Sobbing with grief, the woman realized her worst nightmare. Her
devoted husband and 22 year old son had just drowned in the cavern
at the Cenote Cristal. It was horrible end to what started as a
glorious sunny afternoon the day before Christmas in 1996. The family
traveled to this ecological park to swim, eat and celebrate a day
together. The woman’s husband and eldest son were both certified
open water divers and had brought their scuba equipment to use in
the cenote basin. Discovering that the cenote was very shallow the
pair decided to venture into the cave entrance not realizing the
extreme danger that lied ahead. With no training in an overhead
environment, no guideline to navigate their way out, no understanding
of managing their air supply and only one battery light apiece,
this true story is a typical story that has unfolded hundreds of
times during the past thirty-five years.
Reviewing some of the most tragic accidents can help prevent future
ones. Five classic rules have evolved since the 1970's. Perhaps
the most credit goes to Sheck Exley who authored a very popular
book in 1977 called "BASIC CAVE DIVING” - A Blueprint
To Survival", published by the National Speleological Society
- Cave Diving Section. This simple text took various drowning accidents
involving open water divers, open water Instructors and cave divers
during the late 1960's and early 1970's and described the facts
of each particular accident under pseudo first names. With each
accident outlined, Exley reviewed the reasons "why" the
accident occurred and what measures might have prevented it. The
book is still available through the NSS-CDS and is highly recommended
as an important educational tool.
Since 1948, accident reports have been kept and maintained through
the NSS, the NSS-CDS and the NACD. Drowning accidents and incidents
in the overhead environment that have taken place in the United
States, Bahamas, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean are all on file.
The majority of the 375 have occurred in Florida during the late
1960's, 1970's, and early 1980's. The worst
year was 1974 with seventeen separate drowning accidents resulting
in 24 deaths The three worst accidents involving multiple numbers
of divers at one time were:
Jenny Springs (now Ginnie Springs) - 4 open water divers - 1968.
Royal Springs, Suwannee County - 3 open water divers - 1980.
Vortex Springs, Holmes County - 2 open water divers and 2
Open Water Instructors - 1981.
Surprisingly, at least twenty-five open water Instructors are
part of these statistics. The worst accident in Mexico's Yucatan
peninsula took place on August 17th, 1995 involving three open water
divers (two tourists, and a dive store owner from Cozumel) at the
Cenote Calavera (Cenote Esqueleto) located
near Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
From all these accidents, at least one of three glaring factors
clearly shows why these deaths occurred.
1. A continuous guideline was not used from outside the cave.
2. 2/3'rds of their air supply was not reserved to exit the cave
3. Diving too deep for the level of training and experience.
Judging from all the accident information, there was an obvious
lack of cavern or cave diving training among the victims who ventured
into the overhead environment. For those few accidents involving
trained cavern or cave divers, the deaths were attributed to violations
of established rules of safety, or their
choosing to ignore them.
Besides the three rules (guideline, air management and depth)
other factors weigh in that have frequently contributed to accidents.
One major factor was the number of lights used and how long they
would work. Other factors were:
1. Use of alcohol and/or drugs prior to the dive.
2. Lack of proper equipment being used such as octopus,
power inflator for the BCD, or pressure gauge.
The most glaring factor was the lack of training. Reviewing the
information of every accident presented, a distinct pattern emerged
not having the appropriate amount of training for the particular
type of dive. If a diver is trained, properly prepared, and knows
his or her limitations, the odds of an accident drop. Although there
is no guarantee that training will prevent you from drowning in
underwater cave, the fact remains that "training" does
make a big difference. From these statistics and information, the
"Rules of Accident Analysis" was developed through the
National Speleological Society - Cave Diving Section and the cave
diving community. The basic five rules offered are:
1. TRAINING. Before pursuing cavern or cave diving, please
seek proper training and know your limitations.
2. GUIDELINE. Always use a single continuous guideline from
outside the cave and throughout the cavern or cave system.
3. AIR/GAS. Always use at least 2/3'rds of your beginning
air/gas supply to EXIT the cavern or cave.
4. DEPTH. Do NOT dive DEEPER than the limits of your
training and experience.
5. LIGHTS. Always use a minimum of THREE LIGHTS per
diver. For cavern diving, the sun and at least
two battery powered lights.
