By Stratis Kas. Images courtesy of Alessandra Figari unless noted.
🎶🎶 Predive Clicklist: Sounds of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel
What happens when you mix 50% courage and 50% adventure spirit at the age of 40? Well, one option is that you turn your monotonous life into a dream, move to Mexico, go against the rules, make new rules on your own, and dive for the rest of your life—while making a living from it. Or in fewer words, you are simply, Alessandra Figari.
My experience with Alessandra Figari started when we spoke about her contribution in my book, “Close Calls.” I knew her by reputation, but we officially met because of that. She told me her amazing story when we were preparing her story and biography. I was mind-blown when I realized that an Italian woman in her 40’s left the comfort of her bourgeois life in Northern Italy, left an extended family behind, and left the security of a good job—all for her love of water.
Alessandra, now 62-years old, is living proof that it’s never too late to start diving. She is a well-known, active cave diving and rebreather instructor, and tech instructor trainer through her dive center, Cave Training Mexico, which she founded in 2001, and an Associate Member of the Explorer’s Club of New York, as of January 2013. All of these accomplishments would have mattered little, had they not allowed her to engage in her one true love–diving.
I had the privilege to be hosted by and to dive with both her and her partner Peter Broger in Mexico. We dove everyday, and not a single day was Alessandra “working.” She generously shared not only the beauty and uniqueness of the Cenotes that is her new home, Quintana Roo, Mexico, with me, but also her love of the land itself and the people there. But even more generous is Alessandra herself. She doesn’t just dive with you. Being guided by her is a fabulous experience, as you can feel her love for the place, the land, and the people. Therefore, you are introduced more holistically to what this land represents, and not only the caves themselves. Mexico cave diving and Alessandra will always be synonymous for me. I asked her to tell her story. Here is what she had to say.
Stratis Kas: How did your love for water and diving start?
Alessandra Figari: My love for the water started many, many years ago. Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be near or in the water somehow. As a child, I read many books about dolphins and watched a lot of documentaries about their interaction with each other and between humans. My dream was to work as a marine scientist to understand them, their language, their interaction. At 18, I wanted to study oceanography or marine biology, but I was discouraged by my family. My father said, “No, study languages.”
Some years later, when I was 25, I underwent a leg surgery that kept me on crutches for four years. During that terrible time, I visited Barbados, and dove in the Atlantis submarine. That was my first time to ever be underwater. How spectacular it was! Right there, I decided that I wanted to be outside the sub in the open water to see the real beauty of the ocean. As soon as I got rid of my crutches, I went to do the open water course, but it never happened. Instead I did a Discovery Scuba Diving program, a one-day kind of course, over and over again. For almost 9 years, every summer I did the DSD and I was diving because of it. Finally, after these nine years I had a logbook with 30 maybe 40 dives or more.
In 1998, when I finally took my open water course in Milan, Italy, once in water I was obviously someone who was already diving for nine years. So after the first pool dive they told me “you are a secret shopper from PADI!, you know all the skills, you don’t make any mistakes, you look like you have a lot of experience!” So I laughed and said, “yeah, nine years of DSD and diving does that!”.
What happened then?
After getting certified, I started doing open water dives here in Mexico while I was on vacation. During that vacation I had a love affair with an American who was the manager of a diving center here. As soon as I went back to Italy, he invited me to come back. I always wanted to live close to the ocean and be involved with it somehow, so this was a great opportunity. Without too much thought, I left my “regular” job as manager in a non-profit company, which obviously created a big shock in my very “normal” family. They thought that I was crazy. But I made my decision, moved to Mexico and started working in a dive shop as a receptionist. During that time, I did all my courses there and fell in love with the cenotes.
How did that happen?
Diving the cenotes touched a very traumatic memory for me. When I was a kid, because I was not eating very much, my babysitter closed me in a dark basement. So I developed a fear of the dark. As you may imagine, cavern and cave diving while fearing the dark? Nope! It was not exactly a perfect match. But I loved them so much that I was going to find a way to conquer my fear.
During one of my trips in Italy, I found a guy who did work on past trauma issues, and he was a dry caver himself, so he could understand me better. We ended up doing a lot of work together and he took me, finally, with no lights, in a dry cave for two hours walking. No lights, just touch. Staying there 20 minutes, half an hour, without speaking, just “listening” to the stunning silence of the cave. No lights! I had a small backup light in my pocket just in case I felt too uncomfortable. That’s how I did it. Shortly after that, I did my first cave course. I knew that I could go through with it. Now I love caves so much, I feel at home in them.
