Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Diving Into Bat Infested Waters!

 
Stephen Weir,  "the moment I knew" - photo by Jim Kozmik


Mayan Riviera Runs A Small Price to Pay for Cenote Diving
November 2011 issue of Diver Magazine

By Stephen Weir

This picture, taken in a freshwater Yucatan cenote (cave) was snapped at the exact moment in time that I realized that in 48-hours I was going to be sick.  You know, Montezuma”s Revenge, or as I coined it following a sink hole diving expedition in Akumal, Mexico, the Mayan Riviera Runs.
This is not a diss on the Yucatan’s water system. This was something self-inflicted and it could have happened in any "fresh" water cave in the world. Blame it on the sanitary habits of flying animals or cenote diving being just too amazing for my own good.

 Watch a You Tube Video of Cenote dive guide Mario explaining to Stephen Weir, how the Mexican Cenotes came to be. 2-minutes  http://youtu.be/lV12iGAzURQ
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The east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan State is a flat, dry land void of rivers, lakes or much vegetation. What little green you see is at the well watered golf courses of the many hotels that hug the coastline.  The bleached sand beaches and tranquil turquoise sea are breath-taking, but for divers, the unique beauty is to be found under the rocky porous limestone scrubland – on the other side of the road from the mega resorts.
Dive Shop at Cenote - Stephen Weir

While above ground, the Yucatan is just a few raindrops short of a desert, there is a 800-kilometre long underwater cave system that constantly feeds life giving freshwater into the Peninsula. 
If it weren’t for the sinkholes, no one would even have known that the water was there.  It has kept the region alive since the time of the Mayans. And for  certified divers, it gives them a reason to visit the area -- often!  In the Yucatán there are over 3000 known cenotes, with only about 1,400 of them fully explored.
There are some 50 cenote parks for divers that line the main highway which runs from Cancun due south to the Belize border. At any given spot along the paved Mexican Federal Highway 307 one can see water filled openings into the cave system. The diving is really really good. As a result there are more dive shops in Cancun, nearby Caya Del Carmen, Akumal, Tulum and all points in between, then there are in Canada.
Looking up through a hole in the cenote - Weir

There are roadside route signs pictorially showing an explorer inside the cave. The other way to find the diveable caves? They are the ones with the telltale red and white dive flags at the turnoffs to their rutty crushed limestone driveways. Most cave sites have air fill stations and gear rental stores. Some -- no kidding -- have T-shirt and taco stands nearby.

Just like at the Parthenon, or the Coliseum in Rome or any other world-class tourist site, there’s usually a clutch of guides standing around looking to be hired. Here the guides are wearing wet suits. They are, or so they say, certified cave divers and they have come from around the globe to get a chance to escort divers through the freshwater passageways of the Yucatan. Much of the daily traffic into the cenotes is with dive shops (and their guides) from nearby hotels.
“If you aren’t cave certified, we can’t go more than 60-yards from an exit point.  It may seem that we have gone farther than that but we haven’t. When we get past 60 metres we are still less than that for the next exit point, and so on.” said Mario Pacheco. He is an Italian cave diver who has spent 2 years exploring Mexican cenotes. To pay for his passion he is a guide for hotels and dive shops.  He speaks 6 languages – English, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch and Arabic (“I was a guide in the Red Sea” he shrugs).
Family dives into Mexican Cenote - Photograph by Jim Kozmik

