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Exploration of Weeki Wachee 2019-20: The Search for The Source Continues

Karst Underwater Research (KUR) divers have just finished up their 2019-2020 season, plumbing the depths of Weeki Wachee Springs, which is now the deepest cave system in Florida. KUR director, Charlie Roberson, has the deets.

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By Charles Roberson, Karst Underwater Research
Header photo by Kirill Egorov

Note: depths are shown in meters of freshwater (mfw) and feet of freshwater (ffw).

Karst Underwater Research (KUR) has a long history of exploration in Weeki Wachee cave system. Dives are conducted under a research permit from the Florida Park Service but the dive season is governed by the rise and fall of the local water table. The main spring entrance is only accessible during severe drought periods, but ever since Twin Dees (aka Little Spring) was connected in 2014, we have had safer and more reliable access to the system. Unfortunately, it’s not accessible at all times. When the groundwater rises beyond certain levels, the entrance shaft at Twin Dees becomes dangerous due to the high flow. Conversely, when the groundwater drops below certain levels, Twin Dees ceases to flow enough water to provide adequate visibility.  It’s during the in-between periods of neither drought nor flood that Twin Dees allows divers to safely access the Weeki Wachee cave system.

Team members prepare for a dive in the Weeki Wachee cave system. Photo by Renee Power.

Last dive season ended in the spring of 2019 with a significant new discovery. Karst Underwater Research (KUR) President Brett Hemphill had spotted a lead on the southeast wall of the White Stripe room during a video dive. Unable to dive for the next month due to work commitments in Palau, Brett gave fellow KUR directors Andy Pitkin and Matt Vinzant his blessing to explore this newfound lead. What Andy and Matt found was a whole new section of cave with significant flow. Not only did this section have flow, but it was also some of the deepest in the system with most passages below 110 mfw/ 360 ffw. Could this be the elusive water source for the entire system? In keeping with the Tolkien theme, they named the section Minas Tirith after the city of Gondor.

The team had to wait until the rains raised the groundwater levels and increased the flow in the small Twin Dees entrance. Conditions started to look promising during the summer, and the team undertook several setup dives to prepare for renewed dive operations. However, the summer rains raised the water levels faster than expected, and the window quickly shut due to high flow.

It wasn’t until December that the team was able to renew dive operations. On December 7th, Andy and Matt returned to the Minas Tirith section and pushed the end of their previous line. They continued approximately 168 m/550 ft into a large funnel-shaped breakdown room. Unable to find an obvious going passage, they fell back to a lead that Matt had spotted on their previous dive. This lead was located about two-thirds of the way into the Minas Tirith section on the southeast wall of a massive room that Pitkin’s son Miles named the Sirius room. The lead at the base of the room was at 113 m/370 ft and quickly led to another discovery that Matt dubbed the Unknown. The Unknown was actually two rooms conjoined in the middle. The first room was nearly vertical breakdown with a large window at the top opening to a shallower second room. Both rooms were large enough that it was nearly impossible to see both walls despite the clear, blue water. The team continued along the right wall of the second room into a small alcove they called the Attic, adding a total of 229 m/ 750 ft into the Unknown.

Battle Plain. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

While the exploration team was underway, Brett Hemphill installed a new habitat in the fissure at 21m /70 ft. This habitat is suspended by bolted anchors and has two seats for divers. As our dives grow longer, this habitat will get us out of the water sooner, allowing us to do our 21-15 m/70-50 ft stops warm and relatively dry. The plan will be to run a habitat scrubber in this habitat the same as we currently do in the 12 m/ 40 ft habitat.

On December 14, Bob Beckner, Derek Ferguson, and Gary Donohue explored and surveyed 255 m /835 ft of passage that they named the Battle Plain. This large passage connects several of the short-cut passages together and has an average depth of 100 m / 330 ft.

Into The Unknown

A week later, Brett and I set off to explore the Unknown. On the way, we plugged in a battery pack and turned on the radio location ring that Andy and Matt had dropped at the top of the breakdown in the Sirius room. With the red LED indicating that the ring was transmitting, we headed down into the passage leading to the Unknown.  Almost immediately we came to the bottom of a large breakdown with what appeared to be a lead to the right. Brett went partially into this lead and came back to tie in. As he was doing that, I went further in the lead since I was going to bird-dog out in front. 

Unfortunately, as I went further in the passage, it became apparent that it ended in a room with an unique bowl-shaped floor. I quickly headed back and signaled Brett before he tied in his reel. We decided to head up into the Unknown and quickly followed Andy and Matt’s line into a small alcove with even smaller going passage, and we decided as they did that there were other more promising leads to be explored first. When you’re exploring a deep cave with multiple leads, you have to triage and go with the most obvious first, giving preference to the direction you think the cave is heading. This doesn’t always work out, and I’m sure we’ve overlooked some important passages.