That experience in the dry cave changed something in you?
Yes, I came to realize that my fears were related to a kid of two or three years old in the basement of a house. That the “scary” sounds were normal for a basement. That being afraid of the dark didn’t make sense. Walking in a dry cave made me get the perception that there was nothing to be afraid of in the dark. While I was in Mexico, I was diving in the caverns as a rescue diver and divemaster. My problem was that I knew that if I wanted to get into the caves, which was my dream, I needed to be sure that I was not going to freak out because of the dark.
And why? I’m only asking because I have a similar story to yours, why do people dream of becoming a cave diver? It must have been quite unusual for a woman back then. Women have a brain that thinks more logically and rationally. They don’t have the need to prove much to others. What was it with you?
I loved the formations. Also, obviously living in the Yucatan, most of my friends were cave divers or cave instructors. So I started seeing pictures from the caves. The two things that attracted me were the beauty of the underwater landscapes, meaning formations, passages, the colors. Yellow, dark, browns. The beauty and the fact that not so many people were going there, then, made it a truly special place for me.
So you didn’t move to Mexico for cave diving, you moved to Mexico and Mexico brought you to cave diving?
What was the reason you moved to Mexico?
My first time there, I was on a vacation with friends. And then came the love story. After a year and a half, when my love affair ended, I asked myself, “Should I go back, or should I stay?” So I decided to stay. I had a job in a dive shop and I became a divemaster.
Was there a moment when you knew that your “previous life” was gone? That it was inevitable? Tell me about that moment and how do you remember it?
I was working here as a diving instructor and on my way to become a cave instructor. When I left Italy, my old boss told me, “Whenever you want to, come back and I will give you a job.” After seven, maybe eight years, there was a moment when I realized, well it’s too late anyway to go back now!. That was it. I never really thought that I was closing a door or opening another. I was already planning my “other” life.
Did it feel that diving was your calling, what made you happy?
Since I started living here, it was all I wanted to do. I opened my company, Cave Training Mexico and did my cave instructor training with International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD) in 2007. I was doing the things I wanted to be doing, and even when I “looked back” for a second to how my life was before diving, and I “saw it” again for a moment, I knew that I was doing what I loved. And there was no going back.
Your story has always been this inspirational story of “You had something that was solid; you had a routine, you had your life planned. But it was just not enough, so you took a great chance and dared to go down the unbeaten path.”
At what age did that happen? Because that is also amazing—that it didn’t happen when you were 25. I have been using this myself as an excuse when my friends tell me, “Why don’t you become a full-time diving instructor, isn’t it what you love?” And I always say, “If I was 25, I would do it.” I have been saying this for 12, 13 years now.
So, you did something most people, even when they dare, do it when they are young. But you did it much later in life. It was such a bold thing to do. And on top of that, being a woman, which was different back then than now. Plus, you know, from Milan you didn’t move to Geneva—you moved to Mexico!
There was a small kick in my butt, if I can say that. The year I went for vacation in Mexico was the year that my father died. Then, six days after his funeral, my ex-husband asked me for a divorce. So, like we say in Italy, you get a slap on one side and then you receive one on the other, and so you stay straight on your feet. During that first trip to Mexico, the friends with whom I was traveling told me that instead of staying only two days in Akumal at the beach, they were willing to stay for a week so that I could go diving. The result? I stayed three weeks. For two weeks my friends traveled around Mexico, but I dived the entire three weeks! That was the beginning of my love for this place.
When did you start feeling that Mexico was home for you? And I know you’re still Italian at heart and you feel like it is and it isn’t, but tell us more…
For me, it’s half and half. And it will probably always be. I have a home in Mexico, and I have a home in Italy. Not just physically speaking. But I have many good friends and my family in Europe, so my “home” is shared between two very different places.
You spend most of your time in Mexico. Is it like 10-11 months there and then maybe one month in Italy?
Well, I spend a bit more time in Italy than a month, but we are not talking about physical time, we are talking about emotional “time” I think.
I have both places in my heart. On the other hand, coming to Mexico was easy compared to many other places, in a way. When I came here, 20 years ago, Mexico was like the South of Italy in the 50s, so it was really easy, if you understood the Italian mentality.
