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Diving the Cavern Zone – part 1

Diving the Cavern Zone – part 1 People and Cenotes The Yucatan Peninsula is a world-class cave diving destination due to countless labyrinths of underground tunnels that characterize this region. In fact, three of the largest underwater cave systems in the world have are located here and have been mapped by an incredible community of...

Diving the Cavern Zone – part 1

People and Cenotes

The Yucatan Peninsula is a world-class cave diving destination due to countless labyrinths of underground tunnels that characterize this region. In fact, three of the largest underwater cave systems in the world have are located here and have been mapped by an incredible community of elite divers, dedicated to the exploration, conservation and protection of these fragile sanctuaries. The tunnel systems are accessed through sinkholes on the jungle floor locally known as cenotes. Cenote is a Spanish word derived from the Maya dzonot – a word meaning sacred pool or flooded cave. These geological features formed from the dissolution of limestone over thousands of years. Rain fell and mixed with carbon dioxide creating carbonic acid that slowly percolated the porous limestone creating entrances to underground tunnels that had been carved by the flow of underground rivers and sea level changes throughout millennia.

Cenotes have been extant for thousands of years and the first Americans or Paleo-Indians used these entrances as shelter and to access water more than 10,000 years ago. This has been confirmed by the numerous discoveries of megafauna and early human remains such as the National Geographic Expeditions Council’s Hoyo Negro project, currently being investigated by a multidisciplinary team and lead by Pilar Luna, Director of Underwater Research for the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH Subacuatica). Later in time, the Maya believed that these cenotes were portholes to the underworld or house of the gods, even their origin myth is intertwined with these sacred entrances to the caves. Cenotes are important today as a source of freshwater as they were for the Maya and Paleo-Indian peoples. And their exploration, study, conservation and protection is a priority to the present populations who depend on this precious resource.

Why cavern diving?
My interest in cenotes has grown recently due to several factors: The impact that tourism is having on these delicate spaces, their conservation, and their study as shelters for early human occupation, specifically Paleo-Indian populations and houses of worship for the ancient Maya culture. Although tourists often visit them, it takes special training to become a certified cavern diver, which brings me to the goal of this blog: to relate my experience while going through cavern training, to visually document the present state of the caverns and to profile the amazing community of divers that have dedicated much of their lives to exploring the endless tunnels, caves and caverns that define cenotes as a whole.

The First Step: Cavern Training

Literally taking the plunge into darkness. Cavern certification is not for everyone. Cenotes are inherently marvelous, dark, wet and pose dangers to the sport diver. I never thought I would make it here, it took a while to plan and to get support for this new stage in my career. It all started as an interest to go beyond the waterline that I share with a great friend and colleague, Dominique Rissolo. It’s been our dream to have the opportunity to explore a new and fascinating watery world, and this March the dream was meant to happen. As archaeologists we have conducted surveys over valleys, mountains, flat lands, estuaries, hills, beaches and city centers. It is not that we have run out of interests on the surface, but rather that we have discovered that what lies beyond the waterline, was exposed for thousands of years to natural forces and people. There are lifetimes of exploration and amazing discoveries that may contribute to our understanding of our place on earth. We spent time researching the subject and discovered that there are specific tools, equipment, and most importantly, people who have the knowledge, expertise and personality to teach.


Cavern diving configuration is quite different from recreational open water equipment. For this we went to our friends at Zero Gravity, in Xpu Ha, where owner and cave diver Fred Devos spent an entire day configuring our system to be optimized for cavern diving. Unlike traditional buoyancy compensator vests, our Halcyon Infinity system uses a simple harness in front and places a wing attached to a back plate. This is an extremely important change that allows one to be completely horizontal while diving and eliminates any dangling hoses. Everything is neatly tucked eliminating the chance of getting snagged or entangled while diving. Another important change is your primary second stage. It is a hose that wraps around your neck, if you need to supply a person with air, you give this regulator, which is two meters long. Backup second stage is neatly hanging from your neck, which you can easily reach for in an emergency. Although your wing is your buoyancy, your main control are your lungs which allow you to ascend or descend by letting air in and out of your lungs. Your backplate is your main weight, but additional pouches can be placed on your belt. You never want to drop your weight since you could get pinned to the cavern ceiling. A fatal mistake. The cavern is dark so you need lights. Your primary light is held with your left hand and a secondary (and third) hang from D-rings on your chest. All neatly tucked away. As you can see, the equipment is specialized and perhaps somewhat expensive, but the questions is: how much are you willing to pay for equipment that could save your life? A bottom timer, watch, and depth gauge are all you need. Your task is to keep it all under control at all times. Fins, low volume mask, safety spool with line, directional markers, wetnotes and a pencil. The rest is mostly personal preference.


Ok, now that we got our gear is time to get training.  part 2 coming soon…

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Meet the Author

Fabio Esteban Amador
Fabio Esteban Amador is an archaeologist, science communicator and visual artist. He uses visualization tools to get people excited about seeing, understanding and preserving their world and history. He is currently using gigapan technology, underwater imaging systems and aerial photography and video to capture art and culture around the world. Lately he has focused in the development of a new concept, strategy and workshop called the Art of Communicating Science, aimed at using creativity and visual technologies in exploration, discovery and story telling. He started his career as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and followed his interests in becoming an expedition artist by graduating as an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lately, he has focused on the archaeology and exploration of caverns in Quintana Roo, Mexico, photo-mosaicking shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean and capturing images and video from aerial platforms to document archaeological sites to create digital elevation models. Amador’s continued effort in communicating science has allowed him to use photography, cinematography and other multi-media tools to reach large audiences through his public lectures at universities, presentations at international scientific and professional symposia, publications in scholarly journals and on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and NatGeo News Watch online blogs. Currently, he is a senior program officer for the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, promoting and coordinating scientific and exploratory research around the world. He is also an associate research professor at George Washington University and Executive Director and President of Fundacion OLAS, an organization devoted to capacity building for Latin American scholars dedicated to the study and preservation of the submerged cultural heritage.