Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cavern Diving in Dos Ojos

I began this trip there were certain adventures that I had to do while I was traveling such as diving the Belize Barrier Reef and seeing some of the Mayan ruins throughout Central America.  Some adventures were decided NOT on my itinerary.  Cavern diving in cenotes was exactly one of these activities. I have seen the "Caves" portion of Plant Earth and other documentaries of divers passing through small underwater crevices, combined with minimal external light. I'm pretty sure several thriller/horror flicks have plots that include at least one of these elements. Doesn't that sound encouraging?

If there's thing I've learned while traveling it's that meeting new people leads to new adventures.  One of the most talked about activities at my hostel in Tulum was diving at Dos Ojos or the Pit.  I heard the stories of formations and an assortment of photographs.  I admit my curiosity was starting to peak but nothing rewatching the aforementioned BBC special wouldn't fix.

The next day I joined a group of two Canadians and an Australian for the afternoon.  Cenote diving was at the top of this groups' list of things to do.  I still wasn't keen on the idea of being surrounded by rocks but I was game for walking around the main avenue while they looked for SCUBA shop that would be willing to take them diving the next day. There were far more SCUBA shops offering cenote dives. I still think of cavern diving as a relatively new option to basic certified divers but looks like I'm behind my adrenaline seeking diving peers. While going over dive certification levels and dates of previous dives, two of the three potential divers opted to snorkel instead of dive.  My new friend Carrie had been the most gun-ho about diving in a cenote and was now the last man standing.  I saw all of this developing and began having a serious internal debate between wanting Carrie to not have to go diving on her own and not wanting to tempt a panic attack underwater and underground.  I finally pulled on my big shorts and told Carrie that I'd dive with her, plus it was starting to sound pretty cool.

We booked a two-dive trip to Dos Ojos for the following morning.

The next morning, four backpackers, a dive master, and a dog loaded into an old GMC pickup and headed for one of the most popular cenotes in the area, Dos Ojos. The cenote is named for the two giant sinkholes connected by a cavern that give the illusion of two eyes staring up from the underworld.  In reality it's part of one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world with dozens of sink holes and nearly 200 miles of passageways.

That white dotted line is our dive route
I have been incredibly spoiled on my diving adventures because I've never had to carry my gear very far.  Until I decided the go cavern diving.  Let me paint a picture for you,  a bright sunny day in the mid-80s (~30C), about 60% humidity, and a full length 5mm neoprene wetsuit. It was hot! Now you're going to carry all your gear down two flights to slight limestone steps.  I'm still surprised I didn't break my leg.  Some of the other operators brought your gear down for you but Carrie and I were not so lucky.  The nice thing about carrying the gear down is that the cool water was a welcome change.  Since there's little to no direct sunlight in the caverns the water stays pretty cool.  I was very happy to have a 5mm suit on by the end of the first dive.

When you first jump in the sinkhole, it's just like jumping into a themed resort swimming that could have been nicknamed "Pirate's Cove" or the like. Even the initial descent wasn't so bad.  When our dive master started off toward the base of the cavern wall and disappeared into the shadows, that's when I started to wonder what the heck I was doing?

Diving entrance at Ojo Este
The first few meters were like learning to dive all over again.  I had to remind myself to breathe and not hold my breath as we proceeded down the passage.  The sunlight disappears quickly but the limestone formations which appear in the light of your dive torch and distracts you from the encroaching darkness.  Four or five times over the course of the first dive, we would pass through a section of passage that opens to a cenote and daylight would flood into the turquoise water.  The silhouettes of the limestone columns were especially impressive in these areas.  Plus there was also the slim chance of getting a clear picture of the other worldly scenery.  Our first 45 minute dive had me spell bound, though mildly annoyed at how difficult it was to photograph the impressive stalactites and stalagmites.

Through the tunnel
I like to think I saw this shot in Planet Earth
The second round of diving started off a little cooler and much darker.  The formations were arguably more impressive than the first dive.  The spooky atmosphere of the spotlight lit crooked passages where you can't quite see what's beyond the bend or lurking below you that adds to the allure.  About midway through this dive we surfaced in la baticueva or batcave.  This cavern has a single shaft of light that serves as its entrance to the world above.  The ceiling is littered with tiny stalactites and it's namesake, bats.  I could have stayed there a while to poke around and take photographs.  I felt a little guilty holding up my companions so I settled for a few shots and we moved on to the rest of the dive.  Somewhere in the second half of the dive as we wove through formations and boulders, my secondary regulator came loose.  All of a sudden, there was a yank and I couldn't swim any further.  I'm trying to keep my panic to a minimum as I turned around fully expecting to see a frogmen resembling something from Scooby-doo.  It didn't help much when nobody was there because that meant that I was stuck on something.  A few adjustments and curse words later the line came free and I was back underway with a vivid reminder of why I was so hesitant to do this in the first place.

The Batcave
Intricate stalactite formations

After spotting the final warning that we had reached the end of our line, it was time to leave the caves and lug our gear back up the stairs to the truck. When we got back Carrie thanked me for saying I'd do the dive too.  I guess we ended up encouraging each other to try something new. 

End of the line

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