What was different back then if you compare it with how it is now in everyday life in the diving business?
Back then, there were a lot less people. We knew each other. We were all friends and respected each other’s business. We were loyal to each other. Now there are a lot of new people coming in, and it is not the same. Back then, we left our cars open. I mean open! If someone needed something, they would take it, and leave you a note saying, “I took this, I will give it back as soon as I’m out of the water,” and there was no problem. Nowadays, if you leave your car open, you are in trouble.
That’s a huge cultural shift!
In the past, more or less everybody charged the same prices. We were a lot more equal in the value we were offering through our work, if that makes sense. Now, because of the competition, there is much more to offer, but the clients have not proportionally increased. The competition got ridiculous. The prices in some services offered dropped so much that it’s ridiculous to even try to compete, unless you are willing to work for free. And the quality is suffering. Those who try to go cheap at “any cost” are also offered lower quality products.
It’s unfortunate. So, do you have any regrets about moving to Mexico?
Maybe now that we have started traveling more with Peter, like to Switzerland or to visit Italy a bit more often, we spend more time there. Maybe also because we are getting a bit older. I can appreciate some of the good things about Europe more now.
How did your friends and family make your decision to move to Mexico?
My friends took it well because they saw that I was happy. My mom, for two years, told her friends that I was “on vacation”. I found out by pure chance. During one of the times I was visiting her back in Italy, we went to the Scala Opera together. One of her friends said, “Oh, good to see you, how was your vacation?” And I said, “Very good,” because I didn’t want her to act weird with my mom. But when I took my mother back home I asked her “What is this story of the vacation?” And she said “Well, you know I didn’t know how to explain it, so I said you were on vacation.” So I said, “Okay Mamma, maybe we can pass on the next phase, and say that I work as a dive instructor now and I spend time in Mexico for work. She agreed and from that day on, I shared with her my adventures, photos and videos and she enjoyed them even if she always told me “I love to watch you doing what you do, but it is scary for me”.
I understand that your family has never visited you in Mexico.
Only my brother. My brother and my sister-in-law, with their kids, came.
It’s been many, many years.
My mom and my sister never came. I think that maybe for them it was as if I was living on Mars or worse. Yeah, they never came. I think they lost, not me, in the end. So, now I am waiting to see if my sister will come at least once. I have invited her many times.
So how was the life of a foreign woman trying to live and work in a country like Mexico back then? What were your biggest mistakes and what were your highlights?
First of all, one of the highlights was that I had very good friends, but only a few and, these friends truly helped me. One of them, who now is my partner in life, and in crime, is Peter, who for many years was one of my best friends. Some others allowed me to stay in their hotel without paying for my room for two weeks and then helped me find a place to stay. Some other Italians gave me a studio on top of one of their restaurants in the city center. In front of that studio there was a bar that made a lot of noise and that stayed open until late, but the guy became a friend of mine, so we made an agreement that until midnight he could have music and the doors open. And, I could have a free drink every night if I wanted. But after midnight, he closed the doors so that I could sleep, because he knew I was diving early in the morning.
Yes, that was the mood of the people who were living here back then. They were friends. So many of these people helped me to deal with all the difficulties I had to face.
You were one of the first women cave diving instructors in the area?
There were four women working in the area before me, one was from Switzerland, one form Mexico City, and two were from the US.
They were living there, or they were just passing by to teach and explore?
One was Karin Buchel and the other Virginia Urbieta. They were living in Mexico full time and Karin in this area; Kay Walten and Nancy DeRosa were not living here and they were amongst the first explorers of many of the caves of Quintana Roo.
How about today? What percentage of cave diving instructors are women, more or less?
I don’t know exactly the percentage. We are now a lot more. I think probably there are about 30 to 45% women instructors compared to 60 – 70% of men.
We need that. The community needs that. Hear hear! When and why did you get involved in technical diving?
When I became a cave diver, I was looking for an instructor that was not macho, who was not too impressed with himself.. Then I found Bil A. Phillips. When I talked with him, I liked the way he was, so I asked him if he could do my cave course. I went on my first day having everything ready, all happy, and we started filling the paperwork. At the time, I was just a divemaster. So, Bil looked at me and said, “You are a divemaster?” And I said, “I am, yes.” “Oh my God,” he said, “I’ve only been teaching instructors until now for the cave course.” And so I started laughing as I said, “Well, I guess this is going to be your first time; after all, there is always a first time in life.” After that, he became one of my best friends. Unfortunately, he passed away far too young. But for many years he was my best friend, along with Peter.
