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Zen and the Art of Mexican Cave Navigation

Do you know your arrows, cookies, REMS, TEMS, presence, personal and team markers? Singley or in combination? Jump protocols? If your answer to any of these is ‘Nada’ you may find yourself lost in a Mexican cave. Fortunately, underground explorer and instructor Natalie Gibb has agreed to provide safe navigation through the watery wilds of Riviera Maya. Grab your markers.

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Photos and text by Natalie Gibb

The most idiotic cave navigation mistake I ever witnessed happened on a dive in Cenote Chan Hol about eight years ago. Exiting the cave, my buddy and I approached our jump line, but were pushed out of the way by a solo diver who elbowed his way over our jump line and into the side passageway. 

I stared in disbelief: the diver had not installed his own jump spool, he had just swum over mine. Had he even noticed my jump spool? Did he realize he was swimming into a side passageway? My buddy and I both had personal markers on the main line, as well as markers on our spool. My jump spool had a neon green line, and all of our markers were clearly marked with reflective tape and our names. It was not subtle.

I signaled with my light to the solo diver, and gestured, That’s my jump! He shrugged nonchalantly, turned around, swam back over my jump spool to the main line, and trundled on down the principal cave passage. If I hadn’t had a regulator in my mouth, my jaw would have dropped open. 

Since that day, I have viewed cave navigation in Mexico as a two-part responsibility: 

  1. Don’t confuse yourself or your teammates.
  2. Don’t confuse other divers. 

As one can imagine, the latter is the more difficult to accomplish. 

Cave Training Agency Differences vs Regional Navigation Differences

This article began as a comparison between different cave training agencies’ navigational standards. Interestingly, there is not much to compare!   From my research it seems that TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS, RAID, PSAI, and GUE agree on a basic philosophy: specific navigational markings and protocols are often region-specific and even cave-specific. Every instructor from every training agency I have spoken with has stated more or less the same thing: While agencies may have general guidelines, navigation procedures are left up to the instructor. 

As a TDI instructor, my students have mentioned that it’s frustrating not to have exact navigation protocols written out in the textbook. I can understand their annoyance, but from an instructor’s standpoint, I prefer it this way.  Not having rigid operating procedures published in training manuals allows cave instructors to teach to their local protocols. 

While GUE is perhaps the clearest of all agencies, most training agencies agree on basic best practices, including the need to use personal markers to mark the exit side of intersections, the acceptance of cookies as a navigation tool, and the need to maintain a continuous guideline to the open water by using jump spools and reels. 

If regional peculiarities, as opposed to dogmatic navigation standards, dictate protocols, the question becomes: What makes Mexico cave navigation different? How should you navigate there? 

What Makes the Caves in Mexico So Confusing?

Several factors make the navigation in Mexico challenging. I believe one of the major factors is that Mexican caves usually lack strong flow. Divers who have grown up navigating caves in other regions are often used to the orienting movement of the water, providing a physical sense of directionality; it’s unlikely to become truly confused about your direction of exit if the water is pushing you “out.” Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but in general I find noticeable flow is an excellent, almost subconscious indicator of directionality, and it’s missing in most Mexican caves. 

Diver Stephanie Lee hovers between two massive columns at Cenote Nai Tucha. Mexican cave systems can be very complex and many cenotes cannot be used as exits.

The cave systems in Mexico are very complex, with multiple cenote entrances and exits. This may sound like a benefit, but in reality, it’s not possible to exit the water in all of the cenotes, and even if you can get out of the water, you could find yourself deep in the jungle without a road or the ability to call for help. Several years ago, a lost diver perished from exhaustion after blindly following the cave arrows to an alternate exit, then wandering lost in the strong jungle heat. 

Nicholas Wheeler inside the cave Nohoch Nah Chich. Mexican cave navigation often follows its own logic that can be confusing to divers unfamiliar with the system.

The arrows in Mexico’s caves are likely to alter directions throughout a single dive, changing to indicate whatever the person who placed the arrows felt was the nearest surface or exit. That person could have been wrong. The route to the “nearer entrances” might involve 16 jumps and a no-mount restriction. The lines could have been cut or changed since the arrows were placed. There are no warnings, and there is no system in place, although we are working on one!

