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Shedding Light On Darkness: Our Plunge Into GUE’s Cave 1 Course

Remember the first time you stuck your head in an underwater cave? Recreational diving instructor Justin Barbour sure does. After his first cavern foray at Ginnie Springs last fall, he swallowed his trepidation, and he and his GUE dive buddies signed up for a Cave 1 course in Mexico. In addition to learning to manage an escalating series of valve, manifold, regulator, and light failures, here’s what went down.

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by Justin Barbour
Header photo by Justin Barbour

There is always one style of diving that most divers are quick to avoid: Cave Diving. It has developed a reputation as being one of the most dangerous styles of diving in the world, and the divers who do it regularly tend to be categorized as insane. This was definitely my thoughts when I initially signed up for my cave diving class. I was constantly told that cave divers were tempting mother nature to flick them into the afterlife at high speed. 

So why sign up for a class that you’re scared of? I was looking for a new challenge. After one of my teammates returned from Mexico from his first cave class it was all he could talk about. I joined him in Florida at the GUE Conference last year and decided to test the waters out in Ginnie Springs at The Ballroom. The moment I passed through the opening and saw the whole room open up I was hooked. The feeling of being able to overcome the fear of the unknown was something I truly never thought I would be able to do and it was incredible. Swimming around the room and looking at the rock work, exploring the cracks and crevasses, experiencing a new kind of darkness, it can easily be seen how addicting this could be. The next day my teammate Fred Espino and I signed up for our Cave 1 class in Mexico.

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Kian Farin descending into the Ballroom at Ginnie Springs, FL.

We trained for months diving as often as we could both during the day and night to simulate the feeling of being in a cave. Running line around rocks, a seemingly endless number of valve drills and s-drills, and fine tuning our positioning kicks to make sure we were ready to hit the ground running when we arrived. After every dive I caught myself thinking “are we really about to fly to Mexico and hop into a cave?” I asked myself that question even right up to the point of throwing my carbon fiber backplate into my pelican case the day before my flight.

Once in Cancun, it’s about an hour-long drive to Zero Gravity (ZG). At times the roads can feel a bit like Mario Kart brought to life, but it only added to the sense of adventure we were embarking on. Once we arrived at Zero Gravity, we were immediately introduced to Christopher Le Maillot and Fred Devos, the two owners of Zero Gravity. Between the two of them they have an uncanny ability to make you feel immediately at home.

There are early mornings at ZG. Before the sun rose on our first day we were up and working on our gear. We had dives planned that day to get acclimated to diving in this new environment and some last-minute rehearsals on skills. We arrived at the Dream Gate cenote and were in awe. We briefed and got our gear together with our guide as fast as possible and climbed down the ladders to get inside of the cave. Once in the water, trying to take in this wild moment in our lives, I realized that any notions of fear that I had were completely gone. It was only the giddy feeling you feel as a kid coming down the stairs on Christmas morning.  

As we descended into the cavern, we quickly realized how people can get hurt. Caves are the darkest places on Earth, and yet inspire a sense of wonder. As our can lights cut through the darkness, they begin to reveal the true beauty of the cave. The speleothems, or decorations, are some of the most magnificent parts inside of the caves in Mexico. These stalactites and stalagmites are remnants from when the cave was dry before the last ice age. As we swam through the cave, we realized that we are truly swimming through a frozen moment in time.  Looking at the walls you can see the different types of rock layers as they were built up over tens of thousands of years. 

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Stalactites and stalagmites in the Nai Tucha cave.

The next morning, we got to meet our instructor Laszlo Cseh. We spent most of the first day in the classroom going over theory, the history of cave diving, and the basics for why the rules are set in stone. Laszlo seemed to have an endless supply of examples for these rules in real life scenarios which seemed to be calming rather than alarming to us. That afternoon we drove to our first cenote Xtabay where we got to run through safety drills and such to make sure our fundamentals were down before running our first line into the cave. After a few practice runs in the open water portion it was time to try our first line run into the cave. 