Battle Plain Habitat. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

As we came out of the alcove, I scootered across the huge room to see that there was a deeper-looking passage on the other side. I signaled Brett to tie in, and as he did I dropped down to make sure this wasn’t an alcove at the bottom edge of the breakdown. At first I wasn’t so sure, but as I descended below the duck-under I saw a cobalt blue passage with a white floor and walls reminiscent of the Post Mortem passage. These slightly smaller, deep passages seem to be the connective tissue between the huge rooms and shallower trunk passages in this system. As Brett came down the breakdown with the reel, the most obvious passage was to the right, which would hopefully go around the north side of the breakdown room and head east, which is the upstream gradient in this area. I went a few hundred feet and ended in what appeared to be a terminal room. As I scootered around the small room, I noticed a doorway on the right heading east. Just as I was getting my hopes up, I came into another perfectly round room, this time with no other exit. Brett tied off on the far side of the room and started surveying out. We had explored 179 m/ 587 ft of passage that we appropriately named Lost Hope.

On the way out, we checked the radio location ring at the top of the Sirius room. Sure enough, the LED had turned green, indicating that the surface team had successfully performed our deepest radio location to date at 104 m/ 340 ft. As such, we carried the ring back to the Mega-Y, where we dropped it for a second locate.

The Deepest Cave in Florida

The first weekend in February was our next opportunity for exploration. In the meantime, Kirill Egorov had captured some amazing photographs of Mount Doom and retrieved the radio locate ring. Andy and I made plans to check several known leads on the south side of the passage between the White Stripe and Sirius rooms. Andy was to check the leads while I kept an eye on the guideline, and if it went, he would bird-dog out front while I ran the reel. Andy checked what initially appeared to be a large alcove just before the Sirius room but found an ongoing passage on the left side and gave me the signal.

As I tied in the reel and followed him through the archway, it opened up and turned to the south, which was exactly where we wanted to go. This entire section of the cave is below 107 m/350 ft, and as I looked at my gauge, I realized we were exploring at 122 m/ 400 ft. Andy scouted ahead as the passage came up into a large breakdown room. The way ahead wasn’t apparent until we crested the breakdown and saw the going passage on the other side. After 207 m/680 ft of new passage, we came slightly up into the familiar looking White Stripe room. We immediately saw the line and tied into an existing tie-off at about 113 m/370 ft.

Now it was my turn to look around as Andy surveyed the new line. On the way back, I spotted a possible lead on the south side of the breakdown room and dropped down to check it out. In doing so, I not only found a likely going passage but hit 126 m/ 414 ft, setting a new depth record for Florida caves

On the way back, I spotted a possible lead on the south side of the breakdown room and dropped down to check it out. In doing so, I not only found a likely going passage but hit 126 m/ 414 ft, setting a new depth record for Florida caves.

Closer to where we started exploring, I also spotted another likely passage headed southeast. Normally a big loop would be disappointing, but this loop may open up one or more leads in the southeasterly direction, which is the upland gradient in this area.

A dry winter without much rain meant that the groundwater levels were dropping quickly.  With only a few more weekends of diving available due to conditions and the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the state parks, we made plans for two final exploration dives of the season. In mid-March, Brett and Andy checked the deep leads in the loop passage we had discovered on the previous dive. All the leads they checked turned out to be small without significant flow.  

Racing the Pandemic

Mount Doom. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

The next weekend, Matt and I headed in to check several leads, and the team rallied to pull nine safeties from the cave. Our first stop was a lead I had spotted at the start of the large loop that Andy Pitkin and I had put in several weeks prior. I initially looked into this lead while Andy was surveying and expected to see the large breakdown of the Sirius room, but to my surprise that’s not what I saw. I still thought this may just be a short loop, so I asked Matt to go to the base of the breakdown in the Sirius room, and I would quickly go in and look for his light. 

As I went in through the window, I realized immediately that it was a medium-sized room with a passage headed off to the right or southeast. I looked around the room and didn’t see Matt’s light right away, but as I headed over to the left side, I saw the faint glow of his light beyond a duck-under in the Sirius room. I headed over closer and realized it was too small to pass, so I headed out. Matt obviously had the same idea, and we met in the middle. I gave him the signal that it went and signaled him to tie in to the existing line. 

I bird-dogged as Matt followed with the reel, and we quickly entered the passage to the southeast of the room. I caught a quick glance at my depth as we descended past 128 m/420 ft. We dropped into what appeared to be a terminal room with conglomerates of rusty sand dollars on the ceiling. There were two low restrictions at 131 m/429 ft that opened up after a few feet, but there were no signs of flow, so Matt tied off as I started to survey out.

Our next stop was the Unknown. At the base of the Unknown is a room on the right that curves around and looks like it may go. I held on to the line while Matt checked this room again but as before, he found that it didn’t go. Matt and Andy had ended their exploration of the Unknown in the far east corner of the second room, the Attic. We checked that again without success. We also dropped down into the False Hope passage that Brett and I had explored on a previous dive. Unfortunately, the leads we had seen were low and had no signs of flow. Matt did spot one narrow lead with a bit of flow that could possibly skirt the northwest side of the breakdown.

