Cave Diving, Cave Exploration and Cave Mapping in Yucatan, Mexico
Syndey harbor on a cloudless night.

Category — Ponderosa

Checking Unchecked Leads. Cenote Azul.

Well… the last nine months have been pretty exciting!  My wife and I moved back to the US from Mexico during the height of Swine Flu scare.  We jump started our web design business, and had our son Hans Griffin.  As one might imagine all of the associated chaos put a pretty big crimp on my diving, however I was still able to get a bit of diving done. I made a couple of trips up to Thousand Islands and I did my first deep dive in the Mud Hole off of New Jersey.  But that is not why I am writing, I am writing because I am back in Mexico for a short trip to do some cave diving.

On Thursday I arrived full of anticipation and some anxiety.  Sol picked me up from the airport.  I had in tow a Silent Submersion DPV conversion kit, my side-mount gear and some other assorted dive goodies.  I was very glad to not have to ride the bus.   Sol dropped me off at Patrick´s apartment and I kicked back and started my wait.    As luck would have it, I came down with a cold two days before my flight.  The first two days here were spent waiting for my cold to pass and my sinuses to clear.  On Saturday, it finally cleared enough for me to dive.  I prepped my gear for a check out dive. 

Sunday dawned and Patrick of Protec blog fame and I decided to go diving.  We debated where to go for a while and decided to head to Cenote Azul.  I was told when I moved here that divers were not allowed to enter at Cenote Azul, so I never tried to get in there.  I said that to Patrick and he challenged me.  We decided to check it out and see if that was true. 

We pulled into the parking lot and spoke to the manager.  She was apprehensive but decided to allow us in, to my surprise.  She charged us each 100 Pesos.  She explained we could drive to the water, which was behind the shack.  Cenote Azul´s grounds are very nice and well maintained.  The walkways are manageable and the Cenote is gorgeous.  The water is about a 3 minute walk from the car.  The water is about 10-15 feet below the parking lot. 

You want to enter the water in the main cenote which is right in front of the wooden deck.  There are two lines at Cenote Azul.  One line runs to Kantun Ki and the other runs over to Cristolino.  You can swim to Ponderosa (Garden of Eden) by swimming towards Kantun Ki and taking a left. 

The main line to Kantun Chi is about 150ft from open water.  There are at least three viable options once you are in the cavern zone, however only the left one will lead you to the main line.  If you are looking for the line to Cristolino, you have to continue past the line to Kantun Chi.   The end of both lines are in the same general vicinity.

It took us about 4 minutes to get tied in.  We started up the line and stopped a number of times to make repairs.  One repair took the two of us to lift a 4 foot slab of collapsed lime stone  off the line to free it.  Another repair required us to cut a ball of line off the main line.  Lastly, we re-secured the line a number of times.  Every time I dive this area of the system I find numerous problems with the line.  In the past I have found the line slack numerous times and I find small collapses regularly here.   If you decide to dive here, make sure you pay attention to the line.  It is in the halocline and it isn´t in great condition, this is a relatively out of the way part of the system and the lack of traffic shows.

After about 45 minutes we reached Kantun Chi.   We turned the dive and headed back.  The swim home was uneventful and relaxing.  We surfaced at 100 minutes.  Overall it was an awesome dive.  I am really glad to be back here.   Diving in Mexico is much more relaxing then diving in New Jersey, there is no drive to the boat, no boat, and warm water.

The lesson this trip is to check out those old possibilities.  There are management changes, line changes and changes in perspective.

January 31, 2010   8 Comments

Cave DPV with Steve Bogaerts

Editor’s Note: I want to apologize to my readers.  I posted this story in the middle of the night with some errors.  Particularly, I got my sac rate calculations wrong.  I checked my notes today and discovered I used more gas then I first thought and I checked my X1 average depth and realized I was using a deeper depth then it recorded.  — Hans

When I arrived in Mexico last winter, Steve Bogaerts and I developed a rough plan for my training. The training would include: Basic Sidemount, Advanced Sidemount, Cave Survey, Cave DPV, Stage/Multi-stage and CCR Hypoxic Trimix.  As of today, the only class I have left is stage/multi-stage.