The cave initially opened up into a massive room with an enormous triangular rock in the middle of it from the last time the roof collapsed. Once we got to the top of the rock, we were able to tie into the main line and do our initial checks of gas, time, and a quick flow check. Laszlo however had other plans for us. Running up and down the line practicing our kicks to make sure they were perfected for our first official cave dive the following morning. Even that little rush of running the line from open water to the main line was amazing.

The following morning, as with every morning, we were up and downstairs bright and early analyzing our tanks and making sure our gear was good to go so we could get to the cenote first. Upon arrival we quickly set our gear up, listened to the briefing by Laszlo, and walked back into Xtabay for our first official cave dive. Fred ran the line in this time and made quick work up to the main line. From there we were able to proceed into the cave.

One of the first things we realized when in the cave is the vastness of it. Shining our lights ahead we couldn’t see where the end of the beam was, even with crystal clear water. Once we left the entrance, we immediately came to what is known as a Halocline. This is where the saltwater in the bottom of the cave meets with the freshwater creating a false ceiling. As you pass over it, it looks like you’re swimming over a pool inside of the cave. This is something that can play tricks on the mind particularly to a disorientated diver on heading out of the cave. 

As we swam through it the fresh and saltwater began to mix clouding the visibility to near zero. Once we staggered on either side of the line however we were able to maintain visual contact with each other, the line, and were able to enjoy the 86ºF/30ºC saltwater that we just dipped into. 

The colors in the cave were incredible. The blues and greens were striking as our lights slowly moved about the cave. The rock walls were white in the saltwater, and a tan color in the freshwater.

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Tannic acid stained stalactites.

As we moved room to room, I glanced at my computer and realized we’d been swimming for 30 minutes. While that’s not an unusual time for an open water dive, I rapidly came to the realization of “wait, if something goes wrong, we’re going to have to turn around and swim at least another 30 minutes to get back out.” It was this sobering thought that helped me understand the severity of what we were doing. Nothing a few glances around the cave couldn’t snap me out of the thought and continue on with the dive. 

As we continued to swim, we came upon a bed plane section of the cave. This is where the cave narrows, but not too small, vertically and can stretch for hundreds of feet horizontally. As we swam forward, we truly started to feel like cave divers. Alas only a few minutes into the dive we hit our turn pressure and had to exit the cave.

As we surfaced Fred and I immediately popped our regulators out of our mouths and exploded with excitement. It seemed like months of hard work and uncertainty finally paid off in that moment, and it was only day two of the class. Laszlo, in his usual Laszlo calm and collected nature, reigned us in with a subtle, “Meh it was ok, let’s see how you do in the cave.” Little did we know the gauntlet that was ahead of us.

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Divers Keith Chu (left) and Fred Espino (right).

Throughout the class we would arrive first thing in the morning, set up our gear, run through dry drills, gear up, and do three to four dives in a day. Upon finishing those we would drive back to ZG and would be in theory for a few more hours before finally being sprung loose for tacos at Marre Marre across the street. They were very long days to say the least, yet every morning we would wake up before our alarms and couldn’t wait to see what the next set of dives had in store for us. 

The next few days were filled with every failure that Laszlo and his trusty bubble gun sidekick could think of. From light failures (primary and both back up lights), to regulator failures, we drilled until it became second nature. On one particular dive we were particularly tested. As we swam through the cave just as we were passing through a thermocline I had a simulated primary light failure. After going through the procedures for stowing, deploying backups, etc. Fred and I turned the dive and started our exit. Suddenly he also experienced a simulated primary light failure and had to go through that process. One thing after another happened honing in our focus to the point where we found ourselves in total darkness. As we stayed in touch-contact we moved along the line as a unit. This shows a level of trust in not only your training, but your teammate as well.

Though as the days went on our confidence began to grow swimming around in the caves. Our awareness began to expand to allow us not only to focus on the team, but also begin to actually see the cave. Looking for the jump lines off the main line, seeing more of the details in the room, genuinely being able to take in the vastness and natural beauty that helped shape these caves over millennia.

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One of the massive passageways through Nai Tucha.