Have you dived caves anywhere except Mexico?
Florida. I love Florida caves. However, they don’t have as many formations. I mean, they are more like underwater rivers, with strong flow pushing you out. High flow. But I love them for the way they are. The fact that you have to fight to go in against the flow and the cave shoots you out, like it’s trying to expel you. They have beautiful rock formations and depth. So you have to remember when diving that on your way back you should try to stay a bit shallower because otherwise you will get a lot more decompression. Therefore, it is a completely different way of diving. But they are very beautiful caves. Next on my bucket list is Greece. There is a guy that I know called Stratis who might take me.
You’ve been an instructor of various levels for a long time. What do you love about teaching? Why is it so compelling to you that you teach most of the months of the year?
Because I like teaching. I always liked passing on information and helping people to obtain more knowledge. When I was at the dive shop as a receptionist on my way to becoming a divemaster, I was teaching languages. I was teaching Italian, English, and French to kids. So, I like teaching in general. I like to see people growing through their knowledge. That’s the reason I like teaching, and I still teach.
Any names that come to mind when the word mentor is mentioned?
As far as my being a mentor, many of the professionals that are working here were my students for their open water instructor level and some for their cave training. Some thought I was too strict and complained, but they still came back to do more training. So something worked, right? Something good I think came out. The fact that many of them went ahead and opened businesses and are now recognized in the local and international community must mean that I taught them something.
My mentors? Yes. Bil Phillips, for sure for cave diving. Andreas W. Matthes was another of my mentors. Peter Broger, because I learned to dive and guide with Peter. Peter was a very, very serious instructor at the time and still is now. He was training new people who were working in the local community, working for him mainly. He asked me to assist with many cavern guided tours and then to guide the tours myself while he was checking what I was doing. He was for sure one of the people who made me a good cavern guide because of the time he spent with me. Georgia Hausserman was another very prominent mentor. She was the person who introduced me to CCR. And Paul Heinerth, with whom I did my first sidemount course.
One of our giants! What is your biggest fear for the future of cave diving in Mexico, and what’s your biggest hope?
My biggest fear is that the “Mayan train”will collapse the caves. But also, the mass infiltration of poorly trained divers who will impact the cave systems. On the other hand, my biggest wish is that the pollution from the population growth of the area will not affect the caves too much—that the developers will make an effort to protect the resources and the people affected by them.
From a diver’s perspective, I hope that cave diving industry will continue protecting this unique environment, and that visitors will understand and appreciate formations that are millions of years old and respect them and not try to pass in areas where they may hit the formations, but instead, remove their tank and make sure that they can pass clean. In the last couple of years, you can see the damage from the tanks on the formations because more and more people think they can pass instead of removing their tanks and making the effort to see if they pass. They just go on and bang…
You’re referring to sidemount diving?
Yes, because even with sidemount, a diver cannot always pass through a restriction. What happens is that divers turn on their side, but then they often turn back straight too soon, and the bottom of their tank hits the formations. If you dive a lot and pay attention, you can see the damage. This is a pity.
So what do you see for the future of Mexican cave diving?
Well, I hope it will stop being so commercialized. Meaning that instead of money, money, money, we get back to quality—both in terms of the requirements for people to become cave diving instructors, as well as for people to become cave divers. I have stopped courses, and asked students to go get more experience diving at the level there were, because they were not ready to be cave divers. Of course, this doesn’t make me popular. But I hope that the community’s teaching philosophy and practice will evolve to where quality, evaluation of standards, and the capability of the students will be maintained at an appropriately high level.
Thank you Alessandra!
Website: Cave Training Mexico
Tec Dossier – Alessandra Figari – English (NOV 2013)
Speaking Sidemount: Episode #77 Alessandra Figari – “Follow Your Dreams”
InDEPTH: Save the Cenotes
Diving instructor, filmmaker, adventurer and storyteller Stratis Kas, deals with all of his subjects—from expeditions in extreme weather to days lost in wilderness—with unique sensitivity and fearless focus. He travels to remote, sometimes risky and often freezing locations to create stunning films that change what we know about diving expeditions. Stratis’ interest in making a real connection with nature is reflected in his ability to shift from filmmaker to explorer.