Human error and/or poor judgment is blamed on every cave/cavern
dive accident with the exception of only one incident that involved
a geological event on November 17th, 1991 at Indian Springs, Wakulla
County, Florida. Following these basic FIVE RULES has established
a precedent for all divers to use
and has proven, statistically, that they work for those who choose
to obey them. There is no better way to communicate and emphasize
SAFETY while diving caverns and caves than by being familiar with
them and staying within their limits. Believe in them, practice
them and share them with other divers who wish to venture and witness
the beauty of the beautiful caverns and caves.
ACCIDENTS OF QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO
The State of Florida in the United States has certainly experienced
the highest majority of drowning accidents in caverns and caves
located throughout North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The convenience, easy accessibility and clear water (during normal
weather conditions) are perfect ingredients to attract divers of
every experience level and training. Unfortunately, open water divers
with no formal training in cavern and cave diving, are the majority
and at the greatest risk. Trained cave divers are not immune to
accidents in caves as statistics have shown.
The Riviera Maya along Mexico's beautiful Caribbean coast in the
Yucatan peninsula has evolved into one of the world's largest tourist
areas drawing people from all over the world. The rich history of
the Mayan culture, the lush tropical environment of the Caribbean
Sea and reefs, the beaches and the thick jungle are all reasons
for the areas growth. Scuba diving plays an important role.
The reefs along the Maya Riviera and the Island of Cozumel which
is internationally known as a major and very popular dive destination
attract scores of divers. The abundance of cenotes offer consistent
crystal clear water, easy accessibility, and incredible, beautiful
speleothem decorations. The
Mayan Riviera has become a mirror image of the State of Florida
and its past. Unfortunately, the right ingredients exist for many
accidents to occur.
The following information is a review of drowning accidents that
have taken place in cenotes or the “overhead environment"
in the State of Quintana Roo, Mexico. This information was obtained
through the NACD JOURNAL, the NSS-CDS UNDERWATER SPELEOLOGY, local
police reports, and personal knowledge and experience.
Date: MARCH 15th, 1987.
Location: Cueva de Amour, located in the lagoon behind the Cancun
Victim: The male victim was a tourist open water diver from the
United States in his early twenties.
He entered the cave without proper training, no guideline, no
understanding of air management and only one light. He could not
find his way out and ran out of air. His body was recovered three
days later by two cave divers who were asked to fly down from Florida
to perform the recovery.
Information obtained by local divers on the scene.
Date: MAY 5th, 1987.
Location: Caleta Chacalal.
Victims: 28 year old male and a 10 year old boy.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon; the older victim’s
family was spending the weekend at his vacation home located on
the Caribbean beach adjacent to the caleta. The adult was playing
with his own and local children in the shallow spring basin of the
caleta showing them how to breathe on a scuba regulator and tank.
The adult had a Diver’s Propulsion Vehicle (DPV) and was giving
some of the children rides on his back around the caleta. The adults
were shooting video of the children. It was the last child’s
turn to ride with the adult on the DPV (the child had his own scuba
tank, regulator and buoyancy device). The victims entered the spring
entrance of the caleta and made one pass around the cavern room
with the brother-in-law filming. Moving further back into the cavern
zone the prop of the DPV machine blasted a huge debris cone of silt
(the saltwater breaks down the limestone into very fine clay silt
- the most dangerous kind) and created a solid curtain between them
and the exit of the cavern blocking any view of sunlight. The only
lights the adult and child had were the light on the DPV and a small
light attached to the child’s diving mask. In total fear,
the victims followed the clear water.
The brother-in-law saw a huge cloud of silt billowing from further
in the cavern and quickly swam out. Anxiously waiting outside for
twenty minutes hoping the adult and child will find their way out;
he realized there was a major problem. He got out of the caleta
and rushed in a car south to Akumal to
seek help. He found two cave divers and they rushed back to Chacalal
with their cave diving equipment within the hour. Entering the cave,
they went as far as they could with their guideline and reel with
no success in finding the two missing people. In despair, they ended
the search. The next day two cave diving Instructors from Akumal
were asked to continue the search. More family members and associates
arrived throughout the day, all hoping for a miracle that the adult
and child may have found an air pocket (because of the very shallow
depths of the underwater cave) and may still be alive. The cave
diving team searched all day, drawing a detailed map of every passage
and room found with no success. No one understood why the two people
could not be found so the hope of them being alive continued. In
frustration, the adult’s family asked for more help. A call
is placed to Florida and three more cave divers were flown down
by private jet late Monday night.