On the final day we were tasked with two of the most important skills a new cave diver can learn: lost line drill while blindfolded, and gas share exit while blind. These are skills that hopefully a diver never needs to use, however we are going into a hostile world every time we enter a cave, so it’s important to train for every scenario to be prepared for whatever is thrown our way. In a strange way having the blindfold on elicited a sense of calm like I’d never felt. One hand on the line, the other out in front feeling our way out, with Fred hanging onto my elbow, we moved as a unit through the cave, navigating each station (tie off on a rock) as we moved. It felt like a new puzzle each time we came to a station as we moved our way out. 

By the end of the day, Laszlo decided that we’d been through enough and we officially were Cave 1 divers. The feeling was hard to describe for a number of reasons. Chiefly both Fred and I had finally reached the moment we had been training for, studying for, and fearful about. We passed. We were officially apart of that group of divers most people think have a screw loose. 

Looking back on what we learned and experienced, it’s clear to see that there are really only a few hard-fast rules to follow, similarly and readily transferable to open water dives, which minimize the risk we take on in the caves. First, plan your dive and dive your plan. This includes careful gas planning, and everyone taking responsibility for their own gear, gas, and navigation. Having a continuous guideline starting in open water, so that even in zero visibility you can always find your way out. Maintain your equipment making sure all regulators, valves, and lights are in prime shape to avoid potential problems in the caves. And lastly, ALWAYS be aware of the mainline. With these in mind one can go around the world swimming through the history books in caves and mines exploring what once was and embracing the beauty of what is.

Additional Resources:

GUE Cave 1 Description
Cave 1 Video


Diving since 1998 from the Maldives to the Midwest, Justin is a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer and GUE Diver who brings a courageous mentality and humorous demeanor to the water. From 2015-2020 he spent countless hours volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific applying his expertise to educate children on sustainable ocean interaction. 
As a boy he would read constantly about marine biology, wanting to see it for himself he dove right in and has hardly been up for air since. Most intriguing to him is exploring and learning the history of shipwrecks. Justin’s life above sea level includes a career path that has taken him from medical sales to tech startups, every endeavor inspired by the tenacity of being a former collegiate athlete. His goal is to never stop pushing himself, allowing the water to continually reveal character and to share those experiences with others.  

Cave

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

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has long been the focus of underground exploration. Now a host of new tools such as digital surveying tools, mapping software, photogrammetry, drones, and augmented reality systems are making it easier for explorers to both collect data and share their findings with the world. InDepth sat down with veteran Yucatan explorer and geospatial scientist Sam Meacham to discuss his foundation’s extraordinary exploration efforts and get the lay of the land.

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By Michael Menduno

Photo by Sam Meacham CINDAQ AC

When I asked Sam Meacham how old he was during the course of our interview, he immediately quipped, “old enough to know better than to have dedicated my life to cave diving.” Fortunately, or unfortunately for Meacham, it would appear that his predilection won out. 

The ardent 53-year old explorer, diving instructor, conservationist, geospatial scientist, mapmaker and founder of El Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo, aka CINDAQ—whose mission is to facilitate research, promote education, and support conservation of the cenotes and underground rivers of Quintana Roo, Mexico,has spent more than a quarter of a century peering off into the darkness and returning to tell the tale. In CINDAQ’s case, this typically takes the form of map data, logs, pictures, photogrammetry, geospatial data, video, film, and documentaries (BBC, CNN, National Geographic and PBS), lending support to famed explorer Bill Stone’s observation that “the difference between exploration and adventure is data!”

Sam Meacham (front) before a dive.

In that regard, Meacham and his pioneering colleagues, Fred Devos and Chris Le Maillot, owners of Zero Gravity dive center, and others, have been extraordinarily prolific, shedding light on many hundreds of kilometers/miles of underground passageway that form the circulatory system of Riviera Maya, to the benefit of policy makers, scientists, and citizens alike. “We are building on the pioneering efforts of those who came before us and trying to build up the generation that will follow,” Meacham explained. 

In fact, over the last three years as a result of increased funding, new tools, and an enthusiastic pool of trained volunteers, they have actually stepped up their exploration and documentation efforts. Meacham, who was born in the U.S. and is also a naturalized citizen of Mexico and France, says they are just scratching the surface.

