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For Whom The Shipwreck Bell Tolls

Many wreck divers consider a ship’s bell to be the quintessential artifact to find and recover. Here prolific shipwreck explorer, historian, and author Gary Gentile recounts his and colleagues’ adventures recovering bells from numerous well-known shipwrecks including the Andrea Doria. He regards these efforts as rescuing our cultural heritage from the ravages of the sea.



Text and images by Gary Gentile

🎶🎶 Predive Clicklist: Hell’s Bells by AC/DC

The best way to start an article about ships’ bells is to quote the entry in my book, The Nautical Cyclopedia (1995):

“A bell has many purposes: It can call the crew to dinner, sound an alarm in the fog, signal distress and emergencies such as fire or imminent collision, and announce the time of the watch. A bell is struck when coded signals are used, such as to denote the hour and half hour, and rung rapidly when making a tocsin call.

A ship’s bell’ is generally cast from brass with a small quantity of silver added to the alloy in order to give the ring a more penetrating pitch. The clapper is generally made of iron because iron striking against brass gives a better tonal quality than brass striking against brass. The ship’s bell traditionally has the name of the vessel engraved upon it, and sometimes the date of manufacture. A bell may weigh as little as 14 kg/30 lb, or it may weigh over 450 kg/1,000 lb. A vessel may have more than one bell, which may be mounted on a davit near the bow, such as on the forecastle; on the foremast above and within reach of the crow’s-nest; on the forward bulkhead of the wheelhouse; on a davit in the stern; or some other convenient place.”

Wreck divers consider a ship’s bell to be the quintessential artifact to find and recover because the bell symbolizes both the heart and the soul of a ship and therefore of a shipwreck. Better yet, the bell of an unidentified shipwreck may establish the wreck’s identity.

The photos that follow comprise a recitation of shipwreck bells with which I have been fortunate enough to be involved.

Andrea Doria

In 1985, Bill Nagle organized a five-day expedition to recover the bell from the bow of the iconic Italian liner, the Grand Dame of the Sea, which lay at a depth of 74 m/240 ft. Volunteer helpers included Mike Boring, Kenny Gascon, Artie Kirshner, John Moyer, Tom Packer, and me. After three days of searching, we were unable to locate the bell, either on the wreck or in the sand below the davit where the bell should have been hung. So, we each went our separate ways to explore the wreck.

The bell when we first found it.

I had been on several cruise ships that boasted bells in the stern, so my dive buddy Tom Packer and I swam 53 m/175 ft along the upper hull to the aft steerage area. Above the emergency steering helm, we spotted an object that was so covered with sea anemones that they deformed and disguised the object’s true curved contours. I used my knife to scrape off enough anemones to read the name and date on the barnacled brass surface: “Andrea Doria,” and beneath it, “1952.”

It took the team two more days to free the bell from the steel rod that held it in place.

Tom Packer hovering next to the bell after I scraped off the anemones and revealed the name.
Me with a close-up of the bell.
The recovery team. Standing left to right: me, Artie Kirschner, Mike Boring, Tom Packer (above), and Kenny Gascon (below).
Sitting left to right are Bill Nagle and John Moyer.


In 1987, I was diving on the wreck of the freighter Malchace with an express purpose in mind: to explore the forecastle in search of the ship’s bell. I describe this quest in my book, Wreck Diving Adventures (1994):

“The bow of the Malchace is separated from the main hull and lies perfectly on its starboard side, with the main winch and deck machinery still precariously in place. I approached this large intact portion with my shutter snapping, when my eye caught the glint of something protruding out of the sand. I dropped down to inspect it: A curved piece of metal perhaps 2.5 cm/1 in high and 20 cm/8 in long presented an arc which could have been the flared end of a flange.

“A quick scrape with my knife revealed a smooth brass surface under the thin layer of encrustation. I fanned the sand to reveal more of the object, then dug in earnest. Within moments, I uncovered a circular rim that grew in thickness from the top, and that narrowed its diameter under the sand. I backed away and shot a picture.

“With both hands I scooped out sand from the middle. Not until I exposed the clangor was I absolutely sure it was the ship’s bell.”