Mount Doom. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

Luckily, we had one more lead to check that I had spotted on the way in at the bottom of Mount Doom. Until recently, Mount Doom was the deepest part of the cave at 124 m/407 ft. The lead was on the far side of a saddle, which made it hard to see unless you were on the far south wall looking straight down. As I came through the restriction up into Mount Doom, I went left over the saddle rather than right toward the exit. I paused long enough to flash Matt, and he quickly headed back my way as I dropped straight down in the crease toward the white sand ripples at the bottom. The duck-under was large enough to pass, and I could see a room on the other side. I went through knowing that the glow of Matt’s light would provide a reference to exit. The room was wide and had at least one going passage to the south. We had no time to explore it further, so it will have to wait until next season.

As I write this season recap at the beginning of summer, the groundwater levels are still dropping due to the unseasonably dry winter. Hopefully, the summer rains will recharge the system quickly so we can get back in and explore the newly discovered passage at the bottom of Mount Doom. Until then, KUR divers will continue to focus on other projects.

Additional Resources

Check out Karst Underwater Research 

Alert Diver: “Where Mermaids Fear to Tread”


Charlie Roberson is an attorney who lives and works in Gainesville, Florida. He is the founder of FATHOM Dive Systems, LLC, a manufacturing company that focuses on life-support equipment for underwater exploration.
Charlie learned to dive in 1991 while serving in the U.S. Navy. He then spent the next two years diving the wrecks and deep walls of the Western Pacific. After returning to the states, he moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida and take up cave diving. Years later, he is still cave diving and currently holds the world record for penetration in an underwater cave at 8,208 m/26,930 ft.
Charlie is a director of Karst Underwater Research (KUR) and has participated in numerous KUR exploration and survey projects. Most recently, he traveled to Mexico for expedition caving projects in the Peña Colorada and Río Uluapan. Charlie also serves as the preserve manager for the National Speleological Society’s Mill Creek Sink Preserve and as the diving coordinator for Florida Speleological Researchers’ Diepolder cave system.

Cave

SUMP POTION #9

Located high in the Sierra Mazateca mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico, Sistema Huautla has captured the imagination of elite cave explorers for more than 50 years. Join photographer SJ Alice Bennett and cave/tech instructor Jon Kieren on Beyond The Sump’s recent March/April 2022 expedition to Sump 9.

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Text by Jon Kieren. Images by SJ Alice Bennett.

🎶🎶 Pre-dive Clicklist: 붐바야 (BOOMBAYAH) by BLACKPINK curated by Steve Lambert

Sistema Huautla, in Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the most iconic and expansive cave systems in the world with over 30 entrances, more than 100.7 kilometers/62.5 miles of known passage, and reaching a depth of over 1500 meters/5000 feet, has been an obsession for cavers around the world for over 50 years. Every year, several groups such as Beyond the Sump (BtS) and Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH) mount expeditions to the region to explore. Surrounded by karst topography with several other gigantic systems, such as Chevé and Kijahe Xontjo are close by, there is surprisingly only one main exit point for the water flow (based on several dye trace studies), the Huautla Resurgence. Huautla is still being actively explored from the plateau to find the allusive connection with its resurgence. Terminating in a 9th sump at 81 m/264 ft depth, it is logistically extremely difficult to push the end of the line from there. This leaves exploration from the resurgence as the most likely tactic to make the connection.

Santa Ana Cuauhtémoc.

Nestled deep in a canyon 1200 m/4000 feet below the sleepy little town of Santa Ana Cuauhtémoc in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico, is the Santo Domingo River. The Santo Domingo is fed by multiple water sources from various cave systems in the area including the Peña Colorada, Agua Frio Resurgence, HR Resurgence, and the Huautla Resurgence. The Huautla Resurgence was first explored in 1982, followed by expeditions in 1984 and 1995 led by Bill Stone. In 2001, Jason Mallinson and Rick Stanton pushed the cave to a maximum depth of 65m/215 ft and reached a sump pool where a dry cave passage heading off could be seen 10m/30 ft above, but with vertical muddy walls stopping the divers from being able to exit the water. Beyond the Sump, expeditions began exploring the resurgence in 2016 and 2017 where they found an exit from Sump 2 into a dry section, named “Passage of the Cheeky Monkey”, which was thoroughly explored and mapped, with several sumps found along the way. When time ran out for the 2017 expedition, several questions remained unanswered. Primarily, “where the hell does all the water come from?”, as the only source of water seemed to come from a small flowstone restriction affectionately named the “Squirty Hole”. A question that would need to wait five years to be answered.

In late March, 2022, Beyond the Sump set off on another expedition to Santa Ana to find the way on to “Sump 9”. The team consisted of Andreas Klocker (AUT/AUS), Zeb Lilly (USA), Steve Lambert (USA), SJ Alice Bennett (UK/GER), Ben Wright (UK), Rob Thomas (UK) and myself, Jon Kieren (USA), with logistical support happening remotely by Alejandra “Alex” Mendoza (MEX). Bios on the team can be found at: Beyond The Sump-Team. This is a log of our experiences and discoveries.

The team posing during a quick pit stop on the way from Tehuacán to Santa Ana.

