phillipps, Fred Devos, Daniel Riordan
Total Length of Ox Bel Ha to date: 101,000
The Exploration of the Mayan Underworlds
By Christophe Le Maillot
The “Mayab” was regarded by the ancient Mayan as a sacred landscape. For centuries, this great civilization flourished from what is now the Yúcatan Peninsula in Mexico to the Republic of Honduras. Great cities such as Coba, Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza were built near natural wells, or cenotes. These cenotes not only held important religious and sacrificial significance for the Maya, they also played a very practical and critical role in their daily life. In this hostile and harsh tropical environment, the survival of the population was directly linked to obtaining quality water.
The Yúcatan Peninsula is, in fact, a 250 square kilometer limestone plateau, with freshwater flowing underground and virtually no visible surface rivers. The water table is accessible only by the thousands of cenotes or karst windows dotting the area.
Today, cave exploration efforts in Mexico’s Quintana Roo and the Yúcatan face challenges very similar to those facing the ancient Mayan hundreds of years ago. The remote access of many cenotes is still the main reason why 90% of all possible water-filled cave passages have yet to be explored. Here, the dense tropical brush creates a mighty adversary, one that can quickly transform travel into a dreadful experience. As a result, trail blazing is usually the first work completed before any cave exploration project can begin. Moreover, the irregularity of the karst terrain further augments the difficulties attendant to securing working access to an exploration site. In many cases, cutting a simple footpath is not enough. Long exploration projects require transporting large amounts of equipment over longer distances, which, in turn, require the use of horses and/or donkeys as load bearers. This requires that trails be cut with certain specifications in mind, for example, that they be wide enough for a fully loaded donkey to navigate through them. If one fails to consider logistical questions of this nature, disaster can strike quickly and unexpectedly. For example, during the 1999 Ox Bel Ha spring project, the hand wheels were left on the tank valves during transport. Though in a few specific spots the trail narrowed, it was initially thought to be of no consequence. This perception was revised, however, when a tank knob scraped a tree trunk, gas started escaping freely, and the donkey carrying it went on a rampage. We were very fortunate that nobody was hurt and little equipment was damaged. When negotiating challenging terrain as this, attention must be given to even the smallest detail.
Once trails are properly established, a base camp needs to be set up. The area cleared for the encampment should not be located too close to the rim of the cenote. The idea is to minimize the project’s environmental impact and to protect the delicate natural balance in existence. Camp usually consists of a few wooden frames covered by heavy-duty nylon tarps that act as roofs. Under the largest one, there is a sleeping/food quarter on one side and a workshop/battery charging section on the other. The compressor and Nitrox filling station stands nearby, but closer to the water’s edge. The noisy generator is banned from base camp and is located further back in the brush.
Two days are typically necessary to transport the required equipment to a remote site like the one used during the Ox Bel Ha project. From this site, and for the duration of the project, a team member will regularly have to return to town to replenish the team’s food and water supply.
Encountering a dry cave section first can sometimes complicate access to the water. In such a case, carrying equipment to the water’s edge entails broader challenges, especially if that section is restricted or unstable. However, most of the time, in the Quintana Roo area, entering the water requires a minimum of effort; access is from the cenote’s ledge. However, further back inland the water table drops down considerably, and the distance separating it from the surface creates impressive vertical shafts. There, rappelling down, sometimes as much as 30 meters (100 feet), is not uncommon.
The typical cave environment encountered in Quintana Roo is marked by certain distinguishing characteristics: shallow depths, extensive passageways, speleothems, warmer water, and multiple entries. Most of the caves, even those lacking a direct connection with the nearby Caribbean Sea, show signs of its influence. These caves are said to be anchialine caves, one of whose most predominant characteristics is the halocline. Below this mixing zone of fresh and salt water, the salt-water layer has a very corrosive effect and often gives rise to deeper cave passageways. Also, though the lack of hydrostatic pressure generates little flow throughout the cave, alteration in weather patterns, smaller cave passages and freshwater vents into the ocean can induce an increase of flow. Lastly, percolation can sometimes be pretty heavy.
As a result of these almost perfect diving conditions, and of the promise they offer for cave exploration, over the years, numerous cave divers have attempted cave exploration in the Yúcatan. In reality, however, there is more to cave exploration in the Yúcatan than simply “laying a little line;” it requires a true understanding of the cave environment. Maze-like cave systems with a wide distribution of restricted areas and tunnels demand excellent navigational skills, refined in-water technique and mental toughness. They will undoubtedly challenge even the most competent.
In order to extend exploration to and beyond narrow bedding plains and other restricted passageways, side-mount techniques have been found useful and adopted. Side-mounting, however, should not be confused with solo diving or seen as an entertaining means of configuring equipment. Rather, it is an advanced cave diving practice that offers a reliable and different approach to distinct exploration scenarios.
Individuals involved in area projects must be self-reliant, focused and capable of working in a team; teamwork is the key to successfully completing any cave exploration. In such an environment, every team member contributes his own field of expertise, from local woodcutters to the programmer who creates the mapping software. Each one’s contribution to an on-going project can be measured by the daily progress of the exploration. Gathering such a group of skilled, dedicated, and team-oriented individuals is undoubtedly difficult; it takes time and patience to produce.
The focus of cave exploration, of course, is discovery. There is nothing more exciting than probing the unknown, than trying to figure out what lies past the next boulder choke. What is even more remarkable is the fact that even today, exploration, especially in Mexico, is still at an early stage. During the past twenty years, area cave explorers have surveyed and mapped over 200 miles of submerged passageways. Their contributions have have helped to establish an extensive database. Three cave systems, Nohoch Nah Chich, Ox Bel Ha and Dos Ojos, account for 55% of this total. Without any scientific studies, reports or analyses, the importance of this exploration work can sometimes go unnoticed. However, over the last few years, biologists have identified 37 troglobitic species in theYúcatan (35 crustecians and 2 fish), discoveries that justify the excitement of the initial exploration. Furthermore, hydro labs and data loggers left in these caves are now capable of providing us with valuable information: tidal fluctuation, flow rates, salinity, turbidity and water temperature.
In this rapidly developing coastline it is important to persist in exploration efforts. A constantly growing population, coupled with a lack of a local infrastructure to accommodate it, is threatening the precious freshwater supply. The risk of contamination here is great given the porosity of the karst; from garbage dumps and disposal wells, pollutants seep through the limestone bedrock to the water table below. Bringing the local community to an awareness of the aquifer and to the role it plays in providing it with quality ground water hopefully can bring with it responsible environmental action. The exploration and study of underwater-filled caves can play an important role in making this happen.
Like the ancient Mayan centuries ago, soon we may also find ourselves in a struggle to find quality water.
©DirQuest Vol. 3, No. 2 - Summer 2002
November 1997 Minotauro
January 1998 Parking Lot Collapse
February 1998 Sistema Actun Koh
October 1998 Discover The Unknown
December 1998 Sistema Actun Chen
January 1999 Connections To The Sea
August 2000 New Cave Systems Discovered In Punta Venado
September 2000 Wet & Dry
October 2000 Tunnels & Walls
July 1998 Sistema Dos Pies
November 2000 Conservation
September 2001 Snakes, but no Ladders
March 2002 The Caves of Tinum
September 2002 The Dry Caves of Puerto Aventuras
March 2003 The Fading Line
March 2001 The Big Picture
1999 Ox Bel Ha Quintana Roo newest giant
October 2000 The Exploration of the Mayan Underworlds
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