I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a bold statement. I know what it would feel like to scuba dive on the moon. It would be dark with a stark, bare and harsh monochromatic landscape. There would be huge boulders and menacing looking rock formations. It would be quiet, totally devoid of all noise. Lonely. It would also be shockingly beautiful. Alien and mesmerizing. It would certainly be unlike anything you’d ever seen before, or even imagined existed. It would be just like cenote diving in the Mayan Riviera.
Friday and Saturday were spent cavern diving in the cenotes around the Playa Del Carmen & Tulum area (read this post to find out what a cenote is). We met up with Nico from Cenote Xperience bright and early Friday morning and headed out to our first destination, Chac Mool. Nico is a certified cave diving instructor, as all cavern dive guides must be. The difference between a cave and a cavern in diving terms is that caves are well beyond the zone of light, while the cavern is the designated portion of a cave where daylight from an exit point still reaches. If something went wrong in a cavern and you needed to get out, you could simply look for light and then head towards it. In cave diving, entirely different procedures apply because you won’t be able to see an exit. Nico was incredibly knowledgeable and safety-oriented and his first briefing was the most thorough I have ever heard. In short, he is most definitely the guy you want to get in touch with if you’d like to go do some cenote diving. Highly, highly recommend. Check out his website in the link above, or look for him on facebook. After the briefing we set up our gear in the jungle on a large cement table and then made the trek down the stone stairs to the cenote below. Its impossible not to notice immediately how clear the water is. You peer into it and its as if there isn’t any water there at all, you can see every rock and every crevasse at the bottom. In the part of my logbook that records visibility I wrote “perfect”.
The main feature of our first cenote, Chac Mool, is the way the daylight streams into the water casting rays of light all the way through the cavern. Its downright magical! Another interesting feature was the halocline – where the fresh water in the top 20 to 30 ft mixes with the salt water below. It creates a shimmery, iridescent blur than destroys the visibility as soon as you’re in it. Swimming in a halocline feels like trying to drive at 130 km/hr through pouring rain with no wiper blades. At night. Nico was less than 2 feet in front of me but all I could see was a hazy gray shape. Poor Warren was bringing up the rear and with 2 sets of fins stirring up the halocline in front of him he had a hell of a time trying to swim. He had both his arms out in front of him because he couldn’t even tell if he was about to run into something. Luckily the visibility is instantly restored to perfect as soon as you’re through it. Looking down on it from above in the fresh water, or looking up at it from below in the salt water, is really trippy too. Its like a sheet of translucent ice or a glassy surface, just floating in the water. I’m struggling even to describe it, its just so unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Passing from fresh to salt water on a dive also creates some challenges for maintaining buoyancy, because people are more buoyant in salt water than in fresh. So you can descend in the fresh water but then if you aren’t prepared to dump some air out of your buoyancy device you’ll end up stuck in the halocline and just bounce up and down without being able to descend.
We surfaced into an air pocket during our second dive at Chac Mool – there were a few holes in the ceiling letting in fresh air so it was safe to take our regulators out of our mouths. There were stalactites hanging from the ceiling numbering in the thousands with a few little bats flying around too. It was utterly quiet – we couldn’t hear the jungle above, there were no waves or wind, no other noises at all. It was surreal and peaceful. I loved it. Our 3rd dive was at Tajma Ha, where we actually toured around 3 different cenotes. My favorite was Esmeralda, there was algae floating on the water there so when the sun shone through it cast beautiful green rays through the water. When I was a little girl I remember loving being at the bottom of a pool when the sun shined in through the hotel or rec center windows and cast rays on the bottom tiles. I loved to see the sun shimmer in the water. It was my happy place. Now, all grown up and a certified diver, I’ve found that place again but its a hundred times better, at the bottom of the sea on the sand dunes or looking up at a cenote with the green jungle foliage peeking in from above.
On Friday we headed out with Nico to Dos Ojos, which is Spanish for Two Eyes as there are 2 cenotes close together. Our first dive there took us along a very dark, enclosed “cave-y” route. There were many times where I’d have to look all around me and then only find a tiny sliver of light off in the distance. It was very different than the previous routes we’d done where we stayed near the cenote entrances and all the light. I found it claustrophobic, I worked hard to keep the fear out but felt it creeping in on me throughout that dive. We made our way to the Bat Cave – another air pocket, this one bigger than the first but, as its name implies, there were lots of bats hanging from the ceiling. I was so relieved to reach this pocket because it meant I could take my mask off, spit my reg out, and take some nice slow deep breaths. It was a needed reprieve from the route we’d dived to reach it. My mom, who is very claustrophobic, would have hated this particular experience. Cavern diving is pretty awesome, and only 1 of our 6 dives had me feeling closed in and frightened. That’s not too bad a ratio I think. With all the new experiences I’ve been having as a diver, every now and then something is bound to scare me. Our second dive at Dos Ojos was much more enjoyable, much more open, more light, and choc full of beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations. It was stunning. There aren’t very many fish in the cenotes, but we did see lots of tiny catfish with long whiskers that seemed to like hanging out in the beams from our flashlights. My favorite though were the little silver fish – they were about the length of my pinky finger but our lights cast their larger than life shadows onto the rocks all around. It was especially funny when the fish got startled by their own shadows and swam about in a frenzy until they realized it was just them and not some bigger fish out looking for lunch. Too cute.
Dos Ojos is where IMAX filmed Journey Into Amazing Caves, and running off the cavern line (to ensure you don’t get lost, all cavern and cave diving is done following lines) was the “imax” line. Basically its the route that the IMAX film follows in the movie. I have yet to see this movie, but now I definitely need to! If you’ve seen it, let me know how it was would ya? The cavern line was called the Barbie line….because halfway through there’s a barbie tied to the line with an alligator toy eating her. Nico hasn’t been able to find out who put it there or why, but it is certainly a strange and silly sight. To finish off our cenote experience we dove Grand Cenote.
We’re now settled into the Blue Angel Resort in Cozumel Mexico and it felt very much like coming home! This is where my journey as a diver began last January and also where I met Warren. Its been an amazing year since then and it feels great to be back here with good friends and familiar faces. Once again its pre-dinner pina colada time…so buenas noches amigos!
PS – you can find more cenote pictures on Warren’s website, they’ll be up just as soon as I stop hogging his computer to write this post so he can upload them…