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Nathan Roser is an avid caver and SUOC alum living in Syracuse, NY. This is his account of a virgin cave he surveyed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
Scattered all across Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula are karst features called cenotes, where a cave passage has collapsed and the collapse is deep enough and free enough of debris that the water table is exposed. They are often popular swimming holes and tourist locations, and with good reason. Crystal clear blue water, beautiful cave entrances, many fish underwater, birds and bats flying around the cave entrances. They’re also the only place in the entire peninsula where freshwater is accessible on the surface. They’re the reason the Maya and cultures that came before and after them were able to inhabit this karst region with no surface rivers or lakes.
To cave divers it’s where their explorations begin, a window into the vast flooded caves that are found up and down the jungles of Quintana Roo. To us ordinary dry cavers, there’s still plenty to do too. In this case there was a large underwater cave called Sistema Ponderosa that was only a few hundred feet away from connecting to another large underwater cave. So far the divers hadn’t found any connection underwater, so it was up to us dry cavers to find a way to connect the caves in the area in the earth between the surface and the water table. Even though the cenote is a collapsed cave, for the connection to be legit we had to find a way around the perimeter of the collapse while still staying under the overhang to call it all the same cave. This often meant crawling over tree roots and squeezing between sharp rocks.
And although this was a pay to enter tourist site, the management gladly gave us free access since we were going to make them a nice map in the end. Plus, connecting the two caves would help them hype up why their site was the coolest one around. One of the workers even showed us around the woods nearby so we could see some other unmapped caves first. Once back at the cenote, gearing up was minimal. Only a swimsuit, gloves and kneepads, with the annoying task of inflating an inner tube since we were surveying in deep water. We started at the steps into the water where the dive line was tied off. I took up station setting, Alice Jaworski was the disto robot reading the laser sight for data, and Peter Sprouse sketched the map as we went. First we took a few shots to the left but this soon became impassable.
We headed the other way. Surveying in warm water floating on a tube is a far cry from the tight cold passages of many other caves I’ve mapped in before. A few more shots along the overhang and we went into a narrow path of water between the wall and a boulder pile. We had to climb out of the water onto ant-covered roots in a few spots, taking care not to pop the tube on sharp rocks. We saw a cave entrance on the side of the cenote wall, and it went!
We ditched the tubes for a bit and crawled in. No signs of people having entered before. The passage quickly dropped down a squeeze between formations and into a standing room––still no footprints. A few more shots and we crawled between some stalagmites into the water. Less than 50 feet on, the walls met the water with no space big enough for a diver to enter. We didn’t go far, but it was really cool to find virgin cave right in the wall of a popular tourist cenote! Back outside the path got tricky. The way forward was blocked at water level, so we had to survey through a convoluted series of boulders to stay under the overhang; beneath the rocks in the water, then straight up, double back a bit, then forwards out into the open, but still under the overhang. Once we cleared this it was a few easy shots to connect with the other dive line, successfully linking two underwater cave systems with miles of passage.
Once the surveying was over we took some time to swim around a bit, then we met with the other crew. Their job was to survey the dry parts of a big cenote that cave divers frequented. There were lots of Mot Mot birds making their distinct calls here, and a few big trees with thorns coming straight out of the bark. After this little jaunt we headed to Puerto Aventuras for dinner at a seafood restaurant we called Boy George. I forgot its actual Spanish name, but cavers gave it the name due to the painting of an effeminate merman on the wall.