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Laying Line in Ox Bel Ha

If you thought that the Riviera Maya had given up most of her secrets, think again. Underground expats Emőke Wagner, László Cseh, and Bjarne Knudsen managed to lay 20.3km/12.6 miles of new exploration line at Yax Chen, which is part of the Ox Bel Ha system. Here’s how they did it.

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By Emőke Wagner, László Cseh and Bjarne Knudsen

Header image: Permanent intersection at the ‘Los Pantanos’ area. Photo by Laszlo Cseh

Ox Bel Ha is the second largest underwater cave system in the world. Although it has been actively explored since 1998 by different groups of divers, the cave is steadily growing, new areas are discovered every year, and the exploration process seems unlikely to end anytime soon. Ox Bel Ha is a Mayan phrase meaning “three paths of water,” as the system expels water into the Caribbean Sea via three distinct underwater vents. The system is located southwest of Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico and extends southwest almost all the way to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve; a connection to the Reserve has not yet been found.

The COVID pandemic impacted Mexico, but after the local lockdown was lifted last year, our dive team decided to seek out new areas in the system and potential cave exploration. There were only the three of us: Emőke and László, (originally from Hungary but living in Mexico for some years, active GUE cave instructors) and our dear friend Bjarne from Denmark (GUE cave diver and previous WKPP member). Facing access issues immediately after quarantine, our team chose a cenote called Yax Chen (“blue or green well”) which seemed to be open to divers as if there were no pandemic at all. 

Thanks to our participation in earlier projects, we had some idea of the cave’s structure, but we’re talking about a massive section of the cave that ventures many kilometers inland, where it adds 10 km/6.2 miles of different sections to its main tunnel. It also features a lesser known and less extensive downstream section, so just getting to a new cave in an area like this can be quite a challenge.

Yax Chen was first explored in 1997 by a couple, Kay and Gary Walten, who established most of the known lines both upstream and downstream of the cenote and made incredible penetrations, especially considering the diving technology available at the time. A few years later, a group of GUE divers called the Mexican Cave Exploration Project (MCEP) continued the exploration of the area, established the connection to Cenote Far, and discovered sections like Arizona, Little Chen, and more. In 2004, Bil Phillips and Steve Bogaerts connected Yax Chen to the Ox Bel Ha cave system.

Cenote Yax Chen entrance. Photo by Emőke Wagner

Since Ox Bel Ha is a giant cave system, we decided—as always—to resurvey all existing lines, which was going to be interesting since our team had no data from the area. After a few months of survey in the early fall of 2020, we observed a lead-like opening from a more than 10-year-old line on one of our upstream survey dives; but, from our side of the tunnel, the lead looked like it hit a wall so, after swimming closer, we turned away immediately since it was too small for us to fit. 

A few days later, when we came back to almost the same spot, we were still thinking about the lead, so we decided to take another look at it. This time, instead of swimming straight to the small opening, we swam along the wall, and as we got closer, the wall turned out to be deceptive. It was more like a huge boulder that had fallen, but it had a decently sized opening on its right side. After one right turn followed by one left, the cave started to open up into a bigger collapsed room. We swam under a ledge, where the water seemed to come from, and we hit the halocline at the same time. After a 100-150 m/328-492 ft swim, the tunnel became more defined and opened up into 10-15 m/33-49 ft wide rooms with a floor to ceiling distance of 3-4 m/10-13 ft. We ran out of line quickly, knowing we had some cool exploration ahead but having no clue that this discovery would establish a new 20.3 km/12.6 mile section of the system!



Finding New Paths

We subsequently conducted follow on dives from the newly established tunnel, located about 2 km/1 mile upstream from our entry point. We explored the cave further upstream, while documenting side tunnels and checking out other interesting leads. With the advent of electronic survey tools like Mnemo, using unknotted lines in the cave became more prevalent in local cave exploration. In the beginning of our journey, with limited access to such survey tools, we decided on using knotted lines overhead as a back up in the event of device failure. Even later in the project, when we had more access to  electronic tools, we resolved to keep putting the knotted line on our reels, since it could eventually be useful in creating a more detailed map of the cave. 

