If You Don’t Go, You Won’t Know
by Steve Penn Gerrard
Sharing knowledge is why I love to teach safe cave diving. Sharing accurate information to aid learning so that you too can have the opportunity to experience the beautiful cenotes and underwater cave systems of the Riviera Maya is what my entire cave diving career has been about. Lucky and blessed to cave dive for so many years, now I share.
Have you ever had an idea that dominated your mind and just would not let you go? That happened to me during the 1990s. I got an idea in my head. It persisted. It came down to two choices. I could forget it and block it out of my mind, or I could make it happen. Proudly, I chose the latter. What shocked me was that within two years of publishing my first book in February 2000, The Cenotes of the Riviera Maya, it was out of date. Rapid and consistent exploration of the Riviera Maya cenotes turned my book into a history book, valuable but nonetheless, history. Each year, I wanted to publish an updated edition to keep up with the growth. However, the growth was exponential. It was fruitless to try to keep up. Now in 2015, at sixty-two years old, it is time.
I have been diving since I was nineteen years old. June 1975 marked my first cave dive at Little River Springs, Branford, Florida, with Paul Heinerth. Still actively cave diving and teaching, some might consider us old-timers! Six years later, in 1981, I began teaching safe cave diving and have been doing so ever since. Though I strongly believe in the quality of the dive and not the quantity of the dives, I have safely performed over eight thousand cave dives. The National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) presented me the gold Wakulla Award in 1987 with two thousand cave dives. During the 1990s, I averaged between six hundred–seven hundred cave dives each year. Sometimes, I look back and think, Man…I was nuts!
The cave diving community acts as a double-edged sword. Containing a very wide spectrum of personalities and egos, you can liken one side of the blade to the possessive me mentality while the other side of the blade is the benevolent we sharing attitude. I like to think I chose the best side. People who know me understand that safety is always my number 1 priority. When I started cave diving, I committed to myself a period of roughly ten years before losing interest and giving up. However, the desire and passion for cave diving has never faltered. During the 1990s, my career was more dedicated to exploring, but for the past fifteen years, I have been very content to follow other cave diver’s lines. I have become familiar with as many different caves as possible. With that said, I have probably only dived 35 percent or less of the cave passageways available in the Riviera Maya. That is how large our treasure of caves is in Mexico. A few people have asked me when I plan to quit. I just smile as I think of Tom Mount who lives in Lake City, Florida, USA. Tom is seventy- seven years old and is still actively cave diving. We shall see what happens.
Recently, my loyal friend, German Yanez, invited me to attend my first MAYAB monthly meeting held in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. MAYAB is an organization that bonds both cave diving and dry caving. Six different presentations delved into a variety of topics such as biology, surveying techniques, and exploration. Impressed with the group’s enthusiasm and professionalism, I accepted the invitation to socialize afterwards. Further impressed by the depth of friendship, camaraderie, and the bonding displayed despite the wide variety of personalities and backgrounds, I felt there was no doubt that a close, respectful association was in place.
What really caught my attention, however, was the sharing of exploration and the finding of new caves together. The group invited me to tag along to explore new dry caves located west of Paamul. I would have loved to, but this time, I declined in order to complete this new eBook. Next time, I will accept the invitation. What became completely clear to me is that many people view a cave as a cave whether it is wet or dry. I totally agree with that. A few years ago, dry cavers connected Sistema Dos Ojos with Sistema Sac Actun within the rules of safe caving, making it the world’s longest cave system. Several cave divers disagree with this. What do you think? With this e-book I have listed information from the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey about the known explored dry cave systems and those associated with underwater caves. I expect those lists to grow dramatically in the near future and promise to continue updating the information.
To say competition exists in the cave diving world is an understatement. Cave divers compete for students, to sell diving equipment, and of course, to be the first to explore a new cave. The “my cave” mentality has always struck an inharmonious chord with me. Cave divers do bond, but the bonding usually is tainted with the adherence to a single philosophy—the selling of a particular piece of equipment and brand or the keeping of a cave to themselves. I have to remind myself constantly this is just people being people.
We Are Loving the Cenotes to Death!
