The Cave Systems of the Riviera Maya – October 2014

October 2012 was our last visit to the Rivera Maya.  Time sure passes fast when you are as blessed with family as Parker and myself.  I hope that you take a pause in your busy life and make some time for an adventure of your own.  I know that Parker and I will make every effort to continue our underwater exploits as we mature in the years ahead; of course, “mature” defined by us is no where consistent with those of our wonderful wives that support us on our annual escapades under the ground in the area between Akumal and Tulum, Mexico, known as the Riveria Maya!  

The planning always begins about 6-9 months in advance and before we know it, we are moving through airport security with equipment and gadgets that no TSA agent has a clue of which it is used. That planning put us in Cancun, Mexico, the busiest airport in Central America (27 million passengers annually) at 4 pm to find Immigration EMP-friggin-TY!  10 minutes and we were waiting for bags.  15 minutes and we were at the shitty car rental counter of National (which like all car rental agencies in MX consistently can not deliver the vehicles promised!).  By 5pm we were heading south in our Chrysler Mini Van of which we would beat to crap on the dirt jungle roads;  we asked for a Jeep; they said we would have one; they lied.  Oh well, won’t stop us.  After making our ususal stops along the way for tanks, groceries and supplies, we got to our Casita at about 7:30pm.  Opened the door and it was locked…it is never locked.  Usually the door is open and the key is inside.  Guess things changed.  After logging onto the property, Luna Azul, wireless and activating my Spanish Translator App, we gave communication with the night security a try.  Clave (key)?  No yo se! ( I don’t know)!  Just about that time, Parker ran into a vacationer, he spoke English and told us where to get the key.  While Parker was fetching the key, I opened up the registration email and had I read the last paragraph, we would have been in the room by 7:35pm vs 8!  The one thing in life that is for sure, change in always inevitable.  

DAY ONE – began at about 8am (in our minds) but really 9am local – daylight savings time hadn’t started there yet.  Took us about 2 days to get the right time.  Anyway, after a nice breakfast on our resort beach

The view from “Breakfast on the Beach”!

we headed north in our Jeep Patriot or similar Chrysler Minivan piece of shit (with the engine light on of course) to find our tanks.  We were successful after some additional Spanish speaking efforts – we are definitely getting better communicating with the locals.  Then after a brief stop at the money exchange, we began our journey about 30km south to Grand Cenote (just west of Tulum on the road to Coba.  The cave system for our first day.  A system in which we are very familiar and a open cave system that would allow us to “shake-off the rust” after being on a 24 month cave-diving hiatus.

It is now noon and we are just arriving at Grand Cenote.  This is truly one of the more developed cenotes in the area and after paying 200 pesos to enter (used to be 70 and that was expensive…my god, inflation effects every land) we set up our equipment, carried our support equipment down to the waters edge-in this situation, a nice dock at the bottom of a nice stairway, right on the waters edge. Walked back up to our equipment table, wriggled into our wetsuits (man they must have shrunk!), hoisted up our double tank rigs and headed back down to the water.  

Now true to form, Parker has to make a very special, “we have arrived” statement just prior to his entry…I am in the water waiting.  He steps toward the entry ladder, stepping on the end of a 2″x 8″ deck plank and he breaks the deck and damm near falls into the water potentially busting himself up good but fortunately he catches himself and prevents injury.  Now I must digress.  In 2001 on our first visit, this deck was made up of 2-3 inch logs banded together and Parker steps on the deck in just the right way, his entire leg slips through and he is stuck up to his knee with full equipment of 100 plus pounds on his back.  We have to get a log to pry him out.  Then in 2003, on the final day of our advanced cave class, he trips walking to cenote Muchachos, again in full equipment, and hits the ground crushing his eye socket on a rock.  We move slowly now!  

We enter Grand Cenote, 1pm and away we go for our first dive.  Dive One – This was planned to be a  mainline dive with one jump, off the mainline, to the Paso de Legarto line with double tanks (doubles) only.

Cenote entry deck right at waters edge – very common in the popular cenotes.  

We wanted to have an easy, simple, relaxing first dive.  We wanted to get our “cave diving chops back” in good form before progressing into more complex dives.  After Parker’s stunning entry, we did our dive checks and drills, descended and attached our mainline reel onto a stalagmite in about 30 feet and headed into the cave.   After about 12 minutes on the mainline, Parker deployed our jump spool (line) and lead us to the Paso de Legarto line where he tied off and we then continued up into this passage way leading to several great cave junctions, most notably the Lithium Sunset line and the cenotes, Calimba and Bos Chen.  However, today was not for us to leave the Legarto line, but to simply work with on our team skills, our cave awareness and our gas pressure which we use only one quarter of our gas for entry when we are diving a two man team in doubles.  After about 40 minutes, at an average depth of about 35 feet, we turned our dive and exited the cave leaving all our lines in place for Dive Two.

