Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Diving the Cenotes-Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

I have had the opportunity to dive some of the most memorable places the underwater world has to offer but I think it would be hard to top the surreal, almost spiritual experience of the cenotes of the Riviera Maya Mexico.

   I was not planning to dive these majestic clear freshwater cathedrals when I went to Mexico.  In fact I only hoped to dive some of the many fabulous open water sites that Play Del Carmen has to offer.

   I took a cab from my resort to Playa Del Carmen.  My mission was to walk around and explore some of the many dive shops lining the narrow roads of this small tourist town.  I stopped in 7-8 shops and spoke to some of the staff and bought a couple T-Shirts.  Some people seemed to busy to talk to me, some seemed too interested in getting me in the water in 10 minutes.  Some even wanted me to sign up to tour a timeshare in the area.

Eventually I walked into Phantom Divers and I was greeted by a lovely friendly young lady who asked me what type of diving I was looking to participate in.  She asked lots of questions but was not at all pushy.  She talked about a few recent dives they had enjoyed and showed me some video that she was editing.  I felt pretty comfortable and before long I was sitting back enjoying a pineapple juice and trading dive tales. 

  Within 20 minutes a group of divers returned from the morning dive and they were talking about their adventure.  A couple of the divers were fellow Canadians and they told me they had just finished their 9th and 10th dives with Phantom Divers.  They were a living testimonial to the operation.  The dive master was busy washing gear while the owner/instructor poured himself a pineapple juice as well. I ended up spending another hour in the shop as they planned the afternoon dive.  I knew I had found my shop.

  I had no intentions to dive that day therefore I chose to leave my gear back at the hotel.  When they were starting to assemble the gear for the afternoon dive I was invited to come along for the boat ride.  I accepted the invitation as I always enjoy any time spent on, near or under the water.

 The dive was on Turtle reef and was only about 35 feet and I even took the opportunity to cool myself from the afternoon sun by snorkeling above the divers.  I had a great time and made some new friends and before I left a few hours later I had signed on for 4 dives the following day.  They were memorable dives on there own and I even had an unbelievable stroke of luck by encountering a Whale Shark. I will be writing about that particular dive in a future blog for sure but for now I want to get back on the topic of Cenotes.

   As I said I had no intention on diving cenotes and quite honestly knew little about them and had never taken any tech training at all prior to this trip.  However after my first four dives that were all awesome I was trying to plan my next day’s dives.  It seemed the boat was going to be going to the same dive sites that we visited that day.  Though I enjoyed the dives I always like to see something new.

 The instructor asked me if I would be interested in going into a cenote.  As an advanced open water diver I did not feel that had the necessary training to go poking around a cave system.  I was assured that the cenotes we would be diving would not require the specialized training or gear that I was always told I would need to go cave diving.

 Well they must have been pretty convincing because before I left the shop I had committed to 2 dives in the famed cenotes the following day.  I was both excited and not just a little nervous about what I had got myself into.  Now before I get into the dives themselves let me explain to you what a cenote actually is.

 Cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot which means “Sacred well” and believe me there is no better words to describe them.  They are ancient passages carved through the limestone over millions of years. Scientists believe that a huge comet struck the earth near Puerto Chicxulub over 60 million years ago.  This event many believe led to catastrophic changes in the topography, water levels, and even the extinction of more than ½ the living organisms on the earth at that time.

  Water levels in the ocean are thought to have dropped by almost 300ft.  Large formations of solid limestone that previously made up the sea floor now rose hundreds of feet above the surface.  As you explore some of these cenotes you can see evidence of this in the many ancient fossils found within them.  This global event left billions of gallons of water displaced at higher levels inland and over the next several million years this water, mixed with carbon dioxide created by decomposing biological matter created a mild carbonic acid that eventually eroded the limestone and allowed the displaced groundwater to carve hundreds of miles of caves and caverns as it followed it’s natural path to lower levels.

   These passages today are filled with the most crystal clear water that you will ever see in your life, so clear it almost seems like you are magically floating through the air if it were not for the telltale bubbles that we divers leave behind.  The water itself is a comfortable 77*- 82* and the minerals that have seeped down from the jungle above have created a kaleidoscope of colors that stain the many stalactites, stalagmites and speleothems  and give them there color.

  This global event set in motion so many millenniums ago has created one of the largest and most unique underground cave systems on the planet.  To date hundreds of cenotes of all sizes have been discovered and it is believed that there are likely 10 times as many yet to be discovered.  This ensures that the Cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula will be a dive Mecca for generations to come.

 Now back to my dive.  I showed up at 7 30 am at the shop.  It was myself, another diver Todd, and a dive master that I had not met on the previous dives.  He was a man of small stature and his English was a bit weak but he smiled and nodded to almost everything that either Todd or I had to say.

  In front of the store were 3 Suzuki 4 wheel ATV’s with gear already tied to the cargo racks, AWESOME!  We drove through the jungle for almost an hour and that alone was worth the mere $140 I paid for the pleasure of this days dives.  We pulled to a stop at a pile of rocks in a small jungle clearing and our guide started to gear up.

 We were supplied with the standard aluminum 80ft3 cylander  and a flashlight.  Our guide had what appeared to be at least a 120ft3 tank and a 20ft3 pony bottle.  He also sported a wrist mount LED light and a C-8 handheld tethered to his BCD.  I felt a little underdressed but geared up all the same. 

We walked down some natural steps in the rock and entered a cave right out of Tom Sawyer.  I was already so impressed we walked down a wide passage and our guide pointed out some broken stalagmites and waived his hands back and forth as he said “No foot, no foot” it is good to see conservation is present even in a jungle cave. 