Finding and recovering are two different processes. I was unable to pull the bell out of the sand. It was too deeply embedded, and I speculated that it might still be secured to its davit. Recovering the bell was going to be a monumental task that needed the help of every diver on the boat: Jim Anderson, Dave Antolic, Jim DiPreta, Paul Gacek, Scott Jenkins, Artie Kirchner, Joe Pavia, Mel Rich, and Richard Smith.

The rim of the bell when I first found it.

That night I purchased three 4-inch C-clamps from a hardware store in Ocracoke, North Carolina. The next day we returned to the wreck site. I descended first, set the hook, swam to the bell, and sent up a lift bag which I tied to a nearby beam. Next in the water were Jenkins and Smith, who took down a heavy nylon line which they secured with a choker knot around the bell’s flared bottom. They also attached the C-clamps to the bell and secured a 227 kg/500 lb lift bag by weaving its lifting strap through the middle of the clamps.

Three teams of divers then dug out the bell, tightened the clamps, and partially inflated the lift bag. Finally, Kirchner chiseled apart some steel beams that the diggers had uncovered and completely filled the lift bag. We slipped free of the anchor line, pulled in the slack to the nylon line, lashed the line around the starboard bitt, reversed the engine to put tension on the nylon line, and increased RPMs until the bell was lifted out of the sand. The lift bag burst to the surface with the bell suspended below it.

The well-orchestrated plan confirmed the efficacy of teamwork.

The bell after I scooped out the inside and dug under the flared rim.

After the brass came the irony. When I cleaned off the bell, the name that was etched in brass was not Malchace, but Manuela: a freighter that reportedly sank a mile away. After both vessels had been torpedoed by German U-boats during World War Two, the wrecks had been charted incorrectly. There was no doubt that the inshore wreck in 47 m/155 ft of water was the Manuela. I later confirmed that the offshore wreck, which lay at a depth of 63 m/205 ft, was the Malchace.

The bell on the boat.

Nova Scotia

Two months after the recovery of the Manuela bell, I dived off Canso with Lynn Del Corio and Myles Wagner. We were searching for shipwrecks but not finding any when we arrived at a ledge where the depth dropped from 15 m/50 ft to 25 m/80 ft. Lying on the deeper sand was what appeared to be a naval contact mine from World War Two, complete with detonation horns.

Lynn charged downward while Myles and I descended at a more leisurely pace. The “mine” turned out to be a sunken bell buoy. The detonation horns were stubs of steel beams from the cage that protected the bell. We did not have lift bags, so I secured a sisal decompression line to the bell’s top hanger and swam it to the boat.

Lynn is wearing the red dry suit; the two men in black are crewmembers.

I then grabbed a 227 kg/500 lb lift bag and followed my deco line down to the bell. Because I was using the same set of tanks, I did not have enough air to do more than inflate the bag enough to float it upright. I returned to the boat where I rigged a regulator to a spare single tank. I convinced a deckhand (whose name I did not record) to use the tank to fully inflate the lift bag. Within a few minutes, the lift bag bobbed to the surface. I pulled it to the stern of the boat where the real work began.

Fortunately, our chartered boat was a workboat complete with a hoisting boom. It took all of us to lift the bell out of the water and swing it onto the transom. After I took some photos, we swung the bell down to the deck.

The bell buoy had drifted a long way from home. Etched above the rim were the letters USLHS—United States Light House Service. We later learned that the bell weighed more than 136 kg/300 lb.


In 1994, John Chatterton organized an overnight trip to investigate a pair of hang numbers that we hoped would be the sites of the tanker Pan-Pennsylvania and the U-boat that sank her: the U-550. The wrecks lay offshore of the Andrea Doria. On the way to the first site, we stopped over another set of hang numbers. The depthfinder revealed a huge object that stood 15 m/50 ft high in 77 m/250 ft of water.

We continued throughout the night to the next set of numbers. This was indeed the Pan-Pennsylvania. The wreck lay upside down at a depth of 77 m/250 ft but had a relief of only 6 m/20 ft: a real disappointment, because we saw nothing but the bottom of the hull. There was no wreck at the third hang spot. Everyone voted to return to the first target.