We have a grave problem within the scuba diving industry in the Riviera Maya. This issue has been festering and growing since the late 1990s. As the Riviera Maya has grown at an exponential rate, so has the interest and participation in diving the cenotes and the cave systems. People visiting this area from all over the world desire to dive the reefs, cenotes, and cave systems. The demand is so high; it has created a disturbing challenge. We are “loving” the cenotes and the caves to death!
Three dive stores operated on the coast during my first visit in 1986. Six years later, when I moved to Akumal in 1992, there were six. Today I guesstimate there are at least twenty-five dive stores alone in the Tulum area, seven in the Akumal area, ten in the Puerto Aventuras area, and probably more than forty in the Playa del Carmen. What exists in the Cancun area, I don’t know and don’t even want to hazard a guess. And do not forget about all the divers who take the ferry from Cozumel to visit and dive the cenotes of the Riviera Maya. Independent cavern tour guides, cavern dive instructors, and cave diving instructors also bring enthusiasts to the cenotes. From my research and experience, I estimate that there are at least three hundred plus individuals who offer their services in addition to the scores of instructors and guides who come to the Riviera Maya from out-of-country bringing their own clients or students to learn and enjoy diving in the cenotes.
This demand has created a tremendous amount of pressure on the entire ecosystem. For example, a few months ago, I asked a friend who works daily as an underwater photographer at Cenote Chac Mool, what was the highest number of divers he had observed in one day diving this site. Without batting an eye, he said, three hundred divers. That surely was an exceptional day. On average, Chac Mool experiences less than eighty divers daily during high season. Of course, Cenote Chac Mool offers three different cavern zones, allowing the cavern tour guide to stay at one place and yet offering the double underground experience. Chac Mool is the closest cenote to Playa del Carmen, the largest market.
Cenote Dos Ojos commands the biggest market overall. With two large cenotes (east and west) positioned within the safe limits for a cavern tour—the shallow depths of 30 ft (9.1 m) or less, consistent clear water, and ample space for excellent snorkeling—and the gateway to superb cave diving both upstream and downstream, this site experiences a daily deluge of people. On average two hundred plus people enjoy this site daily during the high season with spikes past three hundred people during peak times. Personally, I have observed tour buses arrive with forty people or more multiple times during the day. The Ejido Jacinto Pat with Jaime Castro as manager has developed this location, Cenote Jacinto Pat (The Pit) and the Cenote Misterio, into a prosperous income source for the people of the ejido.
In the Tulum area, the Grand Cenote is the benchmark, attracting the largest market with impressive numbers on a daily basis. One of the first cenotes explored by cave divers in 1986, Grand Cenote is the entrance to what is now known as the longest cave in the world, wet and dry. It is also known as the second longest underwater cave system. The landowner has constructed all the amenities to offer a quality and comfortable site. Other landowners have tried to emulate this cenote with varying degrees of success and failure. Creating easier access has dramatically increased the number of users.
Cenote Dreamgate is called the crown jewel of all the cavern areas of the Riviera Maya. From the time it was first found and explored in the late 1990s, this cenote was under control of one dive business, thus naturally limiting the exposure of divers visiting the site. There is both an upstream and downstream cavern zone area allowing a double underground experience. In 2006, a disagreement occurred between the dive store operator and the landowner. The sole access to the dive site was taken way, and the cenote was opened up to the general diving public. As each year went by, knowledge of this cenote grew, and it became more and more popular. A few years ago, the landowner replaced the original ladder and platform with a safer stairway and larger deck area. Additionally, bathroom facilities are in place along with palapas for divers to change from their clothes into bathing suits. Today, with a steady daily flow of divers experiencing this cenote, an alarming rate of damage has begun to show itself.