  The passage ended at a small pool and we slipped on our fins and donned our masks and before you can say “no foot” we were in the water.  We had a small surface swim where our guide aimed his light to the ceiling of the cave where stalactites rich with color seemed to emerge from every inch of the surface.  Beneath us we could see some fossils that appeared to be seashells and I pointed them out to Todd as we made our way to the far end of this underground oasis.

 Our guide switched to his regulator and popped us a quick thumbs down and was gone from site.  We followed and just as we descended about 8 feet our guide disappeared into what appeared to be a shadow in the wall.  We followed and the passage opened up to aprox.. 15-20feet around, there was a small air pocket above us that gave me a little comfort knowing that if something was to go wrong I could surface if I needed to.  There were tree roots emerging from the sides and dangling from the ceiling but not a hint of silt. 

  The bottom seemed to be sandy and again produced no silt at all.  It was awesome.  We made our way through a few gentle bends and though the sides narrowed in places it never got to less than 10 -12 feet across. There were so many formations that I later found were called speleothems they almost look like reddish brown corral.  They are created by mineral rich water seeping from above when the caves were dry. 

  Ahead I could see the passage opening up wider and a strange glow was visible.  Our cave opened to a huge cavern there were several small holes that allowed sunlight to make its way into the water.  The water was freshwater at the surface but below was now a pocket of warmer saltwater and the effect called Halocline and it was like a fog underwater and when the sunlight passed this phenomenon it created the most amazing illusion. 

  We turned off our own lights and just admired the lightshow being produced by the sunlight on this eerie fog.  It was like nothing I have ever seen before or since.  We surfaced and played our lights across the ceiling again admiring the art that Mother Nature had been working on for so many millions of years.

  The cavern was the size of a small gymnasium.  I could not help but feel like I was truly part of an elite few souls in the history of the planet that have had the opportunity to witness this site.  We spent some time exploring the cavern and some small passages that led out in different directions and then returned down the main passage we entered through.

  We got back to our ATV’s and our guide broke out some sandwiches and pineapples and pop.  As we ate he busied himself changing our tanks.  I was a little sad that I still had almost 1100 PSI remaining because I felt like I missed some bottom time.  Todd had 900 I later learned that diving in an overhead environment the 500PSI rule is not the generally accepted rule. 

  As we were eating and our guide was changing our tanks I sneaked a quick peak at his pressure gauge and saw that he was still a little over 2000PSI and I was instantly humbled.  Well lunch was over and we mounted our machines and headed further into the jungle.

   After maybe 20 minutes we parked our ATVs half off the trail and half on still.  This did not concern me because in the hour we were riding in the jungle I only saw an old man and 2 young children on a horse that looked like it should have been sold for dog food years ago and that was only a mile or so into the jungle.  I guess it was safe. 

  We walked down a narrow path that I would never have found by myself and suddenly our guide put his arm out across my chest and again spoke his mantra “No foot, no foot” I was looking down to see if I kicked some ancient geological formation and as I did he pushed back the foliage to reveal a dead straight drop about 40-45 feet to a huge pool of water almost 300 feet across. I was standing half a pace from the edge and did not even see it.  No foot indeed.

  He pulled two harnesses from under a plastic trashcan and said easy easy, and then pointed to a pile of precariously placed scrap wood that at it’s best could not pass as stairs.  They looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.  It was apparent I had a choice to make.  I chose the harness, awesome. 

  We repelled down to the water with gear on I felt like James Bond.  We hit the water and donned our fins and again a quick thumbs down sign and our guide was gone.  Again the water was so clear and warm but the bottom did not look like the sand we had on out first dive.

   As we got to just over 50feet I could smell sulfur and even taste it in my mouth.  That cool halocline again.  We passed through it and almost instantly we were in a forest.  What we were diving was a huge cavern bigger than the first one but it had caved in.  Almost entirely intact.  The whole jungle floor was now about 60 feet underwater.  There were huge old growth trees and big rocks and all around us was this green fog.  I felt like I was in some haunted forest it was so awesome. 

  We explored the haunted forest and then proceeded into a cave that went down to about 85 feet and then started to come up again.  We surfaced in a small cave with a good sized air pocket.  I can not stress to you how awesome these dives were.  I had only done maybe 150 dives at this point in time and nothing I had ever dived before compared to what I was seeing that day.

   We then retraced our path back to the haunted forest and after a safety stop we surfaced.  Our guide shrugged out of his BCD and tied it to the harness we used to repel at the beginning of our dive.  We followed suit and he tied both of our BCDs to the second line.  Then like some sort of hairless monkey he climbed the ropes and disappeared over the top into the jungle.  We watched in awe, then we saw him pull his gear up followed by our own.

   When the ropes came down again I was hoping our guide who had so far impressed the hell out of me had another impressive trick to show us and would pull us both up the 50 foot cliff.  No such luck.  I watched as Todd tried to climb and made it almost 10 feet before he let go and splashed back into the water.  By that time the Indiana Jones stairs started to look much better than I had given them credit for before.  I started up the stairs and could hear the guide trying to say something to me, I know I know No foot No foot was all I could say and with that my new friend Todd laughed so hard I thought the steps would collapse.

   I survived the climb and by the time I got to the ATV it was already loaded and secure. We drove back through the jungle and eventually made our way back to the shop.  We sat around and enjoyed a couple cold Pacifica and shared our story with the divers that went out on the boat that day.  It was funny because all of the sudden our guide who spoke no English all day was actually speaking to the instructor and hitting on a young woman diver from Ireland.  Todd and I shared a laugh and just assumed he had no interest in talking to us.

 What a day, what an adventure, what a bargain.  I can not urge you enough to dive the cenotes.  It really does not matter what your experience level is or training they are a safe and truly unforgettable dives.



  1. You are a fantastic writer I look forward to future blogs