Cave Diving, Cave Exploration and Cave Mapping in Yucatan, Mexico
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Category — Pet Cemetery

Cave Diving at the Blue Abyss… The Joy is in the Journey!

Blue Abyss, Sistema Sac Aktun – Nohoch Na Chich Section

The Blue Abyss had become a little bit of an obsession for me.  I know that the joy is in the journey, however when I went by Protech and met Ron and found out he found it on the first try, I started to get a little frustrated.  Why could he find it and not me?  Well, the first reason was he had directions and I didn’t.  The second reason was, I was looking in the wrong part of the system for it.  It ends up that the Nohoch map has NOTHING to do with the way the cave is actually laid out.  Well, maybe “nothing” is a little over the top. The cave does trend in the direction that the map illustrates, however the passages don’t junction like the map illustrates.  I knew this was true, but I couldn’t believe it was as inaccurate as we found it to be.  I shouldn’t be all that surprised.

When I inquired about the map and the survey, the following was explained to me:

  • The survey data of Nohoch was collected by a multitude of teams over a number of expeditions, trips and years.
  • Some of the survey teams were inexperienced and used poor technique.
  • The objectives of some parts of the survey projects were driven more by the profitability of the venture then the accuracy of the venture.

The consequence of these factors is a wildly inaccurate map that adorns the walls of many shops and incorrectly informs the decisions of divers.  Now to be completely clear, none of the information about the actual survey is first hand to me, it is all second hand and I can not vouch for it.  I am just passing on what I heard.

What is first hand to me is the inaccuracy of the map.  The clearest example I can thing of is the fact that the map has the X Line terminating south of the jump to the Blue Abyss.  Which would mean, I should have made a right and headed north to the jump.  My experience is that it terminates to the north of it and you have to Jump onto the Diaz Line and make a left going south.

In any event, I am happy to report that Ross and I found the Blue Abyss with a little direction from Robbie Schmittner from Xibalba Dive Center.  We ran into Robbie on our way out to Pet Cemetery for another attempt.  In trade for a little information about how to find the Blue Abyss, I loaned him a regulator for the day.  I thought it was a worthwhile trade.  Ross and I took the Diaz Line through the King Pong restriction down to Blue Abyss.  It involved a total of three jumps and was a relatively easy dive to execute in side mount.  The passage from the Diaz Line to the Blue Abyss is tight, however it is negotiable in back mount.  When we arrived at Blue Abyss we had plenty of gas, so we took a little swim into the hole.  Let me tell you, “It is BLUE!”  I couldn’t believe it.  The color is breath taking.  Since that trip with Ross, I have been back 2 times.  One more dive with Ross, who has moved to Africa to run a dive resort and one dive there with Patrick and Katie.

In total it took me 4 dives to find Blue Abyss.  The first dive was with Allie and we were just scoping out the lines in and around Pet Cemetery, we traversed to I-Hop.  On the second dive, I was solo and I was less then 10 minutes from it.  I had swum to the end of the X Line and turned my dive believing I was somewhere other then I was.  The third dive was checking out a line off the X Line that went west, where I thought the Blue Abyss might be.  This was the dive that the guide line was cut on.  The fourth dive Ross and I found it based on Robbie’s directions.  The fifth dive, we confirmed the route via the X Line.  The sixth dive, I took Patrick and Katie to the Blue Abyss.

Here are some of my observations about cave diving to the Blue Abyss.

  • The Diaz Line route is easier to negotiate in back mount, the passage is larger, the passage is more beautiful and it takes about 10 minutes longer then the X Line.
  • The X Line route is a challenge to negotiate in back mount if not impossible.  I think this depends on your girth.  If you are a fat bastard, you might want to leave yourself and extra dive to confirm you can pass the restrictions.  There is more then one.  The first one is the gnarliest.  To pass it going in is easier then exiting.  Katie was the diver in back mount and she is really skinny, like 105lbs and 5’3”.  I haven’t tried passing it, however, I am going to drag the Meg out there and try it.  The route is about 10 minutes shorter in side-mount then Diaz Line.  In back mount that saving might be wiped out by a delay at the Tanks on Tanks Off restriction.
  • Pet Cemetery is EXPENSIVE to dive at.  200 Pesos per diver.
  • Pet Cemetary is a 15-20 minute drive into the jungle and Blue Abyss is 40 minutes from the Cenote.  If something goes wrong, you are a long way away from help.
  • You must check-in and pay at Ruben’s dive shop.  It is on the right hand side at the entrance.  They need to know you are out there.

