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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.

Cave

They Discovered an 11,000-year-old Submerged Ochre Mine

The exploration crew at CINDAQ, headquartered at Zero Gravity Dive Center in Puerto Aventuras made international news this year with their discovery of an ancient submerged ochre mine. Fortunately, they were happy to share the secrets of its discovery and how they documented their find with British cave and 3D photogrammetry instructor John Kendall. Oculus Rifts anyone?

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By John Kendall
Header image courtesy of
CINDAQ

In 2017, underwater cave explorers Fred Devos, Christophe Le Maillot, and Sam Meacham found evidence of ancient mining activity while exploring and mapping new tunnels of an underwater cave near Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico.​ Historians know that ancient residents actively mined pigment and other minerals from the caves of the Yucatan Peninsula, but the ancient mines the CINDAQ team discovered are now submerged, indicating that such mineral exploitation occurred thousands of years ago. 

At the end of the last Ice Age, intrepid miners ventured deep into these tunnels with torches in hand. The navigational markers, mining debris, fire pits, and excavation pits they left behind are now entirely underwater. Over the last three years, the three explorers (along with others) have been surveying the site and making 3D photogrammetric models of the mine workings. As the mine has been submerged for around 8,000 years, it’s been untouched since then, and it’s an amazing time capsule. The project recently hit the international news when the first results were published. I was pleased to be able to chat with Chris, Fred, and Sam to find out a bit more about the project, and the challenges faced with archaeological work in a cave environment.

The InDepth Word Cloud: A map of the frequency of words spoken in this interview.

John Kendall: How did you happen to find the mine?

Fred Devos prepping for a dive.

Chris Le Maillot: As always, there was a little bit of chance involved with it. The cave—Sagitario, which is a beautiful cave behind Minotauro—was initially explored by a few local cave divers. They established an upstream and part of a downstream, dropping down in the upstream to around 22 m/72 ft, and there’s the halocline sitting at that depth. It’s not always the case, but they didn’t take any survey, absolutely nothing. So I don’t think the information was there for them to continue on with the exploration. As you know, once you have that data in and have a good concept of what the cave is doing and where it’s going, it’s easier for you to poke around and find potential continuations of the cave passages. 

Chris Le Maillot.

So one of the divers asked Fred [Devos] to get involved to create a survey. That comes from the fact that Fred previously had done some mapping for these guys. Fred had a cave survey class coming up, so he took the class there, and spent the week with the survey class mapping the downstream part. Obviously, when they got to the end of the line, Fred could see that there was potential for further exploration. But you can’t really go off exploring during a class, so he went back with Sam [Meacham].

Sam Meacham before a dive with the team in La Mina.

So then you went back and explored?

Fred Devos: Exploring caves is what we’ve been doing for more than 20 years, and so it’s a regular event during the mapping of a cave to find more cave to explore. You know, when mapping, we have to swim off to measure the side walls, sometimes there isn’t a wall, and then end up exploring that passage. I was in the process of making a detailed map of this cave, and found this passage, so I went back with Sam, and we immediately realized something was unusual. Things were out of place, we started seeing rocks piled on top of each other, speleothems in places they shouldn’t have been, and the further we went the more of this we saw. 

“Exploring caves is what we’ve been doing for more than 20 years, and so it’s a regular event during the mapping of a cave to find more cave to explore.”

We started picking up a little bit of flow, which is always a good thing in exploration, and that led us to this restriction, where all the water was going through, and I don’t think we’d have made it through if the restriction hadn’t been manipulated before we got there. So, you know, speleothems were smashed out, and it really looked like 100 divers had gone through there before us, which really piqued our curiosity as we knew no one had been there before us. We happened to be in back mount during this dive and I managed to squeeze through there and called Sam through, and that was when we first saw irrefutable evidence of what humans had been doing in this cave—you know, pre-8,000 years ago. 

“It was pretty clear to anyone what we were seeing, that people had been digging in here, smashing open the floor and pulling out huge amounts of sediment and piling stuff out of the way. It was super exciting.”

An ochre extraction pit found by divers from Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Q Roo (CINDAQ A.C.) in the oldest ochre mine ever found in the Americas, dating back 10,000-12,000 years. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.

We didn’t have to wait for lab results to come back or ask an archaeologist about it. It was pretty clear to anyone what we were seeing, that people had been digging in here, smashing open the floor and pulling out huge amounts of sediment and piling stuff out of the way. It was super exciting, as it was something we’d suspected for quite a while but had never really determined for sure that was what we were seeing. But this time it was obvious, and there was no question about it. 

So, how large an area does the mine occupy?

Sam Meacham: It’s about 250 m/817 ft of cave passageways that are exemplary of the mining activity, and everything we’re seeing there shows the things that people were doing in the mine. 