Cave formations typical of all caves we dive; here is a wall of Stalactites, Stalagmites and Columns

Dive Two we would retrace our earlier dive along the same lines except for this dive we would use a Travel Stage bottle which would allow us to extend our distance and time, while using the rule of “thirds” for our distance into the cave.  After 60 minutes of swimming, we exited in 45.  Why?  Well when cave diving is it safest to begin your dive in the upstream direction against and water flow.  If you were to begin your dive with the flow and forgot that you were being carried further due to the water flow and the ease of swimming with the current, you might find yourself too far into a cave and with too little gas to exit alive.   We like to exit alive so we begin all our dives upstream.  What we found was the flow this day, due to some heavy rains, was quite strong.  You really do not notice it too much swimming in because it is subtle but coming out, we usually get anywhere for a 20-25%  reduction in swim time; welcomed I can assure you.  105 minutes later and after a primary light failure (mine), we exited the cave, cleaned up all our lines and exited Grand Cenote.  The last we would see of her for the rest of the trip.  She served her purpose and did not let us down in beauty and challenge.

Due to the lateness of our start and not having the right time on our clocks we found ourselves starting our vehicle around 5pm.  We were invited to a wonderful beach side dinner with some great friends also visiting the Riviera Maya.  By 6 we had completed the task of dropping off tanks for fills and were back to the Casita for quick showers and then an evening of great tacos, conversation and friends…Thanks!  Marsha and Alberto.

DAY TWO –  began with a bit  more organization under our belts; tanks located, pesos in hand, gear checked out.  We headed down south of Tulum to KM marker 216 where the cenote of Chan Hol was located.

Cenote Chan Hol – About 10 feet in diameter;  entrance – 3 feet below surface -below wall above the right ladder rail

Chan Hol is a beautifully decorated cave about 10 km south of Tulum, Mexico. Since this is one of our favorite systems, we planned to spend a long day here.  First exploring the western part of the system and then explore north.  As you see in the picture, the cenote is quite small and once you are ready to descend, you gently secure the cave line in your right hand, drop about 3 feet to the rocky/silty bottom, give one kick and you are now on a steep slope leading into the cave.  Your visibility for the first 10 feet is zero, that is why you are gently holding the line but after about 20 seconds of descent, then you descend below the silty aspect of the entry and the clarity becomes magnificent.  Where we find ourselves is in this big room where the mainline connects to a looping line that travels a 150 foot diameter right back to the room we are in.  From this loop, we then make our decision and mark the line appropriately based upon our dive plan.  

This first dive, as I mentioned, we were heading west so when we hit the loop, we took a left and began our dive.  Not being dissapointed by the beauty and clarity of the system, we traveled in for 60 minutes against some minor flow and exited in 46 minutes.  A great dive and considering there were 3 dive teams of 3 ahead of us, we never ran into a soul sans 20 minutes into the dive as they were exiting. 

The second dive, was for us into unknown territory so we just took our time.  When we hit the loop line, we took a right and followed that line for about 6 minutes until we jumped up to our right onto the Babylon line which is the largest tunnel of this section of Chan Hol.  Once we got to the end of the Babylon line, we turned and headed back to its beginning.  Once back, we replaced our jump line onto another non-named tunnel in this area, reset our depth, time and gas calculations and ventured in.  Neither the Babyon line or this No-Name line were as beautiful as the western part of Chan Hol, but beautiful just the same.  Once we came to the end of this No-Name line we turned for our exit.  After 90 minutes, we returned to the cenote and exited the system.  Two really wonderfully visual and fun dives.  

Just a couple interesting side notes on this day, first, being that day one usually shakes out any equipment problems, I found that my 6 hour light was only working for about 2 so I had to carry a second primary light.  Usually each diver carries one primary light and two smaller, much less powerful, back-up lights [each diver carries 3 lights on all dives ] but for the rest of the trip, because our back-up primary light was of a brightness between our main lights and our smaller back-up lights, I decided to carry 4 lights, both my big main light that worked for about 120 minutes, the back-up primary light we take on all trips in case something like this happens and my two normal small back-up lights.  Second, remember the 3 teams ahead of us during the day and the fact that when you descend you gently hold the mainline leading down into the system?  Well these teams were inexperienced cave divers being lead by local guides and they managed to break the main entrance line twice going down!  Thankfully the guides were very responsible and fixed the lines immediately and we were able to enter and exit without any sort of inconvenience. Still makes you a bit nervous having that type of experience in a cave ahead of you but again, we only saw them once at the beginning of our dive and on the exit of theirs.