28 March, 2022

The entire group met for the first time in Tehuacán. Andreas, Zeb, and Steve had driven down from the US, while SJ and I had driven over from Tulum, and Ben and Rob had flown in from the UK. Everyone’s travel up to this point was relatively uneventful, except for SJ. She had managed to badly sprain her ankle the night before, leaving us questioning how the first couple of weeks of the expedition would pan out for her. Both trucks were packed tight, but room was made for the Brits and SJ’s swollen ankle for the remaining four-hour drive up through the Sierra Madre mountains to Santa Ana. The drive is spectacular, beginning on the north western side of the mountains where it is an arid desert filled with giant cactus and ending at an elevation of about 5200 ft in a lush green mountain forest.

After a quick stop for tacos and to grab a “few” bottles of mezcal, we arrived at our field house after dark. We quickly scrambled to unload the trucks into the concrete box we would call home for the next four weeks. We hastily set up our beds, and a bottle of whisky and mezcal made a few quick passes around the room to con- gratulate our arrival before lights out.

Sunrise view from the field house.

29 March 2022

Church bells rang at 5:30 am which woke both us and the surrounding livestock as the sun began to rise through the canyon below us, a truly remarkable sight that I highly doubted I would ever grow tired of. First order of business was to dig out the coffee pot and tea kettle. Once adequately caffeinated, we started organizing all of the equipment for base camp and diving. We set up a makeshift kitchen with two small camping stoves and a fold-out table. After a batch of scrambled eggs were devoured, everyone started tearing into the dive equipment and getting personal kit and team resources organized. We assembled a boosting station in the field house and set the compressor up outside. Regulators, cylinders, and rebreathers were scattered everywhere, and SJ was busy with camera equipment. Morale was high as everyone made predictions for what the cave was going to do.

Sleeping quarters in the field house.
Andreas organising gear for the first dive day.
Steve packing the truck while brushing his teeth.

Steve, Zeb, and Andreas were supposed to have a meeting with the town council to finalize permission to use the road leading down the canyon and set up operations in the cave. We had no doubts we would gain permission, but it was important to play the local politics and stay friendly with the community. The meeting didn’t happen, but we were assured “mañana” (which often means “later” as opposed to the direct translation of “tomorrow”). Instead of holding the meeting, Steve, Zeb, and Andreas were handed a bottle of moonshine made from sugar cane, called aguardiente. In an effort to be diplomatic, they graciously accepted a drink, and then another. Soon they were hooked into a few hours of hilarity trying to socialize in broken Spanish while the rest of us waited patiently for word on what our plan would be for the next day. We would need to wait until 5:30 am when the church bells rang to assess everyone’s energy levels and see what we thought about the “beg for forgiveness” tactic for finalizing permission before deciding to head down into the canyon or not.

30 March 2022

We decided to go for it and started to set up in the canyon. The 1219 m/4000 ft descent down to the canyon took about an hour by 4×4 truck and was absolutely breathtaking, second only to the hike to the resurgence. The hike was a fairly easy- going 1.2 miles, but took about 40 minutes each way with heavy loads and several river crossings. Luckily, we were able to keep most of the heavy kit in the cave for the majority of the expedition with only CCR bottles, the “cave cascade” (a few lightweight high pressure carbon cylinders we had set up in the cave to refill cylinders), and other little bits and bobs of personal kit needing to be transported in and out each day.

Andreas, Steve, and I did the first dive to reline and survey the first sump and rig the waterfall. Upon surfacing at the waterfall, a wave of “holy shit, this is remote” hit me quite hard, and the smile would not come off my face. While we dove, the rest of the group (minus poor gimpy SJ, who was stuck at the field house knotting line) did two more gear hauls from the truck. Everyone was pretty beat, but nothing a couple Victoria beers and a few liters of gatorade wouldn’t fix.

In the evening, we were able to meet with the local officials for formal permission to use the road and access the cave. We donated some pesos to fund their annual celebration of the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata, which we also had to promise to attend.

Despite Steve’s insistence on K-pop for our daily soundtrack, morale was high.

The 4×4 squeezing out of the narrow driveway on the way to the canyon.
The road down the mountain was often shared with cows and horses. Or broken down cars.
Ben and Jon scrabble over boulders towards the cave.
The second river crossing.

31 March 2022

Day 2 of diving was productive. Zeb, Rob, and Ben were able to set up the gear line for the far side of the waterfall to hang the deep bailouts, run line to 140 feet, and set the deep bailouts. Andreas, Steve, and I did a few gear hauls through the canyon. The next day, Steve and I planned to reline and survey the second sump out another 1200 feet or so at a max depth of about 215 ft. I was excited for the “real” diving to begin.

Rob preparing to go under.