We planned to spread the training over the course of a year and to pace it based on my progress.  My progress would be reflective of the number of dives I complete and the focus I put on practicing.  I am glad that I am a little ahead of schedule.  Today, I finished my 12th training day with Steve and we completed Cave DPV.

The Cave DPV course was a lot of fun.  I wasn’t as difficult or as stressful as some of the other courses, such as Advanced Sidemount.  Riding a scooter is like flying.  It is super cool to zip through the cave.

The DPV course took three days. The first day started with three hours of lecture.  We discussed:

  • Why to use a scooter
  • Safety issues
  • Gas planning
  • Emergency procedures
  • Team dive execution
  • Staging the scooter
  • Choosing a scooter
  • Batteries
  • Charging
  • Conservation
  • And a host of other topics.

After the lecture, we broken down Steve’s Silent Submersion UV-18 DPV and prepped it for diving.  The prep went something like this:

  1. Check the voltage of each battery. (13+ volts)
  2. Check the voltage of the combined batteries. (26 volts)
  3. Inspect and clean the o-ring and sealing surfaces on the motor end of the scooter.
  4. Inspect the motor compartment through the window.
  5. Ensure the cap is secure on the motor compartment.
  6. Attach the battery.
  7. Check to make sure the propeller is clear and the trigger is locked.
  8. Plug in the main connection.
  9. Plug in the secondary connection.
  10. Test the motor for less then three seconds.
  11. Attach the body of the scooter.
  12. Remove the nose cone, inspect and clean the o-ring and sealing surfaces.
  13. Disconnect the secondary plug for transport.
  14. Install the nose cone.

After a couple attempts, this ritual it becomes second nature.  I found it was best to work from the bottom of the scooter up.  If the scooter isn’t on a flat surface, like in the jungle, make sure to flip it over on the nose cone before testing the motor.

We also discussed predive check and break down of the scooters.  I am not going to give you all the procedures, because you will learn them when you take the course with Steve.  About noon, we got the gear loaded in his truck and we headed towards Tulum.  In Tulum, we stopped at Xibalba Dive Shop and picked up another UV-18.  I repeated the prep procedure and loaded the DPV in the truck.

Our first dive was at Cenote Car Wash.  When we arrived the water was tea colored.  I guess with all the rain we have been having, the swamps are unloading tanic water into the Cenote.   The first thing I needed to do was to get my scooter trimmed and weighted properly.  Steve walked me through the process and provided some helpful tips.  He recommended that DPV should be slightly positive with the nose slightly up.  If I was going to spend a lot time below the halocline then I should set it up a little negative at the surface with the same trim.

I was doubtful due to the limited visibility; however as soon as we descended we broke into clear water.  It was like coming out of the clouds.  The tannic ceiling provided a virtual roof and looked exceptionally cool.

We started off by doing figure eights and driving around.  Immediately I noticed how easy it was to manage this scooter.  I had driven a bunch of scooters including UV-18s and always felt awkward and hated it.  I felt like I was fighting the DPVs and I would be exhausted before we finished the dive.  This DPV was different.  It was balanced and I didn’t really have to hold the handle.  I could set the trigger lock and finger it.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had arrived.  It made scootering so much easier.  I just didn’t know it should feel this way, I figured you always had to fight them.

After I got over my euphoria, we moved onto staging drills, lights out touch contact and team communication.  After a couple of hours in the water we headed back to Steve’s place to break down the DPVs and charge them.

The second day we went to Ponderosa.  We made two cave dives.  We practiced installing/removing the primary reel, staging the scooters, team communication, low on air (tank swaps), exit on secondary light, zero visibility touch contact and other skills.  The first dive I wasn’t all that confident and kept stopping to wait for Steve to catch up.  This repeatedly broke rhythm and I blundered the scooter stage procedure.  I had forgotten the hand signals and couldn’t figure out what he was asking me to do.  After a minute or two of watching him do them louder, it came to me and we carried on.  The debriefing was insightful and to the point.  After diving we went back to Steve’s place, broke down the scooters and burn tested mine.  I had 7 minutes of burn time left.