Directional markers in the newly explored area have been labeled “BEL” to represent our first initials, and “Bel” in Mayan translates to “path.” It’s very fitting, since the three of us were trying to find new paths in the cave every day.

During one of our early upstream dives in our steadily growing new area, we bumped into an existing downstream line and found a new connection between the upstream and the downstream sections of Yax Chen. After this discovery, the team decided to focus on the upstream area of the cave, continuing further northwest. 

At this point, we already had a few kilometers of cave exploration experience in other parts of the cave, but we very quickly learned that cave exploration, especially in this part of the system, was not easy. On each dive, we got progressively further from our nearest entrance. The system is very complex, it has a lot of sediment, and the tunnels don’t remain wide over long distances. We can’t count on our fingers the number of times we thought the exploration was over, decided to do one more dive, and pushed through a nasty and tight restriction to find a few more kilometers of cave.

Deep salt water section. Photo by Laszlo Cseh

As the upstream dives extended to the northwest, the cave started to drop below halocline level, which in this area isn’t a good sign. The tunnels were amazingly beautiful, full of decorations and deep blue water, but as we continued northwest, the flow seemed to stop and the tunnels narrowed. Luckily, one freshwater lead remained to the northeast—a difficult one, due to its small size and the amount of sediment—but, after navigating it and passing a smaller tannic room, the cave opened up again. This side of the cave led to another bypass area, then to the previously discovered saltwater section, which allowed passage for more gear in order to get further. 

Penetrating further north from the new lines, we found irregular and small freshwater tunnels, but farther upstream they all hit a massive collapse. One tunnel at halocline level continued past a sidemount restriction, but this one also ended, dropping down into the saltwater.

As we were wrapping up the final leads on the new upstream area, the total new distance explored stood at 10 km/6 miles. One remaining lead dropped back into the saltwater, but this time the cave looked different. The walls of the cave were much darker. Light brown, easily disturbed sediment covered everything. Passing through a new sidemount restriction, the cave opened up into a very defined and wide tunnel leading to one of the biggest rooms we have ever seen underground in a wet cave in Mexico. Some parts of it were in the freshwater and some still down in the saltwater, and it was highly decorated with cave formations. 

It’s About the Connections

The saltwater tunnel leading to the room had some animal bone remains, most likely belonging to some kind of bird. On the other side of the room, we dropped down into a decent-sized tunnel that started to turn downstream. We reviewed our survey upon returning home, deciding that traveling downstream from our main entrance could possibly provide a connection to new big room and, if we were lucky enough to find a new route, it could be shorter (1.5 km/0.9 miles instead of 2 km/1.25 miles) and potentially easier than our current route. During two dives from downstream Yax Chen, we found the end of line from our previous exploration and the team discovered two new cenotes along the way. We named them Yax Ich which means “green eye,” and the other K’aas Naay, or “bad dream.” This established one upstream and one downstream connection of the Yax Chen area. Fortunately, this connection proved to be easier to travel and more leads were waiting for us. We found old exploration lines within about 500 m/0.3 miles of our newly discovered big room.

For quite some time, no one had made new connections between the historic area of Ox Bel Ha and Yax Chen, so we have decided to travel northeast to determine if we can make it all the way to the historic Ox Bel Ha. The dives turned out to be maze-like and heavily silty, but we dived two nicely decorated, complex freshwater tunnels, where one ended in a tannic collapse and the other had a challenging sidemount tunnel which we named the “Wormhole.” Although this tunnel was well defined, it still had enough small holes to make it difficult to choose which one to peek into, but the constant flow justified the effort. It took some dives to take the line further, but the cave finally opened up again. 

Emőke swimming towards the ‘Wormhole’ tunnel. Photo by Laszlo Cseh

From this point, we were sure we could connect to Ox Bel Ha, since the big open tunnels pointed straight toward the historic section (which perhaps hadn’t been visited since 1999). Some of the tunnels had traces of charcoal and remains of unidentified animal bones. After some struggles, we made our first connection through a very difficult, low-ceilinged, muddy tunnel. Later, just by accident, we bumped into the old line five more times as we explored leads to the north. As we started to get boxed in by the historic lines, and acquiesced to the salt water that “killed” our tunnels on the west side, we realized that all good things—this amazing, laborious experience included—must come to an end.

