Story and photos by Tom Arnold – diving the Cenotes
Talk about alchemy. From time immemorial, people have been obsessed with the notion of transforming something base into something valuable, something common into something special. Think iron into gold, coal into diamonds, vodka into gasoline. Well, recently I accomplished just such a feat. For my dive buddy Mick Berlincourt and me, a simple Titlist golf ball won at the 2011 Northwest Dive and Travel Expo in Tacoma last year became a wonderful week of lodging and diving with Yucatek Divers in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. If you were at that Expo, you may remember me as the manic diver jumping up and down in the prize lobby shouting, “Mick, we’re going to MEXICO!”
After winning the prize, I retraced my steps back through the labyrinth of sponsors and vendors to the Yucatek Divers kiosk and introduced myself to Larry Kitson, one of the owners of Yucatek. After an exciting explanation of an aquatic adventure new to me – cenote diving – I began to ponder available dates to claim my prize. At that point, I hadn’t realized that what I had won was a diving holiday for ONE to the Yucatan Peninsula. Being relatively new to SCUBA, I explained to Larry that I seldom dove without my mentor and dive partner, Mick.
(As I tell anyone who will listen, I was certified with solid, basic knowledge and skills by Eugene Skin Divers Supply, but Mick really taught me how to dive.) Larry listened patiently to me and finally said, “Our hotel is based on double occupancy, so why don’t you just bring your dive buddy along – no charge.”
Fast forward to January 11, 2012. Mick and I were met that night at the Cancun airport and whisked away to Paraiso Azul’s Casa de Gopala and Yucatek Divers, which share a common garden, building and ambience. Our hotel room was spacious, very clean, and had a delightful garden view. We were awakened every morning by the cooing of doves outside our window, which seemed to be saying (in Spanish, of course), come dive! Come dive!
Being avid divers, Mick and I resolved to get wet right away the next morning. (Between the time I’d won the prize in Tacoma and my arrival in Playa del Carmen, my skills, certifications, and experience level had all advanced.) On our first day, we completed four Nitrox dives and were ready for more. We dove twice the second day, twice the day after that and so on. By the time our wonderful week with Yucatek Divers ended, Mick and I had completed a total of seventeen dives each. These included several colorful reef drift dives, two exciting shark dives with about a dozen pregnant (and very curious) Bull sharks, and, of course, many cenote dives. Our first five cenote dives were a part of our PADI Cavern Certification course; the rest were purely for exploration of these phenomenal caverns.
The dictionary defines a cenote as: A water-filled limestone sinkhole of the Yucatán. Cenote diving is an experience every diver should have at least once in his diving career. In fact, we met a few divers for whom diving in the cenotes had become so intoxicating that they no longer dove anywhere else, choosing instead to return to Yucatek Divers two or three times a year and never even get close to the beach. As a measure of the addictive beauty of the cenotes, consider that the world famous walls and reefs of Cozumel are less than an hour-long ferryboat ride away. I should mention that being inland, cenotes are always diveable whereas inclement weather sometimes precludes ocean diving.
There are dozens of these spectacular and amazing freshwater geological wonders throughout the Yucatan Peninsula; Jean-Yves Moret, the other owner of Yucatek, describes the peninsula as a huge chunk of Swiss cheese. Many of the cenotes have been mapped and explored and have guide lines (permanent, fixed ropes) already in place, while others have seldom been penetrated by divers. New cenotes and underground connections are being discovered almost daily by intrepid explorers.
Cenote diving is relatively shallow; few dives descend deeper than forty feet, significantly increasing bottom time. Because there is very little suspended particulate matter, visibility is excellent, limited not by distance but by the cavern walls themselves. Divers appear to float in space, drifting out of relative darkness through shafts of eerie blue light from overhead fissures and back into darkness. Divers’ lights illuminate stalagmites and stalactites millions of years old. Water temperature tends to be a few degrees cooler (73 – 74 degrees) in the cenotes than it is in the nearby Caribbean Ocean (79 – 80 degrees). Most divers wear 3 to 5 mil shorties or full wetsuits and we even saw a couple of dry suits.
Each cenote has its own unique characteristics and identity; after exploring eight of them, our favorite was a dual-cavern system called Dos Ojos. One of the longest cenote systems mapped so far, approximately forty miles, Dos Ojos, (Spanish for Two Eyes), offers two adjacent one-tank dives with challenging swim-throughs, breathtaking backlit panoramas of beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, and an air-filled bat cave into which very little light penetrates.
At one juncture, there is even a plastic crocodile chomping a terrified Barbie doll. In fact, Dos Ojos was featured in the IMAX film “Journey into Amazing Caves”. Two Eyes is also one of the better sites for swimming, snorkeling and free diving.
Because of the unique opportunities available in Playa del Carmen for expanding one’s diving abilities, I decided to enroll in two training classes with Yucatek’s excellent staff. With Marielle Pronk’s gentle guidance, I became a PADI-certified Drift Diver and both Mick and I completed our PADI Cavern Diver certification under the strict tutelage of Nicolas Pagnier. Of course, apart from very good buoyancy and basic PADI Open Water certification, you do not need any special skills or training to enjoy guided tours in the cenotes.
Much of our diving adventure was videoed by Karin Pointner, who produced the best personal diving DVD I have to date. There are tentative plans to screen this video at an upcoming meeting of the Eugene Dive Club.
Mick and I completed our two-week Mexican holiday with twelve more dives over four days diving the walls and reefs around Cozumel, but that is another story. We spent our last full day in Mexico ferrying back to Playa del Carmen and gazing wistfully at the azure waters of the Caribbean while waiting the mandatory twenty-four hours before flying home. We were sad to leave our new friends at Yucatek Divers and the Casa de Gopala. From the owners of the company with whom we dined several times to the chambermaids who daily folded our towels into the shapes of animals, everyone made us feel more like family than customers. Would we return for more diving with these folks? In a heartbeat.
This article first appeared in the March 2012 edition of Northwest Dive News