The New Frontier

One might say that the Yucatan, once considered the “new frontier” of cave diving back in the 1990s, occupies a special place in Sam Meacham’s diving firmament. In 1984, Meacham, then a lanky teenager, made his first dive during a PADI “Discover Scuba Diving” course while on family vacation in Akumal where he first met cave diving pioneer Mike Madden. He got PADI Open Water certification in Anguilla a year later. He was hooked.

Meacham returned to Puerto Aventuras nearly a decade later in 1994 to become a recreational diving instructor under Madden’s tutelage. That same year he completed his full cave certification with then National Association of Cave Diving (NACD) president Steve Gerrard. Meacham began work as an instructor at Madden’s CEDAM Dive Center, and later worked for Aquatech Villa DeRosa, where he learned from two additional cave diving mentors Gary and Kay Walten. It is also where Meacham first met Bil Phillips with whom he would share many adventures.

An RB-80 heads into Cenote Gea to explore. Photo Courtesy of CINDAQ.

The 1990s was a period of intense cave exploration in the Yucatan, as competing teams of divers sought to connect two gargantuan cave systems, Nohoch Nah Chich and Dos Ojos, and by doing so claim naming rights for the combined system. Meacham was in the thick of it.

Deciding to branch out on their own, Meacham, Phillips, Fred Devos, Bernd Birnbach, Chris Le Maillot, Daniel Riordan and Sabine Schnittger began the early exploration of the Ox Bel Ha system, which CINDAQ has carried on to this day. “I am extremely proud of what we accomplished,” Meacham said. “We were too young to know it was almost impossible.” Most of the expedition work at that time was self-funded. The group ended up buying a horse (to ferry gear into the jungle) and a compressor.

Forming CINDAQ

In 2000, Meacham founded CINDAQ, a nonprofit foundation and recognized non-government organization (NGO), to provide a legitimate mechanism to solicit and accept funding to cover the cost of exploration projects. Their first sponsor was Aguakan, the company that supplied water to Cancun, and which wanted the team to explore and map the area around the company’s wells and help create a campaign to raise awareness of water issues. 

Over the next eight years, CINDAQ was able to secure funding from numerous sponsors to continue their far-flung exploration of Ox Bel Ha, and later Sian Ka’an, including renting a helicopter to ferry divers gear to a jungle-locked cenote. He also participated in a number of documentaries including “Secrets of the Maya Underworld” and “Planet Earth: Caves” for various BBC units, “The Spirit of Nature,” for CNN, and forNational Geographic/PBS, “Strange Days on Planet Earth.” Many of these were filmed with Mike Madden with whom Meacham shares a passion of storytelling through film.

In 2009, Meacham was given the opportunity to go to graduate school and was accepted into a master’s degree program at the University of New Hampshire to earn a M.S. in Natural Resources with a specialization in geospatial science. His thesis: “Using Landsat 5 TM Data to identify and Map Areas of Mangroves in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico,” used satellite data to locate and map mangrove in the Municipality of Tulum and down into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. During this period, he put CINDAQ on hold. Upon graduation in 2012, he was offered a job as a research scientist and diving safety officer, at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

CINDAQ Redux

In 2016, Meacham and his family moved back to their house in Mexico, and he began a reinvigorated effort to bring CINDAQ back to life. Meacham, who was now a Global Underwater Explorer (GUE) instructor and a member of the GUE board of directors, along with Devos and Le Maillot,were able to solicit private donations and, in cooperation with the volunteers at the Mexican Cave Exploration Project (MCEP), stepped up their exploration and mapping efforts. They focused on Ox Bel Ha and connecting caves further south into Sian Ka’an, which lies deep in the Mayan forest.  Meacham calls Sian Ka’an the “Mount Everest of Cave Diving.” 

Divers returning Cenote Yax Kai, Ox Bel Ha Cave System. Photo by Su Eun Kim.

“Sian Ka’an is pushing us geographically and logistically,” he explained. “It’s what Madden taught us early on. If you want to scoop booty, you’ve got to go where the booty is.”  CINDAQ also supports the Hoyo Negro Project, started by fellow GUE instructor Alberto Nava, which graced the cover of National Geographic in 2015, and was the subject t of a NOVA/PBS special “First Face of America,” which aired in 2018; Meacham teamed up with Madden for this project and was an assistant to the camera man and managed logistics. “I’m thankful for the opportunities that cave diving has afforded me,” he said.