Additionally, Mexican cave navigation follows its own logic, different from that of other regions. We use multiple arrows, directional changes, and pretty much zero distance markers. Areas far back in the cave, or areas that were explored in past decades, may have “reach gaps,” often unmarked jumps that end centimeters from the main line, as well as blind T’s, and other navigational monstrosities. My favorite recent bizarre navigation find was an “H” intersection. 

Don’t Depend on the Arrows! 

It’s best to view cave lines and arrows as secondary navigational tools. What’s your primary navigational tool? The cave itself. 

Joe Fellows at Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich. Instead of relying solely on the line, compare your compass with the expected general heading.

Plan this out ahead of time if you have a map, and confirm it during the dive by looking back and actually checking your compass once you have completed a jump or T. If you know your directions, you won’t have to rely on the pesky arrows. The magnetic field of the earth is unlikely to change during a single dive. In a pinch, caves north of Chan Hol Cenote are typically upstream to the northwest and downstream to the southeast. This changes a bit south of Chan Hol, due to fracture zones. 

Cave tunnels often have a general direction, even if they twist and turn a little. Carry a compass and keep track of which direction you are traveling, in many places it is more or less uniform throughout the dive. You don’t need a degree heading; northwest-ish in and southeast-ish out will be enough to determine your exit direction if you get confused. If you make a 90 degree turn, you should notice the heading change. If you make a jump off the mainline or navigate a T intersection, it’s essential to know the exit direction along the mainline once you return to that point. 

Nicholas White in a tunnel towards Cenote Coop One. Despite some twists and turns, cave passages often follow a general direction.

Natural navigation is also important. A diver can observe many key features of a cave without a doctorate in hydrogeology. Is the cave big and wide, or small and restricted? What color is the floor sediment? Are there any unusual speleothems that catch your eye? Do you feel water flow? Was there a major depth change? Maybe you swam over a collapse? If you swam into the cave through a small, restricted tunnel, and you turned around to exit but passed no restrictions, you are going the wrong way.  

This simple observation would have saved multiple dive teams who all made the same mistake. They entered Cenote Kalimba and made a jump from an arrow pointing away from their exit towards Grand Cenote. When they retrieved the jump spool, they swam toward Grand Cenote instead of Kalimba, through enormous cave passages instead of restrictions. They blindly followed the jump arrow, which was not pointing toward their exit; they did not correct themselves,  though the cave passageway they were in was very different from the cave passageway leading to their original exit. The more you can learn about geology, the easier it is to read a cave, remember it,  and notice if you are going the wrong way.

Alex Buess at Santuario de los Guerreros. Enourmous and numerous cave passages can easily be misleading.

Mexican System Markers

Of course, lines and arrows are important to understand, and they give divers information about the general layout of the cave. While there is no standardized system of marking cave lines in Mexico, most caves follow a somewhat logical method. Again, a diver should never assume that the arrows are actually correct or that exits indicated by the arrows are accessible. 

A single arrow usually indicates the presence of a jump line.

In Mexico, jump lines are usually indicated by a single arrow on the main cave line. This is different from Florida, where jumps are often marked with two arrows (a double arrow). Interestingly, double arrow jumps do exist in Mexico, but they are rare and have a special significance – they indicate a particularly important jump, such as a jump to complete a circuit or a traverse. Divers familiar with popular Mexican caves may have noticed this in the double arrow jump to the Death Arrow Passage in Cenote Maya Blue, or the double arrow jump to complete the circuit in Cenote Minotauro. 

Double arrows are less common, and indicate a significant jump.

There are also a great number of secret or hidden jumps that are not marked at all on the mainline. Examples include the jump to the Chinese Garden at Cenote Tajma Ha, or the jump to the Room of Tears in Cenote Carwash. 

From a practical standpoint, the lack of double arrow jumps means that line-to-line jump connections are generally not used in Mexico, and a better protocol is to tie into a line marker (more on this to follow.)

Opposing arrows suggest there are equidistant exits in both directions.

As mentioned above, arrows will often change directions along a single cave line. If you swim far enough into a Mexican cave, it is common to encounter a set of two arrows pointing in different directions. These are commonly referred to as a directional change or opposing arrows. The purpose of opposing arrows is to indicate that there is an exit equidistant in each direction, and to draw the diver’s attention to the fact that the line markers past the opposing arrows will point away from the diver’s original exit.

A pack of three arrows suggests exits in both directions, with the doubles arrows indicating the closer exit. 