To wrap up the remaining leads, we organized three consecutive days of exploration, bringing our project’s total underwater time to 21 hours. Almost the entire exploration took place underneath a swampy wetland area and, as a result, some parts of the cave were often filled with tannic water. We named this new section of the cave “The Swampland” or “Los Pantanos” in Spanish. 

Today’s generation of explorers needs to examine the environment differently than the cave’s original trailblazers. The standardized methods of team diving and the excellent training we received from GUE helped us overcome these difficulties, but without access to high-quality gear, this project wouldn’t have been possible. Fortunately, we were able to alternate between a back mounted and sidemount tank configurations as needed and to develop systematic methods of transporting a lot of equipment even further into the cave.

We would like to express our thanks to Dr. Mario Valotta for his support with our dive gear; a very special thanks to GUE instructor trainer Daniel Riordan for joining us for one very productive day of exploration.

Additional resources:

InDepth: Data for Divers: Mexican Explorers Go Digital to Chart Riviera Maya

InDepth: They Discovered an 11,000-year-old Submerged Ochre Mine


Emőke Wagner is originally from Hungary and began diving at a young age. She has been an active instructor since 2014. After a couple of years spent traveling around the globe, she moved to Mexico with her husband in 2017. While living in Mexico, cave diving became her real passion, and she began exploring more of the local cave systems. Since 2016, Emőke has been working as a full-time GUE instructor and is currently teaching the cave, foundational, and recreational curriculum.

László Cseh is from Hungary and has always been fascinated with the underwater world. He became a recreational diving instructor in 2012 and began teaching and traveling with his wife, Emőke. After becoming a GUE instructor in 2016, he moved to Mexico to look for new diving challenges. Local cave exploration possibilities helped him achieve his GUE Cave instructor certification.

Bjarne Knudsen began diving in 1993, taking his first tech classes in 1997 and his first GUE Cave and Tech classes in 1999, so has been part of the GUE community since the early days. In the early 2000s, he spent some years in Florida, where he was a part of the WKPP. During this time, he also pushed Sheck Exley’s end of line in the Cathedral Cave system with Todd Leonard (and lots of support from friends). Bjarne is currently on a slow world cruise with his wife on their sailboat. For the last few years, they’ve been a little stuck in Mexico and the surrounding countries, which offer so much nice diving.

Categories: Exploration, Latest Features, Cave Diving, 

Tags: V 3.6, Cave diving, Ox Bel Ha, GUE project, Exploration 

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Cave

The Taming of the Slough: P3 Edition

Explorer Steve Lambert reports on the latest exploration push at Peacock 3, aka P3, in Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, enabled by long range scooters, CHO2ptima rebreathers, electric heat, and a deco habitat with scrubber. Having teamed up with Karst Underwater Research (KUR), Lambert and friends have now pushed P3 penetration to 2286 m/7500 ft, at depths to 61m/200 ft with run times in excess of 5-6 hours. Scoop that booty!

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By Steve Lambert. Header image: P3 deco habitat at 6m/20 ft by Fan Ping. Images courtesy of Steve Lambert unless noted.

Peacock Springs in North-Central Florida is almost synonymous with cave diving. Since the dawn of the sport, divers have been exploring the beautiful blue sinks that now make up Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Many of the household names in cave diving took part in the exploration of the system in the 60s and 70s, and even more well-known names did the full survey in the 90s. The last significant exploration was done in 2010, when Agnes Milowka and James Toland connected the system with Baptizing springs, adding over 3,084 m/10,000 ft to the total length of the system. 

My first experience with Peacock 3 (P3) was during my full cave course with Reggie Ross, the former training director for the NSS-CDS. I stood near the system map tucked in the corner of the Peacock 1 (P1) parking lot, shivering in my 5 mm wetsuit and kicking myself for being too cheap to fork over the money for a drysuit while listening to Reggie explain what to pay attention to while diving a siphon. I vividly remember the deep tunnel sticking out to me, thinking it didn’t belong with the rest of the park. It was strange to me that a system so big would have such a drastic and seemingly random change in depth. Of course, at that time, I didn’t have a “feel” for what caves do. I just thought it was strange. 

