June 20, 2016
I open the door to our house and step into the bright sun under a sky full of white clouds rimmed in grey. It rained last night and the air is heavy with the afterthought of the storms; a scrim of moisture beads on my neck and behind my ears and puddles are in the streets. I advance to the car and pop the trunk so I can store my undergarments, dive computer, and water bottles. Behind me I can hear Zsolt locking the door to the house.
I slide into the drivers seat, start the car, blast the air conditioner. Zsolt joins me and we motor onto the main road and head for #ProTecTulum, to collect the rest of our gear and the tanks.
#ProTecTulum is quiet and we move in a well rehearsed rhythm testing gasses and confirming tank pressures, packing dry suits, and testing the cave lights. Zsolt and I are dripping sweat as we load the tanks into the trunk of our mid-size rental car. We use another fifteen minutes to load the rest of the essentials for the day: Fins, helmets, regulators, reels, etc., into the car.
A few minutes later we’re navigating the streets of #Tulum to 307. Bicycles and scooters, pedestrians and dump trucks, taxis and shuttle buses–#Tulum is bustling on this Monday morning. Heading north on 307 we watch for the sign to #Labnaha-Cenote Caracol and spot it 9 km from the city. Then, the sign for #Caracol appears on the left-hand side of the highway and we throw a U-turn at the next “retorno” in order to back track to the turn-off for the cenote.
Unlike many of the dirt roads that we have traveled on, this one is maintained to some extent and we can actually drive at a reasonable speed winding around numerous potholes. After fifteen or twenty minutes we arrive at a ninety degree turn to the left and a white, limestone wall with an open gateway and find another sign to #Caracol.
As we drive into the cenote and park we can see the attendant standing near a short stairway leading into a large palapa. We shake hands and pay 200 pesos per diver and sign into the log book. The attendant is friendly and gives us a tour of the grounds.
The trail to the opening of the Cenote is perhaps 50 yards, and as we walk, I think about the amount of work that it will take to transport our tanks to the opening of the cenote. But just as we come to the hole I am thunderstruck by the sight of it.
The opening is shaped like a funnel. The top might have diameter that is twenty feet but the structure crimps down into an opening that might be five feet at the bottom of the funnel. And shooting through the middle of the opening, and I mean literally straight down the middle of a the hole, is a narrow staircase–each step might be three feet in width. I would call it a spiral staircase except for the fact that it only makes three-quarters of a turn to the wooden platform at the bottom.
As I ponder manhandling two sets of tanks along the trail and up and down the stairs the attendant mentions that they have a wheelbarrow for us to use to transport the tanks as far as the stairwell–good news because my shoulders are already aching.
But then I think about the cave divers that I know who are active explorers of this region and I remind myself that we got it easy. At least we don’t have to carry our tanks two miles through the jungle using a machete to cut the trail. And they would most likely rappel into the cenote and use a rope to lower and raise the tanks, and jug up the rappel line after the dive was complete. Just getting the gear to the water is epic for them, let alone the exploration beyond the light zone.
We grabbed the wheelbarrow and humped loads to the stairs and then down to the cenote. We are soaked with sweat inside our dry suits as we enter the cool water and finished racking our tanks onto our harnesses. We drop to twenty feet and swim together to find the mainline at the edge of the cavern zone.
Zsolt leads and I follow him up the line for 45 minutes until I’ve reached one-third of my gas supply and then we turn the dive. My gas consumption is always worse than Zsolt’s which makes our calculations easy. Basically, we always turn on my pressure.
The cave is smallish with occasional restrictions and there are twists and turns-it’s hard work to manage trim. Near the end of the dive I am fighting to keep the arch in my back. Every time I look away from the line at a formation or signal Zsolt at a cookie my body starts to slump and I reprimand myself. “Extend you arms, arch your back, c’mon man!“ This is our third day, of two dives a day, and my bodies feeling it. The ironic thing is that we are just finishing dive number one and still have our second dive to go.
I lead the second dive to a jump which is eight minutes up the main line where we make a right-hand turn. The cave immediately compresses down into another order of smallness. Here trim is paramount. Adding to the challenge there are numerous intersections and other lines some of which come very close and parallel the line we’re on. It would be very easy to make a blind jump onto another line and not realize it. I mark and confirm every tie-off, every junction, and every T.
After about twenty-minutes on the line we come to a restriction where the line makes a ninety degree turn across an opening that is barely the width of the diver. However, the line is tied off on both sides of the hole so sideways motion is limited and in essence, the line has been made part of the restriction. There is no way to pass through the hole and avoid the line.
I ease my body forward slowly penetrating the space above the line and between the stalactites. I am sandwiched between limestone and line. Carefully, I use my left hand to guide the line along my torso. The key is to drift through at a snails pace–there is no rush in a situation like this one. After clearing the line from my harness buckle I am through to the next tunnel.
More ninety degree turns through narrow passages appear one after another and then we come to a descending worm hole encased in clay. This type of passage is hard because as you descend your buoyancy changes (you become heavy) and you can end up shooting down the passage like a torpedo wrecking the visibility and crashing into the floor of the cave on the other side of the restriction.
I turn sideways and twist into the hole and move down a few feet and then add some gas to my wing and then slide forward again. I extended my legs and hold my fins still. Each time the passage opens up enough for me to reach my inflator I punch in some gas until I am gently squirted into the next passage. Moving forward, away from the exit, I turn so I can watch Zsolt emerge from the tube. A second later he squeezes in next to me. I was pleased to see very little silt behind us.
We pushed on for another twenty minutes before turning the dive. After we surfaced back at the cenote we spent another hour hauling tanks to the car and packing the gear. Another day was done.
All-in-all we’d spent three hours underwater which is a lot for us but not so much for other divers that we know. We have mutual friends that have completed multi-stage dives that require over ten hours in the water at one time. Maybe bigger dives are in our future?
No doubt we’ll be back to Caracol though for more of its amazing passages.