Similarly, a set of three arrows, with two pointing in one direction and one pointing in the opposite direction is intended to indicate two exits, with one being closer in time or distance. However, keep in mind that system arrows may also flip direction without opposing arrows as a warning. It’s your job to notice this.  Common practice is to leave a line marker (cookie or REM) on your team’s exit side of the opposing arrows or first flipped arrow to confirm your direction of exit.  

T Intersections. T intersections are generally rare in Mexico. Most navigation is accomplished with jump lines or gaps. T’s are most often present at major intersections, when the cave splits into two equally sized tunnels. At a T, one or more exits are indicated by system arrows pointing away from the T toward the exit.  T’s are also common close to cenote entrances, with a double arrow indicating the presence of a cenote off the main tunnel.  As with opposing arrows,  good practice in Mexico is for the cave team to mark their exit side of the T with a personal marker. 

A T Intersection with an arrow indicating a single exit. 
A T Intersection with arrows marking two exits. The double arrows most likely indicate a nearby cenote.

At this point, an important clarification must be made: never blindly follow system arrows toward an exit that you have not personally confirmed. Cave arrows may point toward an exit that requires multiple jumps, a no-mount restriction, or that is blocked by a collapse that occurred after the original line was laid.  Sometimes line markers are simply wrong. Always return to your original proven exit regardless of the arrow direction, and you will stay safe.  

Personal Markers

Three main types of personal markers are commonly used in Mexico cave diving, and many divers now 3D print or craft their own, very unique styles.  The most common markers are Arrows, Cookies, and REMs (referencing exit markers).  It’s important to consider directionality of personal markers and where in the cave they can be used.  

Arrows. Personal arrows are commonly used to anchor jump spools. However there are a few situations in which I feel that arrows should not be used. In accordance with Rule #2: don’t confuse other divers, it’s generally frowned upon to place personal arrows directly next to system/permanent arrows. A personal arrow, no matter how nicely marked, may look like a system marker to another, less observant dive team, and placing a personal arrow very close to a system marker may lead other divers to believe a double arrow is present. Remember, double arrows have a special significance in Mexico. 

At jumps, placing a personal jump arrow within a few inches of a system arrow can make it look like a double arrow jump.  Instead, the team should separate the personal jump arrows from system arrows by 0.5m/1.6 ft (if possible) to avoid confusion. 

Placing a personal arrow next to a jump arrow may create navigation that looks like a double arrow jump.
Marking a T Intersection with a personal arrow may lead to other teams confusing the personal arrow for permanent navigation.

At T-intersections or directional changes, using a personal arrow to mark the team’s exit may confuse other teams, as it may look like a double arrow indicating a nearer exit. For these applications cookies or REMs are preferred.  

Cookies can be used to mark a team’s exit at a T Intersection.

Cookies. Cookies were a Mexican cave diving innovation invented by explorer/instructor Daniel Riorden in the late 1990s, in accordance with Rule #2.  Cookies are round, or non-directional, and are typically not used as system markers. The shape makes them clearly personal markers, which simplifies marking intersections and directional changes as all other cave teams know that a cookie indicates nothing about general cave navigation. Cookies may also be used to mark a cave team’s reels. 

Cookies may be used to mark an arrow pointing away from the team’s exit, by placing the cookie on the exit side (in this case right).

Cookies are appropriate for most uses, with the exception of anchoring jump reels or spools. It’s inappropriate to tie a reel or jump spool onto a lone cookie, as the cookie alone does not indicate a direction of exit at the intersection, a clear violation of Rule #1: Don’t Confuse Yourself or Your Team Mates. 

REMs. REMs (Referencing Exit Markers), invented by Bil Phillips, are a common sight in Mexico and uncommon in most other regions.  They are rectangular markers, with slats for line attachment closer to one end. The longer end points towards the team exit.  

REMs are rectangular personal markers. The longer end of the REM faces out.

REMs are interesting in that they are directional,  but can not be confused with arrows. They can be used for the same functions as both arrows and cookies, eliminating the need for a diver to carry a variety of personal markers. In my conversations with Bil, he told me this was not his original intention for the markers, but he liked that people were getting creative with them.

REMs have one other useful feature, which is that the exit side of the marker has enough space to write a serious note. This can be left on the line for notes to a buddy or for personal notes, in place of wetnote pages or other methods. 