Key to CINDAQ’s current efforts is a host of new imaging, digital data collection, and presentation tools and technologies to aid in the exploration and create public awareness. InDepth caught up with Meacham earlier this year to discuss the team’s latest efforts.

InDepth: Has CINDAQ lived up to your expectations?

Sam Meacham: Absolutely, yes, and beyond. It exceeded my expectations. We established CINDAQ for pretty practical reasons and then it just kind of took off from there. And at the outset we had funds from Nature Conservancy, National Geographic Society, private funders and also the Summit Foundation in Washington D.C. We are extremely grateful for all of their support, and the support of our incredible volunteer divers through the Mexican Cave Diving Project (MCEP), which Chris Le Maillot and Fred Devos set up. Without both of these men we wouldn’t be able to accomplish even a fraction of what we do here.

It’s like living in a dream. Sometimes you shoot for the moon and you get the stars. So right now, we’re getting out into the stars and, in fact, several galaxies away. 

I know that you’ve done an incredible amount of new exploration as well as going back and re-surveying the previous work of your team and others. Do you have any statistics that you can share with us

Yeah, exploration is one of our main focuses right now because of the massive amounts of development that are taking place around Tulum, where the majority of the cave systems in this area are located. We are concerned about development and how it’s going to affect, not only the caves themselves, but most importantly the aquifer and the water that flows through our caves.

To give you a perspective, in 2018, out of a total of 18,000m/59,000 ft of total survey, 12,000m/39,300 ft was new exploration, and 6,000m/20,000 ft was resurvey of existing lines.  By contrast, in 2019, we did a total of 80,000 m/262,000 feet of total survey; 30,000m/98,400 ft was new exploration and 50,000m/164,000 feet was re-survey. Then in January of this year, in just 14 days of diving, we resurveyed 8,445m/27,700 ft and explored 11,277m/37,000 ft of new passageway.  So, it’s kind of been growing exponentially.  And all of this is just in the Ox Bel Ha system.

So, what seemed like a preposterous proposal just a year and a half, two years ago: that we could resurvey an entire cave system the size of Ox Bel Ha, which is well over 300,000m/984,252 ft now, does not seem like such a crazy proposition anymore.

Amazing. I remember when I was coming up in the 90s, the Yucatan was regarded as the new frontier of cave diving, there was so much exploration going on. Now almost 30 years later, I am guessing much of the diving community, thinks, well it’s all been explored down there. And that’s obviously not the case. Any idea of how much remaining exploration there is to be done?

My response is a whole hearted, HAH! We’re still just scratching the surface. In fact, it doesn’t take much math, but you can figure out the ratio: for every one meter that we resurvey there’s just a bit less than one meter of line that gets explored. We’re going back into the caves and marking leads and getting into new areas and expanding the extent of the caves. That’s what we’re really most interested in because of all of the development happening at the surface. We really want to do a good job so we can show the general public and the landowners exactly what’s going on beneath them as accurately as we possibly can.

So just to clarify, we’re talking about new exploration in known cave systems, versus systems that have yet to be discovered.

Correct. Just as an example, we have been in the area of Ox Bel Ha we are diving right now for, I don’t know, the last two or three months. The last time we were in one of the entrances in this area was in 2009; I don’t think we’ve been in the other entrance since 2002 or 2003. No one has been in there. The reason we haven’t gone back is because it’s just really hard to get to. Development is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means more humans and more waste and pollution, but it also means new roads. 

We now have a new road that runs through the middle of the jungle that takes us to three separate entrances and gives us access to a whole section of the cave that previously required a 45-minute hike to get to. So, yes, we are revisiting areas that we were in before, but we’ve never had the time and energy and ability to explore them to their full extent. Most of the original exploration that was going on there was all focused on the main tunnel, the gravy, the easy stuff. Now we’re focusing on linking up different sections of the cave to make it one.

September 2019, Cenote Gemini, eagle eye view from above courtesy of the drone. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.

I heard that you started re-surveying old lines to test out some new surveying technology, the Mnemo and the Ariane cave mapping software, I want to talk about those. But why have you continued to re-survey?

