by Bjarne Knudsen, Emőke Wagner and László Cseh, aka Team BEL. Note that Bel also means “path” in Mayan. Images courtesy of BEL unless noted.
Our first project last season (2021) started from a well-known cenote called Yax Chen at the southernmost corner of the Ox Bel Ha cave system. The prior year, we needed additional survey data from the region and, on a regular survey dive, we found the beginning of a new, potentially unexplored, area. Although it was close to another new recently discovered section of the cave called, “The Swampland,” we didn’t believe the two were connected, so they decided to wait for this season to proceed.
The project began by surveying existing lines on the downstream section of cenote Yax Chen. The most successful line was laid by early Yucatan pioneer Gary Walten in the downstream area after multiple restrictions and cenotes took a turn to the north and headed toward historic sections of Ox Bel Ha. After 1.6 km/5,250 ft of distance into the cave, his line ended in front of a massive collapse.
Observing the area, we were able to navigate between fallen boulders as noticeable flow was still present. After a while they managed to climb on top of a more open hill, which had a light source high up. It was a cenote; however, in addition to the opening being sidemount size, a piece of a fallen tree blocked the small exit. With some effort, the team was able to shift the tree slightly so that, after unloading all their gear, they were able to exit into the cenote. At this time, the visibility was crystal clear, and the plan was to drop back down into the cave on the other side of the seemingly small cenote. With further examination, it was determined that the cenote was not as small as previously thought, and it made more sense, instead
of another tight and silty squeeze, to follow the path of the water in the cenote. We did that and, as in some areas, had to cut our way through dense mangrove roots, the cenote descended back into the cave after 57 m/187 ft of distance.
Discovering “The Roots”
The small new opening had a line already very close to the cenote; we knew we had arrived at the desired historic section, and another connection between Yax Chen and Ox Bel Ha was made while discovering a new cenote that the team named “The Roots.” Later, this name was used for the entire new section. It is unknown why Gary or members of the Grupo Exploración Ox Bel Ha (GEO)* never traversed the cenote from either side of the cave; one likely reason could be the conditions—with heavy rainfall, the cenote and the entire region turns almost undiveable due to tannic conditions (as our BEL team soon learned).
New leads discovered in the historic section all pointed into a seemingly open area, which made future exploration very promising. Unfortunately, we had to pass through the new ‘sidemount’ restriction at the cenote on every dive in this area, since no other path was found around it from either side of the cave. This meant unclipping everything, putting it on the line, squeezing through, and then the other diver still inside the cave had to hand the gear piece-by-piece to the diver already in the cenote. After this, another squeeze was conducted by the second diver, followed by gearing up in the cenote.
As time progressed, we became better and more efficient with the process, but it was always tedious and time-consuming. On the other side of the restriction, the dive continued, and the goal was to head as far northeast as possible, since the cave seemed to be open in that direction. We had to navigate in small, low ceilinged areas, where the bottom was very densely filled with thick layers of black sediment. In this area at least, percolation was minimal.
After some dives towards the northeast, all of the small and irregular tunnels started to become even smaller, and eventually they stopped. Another complication in the area was the constant and intense rains we had during the summer of 2021. Because the Roots area was very shallow, the rain washed all the tannins into the majority of the tunnels and made visibility close to zero. With slow but determined progress, a more defined east tunnel started to form, but because of the bad conditions in the overhead, we had to delay our dives. The conditions did not improve, but the team was curious where the new east tunnel went. The problem with this tunnel was that it was quite small in its beginning, and a better route had to be established to push more comfortably toward the east. When we finally arrived at the above-mentioned area, the conditions were still bad, but we were determined to establish a new tunnel towards the east. Going from wall to wall we managed to lay a line through an area which was very dark, but bigger and, in the end, looped back to the east line. This allowed opportunities for future dives with more equipment.
Going to the Sea
After many months, the conditions improved slightly, and the team was back to finally check where the new east line went. Having a better route for travel, we arrived at the desired area in good time and kept pushing. Unfortunately, a few hundred meters past the end of the line we arrived at another sidemount restriction at about 2.3 km/7,540 ft of penetration. There was seemingly no other way around this one either.
