Thanks to CNN for recently noting that the Mexican cenotes are the place to be. Here’s author and periodic scuba-dive.org contributor MB on the caves that divers have enjoyed for years.
Divers are always looking for the next big adventure. Somewhere in history a diver decided that scuba diving in the Mexican oceans lost its luster. He packed up his gear, hiked through the jungle, and jumped into a cenote to up the adrenaline factor. Some people are just never satisfied.
The Yucatan peninsula, the part of Mexico where Cancun is located, abounds with cenotes. Several famous cave systems call this area home, including Ox Bel Ha, the longest underground river and cave system in the world. Many cave explorers believe the cave systems are actually all linked, though only a few connection points have been found. Year after year cave divers find new pathways and pieces to this mysterious underwater world.
The dive company we hired took us to Dos Ojos, or two eyes, named for two openings in the cavern wall that appear as if they are watching the divers inside the cave. Ronnie, our divemaster for the day, picked us up in a 4×4 and drove out to the cenote site in the middle of the jungle. We arrived early in the morning, which enabled us to avoid the crowds. Later in the day snorkeler groups would show up to float on the top of the open cenote, blocking the light and stirring up sediment.
The cenote appeared as an open slash of water on the jungle floor. The water clarity reflected the sunlight, making the pool glow an unearthly turquoise that disappeared under a large cave overhang at one end. We carried our gear the short way from the dirt parking lot to the pool edge. Fortunately the water line was near the pool edge, requiring only a giant stride to enter the pool. Some cenotes have high, steep sides that necessitate the use of rope lines and rappelling to reach the water surface. My lack of coordination would have prevented me from successfully executing that Spider Man maneuver.
Standing in my thirty-plus pounds of gear at the lip of a flooded underwater cavern made my heart pump fast. I wanted to jump in and, at the same time, run back to the jeep and drive away. I was excited yet terrified of the unknown before me. I took a giant step into the pool, and the turquoise swallowed me.
I could see over two hundred feet in every direction, unheard of in the open ocean. Boulders lined the cenote bottom, with an occasional stalagmite sticking straight up, created from years of limestone deposits dripped from the ceiling before the cavern roof collapsed and filled with water. The grey and black rock shadows stood in stark relief to the glowing turquoise water around them. The sight took my breath away, yet conveyed a sense of eerie calm.
After ensuring our group successfully made it to the bottom, Ronnie led us to the cavern end where a large, dark opening stood. My heart beat, which I had fought to calm after entering the water, raced again at the thought of entering the black hole. As anyone who has ever watched a Star Trek episode can attest, nothing good ever happens to a person who enters a black hole. There is usually an intergalactic funeral service before the next commercial runs.
With great trepidation yet determination, I followed Ronnie through the hole. I knew I would sorely regret it later if I did not complete the dive. After just a few moments my eyes adjusted to the ambient light shining from the cavern we left and from a few small holes in the ceiling in the new cavern we entered. An almost completely intact roof overhead indicated that we swam in a true cave.
Stalactites hung down from the ceiling, the result of more limestone deposits dripping over the years before the cave flooded. It was Jurassic Park meets Finding Nemo.
Parts of the cave ceiling resembled flat mirrors, like liquid metal floating at the surface. After getting Ronnie’s attention I pointed to the phenomenon and made a clear sign: “What in the world is that?” He led us slowly upwards to the reflection and indicated we should put one hand above our heads as we ascended in order to avoid bumping into anything sharp.
Like magic, my hand pierced the liquid metal reflection and entered…air. I continued to ascend with our group and surfaced above the water line but still inside the cave. Surprisingly, five feet or more of room stretched between the water and the ceiling. Ronnie took out his regulator and motioned for us to do the same.
“Here is the reason so many divers can enjoy the cenotes,” he said. “Air pockets like this exist throughout the cave system. And, the water is so clear that the light from the skylights reflects off of every surface, lighting our way without the use of torches. “
We descended back into the water of the cave to tour the room, exploring the unique geological formation collage that decorated the cavern. The strange underwater world attracted my attention so much that I forgot my camera in my pocket. I pulled it out towards the end of the dive and captured a few rock and diver silhouettes against the blue. The impressive panorama provided opportunities for pictures that made even my meager photography skills look good.
We returned to the main cavern back through the opening in the wall, once menacing, now enchanted since I knew what lay beyond. The turquoise glow grew brighter as the sun rose overhead, hitting the pool directly. I looked up towards the surface and saw…a rear end. The end had dangling feet, a neon orange inflation vest and several other similar ends bobbing around it.
A snorkeler group had entered the water, providing us with an underbelly view of natural wonders we did not care to see. We returned to the surface and loaded up the jeep before too many more people arrived. The solitary quiet had added to the formation’s beauty, and I preferred to remember it that way.