This morning he is a guide for the nearby Akumal Dive Centre and we are at the KuKulKan (Plumed Serpent) and the Chac-Mool (Claw of the Jaguar) Cenotes. Recreational scuba divers can explore both sinkholes, even if they are not certified cavers. That is because at various points along the way both cenotes have open-air shafts that are considered emergency exits.
Cenote Diving - Photograph by Jim Kozmik
The water in these two subterranean cenotes is, at the surface, clear but tinted lime green. That is because of the underwater moss that has attached itself to everything: the guide ropes, rocks, and the cement steps at the rim of the cave opening. Underwater, away from the moss it is so shockingly clear that one can see as far ahead as the mandated waterproof torches illuminate.
Most of the cenotes are in private hands, and here the owners limit the number of divers to 4 per guide to protect the fragile environment in the two caves.  We are all wearing full length wetsuits; a few of the dive guides have dry suits on even though the temperature at 50 ft is 74° F (20º C).
Modified Cannonball into the Cenote - Weir
 “Since you are all experienced divers we will give you as much bottom time as you need to get your photographs,” says Pacheco as we suit up on a cement walkway that has been laid around the KuKulKan’s mouth. “After 45-minutes you are going to be glad you wore these suits. Remember follow one by one, not side by side, except when we get into the Halocline (a sensor distorted zone where fresh water and salt water meet)”
Getting into the water is a trade-off between style and ease. One can walk backwards down slippery stairs, holding onto an equally slippery rope. Or you can stride jump in off the concrete deck. Most popular method? Modified Cannonball, to the pleasure of the many overheated divers waiting their turn to get into the deep water overtop of the entrance to the cenote.
While our group waits our turn to enter the cave, Pacheco gives a rudimentary explanation of how these caves have come to be.
It all began in the Mesozoic Era 250 million years ago. What is now the Yucatan was underwater. It was a warm and fertile place for coral to grow. These coral reefs eventually emerged from the sea as limestone rock and the formation of the caves began.
Entrance to Little Brother - Stephen Weir
Over time rainwater began to erode the limestone, creating vertical holes. “With time the tunnels become bigger and bigger,” explained the expert cave diver. “The sea level changed, and what happened?  The water started to eat its way down farther and horizontally. So we have the formation of caves upon caves all at different levels.”
This layering of tunnels has created long corridors leading into cathedral-sized rooms and then into corridors  that pass right underneath where you have just been. Cenotes, sometimes miles apart are linked by winding limestone lined passageways.
The overall size of some of the rooms within the Little Brother is staggering, so much so that our underwater camera strobe lights cannot properly light the high cathedral ceilings. Five minutes into our dive, we stop at a tall wall of rippled limestone. It is the remnants of a coral reef, 150 million years ago when it was under the sea.  Our dive guide leaves us to escort one member of the party back to the surface – Claustrophobic? Nervous? Cavern diving isn’t for everyone.
It doesn’t help shaky divers when one swims by a passageway (and there are number of them) that is not meant to be explored. There are numerous signs with skull and cross bones warning people that divers have been lost and died inside.
The stalactites and stalagmites inside this well traveled cenote have taken a beating, but here and there in our long swim there are perfect stands of dangling limestone stalactites.
Difficult to read warning sign because it sits in a halocline zone inside Cenote - Stephen Weir 

