Cave Diving in the Yucatan

I finally finished my full cave diving course with IANTD (The International Association of Nitrox and Technical Diving). Cave diving is part of the reason I came to Mexico a year ago and it took me awhile, and a bit of money, to finish this course. It is my first step into technical diving and now means that I can guide the caverns here as a guide to recreational scuba divers. What I do already, as a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, allows me to teach all levels of recreational scuba diving from Open Water, Advanced, Rescue, Divemaster, Assistant Instructor, Specialities and training new PADI Instructors under a Course Director. As much as I love working as a PADI Instructor, cave diving was something I did for me. I started diving when I was 12 years old and have somewhere around 3,500 dives. I’ve always wanted to cave dive and have seen technical diving as a new challenge. It was a way to fall in love with diving all over again.

What makes cave diving unique is the rigorous training and strict adherence to rules. It is definitely not for the faint of heart which is why it’s still such a niche form of diving. There is no room for ego in cave diving and it is extra important to stay humble. Anyone can call a dive at any time without question which results in the whole team immediately aborting the dive and exiting. Anything that you have learned as a recreational scuba diver also has no place in cave diving. My instructor told me that usually PADI Instructors are typically the hardest to train as cave divers because they have developed bad habits and aren’t used to being the student. Personally, I loved being a student again but I didn’t quite understand how different the two things were until I started my course. It may be hard to go back to teaching open water courses now because I’ll take 5 days on buoyancy and proper trim alone!

I did my course with Nando, a Mexican national and IANTD Instructor Trainer. My boss recommended him to me because of his experience in the area. Nando is tough but thorough. You will get no positive feedback which can feel a bit strange because you feel like you aren’t learning anything, but if he’s not yelling at you and simply moves on it’s because you did everything correct. A different type of teaching from the PADI way that I’m used to with recreational scuba dive instructing! But I honestly couldn’t recommend Nando more!  

To become a cave diver you have to start with a cavern diver course. Cavern diving is overhead environments with at least 30 meters access to open water at any point throughout the dive. This means that there will always be natural light, whether it’s in front of you or behind you throughout the duration of the dive. There are many different things to consider when you start diving with overhead environments which is why it’s considered technical diving. After you complete your cavern course, which is usually 3-4 days, you do an Intro to Cave Diving course where you are blind folded and taught how to follow and read the lines of the caverns and caves so that you can navigate properly and “come out alive”.

Next you will progress to what’s called the Full Cave certification. A cave is technically an overhead environment with 4 walls, no dirrect access to the surface, in complete darkness. This is where you start entering extremely tight and small spaces where only 1 diver can pass through at a time, multiple jumps to different lines and navigational decisions to make throughout the dive. You will navigate 45 minutes out of a cave, blindfolded, while sharing air, and using only touch to navigate the lines and read the intersections. You will learn how to deal with things like lost lines, lost buddies, our of air emergencies, entanglement, restrictions, and setting up lines and markers for navigation. Throughout the training your mental exhertion is constantly put to the test as you are being thrown stressful challenges and surprises that are purposely set up to envoke a sense of panic. With cave diving a healthy amout of fear is necessary to staying alive. Complacency kills people. And any small doubt will turn into a snowball of problems under water. It is important that you are able to perform well in highly stressful situations with an ability to problem solve and survive. 

The cave system here spans approximately 2,600 km of underground caves and caverns. They are called “cenotes” by the Mayans which means “sacred well”. The Mayan’s would sacrifice people and animals down them and believed they could speak to the God’s through these portals into the Earth. They were spiritual and respected because of their mineral rich pure freshwater that was constantly cycled and filtered through the underground reservoirs. Cenotes are formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock which would expose the underground pools (Lonely Planet).

When I decided that I wanted to cave dive, the Yucatan Peninsula was the obvious choice. It boasts a huge cave diving community and many of the pioneers who made the sport what it is today. It’s a mecca for cavern and cave enthusiasts from all over the world and I can understand why they all gather here. What’s unique about the cenotes compared to other cave systems is not only the size but the consistently great visibility, as long as the bottom is left untouched, the depth (most are around 10-14 meters and the lack of heavy flow. This makes for ideal conditions and stunning views. The caves are extremely decorated with stalactites and stalagmites and will have you swooning instantly. Diving in them is eerie and magical. You will wiggle your way through a tiny space and then come out into a massive room that takes your breath away. Sometimes you see “haloclines” which is a mixture of various densities of water. Usually you encounter this smokey-like layer when salt water from the ocean meets with the freshwater in the caves. It makes you feel like you have vertigo as you swim through the two layers and disappear into another passage. The caves feel like the veins of the planet, the lifeblood flowing through everything. Although cave diving is extremely dangerous, the rigorous standards and adherence to safety that are in place now, came so at a high price by human error. If the caves are treated with humble respect, you will experience a whole new world below the Earth’s surface. 


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