From 2016 to 2019, Stratis has founded and led the Top2bottom cave filming team that specializes in adventure filming. In 2017, he completed his first film Amphitrite which was selected as a finalist in the SHORT to the Point, the International Short Film Festival in 2018. Amphitrite was the first effort of presenting Greece as a Cave diving destination to the global community. He presented the film at the Tekdive Europe International conference in Belgium. In 2019, Stratis went solo and continued with mixed teams to develop the promotion of Greece as a valid Cave destination. he completed his second film, “Infinite Liquid”. In 2020, Stratis started developing his first book, “Close Calls”, which is now considered a must have book for any diver.
Earlier this summer Jake Bulman and the Protec Team launched their 2023 expedition to Madagascar’s formidable Malazamanga cave known for massive tunnels, formations the size of buildings, and its unbelievable cobalt blue water. They then journeyed to Anjanamba, which despite enormous passageways, consistently turned into tight, restrictive spaces before opening up again. Having appeased the cave spirits and returned safely, Bulman offered up this account.
by Jake Bulman. Photos by Phillip Lehman. Lead image: (L2R) Jake Bulman, Patrick Widmann and Ryan Dart motoring through the first mega-room after Ryan’s Chamber, Malazamanga.
Deals made. Plans Laid
As I sat in the Paris airport working on my computer, Patrick Widman gestured to me to remove my headphones. He and Phillip Lehmann sat across from me and asked if I wanted to make a deal. Assuming I was walking into some kind of joke, I replied with a hesitant “Sure.” “Next summer you come with us to Madagascar, if you…“ “Yes! Deal, ” I answered before he finished explaining my end of the deal. It didn’t matter, the answer was yes. Patrick finished laying out his already agreed deal, headphones went back in and everybody went back to what they were doing, except for my thoughts, which went to “Holy Shit! I’m going exploring in Madagascar!”
Now nearly a year later in June 2023, we were back in Paris, this time packing all of the bags for the flight to Antananarivo (“Tana”), Madagascar’s capital city. When we got there we met up with Tsoa, who is the local contact, translator, organizer, and overall critical part of the team. Our bags headed to Toliara with the drivers while we spent the day doing some errands.
The next day was important to me, not because i turned 30, but it marked the end of a bet Patrick and I made in 2020, for which I had now won $100. The victory was short lived, however, as I spent that day stuck in my hotel room violently sick. Welcome to Madagascar!
After a short flight, overnight in Toliara, then an hour long boat ride along the coast, we reached Anakao Ocean Lodge. This place is a bit of a shock to the senses after traveling through the poverty stricken cities. Luxury in the middle of nowhere; it would be our basecamp for the trip. As Patrick and I posted a photo of the place, Phillip sarcastically mourned the loss of any “hardcore expedition” image people would imagine.
The next day we planned to meet up with the National Parks’ representatives, organize porters, transport all the equipment to the site, then get in the water and place all of the deco tanks and scooters we would need, and finally be out by dark to avoid being stranded overnight. This may seem overly ambitious, and it was, but is a good example of the overall approach of the project. Always go all in, no shortcuts or laziness, and if it was not possible in the end, no worries at all. The goal is to have fun with the group and do awesome stuff, which we always did.
”This is the most epic cave ever”Phillip Lehmann on Malazamanga
Musing on Malazamanga
Malazamanga, a cave of indescribably massive tunnels, formations the size of buildings, and amazing blue water dominated the first part of the trip. We set up a little basecamp in the mouth of the cave, each of us with our own spaces to change, hang up our suits to dry, and change sorb each day. The entrance swim is a tediously frustrating one for rebreather divers: 20 minutes of low ceilings, bouncing from 20 m to 5 m/66 ft to 16 ft and back several times, never allowing space to sit “in trim”, and no flow to remove any of the inevitable silt that came from passing with multiple scooters, stages and divers.
However, once you reach Ryan’s Chamber, the first big room, you find a staging spot for leaving scooters and tanks for the following day, and a small tunnel leading to the real, intimidatingly massive, Malazamanga.