As we packed up our gear, its now about 3pm, we formulated our plan for the rest of this day.  Very status quo with one exception, we needed to get some pesos.  So we headed to Tulum to get cash at the bank, learned that the local police hate it when you park directly in front of the bank with the car running and learned that you have to have your passport to get cash from the bank!  This was new as we usually get cash from the street money exchange vendors and they never even ask for ID but guess that is why the street vendors have a poorer exchange rate!  But after this small financial adventure, we dropped tanks, organized equipment, repaired where necessary, showered and ended the day at Pizza Leo’s one of the finest Italian eateries on the Riviera Maya for some incredible seafood lasagna.

Pizza Leos – Chymuil – Sorry about the crappy photo!  Great Riveria Maya Italian!

DAY THREE – status quo.  We did a single 2 hour 15 minute dive at Nahoch Na Chich. A very shallow cave system.  Average depth was 15 feet.  Today we were going to take it easy, get done before 8pm and ready for the next three days of intense diving with Nick from White Arrow where he would be introducing us to the NT2 Rebreather system.  

DAY FOUR – began at Chac Mool one of the more complex caves as you dive this one downstream at the beginning (gas management is hyper critical on this dive vs just critical on all other cave dives) and the mainline tie is in the middle of the halocline (the point where fresh water meets salt water about 40-45 feet).  

Here Parker and I were introduced to the NT2 and after about 3 hours of set-up, yes rebreathers are quite an intensive piece of dive equipment and require much pre and post dive work;  without this extra time, the rebreather is the only piece of equipment that can kill you underwater without any notice!  So we payed much attention and learned a great deal.  Once all the pre-dive work was complete, we entered the cave only to find that the water conditions were horrendous.  The first time we ever had to abort a dive in Mexico due to conditions.  Briefly, we entered, and the flow was so strong that we did not even find the mainline until we were 50 feet past it.  Once we secured our mainline reel – the continuous line that will take us to openwater should a problem occur – we continued into the cave.  Now the flow was with us going in – again not the usual way we begin – and we thought the visibility would improve as it usually does.  At this point, Parker was to my left about 5 feet away and I could not see him clearly and we were about 10 minutes in.  We continued for another 5 and said F this and turned.  We did about a 45 minute dive as we had to swim against the flow exiting, got back to the cenote, hiked our equipment up and out, tossed it in the POS mini van and said lets go somewhere else!  

Now for those of you that caught the fact that Nick was not with us on the dive…Reason?  The rebreather, a piece of equipment so high tech, run by a computer and electronics (yes electronics underwater), must function 100% and after we entered the cenote, after all our set-up, during the pre-dive checks before descending, the NT2 system was not functioning properly so Nick had to abort before the dive even began.  Frustrating for all. 

It was now about 2 pm and we had done 45 minutes of diving.  Very aggrivating but it happens.  We decided to head about 5 min down 307 to Taj Mahal and do a fun relaxing dive now that Nick had all the bugs worked out of the NT2.  We got to the cenote around 3 and we did not descend until 5pm (I will spare you the details of the delay but I will give you a hint – RB). We did about 70 minutes dive on the main Taj Mahal line and exited – it was very dark.  Good thing we have lights!  We packed everything up, 7:45pm and headed up the jungle road – take a look at the picture to get an idea…

A typical dive day with Nick…Pitch black exit along the jungle roads back to the main highway!  


DAY FIVE – Parker and I decided to do a cave dive in the morning at Dos Pesos (Two Floors) and then meet Nick at Ponderosa for our personal introduction to the NT2 at 1pm.  Here comes another long day!  Awesome.  

Dos Pesos is a cave system that we were introduced to in 2012, the last time we were in Mexico.  In ’12, we just did a familiarization dive from cenote Sur (South).  This time, we wanted to do the traverse of about 3600ft to cenote Norte (North).  This is a very cool system as it is truly out in the jungle. To give you an understanding, you need to see the cenote (below). A crack in the in the earth

created when the breakdown occurred.  The entry is about 4 feet deep and the first 300 feet of distance is about 3 feet deep as your belly is on the bottom so your tanks do not hit the low ceiling of the cave.  After this the cave opens up and is just incredible.  Traveling in on our stage tank, after about 30 minutes, we drop that tank on the mainline and continue on breathing from our double tanks on our back.  Now after the drop, we were in new territory for us and the cave meandered on and on until about 50 minutes we finally saw the line arrows change direction and could not believe we still had another 50 minutes to cenote Norte.  Well we did not.  After the line arrow change, we came to a “T” in the line, marked our exit line, took the right and in 5 minutes we were in the cavern zone, seeing the glow of the sunlight, of cenote Dos Pesos Norte.  cenote Norte is where this system got its name, Two Floors.  Interestingly, out of cenote Norte, there are lines going everywhere and one goes down from the average cave depth of about 30 feet to well over 80, the ‘second’ floor!  There are also several tunnels emanating outward at the 30 foot level, ‘first’ floor, that one can explore on future vistis; believe me, this is in our plans!  Our double traverse, Sur-Norte then Norte-Sur, took about 2 hours of swimming and about 30 minutes of enjoying the fresh jungle air at Norte.  Once back to cenote Sur, we hauled our gear out of the jungle and headed for Ponderosa to meet Nick…we were right on time.  

