I’m a pretty conservative diver. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to a depth of over 100 feet in the last seven years. I enjoy looking at shipwrecks from the outside, but can’t imagine penetrating one. As for cave diving? Never, I always told myself, would I never penetrate a cave.
I contemplate this as I find myself floating in absolute darkness several hundred feet into an underwater cave system. It is so dark that after a minute or so, I begin to develop vertigo and have to put my hand over my head and feel my bubbles to confirm I’m still upright. I am completely, hopelessly lost. The only thing that keeps me from sheer panic is that in the darkness, a scant 10 feet in front of me is Leif Meinert. Leif is a certified cavern and cave diving instructor and has promised to lead us back to the surface.
On a recent trip to Cancun, Mexico, my wife and I decided to try something different than the standard reef dive. Our search for something different took us to Manta Divers of Cancun (www.Mantadivers.com). Manta Divers offered guided cenote dives to anyone with an open water certification.
Leif and Manta’s driver picked us up at our hotel for the 45-minute drive South of Cancun to the Chac-Mool cenote. Most of our ride was taken up by Leif’s dive briefing. We would never be more than five minutes away from an opening through which we could exit. He also promised us the best visibility and most spectacular dive we’ve ever had.
When we arrived at the entrance to Chac-Mool, I was less than impressed. There was what appeared to be little more than a puddle at the base of a small cliff. The small pool was about 100 feet long and 25 feet wide. We geared up and descended the 20 or so carved stone steps down to the entry point. Once in the water, Leif conducted a buoyancy check with each of us prior to starting the first dive.
Once our buoyancy was under control we began our descent into the cave. The water was shockingly clear. The first dive was a warm-up to get us used to being in an overhead environment. We didn’t stray too far from daylight. There was only one brief section where I couldn’t see light from outside.
We hit our maximum depth of 42 feet and then followed a tunnel back up toward daylight. The dive ended back in the small pool where it began. With the majority of the dive done at 10 to 15 feet, there was no need for a surface interval.
We entered the cave on the second dive and watched the ambient light fade into total darkness. There was a twinge of fear as we swam past a sign that said, “Peligro, No Pase” with a skull and crossed bones. I noticed that several of the passages were much smaller than on the first dive. The fear I had felt turned to awe as the scenery began to change. We swam between several car-sized boulders and emerged into a cathedral like room, dripping with stalactites ranging in size from a few inches to several feet.
We continued to alternate between swimming through narrow passages and large rooms until I noticed an air pocket over our heads. I had assumed that it had been exhaled by previous divers and trapped against the cave ceiling. I realized this assumption was wrong when Leif surfaced and motioned for us to do the same. On the surface I discovered a large chamber with about three feet of space between the water and the ceiling. There was breathable air, thanks to a hole about one foot in diameter that led to the outside. The roof of the cave was covered with stalactites and bats. There were also several fossilized sea shells in the ceiling, leaving no doubt that millions of years ago the area was a part of the sea floor. After a few photos, we descended back into the cave system.
Leif eventually led us to daylight as promised. I realized that my two 45- minute cave dives were over much more quickly than I would have liked.
Cave diving certification is certainly a daunting challenge. However, for those of us without the desire to become fully cave certified, a guided cenote dive is well within reach of the average diver.