Today, we went to Chac Mool.  Chac Mool is a big power cave with the largest known underwater stalactite.  It is about 90ft tall.  It is a 30 minute (1500ft) swim from the entrance.  I normally use about 42cuft of gas to reach it.  It is about the perfect scooter training dive because it provides an excellent benchmark to test again.  On the scooters pitched at 5 we reached the Monster in 14 minutes.  This included me bumbling with the reel and getting the tow strap entangled around my sidemount tank.

My swimming sac rate, in sidemount gear, is a .7 cuft/min.  I ran some calculations for my swimming dives to the monster and came up with .66.  Tonight, I calculated my sac on the scooter and was surprised to learn that my first dive was a 1.5 and my second was a .97.    Both of those are pretty hideous and leave huge room for improvement.  I think the task loading with the scooter during the installation of the primary reel really afected my sac rate.   I am definitely going to go and make some practice runs with the scooter to try and improve those figures.

A great example of the differences in our sac rates was our gas consumption at Ponderosa.  We scootered the River Run to the change in direction in the line arrows.  It took us just shy of 20 minutes.  In that time I used 450psi out of each tank and Steve used less then 200psi out of each tank.  I was shocked when he handed me his tank and he had used 200psi, I couldn’t believe it.

Besides keeping close track of our trigger time and gas consumption, we towed and towed some more.  Which is good because towing efficiently is harder then it looks.  Being towed is challenging because you have to stay out of the wake, control the scooter between your legs, maintain orientation to the guideline and not annoy your buddy.  Towing is challenging because you are like a semi truck moving through the cave. A semi truck with a failing tail that is apt to hit things if you are not careful.   It is like dragging a plow though the water. This is another skill that could use practice.

At the end of the day we headed back to Steve’s house to break down the scooters and burn test mine.  The burn test went 17 minutes and the Watts Up Meter showed we had 4ah remaining.  This correlated nicely, because the UV-18 has 16ah batteries and I had recorded about 60 minutes of trigger time.  That means we had about ¼ of the battery remaining and the total burn time would have been 77 minutes, which is in the middle of the 45-90 minute range.

Overall the course was a blast.  I really enjoy working with Steve.  He does a lot of this diving and spends a lot time thinking about the procedures.  Luckily, they are born of direct experience and you can feel that as you put them to use.  They just work.

I am glad to be qualified to use scooters now.  They will be an invaluable tool at The Pit.  I already have some other dives in mind.

Tomorrow, I start the stage/multi-stage course.  Since I dive in sidemount, we will do it in sidemount.  Hopefully, on Friday I will have something entertaining to report [Read more →]

October 8, 2008   7 Comments

“Never Give Up, Don’t Waste Time Scribing Notes!” Advanced Side-Mount Cave Diving.

Putting regulators on the tanks, carrying them to the water’s edge, and slipping them into the water is almost a meditative experience. Every time I get the opportunity, it is another awaking.

In April, I spent three days working with Steve Bogaerts on the basic side-mount class. The class included: lecture, building a custom side-mount harness, and skills & drills. He focused on gear configuration, safety procedures, tank handling and diving in side-mount configuration. I am convinced that those three days evolved my gear configuration by at least 50+ dives of tuning and experimenting. He condensed years of practical experience exploring into a well thought out task specific system. At the end of class, I was tasked with learning to reverse frog kick, improve my line laying, and diving in side-mount. We agreed to meet in a month for Advanced Side-Mount Cave Diving Class.

My Advanced Side-Mount class was scheduled for May. By this time, I had executed 29 side-mount dives, nailed the reverse frog kick and improved my line throwing skills. I felt very comfortable in side-mount; I was ready to continue.

Class started with a lecture at Steve’s place. He covered:

  • Revised equipment list, tailored for diving in small passage.
  • The need to be able to remove and replace every piece of kit.
  • The recent fatality at Genie Springs, Steve is a local Safety Officer.
  • More conservative gas planning rules.
  • And discussion around knowing one’s limits, mental toughness and the things he has seen deep in the cave, such as abandoned equipment and erratically laid line. All evidence of people reaching their limit.