Parker with double tanks on back and carrying his travel stage in his right – this gives us 160 cubic feet of gas to breathe

Once at Ponderosa, we did the 1.5 hours of set-up for the rebreathers and then entered the cenote.  We would not do any cave diving as we are not trained for that with a rebreather.  Today would simply be an opportunity for us to become familiar with the NT2 Rebreather in open water, shallow, always with a direct ascent to the surface.

Parker started with the fully closed circuit rebreather (CCR) and I used the Partially Closed Circuit Rebreather (PSCR).  As we dropped to 15 feet, Parker seemed to be doing well, moving around, good buoyancy.  Me?  For the first time in 35 plus years of diving, I wanted to go up!  I did not but realized that my breathing, deep, with my lung volume, LARGE, was not going to work.  I had to and will have to learn to breathe completely differently if I pursue the rebreather training.  The reason is that a rebreather has a fixed volume in the counter lung, this is where your exhaled breath goes before it becomes cleaned and re-breathed.  I kept trying to exhale so much that the counter lung would fill and gas would come out around my mouth and through my nose.  Not efficient but not dangerous, just a skill that will take me time to develop.  It took me about 60 minutes just to kind of figure out how to breathe and how to manage my breathing so that I didn’t feel starved for gas underwater.  The reality here is that you’re not in control of what you are normally in control of underwater on a rebreather because it’s wholly different concept. Buoyancy is the next skill that completely changes with a rebreather and both Parker and I got it down fairly well within about 30 minutes.  Bottom line…if rebreather training and use is the direction a diver plans to take, they will have to go back to square one of diving fundamentals and build the skills necessary to dive these units proficiently and responsibly.  A training I will be pursuing in 2015 with Global Underwater Explorers.

THE LAST DAY – The Outland Cave System about 90 minutes off 307, an hour past Nahoch Na Chich (Day 3), west into the Jungle.  This system contains, cenote’s, La Virgen, Ojos del Tigre, Fenomemo and White River, all of which we have dove in past years.  Today we would dive from La Virgen to Ojos del Tigre an expected mainline dive, however, due to other dive groups altering the lines, this was not to be!  Very dissapointing. 

Because cenote Ojos del Tigre leading into Hoyo Negro (The Black Hole) is presently under study by the Mexican Government and the National Geographic Society, the explorers took it upon themselves to alter this cave system that was first explored and mapped in the ’90’s.  

In anycase, we did two great dives here and because of the line alterations that we were unaware of on entry, we were only able to make it about 30 minutes into this system so we did about 2 hours of diving where we expected to do well over 4 but at least we got the intel for next year.  The photo below shows a stalagmite that looks like a coke bottle…

Parker at the “Coke Bottle” formation, just 20 min south of cenote, Ojos del Tigre.

This formation is just a 20 minute swim north to cenote Ojos del Tigre, the cenote that leads to Hoyo Negro, an incredible cave that holds human, animal and plant remains that predate our understanding of the first human on the planet.  Very cco and very important to respect and care for.  I understand why the explorers did what they did to the original cave lines but I do not agree with it.  

Our cave expedition 2014 ended with the completion of 14 dives, 12 cave and 2 rebreather, and about 18 hours underwater.  A blessed opportunity that will lead to more incredible dives in 2015.  I leave you with some parting shots and hope you stay tuned for future reports!

My Best… to ALL who have enjoyed this Adventure Report…


Casita Norte at Luna Azul – Our home in Akumal since 2003

Enjoying a “Cuban” and a Cervesa at the end of the day!
La Buena Vida – the Bones Bar –  just 5 minute walk from Casita Norte. 

More beautiful cave decorations in the caves of the Riviera Maya

Cenote La Virgen in the Outland Cave System
More cave decorations – a column about 3 feet in diameter – formed over millions of years above water!

Out in that jungle, center, is cenote Dos Pesos Norte.  You can’t walk to it, only way there is underwater!

Cave lines showing divers important navigational markers.  Cave diving requires a high level of navigational awareness
especially if the lights go out.  Notice the arrows in one location point in different directions…which way do we go?
Our POS Chrysler mini van – very jungle worthy, “‘F it, it’s a RENTAL”!