Finding the Blue Abyss in the Nohoch Na Chich section of Sac Aktun has been a lot of fun.  And I am looking forward to exploring the hole a little more.  I wonder where that line arrow jumps to?  In July, I will take my Hypoxic CCR class.  I am looking forward to some Trimix dives out there.  Thanks to all of you for tolerating my obsession and driving out into the jungle with me.

June 29, 2008   2 Comments

Dive the cave my young warrior. Sage advice for a dive at Pet Cemetery. Dive: 420

I have had more then one person tell me to dive the cave.  At minimum, both Patrick and Steve have told me that.  Some other guidance I have received:

  • I shouldn’t rely solely on the line and markers.
  • I shouldn’t play tourist in the cave.
  • I shouldn’t put my life in the trust of a plastic disk.

This is sage advice, because on my return leg of a dive at Pet Cemetery the line ended short.

I drove out to Pet Cemetery for a cave dive in search of Blue Abyss.  When I got in the water, I met two divers that were returning from the Blue Abyss.  One of the divers is relatively famous in the cave diving world and the other a guide from a local shop.  We talked for five or ten minutes while I strapped on my gear.  I told them my plan to head for “Tanks on. Tanks off” restriction and look for the jump to head to Blue Abyss.  They exited the water and I started my dive.

The first thing I found was that the primary line that used to end in open water was cut back.  I thought that was weird and continued.  I jumped on the cavern line.  When I arrived at a natural spot to install a jump, I went looking for the primary cave line and quickly installed a jump with an arrow.  I followed the cave line over two T’s and marked them appropriately with my personalized non-directional markers.

About 10 minutes into the dive, I came to the end of the main cave line. It was cut and hanging in mid water.  I thought, “hmm…. That is weird. Who would cut the line and just leave it hanging in mid water?  Jerks!”  I tied my spool to the end of the line and found the other end of the cave line tied off to a stalactite.  I very graciously repaired the continuous guideline and continued on.  I have to admit that I had a very uneasy feeling at this point.  For the next 80 minutes the voice in my head was chattering away.  I just never felt right.  I eventually had to turn the dive on nerves.  I just wasn’t right.  I was a little spooked.

The return swim went much faster then the penetration.  I still hadn’t found the Blue Abyss, so not only was I spooked, but I was disappointed.  When I arrived at the stalactite at which the repair was made, I found the line had been cut again.  This time one inch of my line was hanging out.  Someone had removed my repair.

I swam past the end of the line a little looking for the other end of the main cave line and it was gone.  I returned to my stub and hovered for a second.  I was at least 10 minutes or 500 feet from the Cenote which I entered at and all I had was a 1 inch stub.  I cursed whoever removed the cave line and started to develop a plan.

The next thing I noticed was a thick red line on the floor perpendicular to the original line.  I assumed it might be the cavern line, but I had never swum it and didn’t really want to experiment on it.  I considered tying in my reel for a minute and swimming in the direction of the line, but I elected not to.  As I swam around a little, I saw a light a hundred feet away.  I decided to swim over to the divers.  I was familiar with this section of cave and it was in an air dome.

When I reached the divers, I gave them thumbs up and asked them to surface.  I asked them, “What happened to the cave line?” They told me they were performing a re-lining of the cavern and they had told everyone.  Well, I didn’t know about it.  And the divers that I had spoken to earlier hadn’t said anything to me.  They said they had cut the cave line earlier and had seen it was repaired.  They thanked me for repairing it.  They told me which way to go on the cavern line and that I should exit the cave.