Devos: And we haven’t finished exploring yet. There are hectares of mining area, so it’s not just one hole that’s been dug out. It’s entire passages and we’re talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of tons of material, and remember we have dates spanning maybe a 2,000-year period.

What makes La Mina so significant from a scientific point of view?

Devos: The amount of workings means that this was a massive undertaking. Not just the mining itself, but it’s clear it wasn’t just a one-person adventure. It must have been multi-generational, but beyond that it speaks very much about the organization of the people of that time. So as you can imagine, they were in a dark cave and needed fire for light. So they needed people to bring in the firewood, and others to cart out the material, and there were probably explorers at the time. You know, people that ventured further into the caves away from the exit into the smaller passages…to find this very valuable resource. And I imagine they were the ones that were being punished somehow because the risk involved was probably much greater. So, you know, if they didn’t do their work well in the mine, they probably got sent to explore.

A diver making notes as he examines an ochre extraction pit . Photo courtesy of CINDAQ

So are there any archaeological signs on the surface around the mine?

Devos: Well there probably are, there’s certainly Maya era archaeology, and in almost every cave we see evidence of that, but we’re talking about 5,000 years ago. The mine was even further back, so anything that was once there won’t be anymore, and the only place we are likely to find anything is in the caves.

Let’s chat about the photogrammetry side. More and more people are hearing about photogrammetry, but I think the readers will be interested to hear a bit more about the challenges that you faced doing photogrammetry in a cave environment, where everything around you is archaeological.

Meacham: I think that can get us started on an interesting concept. In 2010, Chris, Fred, and I, Beto Nava, as well and Franco Attolini and Danny Riordan and Roberto Chavez, all did our underwater archeology course here in Mexico with the Nautical Archeology Society that was supported by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). It empowered us. 

And by having that NAS certification, it kind of helped check a box for the Institute. And, you know, they could say if anybody questioned our abilities, well, we’ve got the certification. 

I’d say the genesis of this for all of us here was the Hoyo Negro project, and with the exploration followed by the high grade survey, and then the photogrammetry, which is another whole level in itself. The major problem in Negro is the pit itself—it’s just immense—and how do you document something like that? So we worked with Beto and the team who came up with a grid system at 34 m/110 ft depth, and then it’s every 0.8 m/2.5 ft with a cookie on the line, and so it’s a systematic grid. The difficulty there is that it’s not just a nice flat bottom, it goes from 40 m/130 ft to about 55 m/179 ft, and it just becomes really complex. 

But basically what I’ve been doing there is assisting with the lighting or helping Beto. So when we jump forward to doing the mine, it’s a completely different environment. There’s no pit—it’s a continuous cave—so there was no way we could put in a grid, and I’ve never really done photogrammetry before. I had observed it being done, but I was starting from scratch in terms of my own experience. So it was a challenge, but I had plenty of people to go to as resources, and who could check out what I’d done and help make it better. And what’s interesting about the big model is that you can see my progression as we go around, and now of course I want to go back and do it all over again.  

So in terms of the challenges, I bought a Sony A7S camera and a Nauticam housing for it, and we just went in and started taking a bunch of photographs, came back, and put it into Agisoft. I have to say my expectations were low, but we were all pleasantly surprised when the model came back. This is like, “Wow that’s what we’re actually seeing there,” and it’s so cool. So that gave me the confidence to say, “I think I can do this,” and we basically picked about 250 m/817 ft of cave passage, which is a great example of the mining activity and of seeing what people were doing there. 

That sounds like quite a learning curve, and a big challenge. 

Meacham: Yes, we just started going in and piece by piece doing sections of the cave. I can’t remember how long in total we were down there. I’m sure it’s written down somewhere, but we took something around 18,000 photos. And as you know, taking the photos is probably the easiest part. Having the computing power and post-processing of the images is the key. A lot of people treat Agisoft as a bit of a black box, but you know it’s garbage in, garbage out. So in terms of the environment, we’re talking about a ceiling height that’s minimal, and while you can fit through OK, you want to be as high as possible for the photogrammetry in order to cover more area. 

“I’m sure it’s written down somewhere, but we took something around 18,000 photos. And as you know, taking the photos is probably the easiest part. Having the computing power and post-processing of the images is the key.”

So, we just worked section by section, using the line as a reference. I was going down the line and started by making sure that I got any markers on it, and then going back and forth to get all the photos. The person that suffered the most was whoever was assigned to dive with me, as they just had to sit there and watch me go back and forth while taking the photos.

18,000 images! That’s a whole lot of processing.

Sam Meacham: Yes, we’re lucky to have the guys at University of California at San Diego (UCSD) helping us with the processing. I probably started off taking too many photos, but the computer guys complimented us on the photos and the overlap and coverage. 