Close to the bottom of the cave it gets wonky. The water is suddenly layered into two distinct types of water. Top layer is fresh, cool and clear while the bottom layer is salty, warm and fuzzy. We have entered a halocline.
It is a zone of fresh water hitting seawater. This Cenote is very near the Caribbean Sea and saltwater seeps into the lower levels of the cave. Seawater is denser than freshwater and absorbs and transmits light differently.  It changes light, colour and temperature – divers say that it feels like being stoned on alcohol or drugs.
“The first person into the zone will see a mirror. It is a weird mirror that moves up and down like this (our dive guide makes a waving motion with his hands and arms).  “As you swim into the Halocline your flippers mix the water together. Everything will get blurry. The temperature of the salt water is warm and you will become more buoyant because of the salt.”
Stephen Weir in Yucatan Cenote - Kozmik
He was right.  It was nature playing with our sensory input. Holding onto the guideline we were able to make our way up and out of the halocline and into the freshwater mouth of the cave.
Exiting the water quickly, we made our way to nearby cement picnic tables to change scuba tanks, load new batteries into cameras and get ready for the next cave, the Chac-Mool.
“We call it the Little Brother, because it is smaller than KuKulKan,“ said Mario Pacheco. “ It used to be hard to get in the cave. But, rocks were removed. Now we don’t have to twist our way in (he does a good imitation of a contortionist wearing twin scuba tanks!)”
We follow a natural underwater ramp to reach the bowels of the Little Brother 55 feet down. It feels as though we are absolutely alone in the dark. But once we swim away from the natural ramp and enter what appears to be a limestone walled cathedral, we look back at the path we have just swam down and we see the bobbing lights of a dozen divers that are following a few minutes behind.
We took pictures. Lotsa pictures. I got very hot. Thirsty. Parched. I couldn’t help myself. I did what any Canadian diver would do. I took a drink.
At first, I didn’t swallow; I just swished the cool water over my teeth and tongue. Thinking about where I was and what I was drinking, I tried to spit it out. Maybe there is an "APP" for expectorating underwater, but I haven’t downloaded it. I shrugged my shoulders and swallowed, and took a couple more drinks. That’s when TV cameraman Jim Kozmik took this photograph.
I could have been okay but like they say, “location, location, location”.  I was in the wrong spot for a drink. We surfaced inside an air pocket at the dome of the cave. There were holes in the ceiling where thick tree roots dangled deep into the water.
It was almost noon. Pacheco told us that only in the spring and early summer, when the sun is directly overhead sunlight passes through a hole in the fauna shrouded ceiling and lights up a round patch of the water.
True enough. We watched the circular beam of light appear and play upon the water. We could now see the reflection of the cave ceiling on the surface and at the same time catch the glow of the lights of divers down below us. 
Strange, there were flickers of black through the sun’s spotlight. Bats. Lots of them. They lived amongst the stalagmites in the ceiling. They have been living there since before the Spanish. Before the Mayans. Before cave divers had begun bringing in noisy scuba tourists in to disturb their sleep.
There is a healthy population living in the roof. I was fascinated until I realized I had just been drinking ‘bat eau de toilet’. I put my regulator back into my mouth and sank back under water. I knew I would pay for the drink, but today there was more cave to explore.
After a day of diving in the caves, it was back to Akumal. In the evenings there are night dives on a shallow reef just offshore.  The waters offshore of Akumal teem with life – healthy coral heads, massive schools of small tropical fish and free-swimming, slow lumbering turtles. Loggerhead and Green Turtles are almost always seen.
Tourism has brought a conservation message to the Yucatan.  As a result the turtles are protected, their egg nests on the beach are protected by hotel staff, and conservation groups watch over these endangered species.
a drift swim in a cenote river in  Sian Ka'an Biosphere
Like Jack Bauer, my 24-hours were clicking away. Before boarding a plane for my date with my doctor, there was time for a dawn snorkel to spot turtles off Hotel Akumal, an afternoon a drift swim along a cenote surface river in the public Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve and finally a snorkel in another cenote. This one had a cave system that started in a small pond on the west side of the highway, wound itself around under the ground for hundreds of metres, and then surfaced on the eastside of the highway, near a beach and an ancient Mayan ruins.
The original Mayans called the sinkholes “dzonot”. The Spaniards translation became cenote or “deep thing”.  The Mayans considered the larger caves to be gateways to the underworld. Visiting divers will say they both got it right!

Photographs used in Diver Story Sidebar About Akumal Diving

 PHOTOGRAPHS OF DIVING OFF AKUMAL BEACH - YUCATAN FACTS SIDEBAR

A coral encrusted moped in the sand off Akumal Beach - Weir
A Scuba Dive Girl drifts in the current Akumal - Weir
Yucatán Facts
• The Yucatán Peninsula is a large, cavernous limestone shelf not more than 165 feet (50m) above sea level and without any surface rivers. Instead, rainwater penetrates the porous limestone and forms
underground rivers.
• Most diveable cenotes in Mexico are to be found in the Riviera Maya on the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s been estimated there are approximately 30,000 cenotes in this region of which an estimated 100 are diveable.
• Many cenotes are located on private land and are accessible only with permission. Most are basically inaccessible by normal means but many are open to the public.
Entrance fees vary from $10 pesos to $100 pesos, approximately USD$1-10, for those managed by locals. Commercial operations offering more to see and do typically charge more, USD$10-25.
• The Riviera Maya is a tourist zone situated along the east coast on the Caribbean Sea.
It runs south of Cancun for more than 75
miles (120km) to the town of Tulum, one of
the most important archeological sites in the
Mayan World.
• Offshore the most important attraction in the Riviera Maya is the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. The diveable reef stretches southward to the coast of Honduras
• Getting There: Airlines flying into the Yucatán in season include: Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta, Frontier Airlines, Jet Blue US Airline and West Jet.
• If You Drive: La Ruta de los Cenotes (The Route of the Cenotes) is a paved road
through the Yucatán Peninsula that passes many of the diveable cenotes.
• High Season: December 20 – April 19
• Low Season: April 20 - December 19

Shallow Reef Akumal Beach - Stephen Weir

Dive talk before shore dive to see turtles Akumal Beach - Weir
Tulum Beach - and it is right! Photo Weir