Mexico Cave Exploration Project Report

by Susan Bird



Last month Beto and I went down to the Yucatan Peninsula to join an ongoing cave project with Chris Le Maillot, Danny Riordan, and Fred Devos.  I'd like to share an overview and a few of the highlights of the project.

The Mexico Cave Exploration Project is an ongoing endeavor designed to explore and document several cave systems in and to the north of a biosphere area called Sian Ka'an, which is located south of Tulum.  The objective for the 5-day Dec 2006 project was to extend and film the range of the Boca Paila system (in the biosphere), and to explore and document several potential leads in the Yax Chen system, focusing on the "Arizona" & "Champagne" sections.

Beto and I flew in a few days before the Dec project date to assist Jarrod, Anthony Rue, and Todd Kincaid in pre-project activities.  We met and interviewed Sam Meacham, one of the key cave explorers and the main liaison between the diving community and local (Mayan and Mexican) authorities.  Sam hosted a half-day boat tour of the Sian Ka'an canal system, which allowed Jarrod and Anthony to capture video footage for project back-story.


Surface Images of Sian Ka'an



As part of the tour, we drifted down a long section of the canal in our bathing suits (followed by the boat), and snorkeled at the underwater cave entrances of the 2 caves in the biosphere. At Kaapechen we encountered a large school of snappers and two resident manatees.


Boca Paila Freediving Video



Manatee Cenote Video


In addition to visiting Sian Ka'an, we did several warm-up dives in Taj Mahal and NoHoch Nah Chich, prepared gear, and generally got the 'lay of the land' prior to the project. David Rhea and Mark Messersmith flew in from Florida to join us for some diving at NoHoch, where we did some photo and video work.


One of the most spectacular sights I have ever witnessed was during one of the NoHoch dives. Our photo team (David, Mark and I) was swimming behind the video team in order to not interfere with their footage. Up ahead, Beto and Anthony carried massive, bright HMI lights, which entirely lit up the huge rooms of this cave system, considered by many to be the most beautifully decorated cave in the world. From our vantage point (50 ft or so behind the video team) we were able to see an amazing panorama: the divers lit the walls of the huge ballroom-sized rooms--clear, blue green water contrasted with the indescribably beautiful and plentiful white decorations, Jarrod's camera lights lit the divers in their colorful drysuits swimming slowly in mid water, and Jarrod with his camera was in silhouette against this dramatic backdrop. I have been in this cave many times before over the past 10 years, and this was by far the most striking and gorgeous view of NoHoch Nah Chich I have seen.


NoHoch Nah Chich Surface Shots


The project ran from Mon- Fri, so on the Sat prior to our start date we had a pre-project meeting at our base of operations, Zero Gravity. This GUE dive shop is located near to Puerto Adventuras, and there is a major fill station (open 24/7) just 5 minutes from the store.


There were at least 16 divers involved in the effort from locations all over the world.  Jarrod, David, Anthony, and Mark flew in from Florida. Per Thompsen and Sigurd are from Norway, Chris is French, Danny and a few of the other project divers are from Mexico. Beto is from Venezuela (via California!), and there is a team of explorers from Italy living in Mexico who participated. There was a diver visiting from Argentina and another from Canada as well.


While several of us arrived a few days early, some of the divers (Per and Sigurd) had been working for the previous 3 weeks to prepare gear-- namely the scooters, for the project.  Aside from the scooters, gear requirements included exploration materials, and photo & video equipment. We used 32% for all project dives, as the systems are very shallow.



Zero Gravity

Once the project started, we met each morning 6:30am, assembling at Zero Gravity to pick up & load scooters, tanks, etc, and receive instructions from Chris and Danny as to who was diving where and doing what for the day.  Due to the limitations of the science permit, only four divers could work each day at the Biosphere, so the remainder of us would go to Yax Chen.

The teams used 18 standard Gavin scooters (plus 2 Makos), and approximately 50 stage & safety bottles each day.  Every morning we divided the divers, scooters, and bottles between the 2 groups, and headed to the dive sites (approximately an hour's drive south).

Once on site, tanks were analyzed & labeled, team objectives were refined, photo & video equipment was painstakingly attended to, gear was schlepped to the cenote, and teams would enter the water & execute the dives according to the schedule.  Team sizes varied from 2 to 4 divers.

There were set-up & clean up dives supporting all of the push dives and documentation efforts.  At the YC site, safety stations were established at 3K, 6K, and 9K.  The dive lengths for all teams varied from 100 minutes to over 4 hours.  All of the dives for the project were conducted on scooters, and usually included multiple stage bottles.


We wrapped up just as the sun was setting (around 5pm) to get tanks & scooters back to the shop and fill station for refilling & charging.  Every evening, the project managers would assess the day's progress and determine the objectives and teams for the following day, depending on resources.


Daily Routine at Yax Chen

So... that's the overview of the project and our daily routine.