Pushing through the restriction, the cave continued, but the team had to navigate collapsed and silty areas. The cave started to change slowly, and the bedrock became more solid. The cave opened up more regularly into huge rooms, and some of them had metal or PVC tubes in them, as we were traveling under a touristy area with lots of buildings. Loud noise, probably from large generators powering the hotels, could also be heard.
Checking the survey data at home, the new lines were headed toward the sea. This encouraged us to return to try to connect this part of the system to the sea. Unfortunately, this never happened, as the closest we got was 50 m/164 ft. Flow was present, but the cracks in the wall became too small to pass, and the tunnels turned more parallel to the shore than perpendicular. After this area had been checked thoroughly, the team wrapped up remaining leads and we were lucky enough to connect almost all of the newly discovered lines into one survey, which established the section called The Roots with 5.8 km/19,000 ft of new tunnels. The total exploration in the area was 6 km/19,700 ft, with a maximum penetration distance from Yax Chen of 3 km/9,800 ft. Average depth was 6.5 m/21ft, maximum depth was 12.6 m/41 ft. We were using the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) sidemount configuration with multiple stages and SUEX diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs).
The Cave East of Coka Ha
After the exploration in Yax Chen, it was time for the team to switch the scenery and focus their efforts for a while in other places. The 2019 exploration from Cenote Chuup Ich and Coka Ha resulted in new data, but some distant areas of the cave there were left unchecked. One of the most interesting parts of the area was a very defined, long, open tunnel heading straight toward the east from cenote Coka Ha. At the time, we were not able to fully explore the region due to landowner restrictions, but some possible leads made this place worth revisiting one more time. With enough preparation and planning, we had no choice but to prepare for regular, long distance dives, as access to closer cenotes was not available.
From Cenote Chuup Ich, the end of line from 2019 lay at a distance of 4.1 km/13,400 ft. Most of the trip was comfortable, but the cave was very dark there, had a lot of sediment, percolation, and complex navigation. As the dives to this area became more frequent, the team also increased its capacity to deal with the longer travel more efficiently; the shortest and easiest path was fully overhead, as it avoided any nearby cenotes, but at 3.6 km/11,800 ft of penetration, a major restriction was encountered.
A bypass tunnel was found quickly, which made that part a bit easier to navigate. We also built and tested special batteries for our scooters, which made those dives possible with minimal gear load. When we reached the furthest lead for the first time, instead of following the line out into the two relatively new cenotes that we found in 2019, we took a northeast turn and tried to bypass the openings. There, the cave dropped slightly deeper, became smaller, and was even siltier.
After a short distance of irregular tunnels, the cave opened back up again into its original size and continued due east. The cave was highly decorated with formations, had some small collapses on the sides of the main tunnel, and remained dark in color. After a few hundred meters, the passage hit a high, silty slope which had organic sediment. As we swam up to the top, a small dry cave with a little opening was observed while bats were flying inside it. Because of this, we named it the “Bat Cave” for future reference. There didn’t seem to be any obvious way to continue past the bat cave.
On a subsequent dive, we tried to find a way to bypass the Bat Cave area. The northeast side of the slope seemed to be a possibility if we dropped deeper. A smaller tunnel with heavy percolation allowed us to progress further. There the cave started to branch into more directions, but identifying the proper lead to move on was difficult as the low ceiling allowed us only moments of time to look around because sediment from the ceiling completely destroyed the visibility in seconds. After a few trials, it seemed the cave would head northeast rather than east, which seemingly could have been even better, as the north was in a fully open region. Unfortunately, as we tried to push from here, the cave either ended in collapse or became smaller and died. This part of the cave also never turned back to the south to continue in the original east direction again behind the bat cave. Finally, toward the end, other, smaller leads were finished, and the team managed to explore 3.2 km/10,500 ft of new cave in this area. Their furthest point of penetration was close to 5 km/16,400 ft and, depending on the environment, the team used both (open circuit) backmount and sidemount configurations with multiple stages and the DPVs. Average depth was 11 m/36 ft, maximum depth was 19.5 m/64 feet.
