This is another part of our special articles about Cave Diving. Read also [Part 1]
I can still remember my first happy trip to Mexico and the joy of receiving my first temporary certification diving card. Finally I was ready to explore underwater and really push my boundaries. That was until my diving instructor asked me if “I Would like to go Cenote diving at the weekend?” My initial thought was that cave diving was dangerous, and not really a great pursuit for a novice diver. However once I entered the gateways to the Yucatn’s underworld I had no regrets with my choice.
Underneath the Yucatn Penisula run three of the longest water systems in the world. Controlling the location of human settlement in this area for thousands of years. The Mayan people could only access this precious water through sacred entrances called “Cenotes” This was a path into the underworld, and was filled with their gods and spirits. They are formed through the combination of subterranean cave ceilings collapsing and the gradual erosion of the limestone bed. Which has created a magical world with caverns, tunnels and mystery.
For divers news and information on cave diving has sometimes revolved tragic stories of cave systems taking lives, or terrible hazards that were encountered by untrained divers. Creating for some a belief that professional cave divers should only undertake this endeavour and that an average diver should stay away at their own peril. Of course you should never dive passed your experience level and never enter a new environment without the correct training. Such cave training is available throughout the Yucatan to the highest levels, but if you simply want a glimpse at this magical world do not worry. As there are safe and visually stunning cenotes to dive around the Playa Del Carmen area for any average diver who has good buoyancy skills and a bit of confidence.
On my recent return visit to Mexico I had the pleasure of following guides from “Phantom Divers”, who are based in central Playa Del Carmen (if you want easy access to all the dive sites on this peninsula then chose Playa Del Carmen as your base) Phantom Divers have a charismatic team of enthusiastic divers full of local knowledge. They can offer you numerous cenotes based upon your level of experience. I wanted to check out the entry-level dives and was advised to choose two sites. The first would be Chac Mool. Then for a more advanced dive to a sinkhole called Muyai-Ha.
Chac Mool: Dive site one.
On arriving to Chac mool I was impressed to see well organised kitting areas, with purpose built tables, on site toilets, a café and a large seating area. Gone were the days when there was only the jungle and the cenotes. Detailed maps of all the caves were in place for well-organised dive briefings explaining all necessary safety procedures. This covered everything you would need for a safe and pleasurable dive. Including:
- The route through the cave system, following the line and staying within the light zone.
- Enforcing good air consumption management skills by using one-third of air going in, one-third of your air to exit and leave one-third as a reserve.
- Torch use and giving signals.
- Equipment check.
- Your positioning and style of fin kick best suited for cave diving.
- Good buoyancy skills (As not to hurt any of the fragile topography underwater).
- Focus points and entry/exit procedures.
Instantaneously as you descend into this ethereal world and look back at the light hitting the surface. You can understand why the Mayans believed that these pools and caves were truly spiritual. You observe breath-taking silhouettes of divers effortlessly floating through the clear water, with light shards dancing in the background. The maximum depth on the dive was no more than 40ft – 12m and following the guideline you will have an excellent dive profile with easy access to the light zone at any time. You are able to see all the stalactites, stalagmites and the stunning visual panoramas. Then at around 30ft – 9m you descend through a metre layer of what seems to be like jelly, but it is actually where the deeper saltwater meets the fresh water. A weird sensation for the senses, as visibility is definitely an issue if you stay at this level. However once though it the crystal clear water reappears. Of course everyone is safety conscious here, and there underwater signs showing the forbidden tunnels leading you further into the cave system and the perils of entering them without the correct gear and training.
After a half hour surface interval we were taken on our second tour of this mystical underworld. Cenotes seem to have their very own characteristics and individual focal points. As on this dive we were able to see naturally formed ceilings, which could only be compared to works of art. Large groups of glorious stalactites hung from the ceilings, while choruses of stalagmites lay beneath. Even a subterranean tree root had squeezed its way into an air pocket so it could sip the fresh water.
As you head back to the light zone you feel truly humbled by the experience and privileged that you could witness such beauty. Back on the surface you can relax, take a breath, d-kit and try out some of the amazing local cuisine and hospitality.
Muyai-Ha: Dive site two.
Our second dive site was around thirty minutes north of Playa Del Carmen, with a short drive through the jungle and access via a private road. The Muya-Ha sinkhole is an oasis in the jungle with topography constructed of sheer vertical walls leading down to the surface of the dark clear water.
There were kitting up tables and stairs down to the water making this an easily accessible dive site. Our briefing described this amazing natural occurrence where by the cave ceiling had collapsed leaving the vertical sides, with overhangs and small side caves. At the bottom of the sinkhole lays all the leaves, trees and animals that have fallen into it. Over time it has all started to decompose and create a sulphur layer lying over the bottom. This slowly rises through the depths creating layers of mist around 100ft – 30m. Deep diving experience and training is needed so that you can observe this oddity. While on the second dive we would mostly be exploring a cave, the overhangs and all the large stalactites. So with our torches and cameras at the ready we strode into the pit.
Descending into the dark water, your eyes slowly adjust and you start to see mist rising through tree branches, roots and leaves (which are lying, on a central mound). All around the torchlights explore this surreal world, which forms around us. You feel like you a floating through a film set. Your profile slowly winds rising back to the surface. Which leads you up to the overhang and the remains of the caves ceiling.
This is where our exploration took us on our second dive. The impressive stalactites and topography gives you a glimpse at what the cave structure might of looked like in the past. It makes you question had early man lived in the cave before the water rose in the area? Ascending back to the surface you can see the jungle looming above you through the water, and you understand how easily people can get really passionate about cave diving.
Diving the sacred cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula is as visually impressive as visiting their Mayan temples. You truly dive into a different world, but as you leave you know that you will be pulled back to theses mystical locations in the future. There are many recreational cenotes available for the average recreational diver in Mexico, but to discover the true underworld you need the correct training and experience. As there is a reason why the deep technical cave systems of the Yucatan have only been viewed by the privileged few.
WORDS and PICTURES by Christian Llewellyn