chapter 11




“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
Topographical maps
Airplanes / helicopters
Land owners
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.


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 can
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.


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.


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 Survey.


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 project.


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.

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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 world.

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 Historical Map)
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: 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 Maya area.


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 away.

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.


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 survey it.

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!

Copy Right 2000
Steve Gerrard
All Rights Reserved

Cenotes of the Riviera Maya
Mexican Home Phone (011-52) 98487-35037, Cell (011-52) 1 98412-71550
Puerto Aventuras, QRoo, Mexico