Chatterton wanted to be first to dive on the site. He secured the grapnel to the port side of the forecastle at  61 m/200 ft. I dived next. I went to the bottom to confirm the depth, then ascended along the starboard side to the upper deck of the hull. The main deck was largely intact. I cruised aft until I felt that it was time to return to the anchor line.

The upside-down bell when I first spotted it.

I worked my way forward until I spotted the forecastle bulkhead. I started to enter the crew’s quarters but stopped when I spotted a flared brass bowl with a clapper inside: the ship’s bell!

From my book, Shipwreck Sagas: “It was mounted on a gooseneck davit that had fallen backward off the forecastle deck. After a brief examination, I determined that the bell was still secured to the davit, but that the davit was free and clear.

“I glanced at my gauges. To rig the bell properly and to send it to the surface on a safety line—so as not to lose the precious artifact in case the lift bag should deflate—would require more time than I thought prudent to spend, in consideration of the amount of air that remained in my tanks. I clipped a 45 kg/100 lb lift bag to the gooseneck as a territorial marker. I put enough air in the lift bag to hold it upright. Then I skedaddled for the anchor line…

“I asked Chatterton to go with me on the next dive. I did not need help in the recovery operation, but I wanted to let him share the experience of sending the bell to the surface. We planned our steps, then executed the recovery with clockwork precision.”

On the boat, I cleaned enough of the bell to read the name of the ship: Sebastian.

The bell on the deck of the dive boat; most of the name is legible.

At home, when I searched through my extensive shipwreck files, I learned that I had annotated the Sebastian twenty years earlier. She was a twin-screw motor vessel built in Scotland in 1914. In 1917, she was transporting 4,058 tons of petroleum when she caught fire and had to be abandoned.

I had decided not to include the Sebastian in my Popular Dive Guide Series because the wreck was too deep! Depths that were considered too deep in the 1970s had become commonplace in the 1990s.


The Bow Mariner was a chemical tanker that exploded and sank off the coast of Virginia on February 28, 2004. Recreational divers commenced visiting the wreck as soon as the Coast Guard completed its investigation of the remains. After exploring the wreck on several trips, Harold Moyers organized an expedition dedicated to recovering the ship’s bell. The volunteer team for the May 16, 2004 recovery operation included Steve Gatto, Jon Hulburt, Bart Malone, Tom Packer, Joe Zeissweiss, and me.

The bell from a distance.

The depth to the seabed was 77 m/250 ft. The bell rested on the forward mast where it hung from a steel post. I don’t want to make it sound as if the recovery was easy, but it was certainly less difficult than most similar operations. The lack of encrustation on the nut and bolt, which held the bell in place, enabled the use of household tools.

Each diver had a job to perform: securing the grapnel, rigging recovery and safety lines, unbolting the bell, inflating the lift bag, and so on. My job was photographing the bell and untying the downline after completion of the job. Teamwork functioned perfectly so that the bell was recovered exactly as planned.

Great Lakes

The wreck diving ethic in the Great Lakes, where freshwater preserves shipwrecks for longer than in seawater, is to take nothing but pictures. If it were not for this locally accepted tenet, I would not have had the opportunity to photograph relics that would already have been recovered—especially the ship’s bells in the following pictures.

The text and photos are from my book, Great Lakes Shipwrecks: a Photographic Odyssey.


The most astonishing feature of the sidewheeler Detroit is the large bronze bell and its unusual placement: inside the engine support structure, between the apex and the piston platform. The wreck lies in 55m/180 ft in Lake Huron. After photographing the bell from a variety of angles, I rapped the clangor against the inside. The resulting ring was clear but possessed a pitch that was lower than normal, as if the vibrations were somehow altered by the density of the water or muted by the rubber material pressed against my ears.

The side of the Detroit bell on which “NOVELTY WORKS” is embossed. “NEW YORK 1844” is embossed on the other side.

“Novelty Works” was embossed on one side of the bell. “New York 1844” was embossed on the other side. The instant I read the embossing, I thought of John Ericsson’s Monitor, the Civil War ironclad, launched in 1862. The Novelty Iron Works built the Monitor’s turret.

In 2006, I received a phone call from Sergeant Jann Gallager, a law enforcement officer of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. She informed me that the bell had gone missing. She wanted permission to use my photos of the bell for a brochure to post around the area in an attempt to locate the culprits who absconded with the precious artifact. 