Patrick and I went to the deep section right away (45-50 m/138 to 164 ft) and spent three days trying to find the way on, while Phillip and Ryan Dart looked around the shallower parts of the cave (20-30 m/66-100 ft) for any leads that had not been checked. Patrick laid line while I surveyed behind him through a wide but low space that became swirling silt and clay by the third tie off. We reached a vertical shaft, Patrick asked me to hold and ran a line into a smaller tunnel below us that led to a restriction. In spaces like this where zero visibility is guaranteed, diver two will be pushing through restrictions blind, having no idea the shape or size of the space around them, which is a recipe for disaster, so I waited on the line for Patrick to return and started a timer.
As fifteen minutes showed on the timer, it started to feel like a long time. How long do I wait before doing something? Five more minutes rolled by, and my mind started to run… What if he has a problem? Does he need help? Memories of having to get somebody out of a similar space once before came to mind. But this time it was Patrick though, if he truly needed help it would be a serious situation. I decided to give him until 30 minutes from when he left, and then I would go in (slowly). With four minutes remaining, a glow appeared before Patrick explained that “it’s tight, but it goes.” It was a long wait that meant a bunch more deco, but this could be the way on.
The next day I was tasked with pushing the End Of Line (EOL) while he and Phillip looked elsewhere. After twisting, turning, removing tanks, and wondering if this was a good idea more than a few times, I pushed through a few ups and downs, but the cave unfortunately ended in a basement section at 52 m/170 ft. No going leads. Time to head home.
Breakthrough and Packing Techniques
Our daily routine started at 06:30 with a breakfast of bread, fruit, eggs, tea and espresso. We’d leave the garage at 07:00, meet the porters at the bottom of the hill in the national park and send the equipment with them. Phil would then educate us on the risks of breakthrough, importance of proper packing techniques, and the impact of dwell time. All of which are critical to making espresso.
After making espresso, the handpresso is put away, we hike the 30 minutes up the hill, get dressed, dive four to six hours, then head home. Back at the garage by 08:00 pm, fill tanks for an hour, eat dinner at 09:00 pm, and then sleep. All the while making jokes, sharing stories, talking about life, trying to blind each other with lights, and being shown the same photo of Rosie, Phillip’s pit bull, with a “look at this awesome photo” preceding the photo display by a few seconds.
All in all, going diving required some effort, not to mention the week of traveling with piles of luggage to get there, the week to get home, and all of the time spent organizing beforehand. In terms of “cost (time/money/effort) per hour underwater” it is some of the most expensive time I’ve ever spent underwater.
One day, after a significant amount of problem solving in the hot, muddy entrance tunnel of the cave, we finally got everything sorted and started doing checks. Halfway through, Phillip said, “I’m not into this. You guys go. Nobody is paying me to do this,” and started to remove his tanks. Considering the “cost per hour underwater,” I think many of us would go whether we wanted to or not, giving in to a sunk cost fallacy-like sense of commitment.
We reformed a plan for the two of us, a few angry birds levels were completed on the surface, and everybody went home excited to see the survey data. There is a lesson to be had here for many of us, about what is actually important and ignoring those perceived, often self-induced pressures to carry on even if it doesn’t actually make sense.
We scoured every corner of the section we were in, until a hole underneath a formation showed a large room on the other side. I tied in at ~40 m/~130 ft, headed down the slope to where floor met wall, removed my tank, locked the reel, threw it through the hole, and headed in. Once my torso passed the squeeze, still inverted in the water, I put my tank back on, grabbed the reel, and swam the direction that I remembered it went. I passed the cloud and made a tie off. Turn, tie off, into a bedding plane, tie off, big room, tie off, and stop.
The floor suddenly featured huge, wavy marks that everybody recognizes as signs of flow. A lot of it. Massive clay bricks fit together like tiles in the riverbed resembling floor. A promising development, I tied off and ducked my head under the lip of the ceiling. Instantly the ceiling met the clay bed and the cave ended. Water unfortunately doesn’t consider human size in its choice of direction. Back to the drawing board.
“Fuck it, let’s just see what happens”Patrick Widmann
To Breathe or Not To Breathe
At the time, the furthest reaches of Malazamanga was an enormous collapse with no way beyond it except a few air domes. We were aware the air domes may not be breathable, but lacked a proper analyzer for that. After some thought, Patrick decided that we would just give it a go one at a time. We surfaced and knelt close together as Patrick closed his DSV and took a short breath of the gas. Wearing an expression resembling somebody tasting less-than-appetizing looking food he took a second breath.