They arrived at the Caleta Tuesday morning at 2:30 A.M. and begin
the first dive. The victim’s were found 400 feet back. Recovery
divers had to go through two tight restrictions and a very small
passage to reach them.
Date: SEPTEMBER, 1988.
Location: Caleta Chacalal.
Victim: 26 year old male.
Two brothers from Peru were trying to start a diving business
in Playa Del Carmen. They had heard a “rumor” of diving
equipment left in the cave from the accident that took place at
the Caleta Chacalal in May, 1987. Hoping to acquire more rental
equipment for their inventory they decided they
would visit this Caleta, enter the cave system with a guideline
and reel and search for the missing diving equipment. Neither brother
was trained for cavern or cave diving or possessed the proper equipment
to performed safe dive. The first brother entered the spring without
a reel and guideline leading his brother
who tied off a guideline from outside. The cave soon became small
and because of silt and percolation (virgin saltwater passageways
ferociously percolate particles from the ceiling) the visibility
quickly dropped to zero. The second brother with the reel and guideline
became very stressed because of the “no” visibility
and exited the cave taking with him the guideline and reel. The
first brother was now trapped in the underwater cave in zero visibility
without a guideline to find his way out. He quickly depleted his
air supply in his single tank and drowned. Body recovery was performed
by a cave diving Instructor from Akumal.
Any and all guidelines were removed from the cave. There was NO
missing equipment in the caleta from the first tragedy. The surviving
brother had his dead brother cremated and took him back home to
Date: OCTOBER 17th, 1990.
Location: Sistema Sac Aktun - Cenote Ho-Tul.
Victim: 38 year old male certified full-cave diver who was trained
in north-central Florida with 53 logged cave dives.
This accident involved a group of eight cave divers divided in
two teams. Five of the eight had just completed their full cave
training the day before. All five had received their cavern and
Introduction to Cave training in Florida. The group’s dive
plan involved entering the cave system at Cenote Ho-Tul. (In 1990,
that was the only way to enter the cave system.) The plan was to
do two cave dives with two teams of four. The first dive was to
traverse from Cenote Ho Tul to the Grand Cenote and return. This
traverse involved a 70 foot/21 meter
jump 300 feet from Cenote Ho-Tul. (It is now one continuous guideline)
The group was shown the rugged path and where to enter the water.
Back at the vehicle the cave system was sketched in detail on paper
explaining the cave configuration, the jump and distance. The second
dive was to recalculate third’s, go a new direction and swim
a small circuit called the Cuzan Nah which included a third cenote.
This loop is well known for its beauty and numerous speleothem decorations.
This proposed circuit dive asked for the two teams of four to go
in opposite directions because of the size of the cave passages
and several minor restrictions along the way. The plan had the two
teams pass each other and included one jump along its path. Furthest
distance from air was no more than 500 feet/151 meters. This was
reviewed twice and everyone agreed they understood the proposed
plan. This was the first time in this cave system
for everyone except the group leader who was very familiar with
Once in the water at the Cenote Ho-Tul everyone paired up into
teams, performed their bubble check, matching and safety drill.
The dive plan was reviewed again for a third time and drawn on a
slate for everyone to see once again exactly what to expect. An
order was established and the first dive began. It should be noted
that (using pseudo first names) Gus was bringing with him a video
camera. Swimming 300 feet the teams arrived at the jump clearly
marked by a pink arrow marker. The group leader - Stan - attached
a jump reel and turn 90 degrees installing the temporary line the
70 feet/21 meters with everyone following. Two members of the group,
Tom and Fred, were helping Gus with his video camera by holding
video lights as the group traversed to the Grand Cenote. Arriving
at the Grand Cenote another reel was used from the permanent guideline
to lead everyone out into a huge cavern zone in order to make it
easier to find the permanent guideline on the return swim back to
Cenote Ho-Tul. At the surface, everyone was in awe of the beauty.
