“You won’t know if you don’t go” This is
my favorite quote! Cave diving exploration is looking into or examining
new Frontiers or territory, to go somewhere no human being (present
day) has gone before, to be the first to behold a place or location.
There are no better feelings than the thrill and excitement of finding
and exploring a cenote or an underwater cave before anyone else.
The experience, knowing you were the first to visit, can leave you
with a tingling sensation. It brings a new level of awareness. Cave
divers work very hard, often competing to have the opportunity to
explore, to be the first inside a pristine system. The discovery
can lead to immense excitement and pride it can also result in resentment
and bitterness when the challenge of exploring a new cave crosses
paths with other explorers. Respect and professionalism can lead
to jealousy and nastiness. We are going to investigate how, why
and where exploration has established itself in the Riviera Maya
- known as “The New Frontier”!
How to find a new underwater cave There are so many ways to find
cenotes and have the first opportunity to see and explore a whole
new world. The following is a list of the many methods applied in
searching for new cenotes and underwater cave systems:
Word of Mouth
Airplanes / helicopters
Aerial / satellite photographs
Google Earth Satellite images
Books and other written material
Stories and rumors of the past
Word of Mouth This is the best source to find a new cenote. The
majority of the cenotes and underwater cave systems in the Riviera
Maya have been discovered by word of mouth. Good examples are Sistema
Ponderosa and Sistema Taj Mahal where a friend told a friend about
a cenote on an individual’s property. Cenote Temple of Doom
(Cenote Calavera) was discovered because of information provided
by a taxi cab driver. Cenote Mayan Blue (Escondido)
was found through word of mouth from villagers of Tulum. Cenote
Nohoch Nah Chich became known because of Wilbert Marrufo - a local
friend who owns the Truper Hardware store in the Akumal poblado...
Asking questions and listening to the local people can open new
paths. You will be surprised how much you can learn by simply asking
the question: Where is a cenote?
Topographical maps This valuable tool works very well. For larger
cenotes that can be easily drawn onto the map. By observing the
surface contours and recognizing symbols on a map indicating a cenote
can really be productive. You can actually figure out the most logical
places for cenotes to exist because of the topography of the land.
Be careful, some topographical maps can be twenty or thirty years
old. It is better to find the most recent maps available.
Airplanes / helicopters It is an expensive yet effective tool.
The most famous cenote discovered by air is the Grand Cenote (Sistema
Sac Actun) in November, 1987. This cenote is located 125 meters
from the Coba Road but because of the dense jungle that existed
at that time no one knew it was
there until it was spotted from an airplane. Several local cave
divers have used airplanes to search for new cenotes. Hundreds of
them are known but unreachable because of the impenetrable jungle.
The thick jungle hides many of the smaller cenotes making it impossible
to observe. The best time to search for
cenotes is after hurricanes. When Hurricane Roxanne (October 10th,
1995) hit the Rivera Maya coast south of Puerto Aventuras, it stripped
the jungle of all the leaves. The storm created a winter looking
season making it very easy to spot the smaller cenotes normally
hidden by the trees and vegetation. Taking
photographs or shooting video and drawing sketches are great methods
to correlate information with maps. It produces a personal library
in the research for finding new cenotes.
Land owners Knowing a local land owner can be fortunate and productive
in the search for new cenotes. Cenote Vaca Ha and Sistema Tortuga
are perfect examples where the land owner aggressively made it known
that he had cenotes on his property and wished for them to be explored.
Hunters These are the men who know and understand the jungle better
than anyone. They are in the woods constantly, covering every nook
and cranny, and can lead you straight to a cenote. (I have found
over a dozen cenotes simply by asking hunters and having them show
me where they are.)
Aerial / Satellite photographs This is a very effective tool, especially
now with the GOOGLE EARTH available to the public. The drawback
is the dense jungle which hides many of the cenotes. Infrared satellite
photographs can sometimes show the water beneath the jungle canopy.