Several years later, in May of 2019, Paul Heinerth and I decided to go for a dive past the restriction at the bottom of Hendly’s Castle. Paul said he hadn’t been back there in years, and it sounded like an intriguing dive to me. Coincidentally, that morning we ran into James Toland while gearing up in the parking lot. He had the end of the line in the deep section and shared with us how to navigate through the restriction and what to expect in the passage below. When I curiously asked him why he turned when he did, he said he wasn’t able to see because of how silty the area was. 

Using Sidewinder rebreathers and trimix, Paul and I swam down to the bottom of Hendly’s Castle and, thanks to James, we were able to find our way through the restriction and into the lower section. The passage was stunning. Incredible Goethite formations blanketed the ceiling, like nothing I had ever seen. Intensified by the subtle narcosis overtaking me, I was awestruck at the unique features of the passage. We swam at an enjoyable pace, assisted by the slight siphon. I was floating along the line with Paul just behind me, soaking up every second of the dive, when all of a sudden I was greeted by a “Saber” arrow at the end of the line. 

I was in disbelief that we had reached such a remote place so easily and unintentionally. Suddenly, James’s words stuck out to me—“because I couldn’t see.” I was hovering there, and I could see. A decompression penalty was piling up and I knew I couldn’t stay long, but I could not pass up the opportunity. I scrambled to tie in my safety reel and set off. James had tied off at what seemed like the end of the passage with the right side tapering off into mud, but the left side looked promising. The flow had to be going somewhere. 

I headed off toward the left where there was a breakdown pile. The silt I knocked up seemed to be sucked into it. I could tell that was where the water was going. As the adrenaline of seeing something new coursed through my veins, I decided to “modify” a few things and see what was going on. I shoved a few pieces of breakdown to the side, stirring up clouds of fine clay silt but opening up a space just big enough to fit my head and shoulders into. I saw black. A hill was sloping upward and above it was only darkness. I wiggled forward, but the scrubber cans of my sidewinder prevented me from getting any further. The silt was beginning to obstruct my view, and I watched as the promise of finding something new was overtaken by a gray cloud of silt. 

Suddenly fear started to creep into my mind—that little voice that says, “think about how far you are from home, and now you are in zero vis in a passage you aren’t familiar with.” Excitement morphed into fear, and I quickly spooled up my safety back to the main line, in a hurry to be back to where I could see Paul. We swam back to the cavern and swam in circles to stay warm as we did our deco. The dive was 5 hours and 45 minutes. I finished cold and tired, but excited for the potential of what might lie beyond the breakdown. 

My Return to P3

During the two years before I returned to P3, that darkness was always in my head. I tried getting several buddies to come with me to take a second look at the area, but my story wasn’t convincing enough to get lazy divers to “swim like a peasant” in a place where DPVs are not allowed. During these two years an important piece of this story was born, Dive Rite created the chest mounted CHO2ptima rebreather. 

 Jefferson Joel Marchand decompressing in comfort. Notice the scrubber canister.

In April of 2021 I was finally able to find a diver who feared neither deco nor swimming; Zeb Lily was in town and I conned him into going with me. Not sure if I had embellished my own memory in the past two years, I anxiously swam back to the breakdown choke. I could see the black hole where I had “adjusted” several large rocks on the previous dive. I persuaded a few more pieces of breakdown to identify as positions to the right and left of their natural state, and with my CHO2ptima, I was able to squeeze through. While in the breakdown, I could feel the flow intensifying and continued to wiggle forward, trying my best to stay ahead of the silt cloud I was creating. At the same time I was memorizing the shape of the passage so I would not panic while trying to find my way back through the restriction in bad visibility. 

The moment I popped out into an absolutely massive room was surreal. Visibility was markedly better than in the passage, and the temperature was noticeably warmer. Even with the improved visibility, from right to left my light did nothing to penetrate the darkness, and I was following an upward slope into the unknown. It was one of those rare moments when exploration goes exactly how you want it to. Instead of pinching off in some sort of death trap, the cave went onward. I savored the moment and did my best to find the way on, but the passage was so massive I was disoriented. I swam in a zig zag until my reel ran out of line, and tied off at 41 m/135 ft on the left wall of what seemed like a massive debris cone. 