The dive took 24 minutes with a maximum depth of 40 feet/12 meters.
Everyone had between 2300 - 2400 psi/ 156 - 163 bar in their double
80 cubic foot/10 liters tanks. Tom had 2600 psi/176 bar. All divers
began the dive with 3000 psi./204 bar.
During the 15 minute surface interval, the dive plan was reviewed
for the fourth time as Jeff had questioned the plan. Reviewing the
sketch on the slate the dive plan was discussed for the fifth time.
It was noted how much air was used making the traverse and it would
probably take the same amount, if not less, to return to the Cenote
Ho-Tul. One change was made with the dive plan. Instead of surfacing
at the Cenote Ho-Tul, it was agreed to stay in the cavern zone,
re-calculate third’s and then proceed with the loop dive of
the Cuzan Nah. Dropping down at the Grand Cenote, the two teams
swam over to one side of the cavern zone to observe a crocodile
skeleton (no longer there as it has been removed). The first team
consisted of Stan, Ann, Carl and Dan. The second team was Tom, Gus,
Fred and Joe. It was agreed that the second team would pick up the
two reels installed. On the return swim the first team arrived at
the jump reel with the Stan detaching the gap reel and signaling
his other three team members to swim ahead following the jump reel
to the pink arrow marker pointing back to the Cenote Ho-Tul. Stan
waited for the second team to arrive which was moments later. Three
members of the second team began the swim across and Stan handed
the jump reel to Tom who was the more experienced of the 2nd team
with over 100 logged cave dives. Stan motioned for Tom to go ahead
and reel up the jump line and then quickly proceeded to catch up
with members of the first team who had now arrived at the pink arrow
marker. Turning left, the first team swam for Cenote Ho-Tul with
Stan now back in the lead. Stan looked over his shoulder and saw
Tom reeling up the jump line and Gus beginning to follow team #1
towards Cenote Ho-Tul with Dan and Fred close to the pink arrow
marker watching Tom.
The first team arrived at Cenote Ho-Tul and then realized the
second team was not behind them. The group leader thought the second
team must have been delayed, perhaps a jammed reel. Waiting a few
minutes, the first team decided to continue the dive towards the
Cuzan Nah, recalculate thirds and proceed on. Swimming 150 feet
with still no sign of the second team catching up, Stan became uncomfortable
and took the first team to the surface of the third cenote as too
much time had gone by with “no sign” of the second team.
At the surface, the first team agreed that they saw the second team
at the pink arrow marker.
Stan asked the first team to stay at the third cenote, and he
went back looking for the second team. He surfaced at the Cenote
Ho-Tul to check in case they went there while the first team was
at the third cenote, then continues on. Arriving at the pink arrow
marker, to Stan’s shock he found the jump reel and guideline
had been put back in place. It is believed Tom thought the first
have been confused and did the “smart thing” and swam
back to the Grand Cenote as it was the known exit. Just to be sure,
Stan swam upstream the main line into the huge passage known as
the “Paso De Lagarta” looking for any evidence of a
silt trail. Seeing none, Stan concluded they did go back to the
Grand Cenote. Swimming fast and hard to the Grand Cenote, he discovered
the second team was not there. The question of here the second team
had gone was now clearly answered in his mind. The second team did
swim upstream the “Paso De Lagarta” passage. With 1500psi/100
bar remaining in Stan’s tanks and 30 minutes gone, there was
no way he could “catch up” with the second team. He
assumed they would figure out their mistake, call the dive and return
Cenote Ho-Tul since they had a continuous guideline to the surface.
Stan swam back to the third cenote to get the first team of Ann,
Carl and Dan, called the dive over and returned back to Cenote Ho-Tul.