The revised equipment list included two new items for my Dive Rite Double Zip Pocket. He suggested that I carry a spare bungee to hang my tanks from in the event that I have to cut my normal side-mount bungee and a lanyard with a clip for no-mounting.

Steve is a hawk with regard to gas planning and management, which I suspect is why he is still alive and pushing. In previous training we talked about why the rule of thirds is not conservative enough here in Mexico. Locally, we have low flow caves that do not provide the benefit spitting you out. This was clearly demonstrated when Allie and I almost sucked my tanks dry during a drill in her full cave class. I surfaced with the gauge reading nearly zero after my safety stop.

For pushing challenging cave, the rule of thirds is not conservative. He suggests the rule of sixths or quarters. We discussed the actual usable volume in the tank, which I had never taken into account, and that we should factor that into our gas calculations. The point being, you can never finish a dive with too much gas. The conditions we will encounter include: zero visibility for extended periods, passing major restrictions in zero visibility, entanglements in zero visibility and equipment failures in zero visibility. Any one of these will delay your exit, take two and you’re going to be very glad you have plenty of gas. The extra volume will be a determining factor in your ability to stay calm, cool and collected. As you will read, I learned this lesson. We closed the lecture with an equipment workshop that lead to additional tweaks.

The first day’s diving was confined water skills at Ponderosa. I had the option to go to other sites, but Ponderosa is convenient to both of us. Be forewarned, I am not going to spoil the plot and reveal everything, just the highlights. To begin, every skill I performed I had to perform with visibility and without visibility. So, if I describe a skill, understand I did it at least twice.

The skills started off easy. I demonstrated my ability to swim with tanks on, one tank on and no tanks on. I needed to do this through restrictions. This culminated in having to pass a no-mount restriction in one direction with visibility and then pass it in reverse with no visibility. This was by far the tightest restriction I had ever negotiated. I had to breathe out to get through it. This is where the day got really interesting. I arrived at the restriction in zero visibility. I identified it and then backed up a couple of feet to prepare my gear. This included removing my right tank and butt-mounting it. As I did this, I forgot to clip the lower clip to off on the tank, so it “grabbed” the guideline. I figured this out quickly. I got the tanks into position while maintaining contact with the guideline. As I proceeded through the restriction, I was nervous because the first pass was really tight and I had to push myself through with my feet. It was a mental challenge. I made it through the restriction. I audibly celebrated and Steve heard me. My celebration was short lived.

Surprisingly, the line “came off” a large placement. I was left with ample slack line in the water. I didn’t realize there was slack line, so I started to replace my tanks. Almost immediately, I was entangled. Steve says he did nothing besides remove the placement. The entanglement was natural. As I swung my left tank back into place, I heard gas leaking. I thought, damn he is piling it on. Zero visibility, entangled and a leak.

My first stage was leaking from one of the LP hoses. This was a real equipment failure, must have been Murphy and his love of cave divers. I turned off the left tank and went on the right tank. I decided deal with one problem at a time, the entanglement. I couldn’t see working an entanglement and feathering the valve. This is where practice and a methodical approach really count.

I started to work out how I was entangled. I tried to untangle myself but it seemed hopeless. In retrospect, I should have spent another four or five minutes working the tangle and the slack line. If I were patient and removed some of my gear, I could have gotten through it. But at the time, the only option was to cut the line. When I was sure I was on the exit side with the line wrapped around my hand, I removed my Z-knife and cut the line. Ping! The other end was gone. I put a loop in the line and looked for a spot to secure it. I couldn’t find one immediately, so I move with the line and finned. Later, I found out that the fining blew the other end of the line away from me. I my search for a spot to secure the line, I realized I was on the cave side of the line. I smacked my head and grumbled to myself. Steve later told me that I had rotated through 180 degrees prior to cutting the line. I was disoriented and didn’t realize it.

Steve hovered watching with amazement. He told me that he really enjoyed watching; he couldn’t have planned it any better. It was the real deal, all natural in the course of a dive. It was a lesson I could never have planned.