I surveyed out and Zeb and I exited, ecstatic that we had found something new in such a thoroughly explored system. Once again I thought of what James Toland had said when he and Milowka connected Baptizing to Peacock back in 2010. “Many divers from the Florida cave diving community are focusing on exploration around the world, but I think it’s important to focus on exploration in our own backyard – a little something I like to call tailgate diving,” he said. “There is still a lot of cave here waiting to be pushed, and with the evolution of dive gear and divers alike comes the ability to do deeper and longer dives. This opens up new and exciting opportunities that were overlooked or never considered in the past.”

More Cave To Go

After Zeb and I discovered that the cave continued, I ramped up my efforts to recruit buddies for exploration at P3. On the next dive, we continued from where I had tied off at the top of the 41 m/135 ft mound and continued downward, back to 55 m/180 ft, where a spring vent was coming out of the wall. I remembered having heard people speculate that Lower Orange Grove was tied to P3, and was very excited. The entrance was too small to go into without advanced planning, so we tied off and surveyed out from there, but the springing passage certainly had our attention. 

On the way out of the massive room, while going back through the breakdown restriction, I noticed that the flow from the newly discovered room and the flow form the previous EOL was combining, and going off in a different direction through the breakdown. I quickly grabbed my reel, and proceeded to empty it into the siphoning passage. I turned the dive with an empty reel and safety spool, extremely excited that we had located the continuation of the siphon, and ended in a large passage. The next dive was going to be good.

The next dive was one of the best I’ve ever had. Adam Hughes and I arrived as the gate to the park opened, and we pushed off shortly after. Worried about what kind of decompression obligation we might encounter, we swam along the 61 m/200 ft passage as fast as possible. Arriving at the end of the line in a borehole passage, we soaked up every moment, as it is a rarity in modern Florida cave diving. We slowed down to a relaxed pace and savored each foot of line that emptied off of our reels. We navigated through a large bedding plane and ended up in a springing passage. The visibility was perfect, but the passage seemed to get smaller and smaller. Eventually we had to tie off, realizing that the passage was probably an in feeder, and not the continuation of the siphon. We surveyed out and completed our decompression for a six and a half hour dive. 

We started our next dive beelining for the EOL. Right before the spring vent, we found where the siphon continued on. We tied in and once again slowed down to enjoy the exploration. The passage was big, and the flow was strong. In a few fleeting moments of perfection, line fell off the exploration reel effortlessly, as the siphon pulled us deeper into the earth. After 244 m/800 ft had disappeared, the passage once again seemed to pinch off. Following the flow seemed to take us to a hole in the ceiling, once again pinched off by breakdown. 

Photo courtesy of Fan Ping.

We pushed and pulled, and rocks began to drop down on our heads. The hole was about 0.6m/2 ft wide, and after a decent workout, we had a mound of large rocks under the hole. I poked my head up and could fit my shoulders through, but because of our “modifications” the visibility was reduced to almost zero. I felt with my hands, and it seemed like once again we had broken into a room, and I was excited to come back to confirm our findings. The increasing flow of the siphon made the journey back to the cavern quite difficult, and I began to realize that at around 1,372 m/4,500 ft of penetration at 55-61 m/180-200 ft of depth, we had come close to the limit of what was possible on a swim dive. Our lungs burned from the hard work we were doing at depth, as well as the long exposure to high PO2. We were going to need help. 

A Little Help From My Friends

I had been talking to Brett Hemphill with Karst Underwater Research (KUR) about the new find, and after explaining our situation, we decided it was time to put the project under the KUR permit. The permit would allow us to continue the exploration and documentation of the system while utilizing more tools to increase our safety and efficiency. The permit would also allow us to stay in the park after hours, as the dives were getting to a length that did not allow us to complete them within the regular park hours. 