Once back at the surface at Cenote Ho-Tul with team #1, Stan was
down to 700 psi/47 bar and over 75 minutes had passed since the
missing team was last seen. Because of
he shallow cave system, long bottom times were expected but it was
approaching the time the second team would be overdue. Stan decided
to go back down and look a little bit more. Having swum 80 feet/24
meters towards the pink arrow marker he immediately saw three lights
of the second team 100 feet/30 meters away swimming towards him
and Cenote Ho-Tul. As Stan got closer to the second team swimming
towards him he saw the first two divers sharing air. One was Tom
and the other he thought was Fred. Tom, seeing Stan signaled big
trouble further back. Stan swam another 50 feet/15 meters and discovered
a set of legs dangling limp from the ceiling. It was Joe and he
appeared dead. His head was up in a tiny air pocket. Stan tries
to pull Joe down from the ceiling but he was rigid and would not
budge. While this is going on, the exhaust bubbles of Stan’s
regulator inadvertently filled the air pocket with fresh air. Suddenly
he noticed Joe’s throat moving as if gulping air and realized
he was alive! When Stan jammed his hand up into the small air pocket
he felt Joe’s face and found it still warm. Instantly, Stan
took his long hose primary regulator and began purging -- adding
more air to the little air pocket while he pushed the second stage
into Joe’s mouth. Joe took the second stage and began breathing
on it. After several long moments of gaining composure and breathing
normal again, Joe relaxed and now easily dropped down from the ceiling.
Stan found Joe’s mask locked tight in his left hand. He pried
the mask from Joe’s left hand and placed it in his right hand.
Joe placed the mask on his face and cleared it. Stan gave Joe the
“OK” sign and Joe acknowledged it. Taking Joe’s
right hand with his left hand Stan escorted Joe 150 feet/45 meters
back to the surface of Cenote Ho-Tul. Stan saw Tom sitting next
to Gus exhausted. They had just made it to the surface after both
ran out of air during the last 30 feet of ascent. It was that close!
Everyone was yelling that Fred was still in the cave. Gary was now
down to 400 psi/27 bar and asked Carl from Team #1 who had 1500
psi/100 bar to follow him back down. Plunging through dirty water
and the cave entrance the pair of divers swam as fast as they could
along the main permanent guideline and returned to the location
where Joe was saved. Swimming 30 feet/9 meters further they found
Fred on his back, regulator out of his mouth and eyes glazed. They
desperately tried to place a regulator into Fred’s mouth to
no avail. Each gripping Fred’s shoulders, they pulled Fred
170 feet/52 meters back to the surface of Cenote Ho-Tul.
Everyone began peeling off Fred’s equipment, pulled him
to shore and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After five minutes
of futile attempts from Gus (a Doctor) and Tom, everyone agreed
to stop and accepted the fate that Fred was dead and all sat in
the water and mud in sheer shock.
The next day everyone sat down at a table and each person was
asked to recollect all the information about the dive. This is what
happened according to all participants of the dive. When Tom was
given the jump reel by Gary to reel up, he was nearing the “pink
arrow” marker, and Fred stopped him and signaled him to put
the jump reel back in place which Tom did. Then, both Fred and Joe
began to swim upstream into “Paso De Lagarta”. During
this discussion, Joe admits that he thought he was at the Cenote
that point of the dive and had re-calculated his thirds. Joe also
stated he saw Gus turn around (when Gus began to follow Team #1)
and thought that perhaps Stan had sent Gus back and interpreted
that action as the wrong direction. Though it will never be known
for sure, everyone came to the same conclusion that Fred was thinking
this was the beginning of the “loop” to the Cuzan Nah.
Gus stated that he knew they were still 300 feet away from Cenote
HoTul and that the Cuzan Nah loop was in the opposite direction,
but because Fred and Joe started swimming upstream the mainline
of the “Paso De Lagarta” he figured he was wrong with
his interpretation of the dive plan and lack of experience.
Tom stated that he did not realize there was a jump line installed
on the way to the Grand Cenote. Remember, Gus had a video camera
and both Fred and Tom were helping Gus by holding the video lights.
The camera and lights, along with this being the first time in this
cave system, distracted some when it came
So, the second team was now swimming upstream the mainline of
the Rio Largata “thinking” they were on the “loop”
section of the Cuzan Nah and expected to pass the first team at
some point of this dive. Though the distance is difficult to calculate,
judging by the amount of time, team #2 must have swam
at least 1000 feet upstream from the pink arrow marker. Finally,
after 30 - 35 minutes of swimming Joe stopped and wrote on his slate
asking everyone where was Team #1. Fred nervously looked at his
pressure gauge and then “called” the dive as “strong
doubt” was growing causing stress. They reversed order.