These four cenote sites are examples of the pressure on the cavern and cave environment. My concern, also shared by many people who live in the Riviera Maya, is that the amount of people moving into the area is overloading the support services. The number one problem is sewage. Several of the cave systems are now showing the symptoms and evidence of human waste intrusion. The nitrates are invading at a very rapid rate, discoloring the guidelines, a string used as a reference to exit the cave or cavern area. Fungi and other foreign matter are invading the underwater cave systems, mainly those close to the Caribbean Sea. For example, Sistema Chac Mool, located 0.5 km south of the rapidly growing Puerto Aventuras pueblo, is showing signs of massive salt water intrusion. This is very sad! It has been proven that altering the physical outlet of the Caleta Chucalal has severely changed this cave system. However, mistakes can be corrected! In 2004-2005, Sistema Ponderosa was showing a brown layer of sewage pollution at the saltwater-freshwater level. With plenty of complaints and scientific evidence, the Barcelo Resort doubled the size of their sewage treatment plant. This eradicated the problem. Problems can be dealt with and solved.
Every day you can see evidence of this infiltration when you dive the shallow reefs up and down our coastline. The tremendous amount of dying or dead coral is evident. It is getting worse every day! This constitutes a major problem that needs to be addressed head-on and soon.
The Zero to Hero Condition
Another challenging issue is the zero to hero syndrome. People moving up the ladder of certification so fast that sometimes quality is sacrificed in order to achieve an egotistical, and/or financial, reward. The dive industry as a whole is responsible for this issue. For the past twenty-five years or more, the quality of scuba instruction has eroded to a level of appalling shame. Scuba diving courses have evolved down to an introductory sham with the goal to only sell scuba equipment. Respectfully, there are dive stores and scuba instructors who do a good job teaching their students to be competent and safe divers. However, as a whole, it is a sad situation. The biggest problem and most perplexing challenge is that of the lack of proficiency with basic skills, such as the simple ability of buoyancy control and trim. Many new divers are not comfortable with swimming continuously and consistently in a horizontal manner, including stopping, known as hovering. Configuring your equipment that allows no danglies, appropriate streamlining, and easy, safe accessibility are also basic and important.
Many scuba divers have no perception of what should be a basic scuba skill. With poor skills, scuba divers evolve into advanced levels such as technical divers, cave divers, open water instructors, and sometimes higher. Then they begin to teach. Who can teach what they do not already know? Achieving these goals in a relatively short period only complicates the situation and does a disservice to the student. To confound things further, every single individual is different in their physical, mental, and psychological capabilities. Nevertheless, the bottom line is respectable ability with buoyancy control and trim. Poor buoyancy skills for the open water diver or cave diver can create a bull in a china shop. Bumping into the walls, ceiling or cave floor with the body and the equipment hardware, lack of awareness, inexperience, and confidence levels are examples of why unnecessary damage occurs.
The Right Tool for the Job
The side mount configuration was the beginning for cave diving. It has been around since the 1940s, originating in the United Kingdom. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the back mount configuration began and evolved in Florida. During the late 1970s and 1980s, explorers extended the length of many cave systems and found new ones by using the side mount configuration. Lamar Hires, Woody Jasper, Mark Long, and Wes Skiles among others were at the forefront, using this type of cave diving misconfiguration. However, it remained a tool for a purpose while the back mount configuration remained the predominant practice for cave diving in Florida and other destinations such as Mexico and the Bahamas.
During the past ten years, however, the side mount configuration has exploded in popularity amongst cave divers. It has progressed into use by numerous divers with many different environments. From independent tanks allowing two separate air/gas sources to easier use because of body size and weight and physical impairments, the side mount popularity has surpassed the time of being a fad or craze. No matter what the reason for the tank configuration, it initiates debate amongst members of the cave diving community and the impact on the cave passageways. A prime example is the Cenote Calimba main line passage.
First explored in 1997, this cave diving site evolved into a controversy because of the damage that had incurred by back mount cave divers. Damage occurred to the stalactites and other speleothems. It got so bad that visiting cave divers would make piles out of the broken formations in hopes to remind other cave divers to be careful and aware. Now with the popular use of side mount configuration, the entire scenario has repeated itself as side mount cave divers are breaking formations on the sides of the cave passage. There are no winners in this circumstance.
Another controversy is poorly trained side mount cave divers. Some students learn the basics with the instructor’s anticipation that they will continue their training and fine-tune their skills with advanced and technical side mount courses. Most do not continue. A new trend is to learn cave diving skills with the use of side mount configuration only from start to finish, never using doubles. Some people believe that side mount is the only way and that back mount is dead.