Books and other written material In the United States, springs
and sinkholes of Florida and Missouri are the topic of several books.
Unfortunately, there was very little written information about the
cenotes of the Riviera Maya until my book was published. Today,
this web site serves the future as I will
continually update and add more cenotes and cave systems as more
information is obtained.
Stories and rumors of the past You will be amazed how an ancient
Mayan story or those little rumors floating around can point you
to a cenote. It never hurts to check out any leads no matter how
ridiculous the story or rumor may sound.
RESPONSIBILITY WITH PROPERTY OWNERS
No land is unowned Before anyone decides to swim, dive and explore
a cenote.....PLEASE......make the best effort to find and talk with
the landowner. The best way to show RESPECT is an open and honest
approach. Being courteous, civilized and concerned will go a long
way. You will be astonished how receptive most property owners will
be when you are willing to explain your intentions. Offering and
sharing the information you obtain scores big points. If you have
a map; give the landowner a copy. Most landowners are very curious
about what is in their cenote. Certainly the knowledge you furnish
establish a solid foundation of trust and cooperation. It is a winning
situation for both sides.
Once permission is granted, any conditions imposed should be graciously
accepted. Any limitations or rules established should be understood
with responsibilities shared. Most land owners of the Riviera Maya
want to be paid a nominal fee for accessibility. Your goal has been
accomplished with the
opportunity to dive and explore underwater caves. With over 150
different cave systems located between Puerto Morelos Aventuras
and the Tulum area only a few cenotes are closed off by the land
owner, with no diving or swimming allowed.
The landowners have constructed walkways, platforms and installed
ladders for easy and SAFE access at several of the cenotes. A few
have even installed public toilets to help keep the area clean and
unpolluted. Keeping the cenotes litter-free, minimizing the impact
from erosion and not disturbing the land helps maintain good relations.
You are the GUEST and it is your responsibility to keep the cenotes
clean and unspoiled. Courtesy, patience and respect for the property
owner will go a long way in gaining accessibility and permission
to dive or swim in the cenotes of the Riviera Maya.
The majority of the cenotes available for recreational use are
within reasonable distance of roads or highways for vehicles to
travel. The main reason for their popularity is the easy accessibility.
People desire convenience. The more difficult and demanding the
accessibility to a cenote becomes the less interest and participation
from the public. Unfortunately, not every cenote is easy and convenient
to visit. From an exploration viewpoint, you take what you are presented.
Nothing is a gift from the cave gods. Travel to and from many cenotes
can be a physical, emotional and mental nightmare. One must be ready
and properly equipped to travel safely and successfully to several
of the cenotes located deep into the thick jungle of the Riviera
Maya. You will be shocked at how unmerciful the jungle will treat
you if not prepared.
The jungle terrain of the Riviera Maya is very harsh. A low canopy,
semi-tropical vegetation is firmly entrenched. The ground is strictly
rough limestone rock which requires a good pair of hiking boots
with socks. (Don’t think you can wear sandals and stroll casually
through the bush like the locals) The trees and shrub growth is
dense with many types of flora. Some can sting, cut, scratch, poke
or turn your skin into pizza. Though it can be hot and humid, wear
long pants and a shirt. During the rainy season the insects, particularly
mosquitoes and tabonoes (nasty horseflies), can devour you within
minutes unless armed with an arsenal of repellents and barriers
to protect your precious body. A hat is a must to protect the most
fragile tissue - your brain. A machete is a valuable tool and is
considered sacred to those who survive in the jungle. It allows
you to cut a path and make headway in the direction you wish to
pursue. Carrying water is necessary in order to prevent dehydration.
A compass makes it easier to locate a cenote and find your way home.
If you wish to be really fancy and high tech, bring a portable GPS
(Global Positioning System) that will help you secure an accurate
location of where you are in the jungle.
