It’s been said that per attempt, cave diving is the single most dangerous sport in the world. It’s dark, the spaces are cramped and you can’t easily get to the surface if something goes wrong. Going into a situation for the first time with that in mind is pretty daunting. Luckily, in terms of personal risk, there is a big difference between SCUBA diving in a cave and in a cavern and there’s plenty of locations to start gently and work your way up. An experienced local guide and good buoyancy control are an absolute must though! I was fortunate to get the opportunity to do both in one day recently. Thankfully I was diving with good friends among which is a very experienced cave diver. That said, the large quantities of adrenaline coursing through my veins told me this was still a new, challenging and somewhat scary experience.
We were diving in 2 different cenotes, El Pit and Dream Gate. They’re approximately 45 minutes from Playa Del Carmen along the main highway. Turning off the highway for Dos Ojos to get to El Pit you quickly realise that although the cenotes are tourist attractions this is still very much a remote location. Dream Gate even more so. There is no sign for the turning and you have to drive through private property to get to the dirt track. El Pit is exactly as the name suggests, a deep circular cavern and a really nice introduction to cavern diving.
These places are wild and beautiful, that is if you’re not at the big tourist hot spots where the tour buses go. El Pit was exactly the picture I had in mind for a cenote and it certainly met my expectations. Facilities are limited though so experience and planning is essential. There are no places to set up your gear so you either assemble everything on the floor or on a rickety bench. The hike to the entrance is mercifully short however there is a long and steep set of stairs to tackle before you jump in. As you dive down through the cold and crystal clear water to approximately 25 to 30 meters you meet a layer of liquid hydrogen sulfide which looks like a surreal and dreamy cloud of chalk approximately 2 – 5 meters thick. It’s difficult to see through and toxic if you spend a lot of time in it. We didn’t stay below the hydrogen sulfide for very long. My dive buddy, Phil, experienced nitrogen narcosis in a big way on the way through and along with near zero visibility, casually descended to a whopping 51 meters! Since we couldn’t see a thing on the way through the cloud we didn’t see the dive leader level out before 40 meters and once visibility returned it became apparent I’d followed my buddy down to 49 meters… Ooops! Luckily our experienced cave diving leader saw what was happening very quickly, made contact and recovered the situation. With the narcosis fading, we spent the next 45 minutes gradually ascending as we circled the cavern many times. There was an incredible amount of different spaces to explore. From large cavernous areas with huge stalactites coming from the ceiling to small shelved areas with only 1.5 meters room from floor to ceiling. It was a new and magical experience for me and I couldn’t help but smile every time I caught a glimpse of the open cavern filled with sunlight back-lighting a group of descending divers. It’s just such an iconic view of cavern diving which I’d recommend it to any diver without claustrophobia 🙂
Next was on to Dream Gate.
While still technically a cavern dive it’s right on the boundary of the definition of cavern. In reality it’s about as close to getting to do a cave dive as you can without a cave diving qualification. The diving companies only take experienced divers here and that can been seen in how pristine everything is. This was a truly beautiful experience. The cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites were amazing. The maximum depth may only be 7 meters but at some points you have less than 1 meter between floor and ceiling which is exhilarating the first time you glide through such tight spaces in the pitch black. We managed to do both routes in one dive, barely saw a single other diver and exited feeling both elated and super relaxed. That said while it was beautiful, exhilarating and relaxing I wouldn’t recommend doing this dive if your buoyancy control isn’t spot on. You’ll spend your whole dive crashing into the floor and ceiling while surrounded by a cloud of extremely fine sand.
As a thank you for making it this far through my article I’ll leave you with a video mostly filmed in El Pit 🙂
Filmed and edited by Phil Bunyard (In his spare time between episodes of narcosis!)
As always, I’d love to hear about your thoughts and any experiences you’ve had with diving in caverns and caves.
Ciao for now!
p.s. coming up I have an article discussing the pursuit of happiness as I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about it recently. I’ll also be looking for a way to give you more insight into nitrogen narcosis – what it is, how it feels, what happens when you have it etc…