Everyone was now below 1000 psi/68 bar except for Tom who had 1400
psi/95 bar. On the swim out, they found a jump to the right which
had a clip and line (similar to the jump involved with the Cuzan
Nah loop.) They took the jump remembering the third cenote involved
with the dive plan as they were getting low on air and becoming
more scared. They swam 100 feet/30 meters and found an arrow marker
pointing back to the mainline. The stress grew stronger! They turned
around and swam back to the mainline. This action caused a four
minute delay. Back on the mainline, one of Gus’s fin straps
popped off the post causing a delay. Fellow members helped him with
the fin. No one saw an arrow marker for quite awhile. Stress continued
to grow and no one had a clue how far they were from Cenote Ho-Tul.
Fred and Joe were now down to less than 500 psi/34 bar and very
scared. At this point Gus ran out of air and went to Tom for air.
Seeing this, both Fred and Joe were totally scared, swam past Gus
and Tom and disappeared out of sight. Where Gus ran out of air is
measured to be 600 feet/181 meters from Cenote Ho-Tul. Gus’s
popped off again and they abandoned the fin making swimming and
sharing air even more difficult. After another 200 feet/60 meters
Gus dropped and abandoned his video camera. (Both camera and fin
were recovered by Stan the next day) Fred and Joe were swimming
as hard as they can, very scared and breathing their precious air
fast. They both ran out of air at the same place, 170 feet/51 meters
from the surface of Cenote Ho-Tul. Joe told everyone during the
discussion that he remembered an underwater cave rescue he saw re-enacted
on television that took place in Florida involving an air pocket.
Joe says he spat out his regulator and swam as far as he could when
he spotted the tiny air pocket on the ceiling. That action gave
him the two extra minutes when the group leader showed up saving
This is a classic example of cumulative factors that led to this
accident. The following observations help understand why this happened.
1. First time in the cave system for everyone except the group
2. The video camera and lights distracted several members of dive
3. Complex dive plan
4. Inexperience for some members of the team
5. Change of dive plan not to surface at Cenote Ho-Tul on the return
from the Grand Cenote
6. Misinterpretation of the dive plan even though it was diagrammed
paper and slate and reviewed a total of five times with everyone
agreeing they understood the dive plan (it still caused confusion).
the fact, two members of the team stated they did understand the
plan, but were lulled into “following a leader syndrome”.
“DIAGRAM OF THE CAVE AND THE ACCIDENT”
Date: APRIL 2nd, 1995.
Location: Sistema Najaral. Cenote Maya Blue (known locally as Cenote
Victims: 48 years old, and a 36 year old male, both certified full
cave divers from the State of Florida, USA.
The two divers were part of a group of seven spending a week diving
the cave systems. This was the first dive of the trip. The group
leader divided everyone into three teams. The plan was uncomplicated.
Enter at “B” tunnel, swim 800 feet upstream and jump
from tunnel “B” to “E” involving a five
foot gap (this has been changed to 40 feet). First team of three
divers arrived at the jump and found the “B” line pushed
over the short distance and connected to the “E” line.
This intersection lies against a huge rock. They referenced the
“T” and proceeded upstream “E” line. The
second team of two arrived at the junction and recognized the intersection.
The third team of two (the victims), we assume, did not realize
that an intersection existed and followed the lights of the first
two teams, casually making the 90 degree turn in direction. A short
distance later the third team called the dive on air (thirds) and
turned around for
the exit out of the cave system. At the “T” intersection,
the two cave divers followed the string that appeared to shoot straight
right from the rock (this is known as a “blind” “T”
intersection) causing them to swim in the wrong direction. One hundred
feet further the “B” tunnel became dramatically smaller
compared to most of the “B” passage that is quite large.
However, they followed the upstream “B” line to the
very end that included a minor restriction and made a “visual
jump” to the “A” line tunnel and followed the
clearly distinctive arrow markers headed out of the cave. Two obvious
clues were evidently not recognized by the victims telling them
they were going in the wrong direction before they got to “A”
line.....no sediments or silt trail in the crystal clear water and
the minor restriction. Both should have been “red” flags,
in warning the cave divers something was wrong. Meanwhile, the first
two teams had reached
their thirds upstream the “E” line passage called their
dive and exited the cave system without incident. At the surface,
a non-diving member of the group informed the divers that the third
team never exited the cave. Quickly, the group leader recognized
the problem and with another member from Team #1 entered the “A”
tunnel and swam upstream as far as their air allowed on thirds from
the first dive which was only 400 feet . There was no sign of the
lost third team but at the point of turning around they noticed
a cloud of silt that obviously had been stirred by the victims.