Bringing the minimum of a diving mask and snorkel will allow you
to investigate the cenote below the water. (With this equipment,
you can determine if the cenote is good for snorkeling, a cavern
dive and/or a cave system to potentially explore). If physically
capable, porting a scuba tank with BCD,
regulator system, light, and guide reel with line gives you further
opportunity to determine the feasibility of exploring the cenote.
Keep your provisions simple and light weight. Hiring sherpas to
help carry the supplies makes a big difference in achieving your
goals. It becomes safer with less risk.
Remember, your health, time, money and energy are an investment
which should be wisely used.
The following are summaries of exploration projects that have taken
place during the past twenty years involving a variety of styles,
purposes and objectives. These approaches in exploration have embraced
cave divers from groups of one or two in size and go up to teams
of fifty or more. It all depends on the size potential of the cave
system, motivation, finances, available time and the rewards. But
most important ......what will the cave give you in return.....because
you will never know unless you go.
CENOTE NOHOCH NAH CHICH EXPLORATION PROJECT 1987 – 1995
Discovered during November, 1987 this cave system (it means “Giant
Birdhouse in Mayan) was first thought to be just a pretty place
for photography and video that offered shallow and safe depths with
immense and spectacular decorations. Soon the enormous exploration
potential in size and distance,
luckily evolved into a well organized and consistent, yearly project
that has included over fifty cave divers and support crew from around
the world. Established in 1992 in the Guinness Book of World Records
as the longest underwater cave system, the project Director - Mike
Madden has guided this
underwater cave system into a recognizable name within the diving
community and the Riviera Maya area.
Motivated by several factors, SISTEMA NOHOHOCH NAH CHICH has been
featured in magazine articles, guide books and other periodicals
from around the world and documented by several television specials
in Mexico, Canada, United States and Europe.
As of January 25, 2007, CENOTE NOHOCH NAH CHICH was connected
into SISTEMA SAC ACTUN. SAC ACTUN was the longer cave system by
47,000 feet/14242 meters. SISTEMA SAC ACTUN now stands as the world’s
longest underwater cave system with over 501,887 feet/152975 meters
of explored and surveyed underwater passages. It has been connected
to over 111 different cenotes and explored all the way to the Caribbean
Sea exiting at several locations with the main exit at Cenote Manati
(Tankah). Cenote Nohoch has yielded a pit called “The Abyss”
that goes to 235 feet/71 meters and produced a world record cave
dive for most continuous guideline laid and surveyed on one dive
(Listed in the book - The Darkness Beckons by Martin Farr as 4,200
feet/1273 meters - October, 1989 by Gerrard, Madden and Tucat).
An artistic cartography map featuring most of the cave system was
drawn by Eric Hutcheson of Ocala, Florida (1994).
The next target for the growth of SISTEMA SAC ACTUN is the elusive
connection of SISTEMA DOS OJOS that lies within 200 feet/61 meters
of the Cenote I-Hop/Cenote Pet Cemetary (Sac Actun) area and Cenote
the Pit or known as Cenote Princesa (Dos Ojos) area.
SISTEMA DOS OJOS EXPLORATION PROJECT Ejido Jacinto Pat Exploration
This cave system is currently listed slightly over 190,410 feet/57,700
meters and has over twenty five cenotes within its grasp. First
discovered and explored in 1986 by Jim Coke and Johanna DeGroot,
the only access was by a 1954 four wheel Willis jeep that finally
died in 1988. Dos Ojos (means two eyes in Spanish) lay dormant until
1992. It was the vision of a newcomer - Buddy Quattlebaum - who
recognized the potential of this cave system that lay underneath
the property of the Ejido Jacinto Pat. An outdated form of Mexican
government, the ejido consists of over 100 Mayan families spread
over 8400 hectares of land. Each family owns and works their particular
parcel of land. There are several
sections that consists of “general land” governed by
the ejido. Quattlebaum and a business partner, Marco Rotzinger who
together owned a dive business, recognized the potential of Cenotes
Dos Ojos East and West to be a great place for snorkeling and cavern
tours for tourists and an economic benefit for the
ejido. The ejido agreed to allow a bulldozed trail be improved for
vehicle access. This action opened the door for renewed cave exploration.