I was completely taken back by the whole situation.  I was in disbelief that anyone would remove a line that had 2 fresh non-direction markers on it and was freshly repaired.  Oh, and they had parked right in front of my truck.  If you had been to Pet Cemetery, you would understand there are not a lot of vehicles out there.  I am not sure what to say about the whole thing, other then it could have gone so much worse.

I was lucky that I had been in that section of cave before and knew how to get out, with or without the primary line.  I had been paying attention on my previous dives and was familiar with the route.  I had been diving the cave.

This should serve as a warning, the line you installed, may not be there when you return.   As I have said in previous posts, the lines here in Mexico change all the time and sometimes without warning.  They can change while you are diving!  Don’t trust your life to a guideline. Dive the cave and practice progressive penetration.  Learn the cave you are diving and carry a compass.  You never know when you might want to know which general direction to head.

May 11, 2008   3 Comments

Travel Time. Destination New Jersey.

The last couple of months of diving have been fantastic but I knew the role had to come to an end.  This week I am back in the states to do some paper work and get some much needed dive gear!

The first stop when I got back to New Jersey on Friday was the dive shop.  For the last two months Nando from Protech has lent me his sidemount regulators, two Dive Rite RG3000’s.  They worked great except for the swivels he used.    For the right tank he mounted a Scuba Pro second stage so the hose routing could be reversed.  The left tank was a standard RG3000.  The hoses were shorter then standard and I mounted replacement  120 degree Scuba Pro swivels.  I want to thank Nando, becuase I didn’t have access to anything but my Apeks ATX200’s and they were sub-optimal.

That has changed!  I purchased 4 Apeks XTX50s with DST first stages.  No more dicking around with borrowed gear and worrying about it.  I am completely stoked to have my own rig and a dedicated set of regs.  Things are really coming together.  I can’t wait to get to Mexico and get them setup.  I love the way new well tuned regs breath, especially Apeks regs.   In addition to the regulators, I got some 6″ HP hoses, some dive slates for making survey slates, some new compasses for the survey slates, plus some other assorted goodies.

While we were at the dive shop, Allie tried on a bunch of semi-dry suits from Pinacle, Camerao and Mares.  NONE OF THEM FIT RIGHT!  The best suit by far was the Mares.  It was really slick.  The problem was the arms and legs were a couple of inches too long.  But it looked very well constructed and the seals were looking sealed.  The Camerao suits just didn’t really fit, water would have leaked in from the neck defeating the purpose of the semi-dry.  And by the time she got to the Pinacle she was so exhausted, she only got through one suit.  She isn’t sure how she is going to solve the freezing problem.  1.25 hours into a dive and she is shivering and her hands are numb.  She is going to keep looking and I will keep you posted.

The only other item of note is that I received my Sartek lights on Friday!   I am looking forward to getting them south of the boarder and in the water.  The new cable looks very slick and I have a new LION battery.  Gotta love the advertised 8 hour burn time.

I have one dive post that is waiting in the wings.  I had a very interesting dive at Pet Cemetery last Wednesday.  But I am going to save that for after I have spoken to the proper authorities.  Remember my advice about not relying on little plastic discs (line markers) to get you home, maybe I should expand that to not relying on the continuous guideline that was there 80 minutes earlier.  More on that in a couple of days.

Remember, in additional to diving the line, you really need to dive the cave.  Your never sure the line will be there when you get back!

May 3, 2008   1 Comment

The Quest for the Blue Abyss. Part 2.

I made my second cave dive at Pet Cemetery in Sistema Nohoch Na Chich looking for the Blue Abyss and what I discovered is that the map of Nohoch that I have access to, has nothing to do with the lines and cave underwater. As I understand it, the map of Nohoch was created by a large team of people with varying degrees of expertise in cave survey. Therefore, it is notoriously inaccurate. Plus lines change all the time and new discoveries are made. I have ceased to rely on that map and have started to develop my own very nice stick map of the area.