That’s right. We started resurveying a small portion of the cave in 2018. The real objective was to see if the Mnemo and Ariane were good tools for us to use. We concluded pretty quickly that they were.  The benefit is that by going in and re-surveying the caves, we’re not only shoring up the data that we already have, but we can compare the historical data to the new data we are getting. 

It turns out that our historic data really wasn’t all that bad, but we benefit from better GPS now. It’s a lot more accurate, so we can correct things. In some cases, the original line survey had errors, which then threw the rest of the data off. Perhaps the coolest thing is that we are going back into areas of the cave that we haven’t been to for years as a result of better access, as I mentioned, and the fact that we have maintained good landowner relationships.

Tell me about Mnemo.

Well, for us, it started as a pet project in 2018. We’re very fortunate to have Sebastian Kister here who developed the Mnemo and also Ariane, the software that Mnemo communicates with, living right here in the Riviera Maya. At the time, I had heard about Mnemo and Ariane and I thought, okay, perhaps it will help us to get a handle on all the data that we have and help us be more efficient with time both in and out of the water. 

The mnemo in use doing cave survey. Photo by Christophe Le Maillot

Mnemo is an ingenious and simple device that has an internal compass, an internal pressure sensor, so it can measure depth and azimuth, but perhaps the most ingenious part of all, is its ability to measure distance. That has always been a bit of a conundrum. The traditional means, of course, is knotting the line at fixed distances, but that leads to error, as it’s easy to lose count.

What Sebastian came up with is a wheel that looks a bit like a piece of pizza with slices on it, and it spins around. It has a white slice and then a slice with nothing in it at all, and there are two light sensors, which count the white slice every time, which is a known distance that goes by. You attach the Mnemo to the line, and swim the line, while the device records distance, depth, and azimuth. It takes a little practice, but it’s  not hard to master. Last year I think we trained about 20 people to use it.

So you can swim or scooter and it just records as you go?

Yes. Scootering takes a little bit more practice, and you’ve got to be really careful because, of course, it has an internal compass, so you have to be very careful with anything magnetic, like a scooter’s battery and other electromagnetic components, in order to not interfere with the accuracy of the compass. You can survey on the scooter as long as you have big passageways. This allows us to cover a lot of distance in one dive. 

Then you just connect it to the computer after the dive and it uploads the data to Ariane’s Line?

Yeah, it goes right in. You have to tell Ariane where the data starts, so, like any cave survey, you have to know where the tie-in data is. But as long as you know that, you can keep track of the lines that you resurveyed with the Mnemo, and within a matter of minutes you can easily enter a ton of survey data—boom—in no time at all. Normally, it would take quite a while to transcribe the handwritten cave survey data into Excel and then copy and paste it into another survey program, and then upload it. This process was also prone to errors. Mnemo is much more accurate than anything we were able to do previously. To give you an idea of its accuracy, we recently completed a massive 5,000+ meter loop.  The loop closure error was less than 1%.  We would have had a hard time doing that with a hand survey.  The Mnemo just makes a lot of sense. And it has really streamlined our process in and out of the water. 

Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.
Are you able to upload the old survey data into Ariane’s Line as well?

Yes. Sebastian made it so that we could import the original cave data into Ariane. It’s fantastic because it gives us a means of comparison. Like I said, our original survey was actually pretty damn good given that it was done 20 years ago often with 35 W halogen bulbs and a single person surveying out after a solo exploration dive. 

I’m actually really proud of the survey that was originally generated. Interestingly though, some of the most valuable information in our survey work is the comments, for example like what you are seeing around you, the geology, the navigation symbols, directional markers, those sorts of things that help you to navigate the cave. So, by resurveying we are really enriching the survey comments which has a lot of benefits to safety and our general understanding of the cave.

We are also benefiting from advances in technology. We’re going back into the passageways with better lights, better batteries, and better scooters.  We’re using open circuit side mount, back mount and also RB-80s (semi-closed rebreather) in back mount and custom sidemount versions.

We have a great deal of versatility depending on what the cave throws at us. Especially with the RB80s, we can just spend up to seven hours of true working time underwater and get a lot done.