It took off from there, not from an organized expedition format,
simply individuals or small groups of individuals adding line here,
pushing line there. Slowly but steadily the cave grew in pieces
and chunks. During one four month span in 1994, Dos Ojos was bigger
than Nohoch Nah Chich by 12,000 feet/3636 meters. But Nohoch kept
staying ahead with its annual expeditions. At first, no one realized
that both cave systems were gradually becoming closer to each other.
Though Dos Ojos never was organized as an expedition the size, finances
and the logistics were slowly eroding the interest level of the
individuals making contributions to the exploration. Finally, publicity
in a technical diving magazine portrayed the two cave systems as
competing against each other. To rekindle the interest and try to
create publicity for Dos Ojos and the Ejido Jacinto Pat a formal,
organized expedition was formed during the first six months of 1996
with a two week Grand Finale. The Directors for the project were
Steve Gerrard, Jill Heinerth and Buddy Quattlebaum. This Grand Finale
involved 60 cave divers and support personnel. It produced a total
of 71,772 feet/21,749 meters of survey passages including 46,827
feet/14,190 meters during the two week Grand Finale. The expedition
was considered a big success with no incidents or mishaps, remarkable
for the forty five cave divers participating and the challenging
logistics entailed. Unfortunately, many divers/explorers believed
negative publicity by some members of the diving journalistic press
depicted the expedition more as a threat than an effort to see a
cave grow in size. That image seemed to splinter the cohesive bond
of the explorers and the interest level quickly dropped to nothing
for continuing the exploration. Today, SISTEMA DOS OJOS is opened
to any qualified cave diver to explore. All that is asked is submit
your survey data to the Ejido Jacinto Pat and the Quintana Roo Speleological
SISTEMA OX BEL HA EXPEDITION
In March 1998 the discovery and exploration began of a cenote deep
in the jungle south of Tulum called Esmeralda (the emerald). Underwater
cave explorers Sam Meacham, Bil Phillips, Daniel Riordan and Fred
DeVos launched an expedition during May and June of that year that
resulted in 38,000 feet of surveyed passageway. Shortly thereafter,
exploration began from a distant cenote called Del Mar. Christophe
Le Maillot and Bernie Birnbach continued exploration from that cenote
and by March 19th 1999 explored 65,000 feet of cave, connected with
Sistema Esmeralda and established 3 different drainage vents into
the Caribbean Sea. Thus was created a new cave system named Ox Bel
Ha ( Mayan for "Three Paths of Water"), totaling 103,000
feet. Between May 13th and June 5th of 1999 the aforementioned explorers
along with Sabine Schnittger combined forces in a 24 day long expedition
from a jungle base camp at cenote Yax Kai (Blue Fish). Samantha
Smith of the Akumal Ecological Center conducted water sampling and
tests during the expedition. The success of this project is demonstrated
by the addition of 43,000 feet of surveyed cave passage.
As of January, 2007 SISTEMA OX BEL HA is now at 481,500 feet/146,761
meters with 99 cenotes connected with a maximum depth of 110 feet/33.5
meters and is considered the second longest underwater filled cave
in the world. The latest exploration being fueled by Yaxchen Exploration
OTHER SIGNIFICANT CAVE EXPLORATION
Most of the underwater cave systems located in the Riviera Maya
have been explored by various individuals governed by a wide variety
of motives. The single obvious factor to explore is the fun and
excitement. Beyond that it breaks down into other issues that stir
interest. Where does the water come from? Where is it going? Science.
The environment. The beauty of the cave. Land development. Land
owner relations. Business. The list goes on.