Some of you may be wondering what role/s Beto & I played in the foray. Well, let me start by saying that we were exceptionally lucky to be able to participate at all, given the caliber of divers involved in this project.  We were honored to be working and diving among the most active and successful cave explorers in the world.  One of the most poignant highlights for me was that these world-class explorers made us feel so entirely welcome and part of the team from the moment we arrived in Mexico.

Beto and I were stationed at the Yax Chen site for the duration of the project. This cave system is unique in that it runs through a series of cenotes of various shapes and sizes along its path into the jungle region to the west (and NW).



Satellite Images of Cenotes


The base cenote of YC is located on private property close to the coastal road heading south past Tulum. It is a lovely starting point, a wide-open lake surrounded by mangrove and jungle foliage stretching about 400 feet across to the cave entrance. As the system continues to the west, the cenotes become less abundant and more jungle-like, filled with cenote-fish, tarpons, turtles, and crocodiles lurking around the perimeters. While there are opportunities to surface during dives in this system, there is great incentive not to linger too long at the surface, for obvious reasons.


For the first 9,000 ft, the cave is dark, so it is very dramatic to see light penetrating down through cracks in the ceilings, and it is a welcome sight to scooter through the cenotes as your eyes readjust to color and light. It was also very striking to see large flashes of animated bright silver against the darkness of the cave walls, when the tarpons ventured farther than usual into the cave system.


In general the first part of the system is relatively narrow from floor to ceiling (not tight, but consistently narrow). Since the dark cave walls absorb so much light, and because we were on scooters, it was necessary to be very alert so as not to lose the line or hit the ceiling or walls. Beyond the 9K safety station, the cave opens up, becomes lighter and more decorated, and is far more visually engaging.


Aside from doing surface work-- which everyone pitched in to accomplish (analyzing tanks, assembling scooters, carrying and staging gear at the cenote, etc.), Beto and I were able to dive every day.  We assisted with set-up and clean-up dives, and we supported some of the video work by lighting up sections of the cave with powerful HMI lights.  (Jarrod recently acquired a commercial HD video camera with a humongous custom housing, and the results of his filming are truly spectacular.)


Surface Support at Yax Chen


Beto's dives were more demanding (than mine), as he has some history doing projects in Mexico. In addition to set-up, clean-up work, and video work, he participated on an exploration dive as part of Danny's team.


On the last project day I had the unique opportunity to do a dive with Danny to double-check some survey data and to clean-up (collect safety bottles) at the farthest safety station at 9K.  Since we had enough gas, we toured beyond the safety station to have a look at the 'good' part of the cave. During the previous four days I had been doing support dives to the 6K station, so this was a real privilege.  Past 9K, the cave expanded and became lighter-- it contained large, odd-shaped formations, a significant halocline, and a large section of the floor looked like it had been finished with beautiful Italian tile.  The dive was more demanding in terms of required tasks, and it was a total blast!

Aside from the actual diving on the project, what was really awesome was to observe the teamwork and results made possible by the GUE system of training.  The project was an impressive collaborative effort, conducted in a positive, supportive atmosphere.  There was a great deal of laughter and good humor, layered over an underlying theme of mutual respect. The more experienced explorers encouraged newer team members, and although there was a disparity of experience and capacity among the divers, everyone was treated as an equal. Everyone focused on the team objective, and each person's contribution was valued and appreciated.


Teamwork and Fun


Another aspect that I really liked was that every day the teams would change-- divers were interchangeable among the various roles & teams, as the tasks required.  Naturally, the more experienced explorers did the more aggressive exploration dives, but the roles on all teams were entirely interchangeable among divers of similar capacities.  For instance, I dove with eight different buddies (in different groupings) over the five days, doing a variety of interesting and challenging tasks.  All of my buddies were fabulous-- dialed in, competent, confident, and the dives were fun, productive, and incident-free.

This trip proved to me that the uniformity of our protocols and the quality of our training makes this kind of project possible-- and it was fantastic to see first hand what can be accomplished as result.  It is truly amazing and incredibly FUN to see our GUE global team in action! For me, this is what diving is all about-- a unified, compatible team approach which allows the diving to be dramatic and challenging in the way that diving should be. The drama and beauty are found in the underwater scenery, and the challenge is to grow as a diver by expanding one's abilities in a holistic way-- doing slightly more complex tasks in a natural progression by diving with experienced, dialed-in divers.

Thanks to Chris, Danny, Fred, and Per, the Dec 2006 project was extremely well organized and the project objectives were completed successfully.  There is no question that they have hosted large-scale exploration projects many times before. They have built upon their past experiences to smoothly operate a complex project with multiple divers from around the world and massive amounts of gear in a manner that appears effortless.

Beto and I were very fortunate to have been able to participate in the Dec Mexico project. The lessons learned will inform our diving, teaching, and project managing in the months and years to come. The positive experience, happy memories, and newly found friendships will be cherished for a lifetime.


The Post Project Celebration


In the meantime, we can hardly wait for our next trip to Mexico to assist with the ongoing cave exploration project!


Closing Shots


I hope you enjoyed this report.


For more information on the MCEP project please visit here