From this evidence, it is speculated that the third team became
totally scared and lost and decided to retrace their steps back
to the “B” tunnel. Some divers familiar with this accident
concluded the lost team followed the “A” line all the
way to the end which at that time was beyond the “natural
daylight”. We will never know for sure what really happened.
What we do know is the “lost” team followed the “A”
line upstream as far as they could until their air expired and they
both unfortunately drowned.
Not paying attention to details as you swim into a cave system
and not recognizing features on the return swim causing confusion.
Referencing can save your life!
Date: AUGUST 17th, 1995.
Location: CENOTE CALAVERA (Cenote Esqueleto/Temple of Doom.
Victims: Male adult certified open water diver from Norway, a female
Divestore owner from Cozumel and a 55 year old female open water
certified diver from Colorado, USA.
This tragic accident began as a dive store organized trip from
Cozumel. The store owners had heard about the beautiful cenotes
and received inquiries about cenote diving from customers. They
decided to schedule a trip and hire a local Divemaster who had previously
lived in the village of Tulum and was familiar with the local cenotes.
He was not certified in cavern or cave diving, nor was he
a “qualified” guide. With five paying customers, the
group traveled to the Grand Cenote located five kilometers from
Tulum. The group of eight made the dive and thoroughly enjoyed the
dive without incident. The spectacular beauty, shallow depths and
crystal clear warm water had everyone enthusiastic and the “hook
of trust” was now in place with their guide. They decided
drive down the road to the Cenote Calavera (known locally as Cenote
Esqueleto) to make a second dive. Entering the cenote, the dive
master’s overconfidence took control and instead of taking
the group on the traditional cavern tour, which consists of a 360
degree permanent guideline (all easily within the sight of natural
daylight), he took the group of eight into the passage known as
the “Madonna” and into the cave system. The last member
of the group (The male owner of the dive store) became very stressed
and bailed out, and returned to the surface. This passage is very
large and brilliantly white making it very easy to swim and follow
a guideline. The group continued further into the cave with the
divemaster leading. After swimming approximately 250 feet/75 meters
in, two members of the group became very uncomfortable and turned
around to exit. The divemaster was totally unaware of this. Further
into the cave the three remaining members became stressed, not knowing
how far they were from the cenote and were now getting low on air.
Confusion and stress contributed to the situation as everyone was
now desperately trying to swim back to the cenote. The three victims
ran out of air at the beginning of the “Madonna” passage.
The divemaster managed to make it back to the surface and obtained
the scuba tank from the dive store owner who bailed out at the start
of the dive. Returning to the “Madonna” passage the
divemaster found two divers dead but brings the wife of the divestore
owner back to the surface. They were able to get her out of the
cenote and rush her to the Red Cross station in Tulum where she
died. This information was obtained through local police officials.
Not using a professional, qualified guide was the first major
mistake. As a dive store trip with paying customers, this was totally
unacceptable and inappropriate. Too many people on the dive caused
confusion and difficulty to manage. (The maximum ratio with a professional
guide is FOUR) Going beyond “natural daylight” into
the cave system was the second MAJOR
mistake along with unsafe management of their air supply.
AN OPEN LETTER FROM A DISTRAUGHT DAUGHTER
My Mother, Judith Marshall died along with two other people on
August 17th, 1995 at the Temple of Doom near Quintana Roo, Mexico.
She was a certified open water diver. She was very interested in
visiting the cenotes because of their beauty and their archeological
significance. She was a grandmother, mother, sister, friend and
teacher. Many people will remember her, especially her children
and the little children she taught throughout 20 years of teaching.
The dive guide, who was contracted by the dive store, led a group
of eight, past the cavern zone into the cave. The party included
the dive store owner. The dive store owner abandoned the group and
did not complete the dive. The dive store owner and divemaster were
absolutely unqualified to organize and lead a cave dive. They were
not certified cave divers. They led my mother and the other divers
to believe that they were qualified instructors who would protect
them. The dive store owner and divemaster made terrible mistakes
which led to the deaths of three people and could have killed the
other divers as well.