I am on the cave side of the severed guideline with a leaky regulator. I thought, “This really sucks.” I collected myself, deployed my safety spool and attached it to the guide line. I started my search for the guide line, making another mistake; I neglected securing prior initiating my search. So after a minute or two, I returned and secured the line properly near the exit of the restriction. I knew approximately which direction the next tie off was from the exit of the restriction. I did a very methodical search and after 25 minutes, I found the errant end of the line. If you have spent anytime at Ponderosa, you can image how difficult this task is with the pond weed and the rocks. The restriction and the tie off are about 15 feet apart and I was looking for the loose end of a cave line in pond weed.

At one point in the drill, I briefly considered quitting. Twenty five minutes is a long time and I started to feel hopeless. However, I remembered something I had read, “Never giving up and don’t waste time scribing notes, just keep going till it is over.” I knew for a second why people surrender and are found lifeless with gas in their tanks.

With the line in hand, I had to connect my safety spool to close the gap. This is when I discovered that I had too much line on the spool for it to be useful. I was already under a lot stress, and then I had to fight with my spool to get it clipped off. Once it was clipped off, I chose to leave the spool inline, instead of making a proper repair. I wasn’t sure how long it had been or how much gas I had left. My tank was getting very light. Later I learned this was a mistake. If I had another entanglement, broken guideline or missing jump spool, I would have been without the piece of gear I needed most. Steve suggested that I make every reasonable effort to take my safety spool.

After I passed the next restriction, I switched to the leaky tank and feathered it all the way home. The drill was a HUGE success. I learned some huge lessons:

  • Be on the right side of the guideline when you cut it. Seems obvious, right?
  • If you can, hold onto both ends of the line.
  • Have plenty of gas. You may have to do a lost line drill with only one cylinder available.
  • Failures never come alone. Gotta love Murphy.
  • The only option at this level is calm cool persistence. If you don’t have it, do not proceed.

The most difficult skill I had to master was to swap regulators between tanks underwater. This is a three part drill: breath from a free flowing regulator while feathering it, breath from a tank valve underwater and perform the regulator swap.

This was a very difficult set of skills for me to master. My breath holding ability is weak, less then one minute. And this decreases as the CO2 builds up. This skill took me 5 attempts over two days before I was able to get through it in zero visibility. One attempt I had to ask for a regulator from another tank. One attempt I ended up bolting to the surface because I panicked a little, which is exactly what we are trying to train out.

I have been tasked with practicing this set of skills till I have it nailed. Steve also suggested I seek some apnea training to increase my breath holding skills. We agreed 2-3 minutes is a reasonable goal and will provide ample time.

The class included two cave dives. The skill was to complete the dives. We did two dives down stream at Grand Cenote. This was a pleasure. The benefit of going downstream is you are the only team in that part of the system. There wasn’t a single hand print or fin slash. The system is in great shape. The two dives included a handful of major restrictions that required passing with a single tank and a high flow major restriction. We turned the second dive when we got to a silty no-mount restriction. We were nearing our turn pressure. I have to admit, the cave diving was a relief compared to the skills in confined water.

Steve video taped me during the dives. We reviewed the video and talked about: my strengths, my blunders and bad habits.

My homework for stage/multi-stage side-mount class next month is:

  • Become more aware of my tank position. I am letting them get too high on my body.
  • Work on my frog kick. I am doing half a frog kick with just my ankles. I am wasting a lot of energy.
  • Work on my kick selection. I am capable of doing all the kicks, I just don’t always chose the best one. I frog kick when I shouldn’t.
  • Work on my apnea skills.
  • Work on my ability to breath from the tank and swap regulators.

After reflecting on class and the skills practiced, I am convinced that training at this level is as much about mental toughness and learning personal limits and capacity as it is about learning specific skills. By this time, one must possess excellent watermanship, commitment, confidence and dexterity as a prerequisite. You shouldn’t be learning these at this level; they need to be in muscle memory. The drills we executed and the dives we performed provided the grounds for me to hone my mental toughness, assess my limits, and determine my ability to function effectively as the failures pile up.