And I see you are employing lots of volunteers to help with the work! 
January 2020, Mark Garland and Alison Perkins after a productive week of diving from Cenote Coca Ha. This was on the last day of diving and all safety stages and scooters were removed. Photo by Sigurd Bowitz.

As with everything in Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), it’s a team effort and we’re extremely fortunate to have the team of people around us that support us and make it all possible. We have this fantastic wellspring of divers through our partners, the Mexican Cave Exploration Project (MCEP) who have amazing skills and are seeking purpose for using those skills. This is one place where we can totally put them to work. It’s a bit like Tom Sawyer convincing his friends to paint the fence. We’re doing the same thing with cave surveys. In fact, I have divers that just came back from a dive with data for me. They’re totally into it. They are just loving it. 

The fact we are using Mnemo means that they can immediately see what they surveyed that day. Previously, with the manual survey, it would take hours to get all the data, and that was just a total pain in the ass. We’ve finally found the tools and we have this incredible army of volunteer divers who come here and help us achieve our goal. So that’s our main thrust at Ox Bel Ha, resurveying and exploring.

You have also been deploying drones and using drone software for finding new areas too, haven’t you? Talk to me a little about that.

Hah! We’re everywhere. We bought our first drone in 2017. And I’d like to call it the revenge on my parents who never bought me anything that was remote-controlled. Hence the drone.  I guess you can’t take the boy in me away.

Cenote Yax Chen, Ox Bel Ha Cave System. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.

At the outset, we thought it was a pretty cool tool just to help us to have periscopic vision in the jungle. As you well know, the jungle here is extremely monochrome and flat. And even if you crawl just to the top of the tallest tree in the forest, you’re only a few inches above all the other trees. With a drone we can get above that and gain this incredible perspective of everything that’s down below. 

It’s unbelievable that the technology, as it is right now, enables us to discover and document cenotes from a perspective that previously would have required a helicopter or an airplane, which would obviously be prohibitively expensive. 

So last year, we applied for and received an enterprise license from a company called DroneDeploy based in San Francisco. It enables us to plan flights and create geo-referenced orthophotos of the surface. This allows us to have an accurate and up-to-date snapshot of what is happening on the ground and how it relates to what we are seeing in the cave.  Ariane and ArcGIS allow us to overlay all of this data on the cave.  I’ve been telling people it’s like Project Baseline, but in the sky. We can monitor a site and see what’s happening from year to year. DroneDeploy also has a rudimentary filter that allows us to see the health of vegetation which is immensely helpful in seeing where cenotes might be. Foliage around cenotes is going to be a lot healthier than the rest of the jungle simply because those plants have ready access to water. And it gives us a rough idea of elevation at the treetops which is another indication. Taller vegetation tends to be around cenotes.

We can also use DroneDeploy to create a three-dimensional model of the terrain. We are doing a lot of photogrammetry of underwater passageways, so what we are going to conceivably be able to do in the future is to take a three-dimensional model of the surface and merge it with a three-dimensional model of the cave and have a real virtual experience where you can literally fly over the jungle and then down into a cenote and into the cave that is below it.

Close up of overlay of cave data displaying depth over drone imagery. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.
Augmented reality (AR) is something you all got to play with last year using the 360° Boxfish camera, right? The Oculus Go demo that you gave me was just awesome.

Yes, we had the opportunity to demo a Boxfish 360 camera last May, thanks to Russell Hughes of Boxfish Research. He put it into our hands and let us run wild.  The results have been amazing. Augmented reality is different from virtual reality because we are just going along for the ride, and experiencing what the 360 cameras see.  From an educational standpoint, this is a game changer for us. 

Watch a 360° Camera Cavern Dive in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Photo by Michael Menduno/M2

The interesting thing is that even experienced cave divers are seeing things that they’ve never seen before. We don’t usually stare up at the ceiling when we’re cave diving, so giving divers that perspective is pretty cool. One of the most rewarding things I have been able to do is to take my octogenarian parents, who have always been very supportive of me and what I do, cave diving with the augmented reality goggles.

And enable them to experience what a cave dive is actually like!