A landmark of piled stone and broken speleothems left 10,000-12,000 years ago by the earliest inhabitants of the Western hemisphere to find their way in and out of the mine. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.

So what about other survey techniques, was there anything special about mapping this site?

Devos: We surveyed the first part of the cave, and that was pretty normal, but once we found the mine, then suddenly we had a need for all these new types of symbols that didn’t exist before for cave survey. I tried to think about what would be interesting to make notes of, but I didn’t want to speculate as to whether something was a natural pit or whether it was digging. 

The mine holds some of the best-preserved evidence of the earliest inhabitants of the hemisphere. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ

So we came up with three new symbols. There was already a symbol for a pit, but we added a jagged line on the pit to show that there was a broken edge, so it was smashed. Then we came up with a symbol for a displaced object, so if you see some stalactites and there was no way it came from the ceiling above, then that’s a displaced object. And then if you have stacked objects, so objects placed on top of each other, we had a symbol for that. We then made all of these colored red. I chose red because of the extracted material, the ochre. Also, when you look at the map, and you see all that red, it really shows the extent of the manipulation of the cave. It really brings it out, and I think that’s the most important thing about this cave. Sidewall information is nice, but this is very much an archaeological site.

So what’s next with the site? Any further diving plans?

Devos: We have some plans in place. The map that we’ve made, the photogrammetry, and the video documentation, even the exploration are not finished. So we actually concentrated on one area and tried to get that in the bag, you know, and focus our studies and our samples in that area, without stretching too far, but there’s still a huge portion to go. The technology really helps here, because you can bring that information out for the scientists and others to see. And then there’s much less need for others to go back there. 

And this is really the part where we don’t know what’s going to happen. Are divers one day going to be able to go there to tour this site? Luckily, I’m not the one who will be making that decision; there is an archaeological department in Mexico who set the rules. But these conversations are starting, and we’re not really sure where they will lead. But for now we are doing what we can to secure the documentation of the site and working closely with the archaeologists and the landowner. 

A CINDAQ diver noting details of the mine. Photo courtesy of CINDAQ.

So a last question: What would your advice be to a diver who is just starting out on their GUE journey, and who hears about this and other projects, and wants to one day join?

Devos: We have been running all kinds of projects down here for years: exploration, science, surveys. Come and get involved, and help out. Good basic training helps open up the door. 

Meacham: Once you’ve trained and gained enough experience to become confident in whatever environment you’re interested in, then come and get involved. There’s great training with the GUE Documentation Diver program, Science Diver, Photogrammetry Diver, and Cave Survey where you can actually put these skills to the test. Everyone on a project is an important part of making it work. Obviously it becomes tricky when archaeology is involved, as there can be federal laws and regulations that restrict access, and so we can’t always put just anyone onto a site, but there are all sorts of projects within GUE to help develop those skills and get known by project leaders.

Le Maillot: Of course, project diving is what GUE has been known for since the very beginning. So I think making that initial step to take training with GUE is an important one in the right direction. That’s the starting point of understanding how we are organized, the procedures that we use, [and] the team aspects of all our diving. And then it’s about thinking about what you want to do. 

“Of course, project diving is what GUE has been known for since the very beginning. So I think making that initial step to take training with GUE is an important one in the right direction.”

If you’re interested in wrecks, you have Mario Arena in Sicily or Richard Lundgren with the Mars project, and you’re naturally going to be headed down the Tech 1/CCR route. If it’s the stuff in Florida, or Bosnia, or here in Mexico, and the cave thing really rocks your boat, then that’s where the GUE cave training comes in. Then, as you progress with your tech or cave training, you will get to know divers who are involved in projects, and that could be your instructor. You know, if you come here to do some cave diving in Mexico, then Fred is going to mention a few things about survey and cave projects in Mexico and around the world. So that will start opening up a different perspective for you. 

Additional Resources:

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

Watch a Video of the Mine on GUE.tv. (Requires a GUE.tv membership or signing up for a free trial)

For more information about the La Mina project, you can visit the CINDAQ website

Check out the CINDAQ YouTube channel


John Kendall is a GUE technical, cave, and CCR instructor living in the UK. Since he was a small child, John has been fascinated by the underwater environment and the possibilities of adventure, and he is grateful to GUE for helping him to turn those childhood dreams into reality. As an instructor, John regularly travels around the world teaching GUE classes and helping to build local GUE communities. For the last 5 years, John has been working with underwater 3D Photogrammetry as a technique for nautical archaeology. This cutting edge technique allows for digital 3D models to be created of shipwrecks and caves, and allows researchers and scientists unparalleled abilities to manipulate and navigate the sites from the comfort of their own computers. John was the primary author of the GUE Photogrammetry class. He is also a member of the GUE Training Council and a Fellow of the Explorers Club.

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