Watching intently, I saw the expression quickly change from hesitant but ok, to uncomfortable to concerned as he put his DSV back in and opened it. I was ready for him to pass out as we sat there breathing, but nothing happened. We knew it was likely not breathable, but I wanted to see what it felt like! I removed my DSV and took a breath. A humid, thick, shockingly hot breath filled my lungs and I was not going to take a second one. No way that was safe, I thought, as the burning in my lungs slowly faded.
Patrick climbed out with just his rebreather (and flowing oxygen) and took a quick look around, but no luck. As he was getting dressed again, I popped my head into a few holes and found a passage that looked to slope downwards on the other side of a tight squeeze. I ran a line in with Patrick behind me, and tried to push through but couldn’t fit. After removing myself and the cloud of unavoidable silt surrounded us, I grabbed the rock that was in the way and flipped it over. If you have ever moved a big rock in a collapse, in a never-before-dived cave, you can imagine the visibility afterwards. We backed out, went to check a few other places, then returned hoping for slightly better visibility.
Patrick was the next one in, leaving a tank on the line with me this time, and he extended the line down the slope on the other side. I heard rocks falling, tanks banging on rock, grunting, laughing, bubbles moving along the ceiling, and then he returned with his hands shaking like crazy. Whatever was over there, was not for the faint of heart it seemed. After a bit of cooling down, he went back into the cloud, which was followed by loud yelling. Excited yelling. We exited, and planned our return for the next day. What lay beyond the 6 m/20 ft deep, vertical, awkward, tank-off restriction was an open space that continued downwards to what appeared to be 40 m+.
The next day, I was going through first. We rehearsed the shape of the restriction and the series of movements needed for passing it on the surface. It was weaving through the space where collapsed boulders met the sloping ceiling, and any extra force on the wiggling rocks meant possible collapse. The plan was for me to pass, tie into the EOL, and head off. Patrick would pass behind me with the MNemo and survey in. Adding tie off after tie off, I headed deeper, then flattened out, then up through an opening to my right. Now it was my turn to yell, the cave had returned to its previous enormous size!! This celebration lasted three tie offs, as we climbed yet another collapse that was quite clearly the end. Cut line, put reel away, look around knowing that nobody will ever be here again, and head home.
On to Anjanamba
Several options lay ahead of us, which Patrick and Phil weighed over dinner. Continue searching in Malazamanga, or get the filming done then head north to Anjanamba, or spend the next two weeks surfing. The last option was apparently way more valid than the joking suggestion I had taken it as. Fortunately, the second option was the choice. We spent a day scootering around with lights in hand and on the DPVs. Screen grabs of the video were used as photos for this article.
We also had two surfing days, where I (having never surfed before) mostly tried to not get annihilated by the waves. My second goal was “not to kill anybody” as Patrick and Phillip repetitively warned me not to do it with my oversized board (only a stand up paddle board was available). Fortunately I’m a very strong swimmer, as I spent large chunks of time crashing and burning, then being tossed around by the ocean.
”This is the most epic cave ever”Phillip Lehmann on Anjanamba
Heading up to Anjanamba featured a boat ride, a seven hour drive that resembled one of those truck commercials trying to show how tough its product is, and a journey through the Mikea National Park which had no paved road either. During lunch break everybody commented how much better it is now than it was several years ago, describing it as “pretty smooth” and “less violent” in the same sentence.
We visited the local village, where residents are the spiritual keepers of Anjanamba, to talk to the chief and say hi to a friend of Tsoa who had just had a baby. While there we got a tour of their newly built school, joked with the children a bit, took a photo and headed home. For a lifestyle that is so drastically different to our own, with so much less of everything tangible, the village seems a happy, lively place with kids running and playing. However it is easy to see the need for food, schooling, health products, and basic medical care to name a few.
Appeasing the Spirits of Anjanamba
Anjanamba is the location of the filming of the “Spirits of the Cave ” series (see DIVE DEEPER below). Described as a much more dendritic, Mexican-like cave with a blue color that puts the famous Mexican salt water tunnels to shame. The name of the series doesn’t come from nowhere; this cave is home to several spirits. In order to appease them, a few things need to be accomplished.