Today’s dive was a big success! It started with an o-ring extruding from an omni swivel when I got in the water and I was doing my predive checks. In less then 100PSI, I had the value shut down. A couple of minutes later, I doffed both tanks, removed the regulator and headed back to the 4Runner to make a repair. Past experience with another leaky omni swivel had informed me that I didn’t have the correct o-rings to repair it. So, I dug in the trusty tackle box and pulled out a replacement 120 degree Scuba Pro swivel. I really like the Scuba Pro swivels for a couple of reasons:

  • Only one dynamic o-ring and it is captured.
  • It has a fixed angle that places the regulator nicely.
  • It is tiny and doesn’t change the weight or hose length dramatically.
  • It seems less failure prone because there is no screw on a dynamic turret holding it together.

So, if you have a choice, go for the Scuba Pro swivels. The repair made, I started my dive. The guys where working in the Cenote again dredging it out, so viz was crap for the first couple of minutes, but it cleared up nicely. This time I went left at the first T. When I got the second T I had a decision to make, and based on the compass heading I elected to go left. The line passes through an extensive area of open water dome and then plunges down a sandy hill into the cave. Immediately I was excited. The cave was really beautiful. After a reasonable swim, I came to a nasty looking restriction. My research later revealed it is called, “Tanks on, tanks off ” It is a fantastic window in the rock face. It is smooth all the way around. From my direction you have to pass through it by going up and onto a bedding plane. I looked at it for a second, unclipped my right tank, swung it out in front and passed it with my shoulder dragging a little. SIDEMOUNT ROCKS!

My first impression was it would be a challenge in backmount or impossible if you are a big guy. The only hope would be to go through on a funny angle. However, returning through it in zero viz in backmount sharing air would have been a supreme challenge. To be honest, returning through it in sidemount under stressed conditions would have been a challenge because there is limited room to setup on the other side. So I added a little padding to my gas to ensure a stress free exit.

As I continued the dive taking notes and enjoying the breath taking formations, I realized the line changed type and I hadn’t noticed. The line was a thick white line, the thickness of kermantle, and now it was knotted exploration line. This startled me for a moment and I had to make a decision to back track and note the line change and confirm I was on the right line or continue on and trust everything was ok. I decided to back track and put those devils to bed. Over an arrow, up through a minor restriction and there was the junction. It was about 2 minutes back. I took a mental note and continued the dive.

It is this kind of realization that starts to build mental stress. The feeling of not knowing or feeling lost is insidious. Couple the change in line, the lurking idea you might be on the wrong line and another crisis of your description and you have a recipe for a full on fear fest should something nasty go down. Progressive penetration and awareness are keys to survival. There is no reason or goal that should drive you to skimp on something as small as a two minute back track to confirm your location.

I swam to the end of the line. It took me about 40 minutes and less then 1000PSI with my back tracking and extensive note taking. The line terminated just a couple of feet short of another line, which I believe to be the Diaz Line. The return swim took about 30 minutes and about 500PSI. There was a section on the return swim with decent flow that slowed me down. But it is only a hundred or so feet long. I wonder where all that water is coming from and where it is going. Because it doesn’t pass through “Tanks on, Tanks off”.

When I got home I drew my stick map from two days of diving. It is a supremely satisfying feeling to look at the new map and know you have been there and you have a foundation for future dives. I have to thank Patrick for that. He is the one that got me to be more disciplined in my note taking and drawing. And he gave me a system.

April 23, 2008   1 Comment

The Quest for the Blue Abyss. Part 1.

Allie gearing up at Nohoch Na ChichToday, Allie and I set out to find the Blue Abyss in Sistema Nohoch Na Chich. This was a recon dive to setup future deep CCR dives in the Blue Abyss. The Blue Abyss is a 235ft (77 meter) deep room. The entrance to the room is supposed to be at 20ft and the room drops off on a slope to its max depth. It is supposed to be very beautiful and a challenge to dive. For us it turned out to be a challenge to find.

Nohoch Na Chich Cenote Pet CemeteryWe had some general directions to enter at Pet Cemetery. With those we went by Protec to speak to Nando and look at the map. We decided to change our entry point to Cenote I-Hop, it looked closer to the Blue Abyss. I took the stick map down that covered I-Hop to Blue Abyss. I neglected to take any compass headings or draw the other potential entrances. I have now learned a very good lesson; I need to be prepared for the unexpected by mapping more extensively. Since none of us knew how to find Cenote I-Hop, we decided to drive down to Dos Ojos and do a little discovery on arrival.