Personally, I am a doubles type guy but have used side mount techniques during the past twenty years when I felt the need. Though I am now officially retired, the past few years, I have incorporated the use of sidemount into 75 percent of my teaching and guiding, mainly to keep up with competition. It has worked out very well with many of my customers, and for some, it has been a frustrating experience. It is a matter of what works best for whom, when, and where.
The Cave Diver Explorer
People have commented that the typical cave diving explorer has too much ego and testosterone. Some explorers have a dive business built around the aura of “let me take you somewhere special; we do not usually do this but I will for you yada yada yada.” Out of dozens of cave explorers that I know, only a few have been helpful to me for this book. I understand the dilemma and the challenge. Do I kiss and tell or do I keep my prize a secret? Tell the world, and the cave becomes susceptible to overuse and potential damage. On the other hand, keeping it quiet protects the cave. There is no right or wrong with this situation. My only concern is the rapid growth of the Riviera Maya. Education and awareness, in my opinion, is the only solution.
This ebook Is a Controversy
My year 2000 book was very popular for a few years, and to this day, I still get a few requests for it. With the publishing of this eBook and access to at least eight major book publishers and fifty foreign countries, I anticipate a demand. How much remains to seen. Ninety-five percent of the readers will enjoy and learn from the book and the information it provides. However, there are some people who believe that this book tells too much, informing the public where cenotes are located and sometimes how to enter or dive the cave stirs debate. Questions arise such as should the cenote be known? Because of it being fragile, or on private land, or that it offers treacherous conditions. The list goes on. Some people feel that the cave diving visitor should always dive with an experienced guide.
That is what this eBook is all about—sharing. Sharing so you can learn and experience from what I have learned and experienced. Sharing means not only material data but also knowledge and wisdom. In my mind, not one person owns the cenotes or caves. They belong to everybody. If you are trained and qualified, can perform the task in a safe manner, and possess a healthy attitude to respect this unique environment, you have as much equal right to experience and enjoy this spectacular world as anyone else. It all boils down to having the opportunity. There is nothing more that I detest than a selfish, elitist ego. The purpose of this eBook is education. To make you aware and inform you of what is available and to help you understand and appreciate this unique part of the world—that is my goal. That is my purpose.
Learning and Understanding the Past
Another important aspect of cave diving and caving in the Riviera Maya is the history of the cave. How the cave was created, who and what has used the cave environment and how to protect and respect this very unique and beautiful environment. The Instituto de la Prehistoria de America and INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia [“National Institute of Anthropology and History”) are two organizations that work very hard to gain knowledge, learn from the past, and educate for the future. INAH is a Mexican federal government bureau established in 1939 to guarantee the research, preservation, protection, and promotion of the prehistoric, archaeological, anthropological, historical, and paleontological heritage of Mexico. Its creation has played a key role in preserving the Mexican cultural heritage.
Mexico’s waters, whether territorial or continental (rivers, lagoons, springs, cenotes, etc.), cover large areas. In continental waters, one can find mainly material culture belonging to the pre-Hispanic groups that lived near these bodies of water and used them as means of survival and as sacred places. The waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea hold an important colonial heritage. This is the reason why in Mexico it is called underwater and not marine.
Underwater archaeology is simply archaeology since it has the same objective: the understanding of human groups which lived before us, and this is achieved by the study of the remains which have been preserved through time and space. Every piece found is a unique fragment for the understanding of that great puzzle we call our history. Everyone is responsible for the protection of our past, and the best way to do so is by getting to know it. The more we know our past, the more careful we will be not to destroy it. This is the reason why INAH would like to transmit what their work is about, and why it is so fascinating, and above all, why INAH is convinced that being in touch with the past makes us stronger as individuals and as nations.