I granted permission and told her that it was possible that the bell had broken free of its own accord and lay somewhere below and inside the wreck. However, another diver reported that the thieves cut a 1-inch-thick steel pin, thus enabling the bell to be recovered. And there the situation still stands today.


This wooden-hulled package freighter sank after collision in 1897 and lies in 60m/195 f in lake Huron. The hull is intact except for the collision hole—which extends through two decks in the midship cargo hold—and the demolished engine room in the stern. The railing is contiguous for nearly the entire length of the upper deck. The hull is constructed of wood, but the stem is protected by a metal shield on which the load line numerals are scratched.

The bell on the remains of the wooden deck.

The bell of the Florida is not adorned with the vessel’s name. However, the wreck was identified by its capstan covers, which not only display the name, but also the date of construction and the name of the shipbuilder.

One of the capstan covers.


This small, wooden-hulled schooner sank in 1899 and lies in 56m/185 f in lake Huron. As you can see, the surface of the iron bell is rusted, covered with silt, and sprinkled with zebra mussels. If any lettering exists under the obfuscating pall, I was unable to determine if there were any misspellings.

The bell near the bow

Note that biologists remain challenged by the coloration scheme of zebra mussels: are they white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?

Beware the Zebra Mussel

Additional Resources

aquaCORPS Pioneer Interviews: GARY GENTILE: DEEP WRECK DIVER by Michael Menduno (1991)

Books by Gary Gentile: Gary’s Book Store

Wikipedia: Gary Gentile

Enter the wild, exciting world of Gary Gentile: author, lecturer, photographer, explorer, and deep-sea wreck-diver. He has written 68 books, published more than 4,000 photographs, discovered more than 40 shipwrecks, and led a life of adventure. He was the first scuba diver to enter the First Class Dining Room of the Andrea Doria, and he discovered and recovered a number of Italian artist Romano Rui’s ceramic panels that once adorned the walls of the First Class Bar. 

In the early 1990s, Gary was instrumental in merging mixed-gas diving technology with wreck-diving. His dive to the German battleship Ostfriesland, which lies at a depth of 380 feet, triggered an unprecedented expansion in the exploration of deep-water shipwrecks, and the advent of helium mixes as a breathing medium. He wrote one of the first books on technical diving. 

Gary has specialized in wreck-diving and shipwreck research, concentrating his efforts on wrecks along the eastern seaboard, from Newfoundland to Key West, and in the Great Lakes. He has either discovered or been the first to dive on scores of previously unknown shipwrecks. Over the years, he has rescued from the ravages of the sea many thousands of shipwreck artifacts, making him a leading authority in recovery techniques. He has gone to great lengths to preserve and restore these relics from the deep, and to display them to thousands of divers and non-divers alike. Throughout the years, these artifacts have been displayed at various museums, symposiums, and club-oriented exhibitions.



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




Text by Jon Kieren. Images by SJ Alice Bennett.

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

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

Santa Ana Cuauhtémoc.

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

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

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

28 March, 2022

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

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

Sunrise view from the field house.

29 March 2022

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

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

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

30 March 2022

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

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

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

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

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

31 March 2022

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

Rob preparing to go under.

1 April 2022

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

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

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

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

2 April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 April 2022

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

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

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

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

9 April 2022

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

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

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

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

10 April 2022

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

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

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

11 April 2022

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

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

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

13 April 2022

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

A very broken bracket.

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

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

Team discussions in the field house.

14 April 2022

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

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

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

15 April 2022

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

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

16 April 2022

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

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

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

Jon swimming into the cave through the first arch.

17 April 2022

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

Jon’s HUD glowing while swimming through Sump 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon swimming through a tunnel in Sump 1.

Additional Resources:

Wikipedia: Sistema Huautla
Explorers Club:Sistema Huautla, Mexico – the 50-year original exploration and study of the deepest cave in the world
NatGeo:One of the Deepest Caves in the World is Even Bigger Than We Thought

Exploration groups involved with Sistema Huautla:

Beyond The Sump |
Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH) 
United States Deep Caving Team

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

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

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