The trip to Dos Ojos was uneventful, except that just after Taj Mahal Allie asked me, “Do we need tanks?” Opps! I had driven past the fill station. The truck was full of rebreather tanks and 40cuft bailout tanks. Not a set of doubles in sight. Two quick u-turns later and we were at the fill station exchanging the rebreather tanks for AL80’s and doubles. I would have driven all the way to Dos Ojos without tanks. I was on planet Mars thinking about the pending dive and enjoying conversation with Allie.

When we arrived at Dos Ojos, with tanks, we talked to someone at Ruben’s dive shop at the entrance. He was a little surprised when I asked about entering at I-Hop. He hadn’t heard of it and they didn’t have a Nahoch map. He did know about Cenote Dirty Dog and was very sure that is where we should enter. So he drew us a stick map that included directions to walk a 1000 meters through the jungle on a small path and turn left. I thought that was a little extreme, but I was willing to at least give them a try. We went to pay our entrance fee and tell them where we were going, and they too were very concerned. We had to show our cave cards, they asked us if we had doubles, and some other questions. After a little discussion and confused looks all around, I showed our cards and assured them everything was going to be okay. They granted us passage.

We followed the directions and ended up at a beautiful little Pallapa in the jungle. It is the middle of no where. There were a bunch of ATVs from a tour. We asked the people working, in Spanish, where Cenote Dirty Dog was and we got confused looks. When I looked around I recognized a face, it was Dennis from Aquanauts. We asked him for some directions and he seemed a little confused also. He finally told us to enter the Cenote down the path. He said it was the easiest way to get to the Blue Abyss from this area. I think he told us it was Pet Cemetery, but at this point I was thoroughly confused.

I wasn’t sure of the name of the Cenote we were going to enter. All I knew was there was water, it was Sistema Nohoch Na Chich, and there was a continuous guideline going somewhere. We didn’t know where we were compared to my stick map or what direction we should head. And I don’t have a map of Nohoch so I couldn’t reference us again. Allie and I decided to take a crack at it. We kitted up and walked down some vertical steps into a nice little Cenote they are dredging out. We got on the guideline and entered the cave. The dive was very beautiful. The passages were very large and there was substantial percolation. After a T and then 10 or 15 minutes the guideline terminated. I tied in my cavern reel in and went looking for another line. After about 15 minutes of searching I found it. It looked like the mainline; it was a thick white line. Staying with the rule of right, we turned right. After 10 minutes, we surfaced in a Cenote. The Cenote was dry/wet cave for another 100 feet after the guideline came out of the water. Allie and I inspected the cave and then decided to turn the dive. By this time 50 minutes has elapsed. The swim back to starting Cenote took us 10 minutes. It is amazing how much longer exploring takes then returning. We surfaced and decided to recalculate thirds and go the other direction on the guideline. This mini dive was about 10 minutes before we ended up in another Cenote.

Dos Ojos Cenote The PitOn the way home, I had to stop and check the paths by foot. In my searching I found the Pit. Wow, that is a gnarly entrance and exit. The recon of The Pit will have to wait for a small team. I am still not sure how to get out of the water.

Luckily, I took very detailed notes of the dive including headings and all the jumps and T’s we encountered. When we got back to the Protec, we looked at the map and determined we entered at Pet Cemetery and traversed to I-Hop during the first dive. The second dive was just a traverse between the two entrances to Pet Cemetery. Overall, we had a great time! For all intensive purposes, we were exploring. There may have been guideline in the cave, but it was all new to use. We had to work with the land managers and other parties to piece together a story. Then we had to use that story to try and find our objective. Fortunately, we didn’t find it today. Instead we found two cenotes, bones and beautiful damage free cave.

I think I might go back tomorrow to try and get down to Blue Abyss. I have better idea of where I am going. Wish me luck.

April 23, 2008   2 Comments