Moving to The Bees
As the new year of 2022 unfolded, we hoped to complete one last small project following our exploration of Coka Ha. Fortunately, we received additional help from Dr. Mario Vallotta, who was interested in surveying a cave called Abejas, or “The Bees” in Spanish. The cave was last explored extensively in 2004 and belongs to the giant Sac Actun cave system.
As usual, with Mario’s help, we started our survey of existing lines from the cave entrance. On a regular survey dive, we found a few hundred meters of new tunnel close to the entrance. Analyzing the data back home, it appeared that this new tunnel created a big shortcut for divers wanting to travel to the northeast. The size of the tunnel also allowed equipment to be carried through it.
As a result of finding the shortcut tunnel, our new goal became traveling further to the northeast to look around in that area, which hadn’t been visited much or at all in many years. As we kept surveying towards the north, we found more bypass tunnels along the way, which further decreased travel time and increased our efficiency. One of these new lines created the second connection between Abejas and the northeast area of Sac Aktun. The first open areas after this had good possibilities to the west, where the cave seemingly opened up. Unfortunately, all the leads in this initial area dropped quickly down into the halocline, where the small saltwater tunnels quickly ended. The freshwater sections of this cave were white, but these saltwater tunnels had black walls.
As the distance increased, we relied on our DPVs, and cave diver Cameron Miller joined us in exploring further upstream. Fortunately, we got lucky following the north lines and always keeping an eye open for possibilities to the west. Around 2 km/6,600 ft upstream from the original entrance, there was a low ceilinged area laying northwest that opened up into a bigger more defined tunnel with good conditions—a lot of sediment was present on the floor, but percolation from the ceiling was minimal.
Finally, after another major restriction, the cave took a hard turn to the west and kept going in that direction for quite some distance. That part of the cave had bigger rooms with cave formations and still contained fresh water with mild flow, which was a good sign. After a few hundred meters, more restrictions had to be navigated and the conditions worsened. On the other side of the new small and silty section, small areas of the cave began to collapse more frequently. One of the collapses revealed an area with animal bone remains. Judging by their characteristics they must have belonged to different types of animals and they were most likely prehistoric.
Past the collapsed section, the cave descended back into the saltwater layer. Slowly, after some branched tunnels, all the passages became progressively smaller and were impassable to the west and to the north. After checking the final leads, this new small section had 2.4 km/7,800 ft of new tunnels, bringing this entire project’s new exploration distance to 3.5 km/11,500 ft, with many kilometers of resurveyed old line. Maximum penetration distance was 3 km/9,800 ft. Average depth was 9 m/30 ft, maximum depth was 13.3 m/43 ft. We used backmount, along with stages and scooters for this portion of the exploration.
More To be Found
Needless to say, our BEL team had a good last year in terms of finding new cave passages in some of the largest cave systems in the world. In addition to many kilometers of resurveying of existing lines, the team managed to discover 12.7 km/41,600 ft of new tunnels, one new cenote, two new connections, and one prehistoric bone site. Their dive times averaged between six and eight hours. Efforts like these show that even after many years of great cave explorations, Mexican caves still hide some fascinating surprises and possibilities for interested and committed divers.
This was also the first time we tried to incorporate some more divers into the projects and put their skills to good use! Many thanks to Mario and Cameron for their support. Lastly, huge thanks go to the Cuzel Filling Station who supports our dives with tanks, standard gasses, excellent logistics, and their availability even in the evenings at the end of our long exploration days!
Footnotes:* Grupo Exploración Ox Bel Ha: a legacy cave exploration group that consisted of the late Bil Philips, Steve Boagerts, Chris Le Maillot, Daniel Riordan, Bern Birnbach and more.
This month we’re launching a survey panel on dive computing. Please help us by sharing your thoughts & practice at: Dive Computers-Exploratory Survey.
InDEPTH: Laying Line in Ox Bel Ha By Emőke Wagner, László Cseh and Bjarne Knudsen
InDEPTH: Data for Divers: Mexican Explorers Go Digital to Chart Riviera Maya by Michael MendunoWebsite/Blog: Emőke Wagner and Laszlo Cseh GUE Instructors
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.
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.
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.