Connect with us

Cave

The Taming of the Slough: P3 Edition

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Return to P3

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

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

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

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

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

More Cave To Go

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Fan Ping.

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

A Little Help From My Friends

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

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

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

The author’s dive profile. #Gabe says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

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

Cavesurvey.com: Peacock Springs

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


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


Enjoying InDEPTH? Consider buying us a coffee so we can continue to provide you with insanely great content!

Subscribe for free

Cave

SUMP POTION #9

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

Published

on

By

Text by Jon Kieren. Images by SJ Alice Bennett.

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

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

Santa Ana Cuauhtémoc.

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

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

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

28 March, 2022

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

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

Sunrise view from the field house.

29 March 2022

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

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

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

30 March 2022

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

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

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

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

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

31 March 2022

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

Rob preparing to go under.

1 April 2022

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

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

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

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

2 April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 April 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 April 2022

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

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

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

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

9 April 2022

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

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

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

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

10 April 2022

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

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

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

11 April 2022

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

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

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

13 April 2022

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

A very broken bracket.

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

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

Team discussions in the field house.

14 April 2022

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

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

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

15 April 2022

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

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

16 April 2022

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

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

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

Jon swimming into the cave through the first arch.

17 April 2022

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

Jon’s HUD glowing while swimming through Sump 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon swimming through a tunnel in Sump 1.

Additional Resources

Wikipedia: Sistema Huautla

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

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

Exploration groups involved with Sistema Huautla:

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

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


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

Continue Reading

Thank You to Our Sponsors

Subscribe

Education, Conservation, and Exploration articles for the diving obsessed. Subscribe to our monthly blog and get our latest stories and content delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

Latest Features

Trending