I can show people videos and photographs, write articles or do documentary films about what it is we do, and the environment we go into, but nothing has come anywhere as close as really connecting people to our world than the augmented reality stuff. My father was actually brought to tears. So, in just thinking about non-divers and raising awareness about this hidden world, we get pretty excited. Part of CINDAQ’s mission is educating people about the aquifer.  And we’ve always had this incredible stumbling block helping people grasp what we experience when we go down there. We’re now convinced that we finally have a means by which we can educate people about the aquifer and the caves.

The amazing Sun Cave at the University of California San Diego’s Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI). This is as close to a Star Trek ‘holodeck’ that any of us will ever get. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.
So for example, Mexican policy makers that are actually making policy that could affect the aquifer.

Correct, yes. For anybody that’s a non-cave diver, we can take them cave diving now without fear of them dying, which is good.

Always a good thing! 

Yeah, and let’s not forget the scientists that we work with as well. We’re using a lot of photogrammetry to create models of the spaces that we go into. However, to enhance that with the augmented reality footage is absolutely fantastic. We’re just in this perfect storm of really cool technology that’s helping us to tell our story and, more importantly, to tell the story of these caves and the role they play, in a way that we never have before. 

I’m not kidding when I tell people—and I say this almost on a daily basis—that I have never been more excited about what I do than I am right now. We are currently testing out all this cool stuff in Mexico, but there is no reason that it can’t be done in underwater caves all over the world to highlight the importance of groundwater. At the end of the day, that is the issue: our freshwater resources, since 20% of the human population depends on groundwater.

Have you seen any impact yet? Have you created awareness among the authorities there, the people you deal with, the locals, the policymakers? 

Yes, local authorities are obviously aware of the fact that the cenotes are a huge economic driver for this area, and the diving industry is strong here. So, I think they understand the economic benefit of cenotes. Where people start to get a little confused is the incredible extent and magnitude of these massive cave systems like Ox Bel Ha and Sacactun. 

But the idea, which started back in the early 2000s, is to show people the interconnectivity of everything. If you dump sewage in the jungle here, it’s going to come out in the ocean over here, and that’s not such a great thing if you want tourists to enjoy your beaches. 

We’ve worked really hard to raise awareness about the importance of the aquifer here. We’re still lightyears from understanding how it all works, but yes, we’ve had an impact by helping to make freshwater resources an issue here. It’s challenging because there are no rivers and streams here; people can’t see the water beneath them. So it’s that much easier to contaminate and pollute because it’s out of sight and out of mind. 

You have to enable people to see what’s going on!

Yes, that was the thing we realized early on; we had to find a way to bring the cave up to the surface so everybody could see it. We had to make people conscious of the fact that these things even exist, and that they exist on a massive scale that interconnect every single ecosystem that the tourist economy here depends upon. 

Blake Wilson in Cenote Far, Ox Bel Ha Cave System. Photo by Sam Meacham CINDAQ AC.

If we don’t take care of the aquifer, which is the common thread to all of these ecosystems, then we’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg. This area accounts for approximately 12% of Mexico’s gross domestic product and it’s all tourist based. So it’s hugely important to the regional and national economy that this place be as sustainable as possible. That’s where it’s hard to gain traction with decision makers: to convince people to have a long-term vision for the area versus a short-term vision. 

Fortunately, we now have much better tools to engage the public and decision-makers and hopefully make people want to preserve and protect these incredible natural wonders that they can’t see. Nobody’s going to care about it unless they can feel something for it. That is our very difficult job; making people care about these incredible places underwater that are invisible to them.

That’s what gets you excited?

I lie awake at night thinking about the fact it’s not necessarily the things that we have found, it’s the things we haven’t found yet, the things waiting to be discovered that will be important to science. Whether it’s biological, paleontological, archaeological or hydrological, any kind of “-ology.” Those are the things that are so exciting. It’s the prospect of what we might find. 

You can find Sam and CINDAQ Here:

Website: www.cindaq.org

Instagram: cindaq_mexico

Facebook: El Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo

YouTube: CINDAQ A.C. 

Additional Resources

CINDAQ And DroneDeploy  

Ariane’s Line: http://arianesline.azurewebsites.net

Mnemo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHNfQYkH2NI


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine and X-Ray Magazine, and writes for DeeperBlue.com

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