1 April 2022

Instead of the fiery red sunrise through the canyon, we were suddenly in the clouds and surrounded by cold mist, chugging coffee and tea but still struggling to wake up. The group appeared tired from the few days of intense hiking in the canyon, but moods lightened as the coffee hit, and we started to think about today’s dive. After today, we would likely begin pushing the leads left over from 2017 and searching for the way on to Sump 9. I was a bit apprehensive about making it over the waterfall with my Fathom CCR on, and felt a bit jealous of the side mount and chest mount units other team members were using. The waterfall was only about a meter high, but had high flow and razor sharp jagged rocks protecting it. I figured if it was a big hassle, I’d switch out my Flex2 side mount unit for future dives to make getting to sump 2 a bit easier.

On our drive down to the canyon, we were stopped by a group of enthusiastic locals. With big smiles on their faces, they insisted we get out of the truck and follow them up a small trail in the mountainside. As we followed, we could see smoke coming from a pit, and a strong scent of something sweet in the air. The group wanted to show us how they were processing sugar cane to produce piloncillo, an unrefined sugar commonly used in Mexican cooking. We were given a block of the piloncillo, which we later used to make syrup for pancakes and French toast when we started getting tired of scrambled eggs.

Steve and I had a great dive. We crossed the waterfall to sump 2. I made it over with my Fathom on, but it took a bit of effort. I was thinking that switching to the Flex for the next dive would make life easier, especially if we would be hauling more cylinders and scooters over the waterfall. Sump 2 was just a truly stunning, big passage with rolling hills all covered in silt. Our max depth was 56 m/183 ft on this dive, with about an hour of deco to do upstream of the waterfall. We laid another 365 m/1200 ft of line while swimming, setting up the next team to re-line all the way to camp 1 in the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey, and check what was thought to be the most promising lead discovered in 2017, referred to as the “11 meter lead”.

Andreas and Jon during a clean up dive hauling gear back over the waterfall.

2 April 2022

SJ came down into the canyon for the first time today. Her ankle was still in pretty rough shape, but life in the box on the mountainside had become dull. She had been as productive as she could be by knotting line and photographing the town. She also managed to make no less than four new boyfriends, led by a 6-year-old who kept bringing his siblings and friends into the field house and proudly exclaiming “gringa!” while pointing at SJ. He then would lead them around the field house showing off all of the strange equipment we had scattered about.

SJ trying to stay sane while knotting line and being stuck at the field house during the first week.

On our way into the canyon, we were hailed by another group of farmers just a little down the road from the piloncillo farm. As they enthusiastically led us to their farm, we could smell the pungent aroma of fermenting sugarcane before we could see the still. They first showed us how they crushed the sugarcane plants to extract the juice, which we sampled. Rich, sweet, and syrupy, it was hard to get down with the thought of the hard hike through the canyon ahead. Next, they showed us where the fermentation was taking place in large tubs next to the still. We were offered a sample straight from the still, which we had to decline, as there was much work and diving to be done yet. So we promised to stop back at the end of the day to have a drink.

Squeezing sugar cane into juice before the fermenting process.
The team watches with great interest.

The diving for the day proved to be less productive. SJ was able to take some photos of the canyon and divers prepping to enter the cave, but the dive was called early due to a rebreather failure. The line was still extended a few hundred feet, so all was not lost. But the line still did not reach the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey nor had any leads been investigated. Morale was a bit low.

At the end of the day, we stopped back at the aguardiente distillery and were poured a fresh bottle to be passed around. Before taking a drink, Steve asked how much alcohol was in it. The man proudly proclaimed “22 grado,” which Steve interpreted as 22% and took a chug. His eyes went big, he handed it to me, and I took a big swig for myself and quickly realized that “22 grado” does NOT equal 22% as I handed the bottle on to the next person. Realizing we needed to leave ASAP or it would be unlikely any of us could drive the truck home, Rob (who seemed quite pleased with the aguardiente) offered to buy the bottle to take home with us. With the transaction complete, we headed back up the mountain to get to the bottom of this “22 grado” business.

Steve organising his dry suit in front of the cave entrance.
Andreas’ pre-dive excitement.

3 April 2022

Another cold and cloudy day. I was tired, and my back felt broken when heading down the mountain. I needed a day of rest but knew we needed to push on. I switched to the Flex and headed in with Steve on DPVs to line the cave to camp 1 and check the 11 meter lead. I immediately realized I was overweighted with the Flex, steel side mounted bailout cylinders, and extra safeties and deco gas that were to be installed in sump 2.

Crossing the waterfall, I tore the right ankle of my drysuit, which I noticed as soon as I got back in the water on the other side. Knowing I had heated undergarments on and plenty of battery power for the couple hours of deco we might end up with, I decided I would be fine to continue the dive.

With each stage drop, I hoped my stability would improve, but it didn’t. I struggled on, Steve and I making it to the far side of sump 2 to search for the way on to Cheeky Monkey. We made our way up what we believed to be the correct path, doing our deco as we circled up towards an air bell. We did not find the 11 meter lead where we thought it would be, and realized we were in an area known as “Jason’s Eyes,” a dry section first discovered in 2001 by Jason Mallinson which had no way on. Steve asked if I wanted to surface to look around and chat about where to look next, and I reluctantly raised my thumb and pointed back toward the exit. I was super uncomfortable being overweighted as well as needing to dive back to 65 m/215 ft and have an hour or so of deco before the waterfall with a flooded drysuit. Plus, I knew that if we dragged this dive on much longer, I was going to start making mistakes. So we re-descended from our 3 m/10 ft stop and headed back toward Sump 1, when I was abruptly stopped at 9 m/30 ft as I could no longer inflate my wing or drysuit.