The Instituto de la Prehistoria de America is an aid association for the work of INAH, which focuses on the study of ancient humans in America and its impact on the environment. Since 1999, this organization has been developing an underwater archaeology project endorsed by INAH that is focused on understanding; If so, when, how, why, where did the first human groups reached the American continent? When did they come to Yucatan? What were they like? How did they survive? How were the ecosystems then? Strangely, the caves and cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are providing fundamental tests to bring answers to these and other questions. Some of them are a forceat understanding the role that humans are playing in the climatic changes of the planet.
The study of nine underwater sites, two in the State of the Yucatan and seven in the State of Quintana Roo, in more than ten years have yielded the most comprehensive collection of the Pleistocene terminal-Holoceno early human skeletons for Southeastern Mexico and the Americas. This period is known as the end of what was the Ice Age. Likewise, the remains of extinct megafauna composed of camels, horses, elephants (gomphoteres), and giant armadillos (glyptodons) allows us to infer that the current forest was, ten thousand years ago, an open and dry, arid steppe. The results of our research are published in the best journals in the world as Journal of Human Evolution, Nature, or Current Research in the Pleistocene. For the majority of the seasons, the Instituto de la Prehistoria de America have been anchored by companies such as Discovery Channel, National Geographic, BBC London, Spiegel TV, and other companies from France, Japan, and Germany. For these investigations, the Instituto de la Prehistoria de America received the prestigious Rolex Award in the category of exploration and discovery. This project has been successful thanks to people committed to the exploration, education, research and conservation. My friends Jeronimo Aviles Olguin Segovia and Eugenio Acevez are the backbone of this important organization.
I passed the summer of 1974 working as the lifeguard and pool caretaker for a Jack Tarr hotel in downtown Clearwater, Florida, while attending classes at St. Petersburg College. There I met an elderly World War I veteran named Mr. Earl Wood. Sixty years older than me and severely wounded in that ugly war, he lived on total disability from the government. For weeks, while I was working, he would stare at me during his strolls around the hotel grounds. One day, he came up to me and introduced himself. He invited me out to dinner, and we became fast friends. He told me about his life experiences, his girlfriend that he never got to marry because of the war, the joy of living, and the frustrations of life. This went on for a year and a half. About every two-three weeks, he would take me out to dinner to a variety of local restaurants. After dinner, I would take him back to his hotel, and each time, he would give me money. Not a lot, but as a struggling college student, there were several times he saved my butt. Each time he gave me money, I would try hard not to accept. I valued our friendship more, and money was not going to be a factor. But each time, he would simply say he was passing it on. I learned a lot from Mr. Earl Wood.
Today, there are over three hundred cave systems involving over one thousand cenotes in the Riviera Maya. Though this eBook lists many, there are several that I know about but have not enough information for me to describe them. I have made mistakes too, and I know it, but at least I am trying. However, the beauty of this e-book is that I can now continually update and increase the information about the cenotes of the Riviera Maya in the near future. Hopefully, this eBook will continue my goal of passing it on in a responsible manner and serve as a good educational tool for the future. At least I know I am giving it my best shot.
I wish to sincerely thank the following people for their help, support, and contributions to this eBook. Without their assistance, I would never have been able to make this book come true. I will always be grateful. They are Eugenio Acevez, Jeronimo Aviles, Eric Budgie Burgess, Barbara Dwyer, Mauro Bordignon, Ken Bosko, Bill Coltart, John Cerek, Donna Carey, Valentina Cucchiara, Kim Davidsson, Vlada Dekina, Tony DeRosa, David Dusek, Gabriel Gasca, Fredy Antonio, Martin Gongora, Fabio Hering, William Huth, Anders Knudsen, Manuel “Pio” Jimenez, Don Keele, Robert Laird, Rogelio Mier, Michael Menduno, Connie LoRe, Rob Neto, Bill Nixon, David Orozco, Dan Orr, Mario Pacheco, Nick Poole, Emiliano Monroy Ríos, Peter Sprouse, Bob Thorpe, Lucas Tietz, Henry Watkins, and German Yanez, and Cuzel Air/Gas Station. A special thank you to Moira Hutchins-Fuhr for helping me get this to make sense. A great thank you to Michel Vazquez for being my assistant. In particular, I wish to thank a lot my wife, my friend, and my partner in life, Harriet Lee Nelson.