Having the backing of KUR, and the tools that come with it, we were able to make quick progress of the exploration. Jefferson Marchand was back in town from the Dominican Republic, and the two of us made the project our priority, diving every weekend we were able. While some dives ended with confusion, most of them ended with empty reels and smiles. 

The cave alternates between borehole passage and large dome rooms choked by breakdown. The passage is mostly in the 58 m/190 ft range, and the tops of the debris mounds in the rooms usually go to around 46 m/150 ft. Each time a room is encountered, divers have to wiggle through breakdown restrictions to get both in and out of the room, which makes the dive technically challenging, especially considering the amount of equipment required to be carried by the divers. 

The author’s dive profile. #Gabe says

There comes a point when a dive has such unique challenges that equipment doesn’t exist to meet them. Luckily, KUR has more than a decade and a half of experience with these kinds of problems, so Jefferson and I were able to draw on their experience to develop solutions and keep exploring. We bought a 1364 l/300 gallon intermediate bulk carrier (IBC) container and turned it into a habitat, which Brett Hemphill helped us to install in the cavern. 

With help from Andy Pitkin, Matt Vinzant, and Daniel Vickers, we built a habitat scrubber, which made the long decompressions much safer. It had the added benefit of allowing us to remove all of our equipment and relax while staying warm. In the habitat we could eat, drink, watch movies, and chat. We also created very large battery packs in case of a flood during the in-water portions of the deco and a two-way telephone system that allowed easy communication between divers and surface support. 

Dive Rite was a very big supporter of the project. Our equipment was built with the aid of their facilities, and in addition to sponsoring much of our gas, they helped with scooters, staged rebreathers, and regulators for safety bottles as well. It would not have been possible for us to acquire the massive amount of equipment necessary for the exploration without their help. 

“The current end of line is around 2,286 m/7,500 ft. At the peak of our efforts, we had over 20 safety bottles staged in the cave and the dives were running up to 12 hours—even with a relatively aggressive profile.”

Unfortunately, Jefferson had to return to the Dominican Republic, and things I had been putting off were catching up to me, so progress came to a temporary halt. We were also having trouble with our staged safety bottles in the back of the deep section corroding much quicker than expected. We lost gas due to corrosion in several bottles after only three months. 

During this pause, we have been formulating a plan to deal with the increasing demands of the dive. This summer of 2022 we are gathering a group of people who have the experience on sidemount rebreathers to do such a challenging dive, and who will commit to the project. We are also hoping to prepare a second habitat to put somewhere around Hendly’s Castle to further increase our safety margin. 

We will be making further attempts to locate the resurgence in the river and push from that end. As the crow flies, there is still almost 2438 m/8000 ft between our end of line and the river, and caves usually don’t go in straight lines. No matter what happens, it is going to be a massive undertaking and will require a full team of push divers and support divers to make the project a success. 

Just like in the 90s when Mark Long was the first person able to explore the system, because he was the first to have tanks big enough to give him the required gas for such an extreme dive, we were only able to continue exploration in this section because of the current diving technology including; long range scooters, removable chest-mount rebreathers, habitats and habitat scrubbers, dry suit heat, waterproof tablets for entertainment, and last but most certainly not least, reliable dive computers that can accommodate multiple gasses and adjustable algorithms was available to us. 

I shudder to think about how little cave might be left in Florida if Woody Jasper and the other incredible explorers who came before us, had access to the equipment we are using today. 

I shudder to think about how little cave might be left in Florida if Woody Jasper and the other incredible explorers who came before us, had access to the equipment we are using today. If all goes well, we will use the incredible tools we have access to today to push the cave until the connection to the river is confirmed.

Additional Resources:

Ezine Articles: The Taming Continues: The Peacock to Baptizing Connection by Agnes Milowka & James Toland

Cavesurvey.com: Peacock Springs

NSS-CDS bookstore: THE TAMING OF THE SLOUGH – HISTORY OF PEACOCK SPRING by Sheck Exley


Steve Lambert lives in North Florida where he works at Dive Rite and is actively involved in the exploration and survey of underwater caves with Karst Underwater Research. He frequently joins expeditions with Beyond the Sump and Hole Patrol. His hobbies include quitting when things get too hard, residential construction, and compiling Kpop playlists.


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