Creating Your Personal Markers

No matter what style of markers a diver chooses to use, their markers should be clearly personalized. All organizations teach divers to write their names, nicknames, or an identifying word on their personal markers to indicate who the marker belongs to. This helps to fulfill both Rule #1 and Rule #2, making the markers easy to identify. 

An additional method of personalizing cave markers that I recommend is to make them touch contact identifiable. I ask my divers to modify their markers in a way to make them uniquely identifiable in zero visibility, such as cutting a corner off, punching holes in them, or adding something as simple as a cable tie in order to physically identify them if visibility is lost. 

Many divers also like to number their markers, which allows divers to account for all markers and refer to a certain navigational decision in the debriefing or in their notes – for example, “the jump where the diver put down marker number three.” 

Exploration markers are typically arrows, and may have the exploration teams info, date of exploration, and a key word or identifying number written in them.

A word of caution here – it is possible that some system or permanent markers have a diver’s or dive team’s name on it. These are exploration markers. They typically have the team’s names, the date or year of the project, and maybe even a keyword or number written on them, and are not marked with touch or physical identification cues. Exploration markers are so much fun to find! Every time I run across a historic marker with an explorer’s name on it, I feel a kinship to the original explorers and imagine what the person must have felt like, being the first human in this cave. If a diver has a question about the cave, the presence of the explorer’s name indicates who to contact with questions. 

Team vs Individual Markers

Now we are getting into the great debate! Which is better, team or individual markers? 

With the “team marker” approach, the team leader places a single cookie or REM on the exit side of a T. 

When cave divers are using the team marker approach, the diver in the front of the team places all markers for the team, marking and placing jump lines, marking T’s, and placing any other markers that are deemed necessary. Other team members carefully observe the diver in front, and confirm that the markers are correctly placed. The advantage of this style of marking lines is that there are fewer markers on the line, and that it is slightly faster than having each diver personally mark intersections. UTD’s Andrew Georgitisis rather infamously premiered a REM-style “TEM (Team Exit Marker)” in a Facebook video last year advocating the use of team markers.

With the “individual marker” approach, the each diver places a cookie or REM to mark the exit side of a T. 

If a cave team uses the individual marker approach, each diver places a personal marker to mark the team’s exit at every point of navigation, including jumps, T’s, and directional changes.  The advantages of this system are that each diver physically participates in the cave navigation, which helps to fix it in his or her memory. Additionally, more markers are easier to see, and add an additional degree of personalization to the navigation. If my team is using all REMs, and your team is using arrows and cookies, just the fact that a jump is marked with arrows and cookies means that it is not mine. 

When jumping from a team marker, the team leader places the navigation and all others confirm it is correct. 
When jumping using “individual” markers, all team members mark the exit side of the jump.

However, the most important argument for this method, is that individual markers create a level of redundancy in navigation. If a diver accidentally ties into a jump arrow that points away from the team’s exit (and no one notices), but the other divers mark the exit side of the intersection correctly with their cookies or REMs, it is clear that there is a navigational discrepancy upon exit. Divers then know to refer to their compasses and natural navigation clues to determine the correct direction to exit, instead of blindly following the arrow in the wrong direction when leaving the cave. This can be life saving. GUE uses this approach, though most training organizations do not state a preference.

Individual line marking procedures can highlight discrepancies in line marking, allowing divers to notice an error and take appropriate action.  Here, the arrow is pointing away from the team’s exit, but they marked the intersection properly.

Finally, some instructors teach that in an instance of team separation, divers leaving the cave remove their personal markers, while leaving the jump lines and other team member’s markers in place. This indicates to the team who is still in the cave, and who has made it out. This method of dealing with a team separation is debated in the cave community. 

The advantages of individual markers as far as clarity, redundancy, and problem solving make the individual marker method my choice.

Presence Markers

Presence markers are personal markers that are placed at the beginning of a cave line when the line starts in open water and no primary reel is required, or on the primary reel line when a reel is run from the open water. Presence markers can be team markers or individual markers, and indicate the presence of the team in the cave. When individual presence markers are used, they additionally indicate the number of divers in the cave. 

Individual presence markers at the beginning of a cave line.

If a team must exit in complete zero visibility all the way to the end of line in the open water, personalized presence markers allow the divers to confirm that they have navigated correctly to the open water and may safely surface. No agencies seem to have a firm stance on presence markers, nor is this an established local protocol in Mexico. However, I quite like presence markers and use them in my courses and personal diving. 