Grabbing the cave wall, I realized that the two liter cylinder I had dedicated for wing and suit inflation was dead, clearly a result of struggling with being overweighted and unstable. I got Steve’s attention and communicated the problem, and we started to inventory resources with an LPI connection. We had an O2 bottle, which would not be great for suit inflation considering I was already shivering in the 18º C/65º F water and would desperately need to use my heat during deco. The 50% bottle we were to drop at the deco station heading to camp 1 only had a QC6 connection, which would be no help to me. And that left only my side mounted bailout, which was 15/55 trimix. Certainly not ideal for suit inflation, but better than starting myself on fire. I plugged in and filled my suit with the icy trimix as we started to exit. I had to constantly switch the hose from my suit to wing as we scootered out but managed to make it back to the waterfall with only an hour of deco, which was manageable with my heated vest on full blast.

Jon getting dressed before a not-so-great dive.
Steve getting in the zone.

We were unsuccessful in completing our tasks for the day, and I was in a world of self-pity from my poor decision to change configurations without a shakedown dive. We went back to the field house to conduct some experiments regarding the actual alcohol content of the Aguar. Tomorrow we would rest and re-group. Morale was low.

8 April 2022

The past few days had been challenging. Several attempts at exploration in Sump 2 had proven unsuccessful. We had scoured the deep section, and the fabled 11 meter lead, and others like it, which all pinched off quickly. While there was significant flow coming out of these tight passages, they were simply Swiss cheese that was not passible by humans. Maybe after a few hundred thousand years or so, they would be big enough so we could jam Steve in there to take a look, but for now, we were going to have to focus our search in the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey and the sumps within it to find the way on.

Logistically, this would mean exploring from camp 1 to avoid having to pass a waterfall and do a 65 m/215 ft dive prior to surfacing and hiking gear a couple thousand feet through dry cave to the Sump each day. We would be using the next day as an opportunity to rest and get the first camp team, Rob and Andreas, ready to set off for a couple of days in the Cheeky Monkey.

SJ’s ankle was feeling well enough for her to dive, so we’d done a couple of shakedown dives to test the ankle and get a feel for the cave before starting to shoot the next day.

Steve and Zeb making an aguardiente offering to the cave for good fortune.
Zeb and Steve mixing cave dinner and packing dry tubes for the first camping attempt.

9 April 2022

SJ and I entered the water for a photo dive shortly after Andreas and Rob pushed off for camp 1. About 30 minutes into shooting, we noticed lights and the sound of scooters buzzing toward us. It was Andreas and Rob, obviously having had some sort of problem and aborting early. We decided to exit with them to see if we could assist somehow. Turned out they had a dry tube failure when they made it to the end of Sump 1, drowning most of the camping equipment.

With only 9 days of diving left, and time starting to run out, we couldn’t afford any more mishaps if we were going to figure this cave out. A serious team discussion was had to decide on the schedule for the next few days to prioritize exploration, as well as to ensure that we would have opportunities for documentation. We planned to prep and re-group again the next day, then Steve, Zeb, and I would head into camp 1 for a very long day of poking around in the Cheeky Monkey to determine what the objectives should be for the first camping team.

Steve watching as Andreas and Rob descend on the way to camp 1.
Jon swimming out of the cave though the first arch.
Jon swimming though the double arches in Sump 1.

In the evening, we had a chance to meet up with Bill Stone and his team who were exploring a nearby dry cave. It was pretty surreal to be in Oaxaca with Bill, hearing him tell stories of exploration in the area, as well as to discuss what we had found and what we thought the cave might do. Bill was convinced the Swiss cheese we had found could not be the only water source, as it was rumored that during the rainy season the resurgence produced a geyser several meters tall. We discussed what our plans were moving forward, and Bill seemed to agree that the sumps in the Cheeky Monkey must be hiding something.

10 April 2022

A day of rest and prep for a long day tomorrow. There was a celebration in town for Emiliano Zapata with parades, fireworks, and lots of mescal and aguardiente. It began last night and never really ended. We were supposed to attend the festivities that evening, but hopefully only for a short while as we were planning to leave the field house at daybreak to be in the water early morning.

The music and festivities in town added a joyful feel to the somewhat mixed emotions in the field house. Excitement, stress, and anxiety. Morale was pretty high considering the pressure we were under.

A festive parade walking down the mountain through town.
Tacos were hugely enjoyed by the team.

11 April 2022

A long but successful day. Steve, Zeb, and I pushed off early in the morning and spent the majority of the day in Cheeky Monkey. From the beach where we surfaced, it was about a 30-minute hike through fairly rough terrain, but no serious climbing required. Hauling dive gear did create some challenges, though. We checked Surprise Sump first, which had not been dived before, and it turned out to be the biggest discovery we’d had the whole month. Immediately upon descending, Steve noticed darkness beyond the duck under in front of him. As he shouted for joy through his loop and descended with a line peeling off the reel, hearts started pounding as we realized what might have been right under the team’s noses during the 2017 expedition.