First, we must visit a big, double trunked baobab during the walk there. We remove our hats, gather near the meeting point of the trunks, place a pointer finger on one tree and pinky on the other (think bull horns hand shape), bow our heads and ask the spirits for two things. One, that they allow us to find an epic cave that goes. Two, that they grant us safe passage and everybody returns home safely. The ever-present, always watching lizard that lives there looked down in approval. The locals however, who had no idea what we were doing, waved us back to the path with a smile and laugh.
Once that is done, a ritual must happen with the Mikea people (in which the National Park is named after). Patrick and Phil have already been through it, so it’s just me. The chief started the ritual, as they each took a sip from a bottle of rum we had brought. Tsoa explained to me afterwards what they had been saying (asking the spirits to accept me, safe passage etc). Notably, it included nothing about finding mega cave, but we had already covered that during the lizard tree ceremony I guess.
The guys had warned me about the second part of the ritual, which had me eating a part of the cave – sand, dirt, rock, whatever. The chief continued speaking, and Tsoa told me it was time. I pinched some sand, put it in my mouth and swallowed. Phillip verified it was all gone. In the background I hear Patrick stifle a laugh, and my long-held suspicion was proven true, this was not actually part of it. The locals found it hilarious, and it wasn’t as if I was going to say no in any case. Diving time.
As usual, we were quite late and had made very ambitious plans which didn’t quite pan out. But we did as much as we could, then headed back to our new home at “Laguna Blu.” Like in Anakao, we had great food, friendly staff, beautiful views and comfortable sleeping.
Having laid less line than we had hoped in Malazamanga, we were keen to “bash some reels”. Anjanambas current EOL lay at more than 2287 meters/7500 feet with an average depth of 18m/60 ft or so. It featured enormous tunnels and decorated rooms, yet consistently turned into tight, never-quite-ending spaces before returning to vast rooms with pristine formations all over the place.
Patrick and I each carried a stage, and I carried the back up scooter. Passing through the 30 minutes of sideways swimming, weaving up and down, belly scraping, up and down cave with a negatively buoyant scooter in between my legs meant it was not always smooth sailing. Fortunately it usually got stuck when I was in the back so nobody saw. We reached the end of the line, Phillip tied in and headed off with Patrick recording and me surveying behind them.
From my POV, it looked likely to end every 10 tie offs only for the line to weave into a little corner of the room and continue, with nothing but a light dusting of silt at each tie off as signs of my team ahead of me. This repeated for another 457 meters/1500 ft of line until the reel was emptied, everybody cheered and fist bumped with excitement and then decided that we really needed to head home.
Our DPV charging plan didn’t pan out, so after each day Patrick and Phil drove over to a neighboring location and ate lunch while the scooters charged. I went back to Anjanamba and swam some of the closer lines checking for any going cave. After extending a few EOL’s, the sections had been checked without much luck. After a few days of exploring in Anjanamba, which mostly featured a repeating pattern of restrictions then big rooms, we finished our last diving day with nothing clearly going, but a few hopeful areas left.
End of the Line
As we reached the end of the trip, instead of feeling tired as we expected, we found ourselves ready for more. We had lots of sorb left, but had used every last liter of oxygen. Unfortunately, it was time to take a group photo with the locals, dry our equipment and start the journey home. Not only did we have flights to catch, but we had classes to teach less than 12 hours after landing in Mexico.
After five weeks of expedition, we had managed to get the most out of every day, be on time almost never, and explore some amazing cave. More impressively, I don’t recall a single argument or bad mood at all, which is rare when you spend 18 hours per day with the same people. Until next time, the villagers return to their normal lives, we go back to the Caribbean, and the spirits of Anjanamba can rest again.
We did have one last day before heading home, in which we would make a discovery. What will come of it is yet to be seen, but I’m sure it’s going to be a mega-epic either way. In fact, probably the most epic cave ever.
The Protec Team‘s past Madagascar Expeditions:
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave (2017)
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave 2 (2019)
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave 3 (2020)
Originally from Canada, Jake Bulman is a full-time cave diving and CCR instructor at Protec Dive Centers in Mexico. The last several years of teaching have been almost exclusively sidewinder focused, from try dives to CCR Cave classes, 4C to 24C, and in several countries around the world. Outside of work, he can be found on exploration projects in local caves of a wide range of depths, distances, and sizes.