May 19, 2008   16 Comments

Dive 367: Cenote Ponderosa (Eden) – SISTEMA X’TABAY

Eastern Sunday brought some very hot weather and little wind. Clearly this was a sign to flee the urban center and head down to the Cenote for a dive. Katie, Patrick’s girlfriend, Allie and myself headed to Ponderosa for a cave dive. Truth be known, Allie read while the two of us went for a dive. Allie starts her full cave class tomorrow and doesn’t want to over load this week. I am very happy to report if all goes as planned, she will be full cave certified at the end of the week. That means the end of the intro restrictions and many more possibilities!

I am sure she is going to do great. She is an excellent cave diver already and a natural athlete! She is amazing, she sees someone do something or has it explained to her and she can do it. No weeks of practice, she just does it. I have to earn everything through lots of practice and asking repeatedly how to do it. As luck would have it, she is in class alone. So, I will be shadowing the class and playing buddy. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to hone our team skills.

Now back to the dive report, Patrick gave Katie and I a little briefing on his white board and he suggested we head up to Cenote Sask Leem Ha. He said there is a consistent halocline and lots of percolation. He said he hadn’t seen anyone up in that area of the system all the times he has been there. He was right, the system looked very nice and wasn’t that trashed. Katie and I headed out, she wa in back mount and I was in side mount again. So, I had the long hose with me.

The dive started by heading to the cavern line over to Cenote Corral. We followed the line to the double arrows. We jumped on a gold kermantle line and followed the line up to an unmarked jump Patrick described. We took the jump to the right up and over a big piece of break down. The line ran up into passage that was getting smaller and T’ed into another line. We were not expecting the T, we were expecting a jump, and so a little confused we turned. A post dive examination of the map revealed the likely destination of the T to the right was Cenote Uchil Ha (acient waters) the left was our original planned path. The fact is, the lines here in Mexico are changing all the time. You really need to be a thinking diver here. From day to day, the line might be in a totally different place or a different material. T’s turn into jumps, jumps turn into T’s. The end of lines move. You never really know, until you are in the water looking at it. No trust me dives here, you must pay attention or you will perish.

Luckily, we had planned an alternate route to continue our dive. We picked up our gear and headed further into the cave on the gold line to the next marked jump and took it. This line runs to a depth of about 50 feet and then goes up vertically about 15-20 feet. I thought it was very cool. We swam past some marked jumps and the line to Cenote Sask Leem Ha. We continued a couple of minutes and I had to turn on thirds. Katie had about 10bar left.

As soon we turned, we entered into a storm of percolation and halocline. The silt is very dark in this section of the cave and the light gets eaten up right away. Almost immediately, a knot developed in my left calf. Damn, another cramp. I stopped Katie, and went to work on my leg, all the while more percolation fell on me. After a couple of seconds, this started to clear and we continued. I have this on going cramping problem. I had attributed it to dehydration and an electrolytic imbalance. I am starting to believe it might be my breathing pattern. I had an intuitive thought that cramping can be the result of CO2 build up, so I decided to take a couple of very deep breaths and clear out my lungs. Guess what? The cramp cleared. All the massaging and pulling did little compared to a couple of deep breaths.

I am going to talk to Steve about breathing tomorrow. Maybe this is the root of my relentless cramping issues?

The end of the dive I spent practicing swimming in all the orientations and backwards. I am getting better!

This dive was fantastic. The cave is really beautiful. Lots of big break down and shelves of huge stone. The cave doesn’t run straight all that often here, so there is always something to tune into. Plus you get to do the cavern. I think the return trip through the cavern with the lights off is absolutely breath taking! Some people might complain about all the time on the cavern line. I think it is worth it.

Katie and I agreed to go back and finish what we started at the T. This would be a great dive to take a 40 stage on and leave it at the start of the gold line. Just enough gas to deal with the cavern section.

One closing thought about Ponderosa, if you are not registered with them. Don’t bother coming to dive without a guide! They will not let you in. We were there with Protec and they still gave us a hassle. We got it, but it took a little haggling by Katie.

Max Depth: 50ffw
Run Time: 85 minutes

March 23, 2008   Comments Off on Dive 367: Cenote Ponderosa (Eden) – SISTEMA X’TABAY