One of the very many o-ring failures during the expedition.

After a hundred feet or so, it surfaced, followed by a short hike and another sump which had an upstream and a downstream, and then another waterfall on the upstream side. Not the borehole we were hoping for, but there was more cave here than we knew about the day before, so that was a huge plus, and it seemed to be heading in the right direction–toward Sump 9. Logistics would definitely get more interesting, but we had a good idea of what resources would be needed for the first camping trip. We exited the water a little after 6 pm with rejuvenated spirits and confidence that we were on the brink of breaking this thing open.

13 April 2022

SJ, Andreas, and I were supposed to do a photo dive today. On our way down the mountain, Zeb’s truck’s suspension started making some terrible noises. When we inspected it, we noticed the leaf spring hanger bracket had torn in half, leaving the leaf spring pressing up into the bed. With no option, we slowly drove the truck back up to the field house to start the process of finding parts and tools. After a quick team meeting, we made new plans based on best and worst case scenarios. Best case would be that the truck was fixed today or early tomorrow morning, and we could get a camping team in to push from Surprise Sump for a few days while SJ and I got as many photos as possible. Worst case, we wouldn’t have time left for camping and would have to do the best we could with a couple of day trips.

A very broken bracket.

SJ and I drove down to Tehuacan to pick up a new bracket while the team tried to get the old one off. At the suspension shop, I was struggling to communicate with the woman at the parts counter. She seemed to know what we needed, I was just trying to verify the part number to be sure we weren’t about to make a 7-hour round trip and return with the wrong part. A kind man waiting in line asked us in decent English what we needed, and I explained. He said, with a sly grin and a wink pointing at the woman behind the counter “she knows”. The woman looked at me and smiled. I shrugged and nodded as she grabbed the bracket and darted off while saying something to our new friend. He told us she took it in back so the shop could press the bushing into the bracket for us. While we waited, we chatted with the man about what we were doing there. He seemed intrigued, was enjoying the stories of our adventure, and I was showing him some photos of caves in Tulum on my phone, when the woman returned with the bracket. As I was paying her, two young men were trying to give SJ a couple sandwiches and pepsis. When she tried to refuse, the woman behind the counter got very excited, gesturing for us to take them. Apparently, when we said we had come 3.5 hours down the mountain to get the part, they were empathetic to our situation. And based on my ragged clothes, matted hair, tired face, and sand-fly covered body (SJ looked great as always), they must have assumed it was quite the journey and refused to let us go away hungry and thirsty.

When we got back to Santa Ana, the team let us know they were unable to pull the old bracket, and that we’d have to take the truck to the nearest town with a mechanic first thing in the morning to try to repair it.

Team discussions in the field house.

14 April 2022

It took until about 2 pm to get the truck fixed, but determined to get some work done, Steve, Zeb, and Andreas decided to push off for camp 1. They were in the water by 6pm, planning to reemerge on the 18th at 4pm.

Zeb stuffing a dry tube with Jon posing questionably in the background.

While driving the truck back up the mountain, I noticed the brakes seemed a bit soft and the steering a bit stiff. However, this was my first time driving Zeb’s truck, and without much other choice, I kept making our way back up to the field house. When we arrived at the house, it was noticed that power steering fluid was leaking below the truck. By then it was after 8 pm, and there really wasn’t much we could do about it at the moment anyway, so we all promptly crashed out so we could get up early and try to sort out the problem in time for SJ and I to finally get in a proper photo dive.

15 April 2022

We topped off the hydraulic fluid but were unable to determine the source of the leak. Ben and I drove the truck around on the more benign roads at the top of the mountain with no noticeable leaks or ill effects on the steering or brakes. So we made the decision to head down the canyon and take some pictures. SJ on the camera, me on lights, and Ben as a model. All went off without a hitch, and the truck made it back up the mountain with still no signs of a leak. I was happy about that, but quite wary. As my dad says, “Problems don’t usually just fix themselves…”

Ben swimming above river pebbles in the cave.
Ben ascending one of the many ups and downs in Sump 1.

16 April 2022

A day for surface photos. SJ had plans to photograph the canyon as well as take some simple shots in the cave entrance. It was a light and easy day that should have wrapped up quite early. However, as we started to pack up and leave the cave for the day, two by two, our entire host family, all 13 of them, started coming around the corner walking toward the cave. It was surreal, we hadn’t seen a single other human in the canyon for weeks, and there out of the blue, was the whole family. Dragging half sleeping children, the happy and excited adults hastily climbed the rocks up to the cave entrance. They were amused to hear that our friends were several kilometers underground and wouldn’t return for a few days yet. After a bit of climbing around, we all started to make our way back down the canyon toward the truck. After the first river crossing, SJ noticed one of the young mothers struggling to carry Liam, the two-year-old. She gave me a nudge, and I turned and offered to carry the little guy. At the next river crossing, we noticed they had a whole camp set up at the edge of the river. As we approached, the young mother offered us a drink, took Liam back from me, and before we knew what was happening, they had reignited the campfire stove and were preparing a late lunch for us. We ate some of the most amazing refried beans on the planet while the kids played in the river until the abuela (grandmother) started packing up a few things. I looked at her and asked “vamos?” (We go?), to which she loudly exclaimed “VAMANOS!” (Let’s go!) With a smile on her face, as everyone scrambled and had camp packed up and were hiking again within moments.