THE FEDERATION FRANCAISE de SPELEOLOGIE EXPLORATION PROJECTS
THE XEL HA EXPLORATION PROJECT
THE SISTEMA CAMILO EXPLORATION PROJECT The Cambrain Foundation
THE LABNA HA EXPLORATION PROJECTS
THE SEAT EXPLORATION PROJECT
THE CZECH EXPLORATION PROJECTS
THE MEXICO CAVE EXPLORATION PROJECT MCAP
THE QUINTANA ROO SPELEOLOGICAL SURVEY
This organization was developed in 1987 and administered by cave
diving Instructor/explorer Jim Coke who lived in Akumal and now
resides in the Houston, Texas area. With the help of several cave
diving friends and associates, the purpose of this association was
to explore, survey and produce cartography maps of every cave system
found or known. The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey (QRSS) supports
safe exploration, survey and cartography of the underwater caves
and cenotes of Quintana Roo, Mexico. It keeps an extensive archive
of cave survey data for over 160 underwater caves and cave systems.
The survey database includes confirmed data and reports on 654.9
kilometers (406.9 miles) of underwater cave passage. There is confirmed
data for 17 dry caves and sump connections. Many reports include
water chemistry, biological, archaeological, and environmental observations.
The information is a current summary of painstaking research by
numerous explorers, cartographers and scientists who are concerned
with the conservation and scientific documentation of this region's
anticline caves and cenotes. This effort may be considered to be
one on the largest archives of underwater cave survey data in the
The pursuit is to encourage cartographic representations of these
caves. Only 15 complete underwater cave or cave systems in Quintana
Roo are illustrated through various types of cartographic media.
Of these cave maps, most are outdated in view of recent explorations!
There is hope to stimulate cartographic endeavors to further an
understanding and appreciation of all the underwater caves of Quintana
Roo. There is an open invitation to welcome all individuals who
are interested in participating in QRSS mapping and science projects.
Certified cave divers visiting the region may obtain an information
package on underwater survey and cartography opportunities in Quintana
Roo. Sustaining a current survey data base on the underwater caves
in this region hinges on the generosity of our contributors. The
QRSS archives this information for significant reasons. The primary
goal is to encourage conservation and awareness of the underwater
caves and cenotes of Quintana Roo through collaboration and knowledge.
Nine outstanding detail maps were drawn and produced through the
efforts of the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey. They are:
1 Cenote Naharon, Published by Jim Coke and Tom Young. 1989
2 Cenote Carwash, Published by Jim Coke and Tom Young. 1990
3 Sistema Sac Actun Published by Jim Coke and Tom Young. 1992, (The
4 Cenote Mayan Blue, Published by J. G. Coke and T. H. Young, 1993
4 Cenote Esqueleto, Published by Jim Coke and Carl Sutton. 1994,
(Temple of Doom)
5 Sistema Chac Mol, Published by Andreas Mathes, 1999
6 Sistema Sac Actun Published by J. Coke, D. Lins, B. Philips and
M. Mathes, 2000, (newer version) 7 Sistema Xibalba, Published by
Andreas Mathes, 2001
8 Muknal Remote Siphon, Published J.G. Coke IV, 2001, (Cenote Jailhouse)
9 Cenote Vaca Ha, Published by Bil Philips and Jana Smith, 2003
These maps are drawn to exquisite detail and now available in color.
They are excellent tools for cave divers and students in planning
and performing their dives. The maps are also excellent sources
of information for land owners who are looking for ways to protect
the water supply and any potential future development of their property.
And, they look great on your living room or office wall. You can
get these maps direct through Jim Coke at: email@example.com
or through many of the local dive stores in the Riviera Maya that
cater to cave divers. The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey maintains
a list of all underwater caves discovered and explored in the Riviera
THE WORLD’S LONGEST UNDERWATER CAVE SYSTEM, “In The
CENOTE NOHOCH NAH CHICH has stood recognized since 1992 as the
world’s longest explored and surveyed underwater cave system.