Jump Protocols

When cave divers swim from the main cave line to a secondary line (jump line) in a side passage, they have made a jump. As all modern training organizations require cave divers to maintain a continuous guideline to the open water,  the cave teams install a jump reel or spool to connect the mainline to the secondary line. This is a visual reference upon exit and allows the team to navigate out of the cave in zero visibility by touch. 

How should a team install a jump line? Good question! Once again there are many options, and again, there is no “right” answer as long as the marking is clear to other divers, the team that installed the line, and has some sort of marker indicating the direction of exit. It’s helpful to use colored line on jump spools as opposed to white line, which is typically used for permanent cave lines, as this makes the temporary nature of the line obvious to other teams.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of options. 

Line to line connection. When a team loops a jump spool directly around the cave line (as opposed to tying the spool into a line marker), the jump is a line-to-line connection. This sort of navigation is more commonly observed in Florida and other locations where jumps are indicated by two arrows. The team can tie the jump spool between the two jump arrows without risk of the jump line sliding out of position. Using this method, two arrows are present (if they are pointing in the correct direction) to indicate the team’s direction of exit. 

Line to line connections are common in regions where double arrow jumps are used.

Line to line connections are less common in Mexico, because jumps are usually indicated by single arrows. The jump line can slide around without arrows blocking it on each side.

In Mexico, where jumps are indicated by a single arrow which may be pointing away from the team’s exit, this method is generally frowned upon. Lines that are not anchored by a line marker are likely to slide out of position, particularly in zero visibility. 

Jump from a system or permanent marker.  One common method of installing a jump line in Mexico is to loop the jump spool’s line around the system arrow. This fixes the jump spool’s line in place and avoids the problems mentioned above. However, it is important that the team carefully observes the arrow’s direction. Divers should never attach a jump spool to an arrow that points away from the team’s exit. Doing so has been implicated in numerous fatalities, including several well-known accidents at Cenote Kalimba. If the team chooses to use individual markers, team members place cookies or REMs on the exit side of the intersection created by the mainline and jump line. Jumping from a system marker is not possible when the arrow has already been used by another team, or if the jump is unmarked, and it’s a terrible idea if the arrow points away from the team’s exit. Always be prepared to use the final jump method.

Jumping from a system arrow using the team marking approach.
Jumping from a system arrow using individual marking with REMS (cookies may also be used).

When jumping from a team personal marker, the leader installs his own arrow or REM on the line.

Jump from a personal marker.  To jump from a personal marker, the team leader places an arrow or REM on the line indicating the team’s exit direction, and ties into the personal marker. If individual markers are used, each member of the team places a cookie or REM on the exit side of the intersection created by the jump spool line and the main line. Again, this can be used as standard protocol, in the case where the jump arrow is pointing away from the team’s exit, in the case where the arrow is already used by another team, or in the case where the jump is not marked by a system or permanent arrow. This is my preferred method because it avoids uncertainty, and I use the same exact protocol for every jump, regardless of what is present in the cave. 

When jumping from an individual personal marker, the leader ties into his own arrow or REM, and all team members mark the exit side of the intersection with personal markers.

If a team chooses to jump from a personal marker when a system arrow is present, what side of the system arrow should the team jump from? I prefer to install my personal marker at least arm’s length away from the system arrow to differentiate my navigation from the system navigation. I like to jump from behind, or from the cave side of the direction the system arrow points, because this leaves the permanent marker on the exit side of my intersection, allowing other teams already in the cave who have noticed this arrow to have an unobstructed reference to the exit. 

Marking Reels and Spools. 

When tying into the main cave line or a jump line, many divers, myself included, like to place a marker on the reel or jump spool line. On a primary reel line, these markers serve as presence markers. The markers also help to visually and physically identify the diver’s line in zero visibility, especially in the event that there are multiple spools or reels tied into the cave line. Finally, this helps to unambiguously identify similar types of spools and reels, helping to avoid  removing a different team’s reel or spool by mistake. Not everyone does this, and some consider it redundant and unnecessary, as realistically divers should be able to identify their own reel or spool. I feel like it is extra clear, so I like to mark my spools and reels. 

A spool is marked with a team cookie.
A spool is marked with individual REMs.

Navigating Around Multiple Cave Teams

Placing a jump as the second team in the cave (yellow line with cookies and arrows).