Ben showing the small cavern and explaining that the three missing team members are camping in the cave right now.
Late lunch on the way back at the family’s camp.

After encountering the family, our day suddenly became much longer than we had anticipated. We got home after dark, exhausted from another hot day hiking in the canyon, yet rejuvenated from the experience we had just had. It had been hard to keep morale up with the never ending issues we encountered, as well as less than stellar productivity, but to be able to share a bit of what we were doing there with our caring and supportive host family was truly an experience. They thought what we were doing was truly remarkable, which it really was; it was just hard to remember that when facing failures and adversity. So, a little reminder by way of the smiles on the faces of our new friends gave us quite a boost. We ate dinner quickly and settled in as early as we could. One more shot at cave photos the next day. Before Steve, Zeb and Andreas come out and mess up the vis hauling all of their camping gear out.

Jon swimming into the cave through the first arch.

17 April 2022

SJ and I were able to get in a nice long photo dive. As we were packing up to head out, we saw lights flicker below the surface. Steve, Zeb and Andreas were back a day early, not necessarily a good thing…

Jon’s HUD glowing while swimming through Sump 1.

As they emerged, one by one, there were no high fives or cheers of joy. Just a content look on Zeb’s face as he calmly stated in his mild southern drawl, “she doesn’t go”.

Arriving at camp 1 after 8 pm on the 14th, they had set up camp and prepared for the following day’s explorations. Over the next two days, they scoured the Passage of the Cheeky Monkey and the sumps within.

They dived Surprise Sump, the newly discovered Gold Star Sump, as well as checked the stream way beyond the new waterfall, and searched every corner of the dry cave. The downstream section of Gold Star Sump pinched off into swiss cheese where there was a significant amount of flow. The stream way beyond the waterfall also pinched off into another flowstone restriction, similar to the Squirty Hole. No new sections of dry cave were discovered. Based on observation of the amount and direction of flow exiting downstream Gold Star Sump and the small restrictions in Sump 2, the team estimated it is approximately equal to the flow coming over the waterfall in Sump 1 as well as exiting the resurgence. Concluding that all water sources have been discovered, none of which will allow a human to pass, and no passable dry cave is accessible.

Disappointed, but content that every corner of the Huautla Resurgence had been checked, they decided to close the book on the project and head out a day early.

Visibility got worse with the water levels dropping towards the end of April.

The next few days were dedicated to more photos and cleanup. With 12 safety and deep bailout cylinders remaining in Sump 2, scooters staged at the waterfall, several safeties in Sump 1, six shallow bailout cylinders, rebreathers, and personal gear for seven divers left in the cave entrance, there was a lot of work to do. However, with teamwork, we managed to get everything out of the canyon in just three days. Our backs a bit sore, and our dreams of big going borehole passage beyond Sump 2 unrealized, moods were a mix of relief to be finished and a reluctance to leave, knowing we would likely never have a reason to return to this truly remarkable site.

Completing a project is a bittersweet feeling, of course. While sad there’s no more cave, there’s also a feeling of content completion. We did everything possible to find the way to connect the resurgence to Sump 9 of Sistema Huautla, and we are probably the last team to ever see the inside of the resurgence for the foreseeable future (or ever), which is pretty damn cool. We also had the opportunity to spend time with new friends in a truly remarkable place with extraordinarily gracious hosts. So, in all, I would certainly call this year’s Beyond The Sump expedition a success.

Jon swimming through a tunnel in Sump 1.

Additional Resources

Wikipedia: Sistema Huautla

Explorers Club: Sistema Huautla, Mexico – the 50-year original exploration and study of the deepest cave in the world

NatGeo: One of the Deepest Caves in the World is Even Bigger Than We Thought

Exploration groups involved with Sistema Huautla:

Beyond The Sump | www.facebook.com/CaveDive
Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH) 
United States Deep Caving Team

SJ Alice Bennett has been photographically documenting the world around her since she was a kid. After completing a diploma in Graphic & Communication and a B.A. in Visual & Motion Design and moving to Quintana Roo, Mexico in 2017 she’s turned her focus on the underground rivers of the area. Her documentary style of shooting is well known for capturing the emotions of the moment and creating a sense of being there with her. She has a passion for documenting exploration and has worked as a freelance photographer and graphic designer around the globe and just joined the InDepth team. Watch this space.


Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his career over the past 13 years to improving dive training. As an active TDI/IANTD/NSS-CDS and GUE Instructor, and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep extended range cave dives (the more deco the better), as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favourite places to share with the world. 

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