It continued to do so as we glided into the next century. Other
nearby cave systems have had the potential to be connected which
was proven with the connection of a bigger cave SISTEMA SAC ACTUN
on January 25, 2007. This connection made the SAC ACTUN cave the
longest cave in Mexico wet or dry. Located to the north is SISTEMA
DOS OJOS. If this cave were to be connected, then SISTEMA SAC ACTUN
would be close to 700,000 feet/212,121 meters in size.
This remarkable event would establish itself as one of the longest
caves of the world wet or dry in the world. (This is phenomenal
feat in itself with the contributions of over 200 cave divers and
support personnel exploring and establishing this underwater cave
system.) A connection would give cave diving and the Riviera Maya
an unmistakable claim of excellence and credibility for such a formidable
geological and hydrological task. It will be very interesting to
see what the future will give.
But wait; there is a sleeping Godzilla that nests itself quietly
south of the village of Tulum. Beneath the jungle limestone surface
of the Ejido Tulum and the Ejido Pino Suarez exists the potential
where three separate underwater cave systems (so far) can be connected
into one mammoth cave system. Visualize in your mind the great Amazon
River of Brazil and Peru in South America. Located three kilometers
south of Tulum on the property of the Ejido Tulum are two cenotes
designated as an ecological park for the people of Tulum and tourists
alike to enjoy. They are Cenote Cristal (Naharon) and Cenote Escondido
(Mayan Blue). They are the gateways to the world’s fourth
longest underwater cave system - SISTEMA NARANJAL - which contains
over 71,032 feet/21,525 meters of explored/surveyed passageways.
This is one of the “main trunks” of this “underground
Amazon River” feeding a tremendous supply of drainage water
heading straight south/southeast towards the Caribbean coast 6 kilometers
Now, visualize the vast Amazon delta river systems of eastern
Brazil. Following the Coba Road east from Highway 307 and turning
south along the tranquil Caribbean coast towards the Siam Kam Biosphere
is the Tulum beach road. It is here that the SISTEMA OX BEL HA underwater
cave system is located and sits at 481,500 feet/146,761 meters.
It is located directly south of SISTEMA NARANJAL. These two cave
systems still has a chance to be connected. Further south is another
cave system known as YAX CHEN EAST that has over 43,000 feet/13,030
meters and more unexplored area further south. There are strong
efforts in progress to connect this cave system into SISTEMA OX
BEL HA. Once done, the potential to exceed SISTEMA SAC ACTUN is
excellent and move into #1 position.
PLAYING THE GAME OF EXPLORATION
Underwater cave exploration does involve certain unwritten rules
and ethics. When a variety of individuals are seeking the same goals
and gratification from exploration, sometimes toes can be stepped
on, sensitive egos bruised and feelings hurt. Most of the time,
these types of incidents can occur because
of miscommunication or not knowing or understanding the “rules
of the game”. Though rare, there have been occasions where
wanton actions by cave divers/explorers not regarding the efforts
of their peers who are involved with their specific agenda.
A few rules to know:
Do not explore a cave system that is being currently explored by
another exploration team or individual. Unless The current exploration
team or explorer grants permission to the new team or individual.
Obviously, no cave explorer owns the cave (there are a few exceptions
around the world) but civility shows a healthy respect.
The original cave exploration is abandoned by the first explorers
and/or so much time has evolved. How much time to allow is a matter
of judgment and debate. It would be courteous and wise to ask the
originating team if they are finished with their exploration. If
you are not sure who is involved, make every effort to locate and
seek approval to continue the exploration. Make an honest attempt.
Any cave diver who lays line in a cave should make every safe effort
to survey it. It is considered Inappropriate to lay line and not
There is no better feeling to go where no one has gone before,
to be the first. Exploration allows the human spirit to soar to
the limits of freedom and feel the inner peace. It creates the ability
to examine carefully and discover new places. Cave diving exploration
is one of the last frontiers on our planet earth. It is the best
and most extreme act an individual can perform in the quest for
the unknown. It is the ultimate feeling of being alive and free!