A brief note is warranted to mention protocols for navigating when there are multiple teams in the cave.  The general rule is to attach any spools or reels cave side of another team’s spools, unless there is a very large space exit side.  The same rule applies to the placement of jump spools. When navigating a T, place your markers on the exit side of the other teams markers, so that their markers are the first encountered during the exit. 

Tying into a cave line or jump line as the second team (yellow line with cookies and arrows).

What’s the Number One Navigational Mistake I Should Avoid as a Tourist Cave Diver in Mexico?

The number one navigational mistake to avoid is to blindly follow arrows and lines to your death. Nearly every Mexican cave fatality I am aware of involves navigational errors exacerbated by camera use. Mistakes include divers jumping off system markers pointing away from their exit and subsequently going the wrong way when returning from their jump line, or teams getting turned around when taking photos.  Mark all intersections methodically with personal markers, understand the overall compass heading of your planned dive, and be aware that arrows do not always point towards your team’s exit, or even an accessible exit. Notice if arrows change directions and mark them accordingly. In the event that you become confused, use your compass heading and natural navigation in conjunction with the cave lines to find your way home. 

Mexico Cave Navigation Is an Art

Navigation in Mexican caves is subtle and often confusing. My shop teaches the system of navigation that we like the best, but there is a wide variety of protocols used in the area, and I wouldn’t say that any one way is necessarily incorrect. I am probably in the minority with this opinion, but I would say as long as you and your teammates stay oriented, and you don’t confuse other cave diving teams, have at it. No matter what you do, someone else is going to think you are wrong. Chin up. Did you confuse your team? Did you confuse other teams? No? Good enough. 

In fact, I actually think it’s great that there are slight variations in the way people mark their lines. If I use REMs, and you use arrows, then I can easily and quickly identify my markers simply because they are different from yours. Nice! 

Divers Nick, Nik, and Troy turn a corner at Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich. Always be sure to be on the same page as the rest of your team and develop a navigational strategy together.

One cannot be too strict with navigational protocols in Mexico, because while a team can have a standard way of placing and marking lines, the established lines in Mexico do not have standardized systems of marking.  Maybe you like to anchor your jumps on personal markers behind the system markers? I do. But it’s not always possible based on the layout of the cave. You must adapt your navigation to the environment, and that’s why it’s an art! As unsettling as this is to many people, there are no absolutes. 

So Many Options! What to Do?

Yes, it can be confusing, and determining your personal or team navigation style takes some thought and discussion within the dive team. There are options, and as grown up adults, you get to choose what is clearest and easiest for you. When evaluating a navigational method, just make sure it doesn’t violate the rules of safe cave navigation:

  1. Don’t confuse yourself or your team mates.
  2. Don’t confuse other divers. 

Based on the previous discussion and general cave training organization guidelines, we can add two additional points. 

  1. Maintain a continuous line to the open water using spools and reels as needed.
  2. Have a marker on the line indicating your direction of exit at key points of navigation, including jumps, T intersections, and directional changes. 

In addition, I would urge dive teams to be consistent. Come up with a protocol, whether it’s team or individual markers, anchoring your line on system markers or personal markers, and use the same protocol on every dive. This makes in-water decision making easier and helps to avoid confusion. Review your navigational protocol with new team members, and agree to a protocol before entering the water the first time. 

Diver Bre Kramer at Cenote Caterpillar. The cave line can be a good directional tool but at the end of the day the cave itself will give you the best navigational indicators.

No matter what navigational procedure your team chooses to use, keep in mind that while important, plastic markers and the cave line are secondary navigational clues. Your first source of navigation is the cave itself: directionality, formations, physical features, and flow if it exists.  Unlike lines, cave features are unlikely to be removed or changed. Learning to observe and read the cave will increase your safety and enjoyment!


Natalie L Gibb’s passion in life is underwater cave exploration and conservation. With her exploration partner Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, she has led her team to discover over 20 previously unknown cave systems in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, mapping more than 80 kilometers/nearly 50 miles of cave passageways. She is a public speaker, author, photographer, and videographer, and a member of the Woman Diver’s Hall of Fame. Natalie is co-owner of Under the Jungle, a cave diver training center in Mexico, and a TDI Full Cave Instructor.

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Cave

The Taming of the Slough: P3 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Return to P3

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

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

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

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

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

More Cave To Go

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Fan Ping.

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

A Little Help From My Friends

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

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

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

The author’s dive profile. #Gabe says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

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

Cavesurvey.com: Peacock Springs

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


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


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