The scuba diving community has worked hard in the last few years
to make diving safer in Mexico. This tragedy was the result of the
dive store’s lack of knowledge and very poor judgment. They
should never have gone past the cavern zone into the cave. Cave
diving is only for certified cave divers.
If you are involved in any capacity with scuba diving, please
check the certification of anyone involved in each dive. If you
are a landowner, please prohibit unqualified divers from diving
on your property. If you are a dive store owner, check the certification
of your customers as well as your employees. If you are an Instructor,
please do not attempt dives which are beyond your level of certification.
I am writing this letter in remembrance of my Mom. I will miss
here more than I can ever say. She’ll never see her granddaughter
grow up. I hope that writing this letter influences someone to do
his or her part to prevent another tragedy like this one. Out of
respect for my Mom’s wonderful, generous life and her tragic
death, please do your part to prevent another tragedy.
Date: DECEMBER 24th, 1996.
Location: Sistema Najaral. Cenote Cristal known as Cenote Naharon
within the diving community.
Victims: 46 yr. old and his 22 year old son -- open water certified
divers From Orlando, Florida.
It was the day before Christmas when this family of mother, father
and sons 18 and a 22 year old wanted to spend a relaxing day enjoying
the beautiful Cenote Cristal (Naharon) swimming and picnicking.
The father and eldest son brought with them their open water scuba
equipment. (This particular cenote
is not popular or recommended for open water diving because of the
very shallow depths -15 feet/4 meters or less - and relatively small
size) The Father decided to take his son into the cave entrance
known as the cavern zone. This cavern is NOT very popular because
the walls and ceiling are coated a very brown color from tannic
acid that exists in the cave system. This absorbs light beams and
makes it more difficult to see objects from a distance. Not using
a guideline, the pair swam into the cave. From the silt stirred
by the divers, it is calculated they swam approximately 200 feet/60
meters into the cave area.
Because they were improperly over weighted (using weight belts meant
for open water salt water diving) they swam feet down and disturbed
massive amounts of sediment which blocked the “natural daylight”
from the cave entrance and their exit. This caused a heavy dose
of fear and the pair got separated. The
Father managed to find his way back to the cave entrance but was
critically low on air. Realizing his son was still back in the cave
he made an attempt to swim back to look for his lost son, but exhausted
his air and drowned at the entrance. The son was found next to a
warning sign (that is written in both English and
Spanish warning divers not to go further unless cavern or cave certified)
with 600 psi/41 bar remaining in his scuba tank. This indicates
that because of very high stress, rapid, shallow breathing was taking
place that does not allow a good exchange of oxygen in the lungs
thus causing the carbon dioxide to rise to a
dangerous level pushing the diver to unconsciousness. The son’s
body was recovered by a full cave certified diver from Tulum. Information
was obtained by the recovery diver.
Reviewing “Accident Analysis” the following rules
broken were: 1. Not trained for the “overhead environment”.
2. Did not use a continuous guideline. 3. Did not plan 2/3’rds
their air supply to exit. 4. Did not use three lights.
Date: APRIL 16th, 1998
Location: Sistema Sac Aktun. The Grand Cenote.
Victim: Young male adult certified open water diver from central
The victim and a group of six on Easter Holiday were brought to
the Grand Cenote by one of the members in the group who had already
dived the Grand Cenote on a previous visit and was attracted to
the very clear water, shallow depths and the spectacular decorations.
No one was cavern or cave certified and a professional guide was
not hired. They entered the cavern area and began touring and exploring.
The cavern zone of the Grand Cenote is very complex with many small
passageways leading off from the “main” area. The victim
found a tiny passage on the northwest side where he entered without
a guideline. Going further in he quickly stirred a massive amount
of sediments and created very poor visibility. He could not find
his way out, exhausted his air supply and drowned. The body was
recovered an hour later by a full cave certified diver who happened
to be there diving for pleasure.
The victim broke four of the five rules of “Accident Analysis”.
1. Not trained for the “overhead environment”. 2. Did
not use a continuous guideline. 3. Did not plan 2/3rd’s their
air supply to exit. 4. Did not use three lights.