Playa Del Carmen Mexico
Cave Training report.
Last year, while visiting Thailand I got an email from my good buddy Ron in Portland inviting me to go to Playa Del Carmen to take a cave course with him at Protec Dive Center. I thought at the time, gee I can’t afford that; gee my wife will never let me go on another dive vacation so soon after this one but then I looked a little more closely and thought, she would have a ball there. Well she did and I had a great time diving so here are my thoughts on the experience.
We were originally scheduled to do all the training on rebreathers but our instructor Andreas Matthes (Matt) was unavailable for the time we were there. We decided to do cavern and intro cave on open circuit and return next year to complete full/technical cave. Looking back I am glad because we have plenty to learn and practice before going any further. We did decide to bring the rebreathers for our fun dives. It was really interesting to explain to TSA staff what a rebreather is and that bags of white granules (sodalime) packed in your bags are not illegal substances. I packed the MSDS sheet with the sodalime to reduce hassles.
Our first day at Playa, Bernadette from Protec took us to Ponderosa Cenote to check out our gear. I was immediately amazed at how crystal clear the water was even with the number of kids jumping off the cliffs above our heads. I am glad I did the checkout dive because my HID light kept cutting out. Luckily for me Protec is a Dive Rite repair facility and the problem turned out to be a faulty cable that they repaired under warranty!
We were introduced to our instructor Fernando (Nando) who is from Mexico City but has spent many years in the Yucatan area and when not teaching cave is out squeezing into small holes with his side-mounts. After filling out paperwork we learned about the limits of our training, which seemed very restrictive at the time yet after swimming ½ hour into a dark cave using only 1/6 of your available air seemed very appropriate. One of the most noticeable factors in cave diving is the strict discipline and adherence to rules. It is sobering to realize these rules were not just made up by a committee but were based on lessons learned at a very costly price.
We set up our gear, pulling off hoses here, adding clips there until we had a very hogarthian type setup that is the most common set up seen around the caves in this area. We were ready for the first dive which we went to a cenote called Chac Mool . We were taught a few new hand signals including the one we saw frequently the first day for “get in trim” which meant properly horizontal with knees bent so your ankles are elevated. Ron had to struggle with the kicks and Nando was not impressed with Ron’s split fins. I was more comfortable in this whole configuration as I still do most of my tech diving in open circuit where as Ron had dove rebreather exclusively for several years now.
Our first dive was a skills circuit in open water which involved learning gas sharing using a long hose, s-drills, no mask swimming, touch contact signals, and gas sharing with no mask while doing touch contact. Although I thought this was going to be a challenge I was surprisingly comfortable with both my dive buddy and my instructor during these drill. After learning line tie offs and basic reel techniques we were ready for some cavern zone diving. We began the way every subsequent dive started with bubble check, equipment matching, gas matching, dive plan, s-drill. If the water in the cenote was fascinating and beautiful the rock formations in the cavern zone made me very impatient for the cave zone. I can see why so many un-trained divers have been lured by the beauty of the caves, often to their ultimate doom. After setting our primary and secondary tie offs we entered the cavern zone. We are still in natural light zone but now we have many feet of solid limestone between the fresh air and us. It was a little daunting at first. Nando is not a believer in unannounced drills so when he twists his index finger into his palm in a drilling motion, it means something is going to hit the fan. In this case we exited the cavern zone while sharing gas. Strangely enough, although Nando taught us there are 2 faces to every cave, the one you see going in and the one you see coming out, we failed to see the inward face on any training dive.
Now we were ready to perform our first true cave dive. We executed our usual pre-dive checks, plans and drills and commenced our first penetration of a system known as Kukul Can section of Chac Mool. As we passed the warning sign with the grim reaper warning us to prevent our death I felt my heart speed up a little. Once we headed in, the beauty of the cave made me forget about the reality of where I was in relation to the life giving oxygen at the surface. On this dive I first noticed a phenomena known as halo-cline. Depending on where the cave is in relation to the ocean there is a layer of fresh water with a layer of salt water below it. In this case it was found at about 40ft. The water from above looks like you are looking down at a pool of water shimmering below you, which seems impossible since you are already under water. From below the halo-cline looks more plausible since it looks like you are looking at the surface even though you are 40 ft deep. While swimming in the middle of the interface the light is broken up into a mosaic pattern that makes everything look like an impressionist oil painting. It also prompted me to contact the guideline at times because it became hard to see. As per our plan we hit the 1/6 mark of our gas supply and had to turn the dive. Shortly after came the all too familiar drilling-the-hand motion from Nando indicated something was going to happen. This time it was just a primary light failure and we had to locate and deploy our back-up light. This was to be the last time we saw the exit of a cave for a while.
Next day we did 3 dives at Ponderosa after practicing line drills on land where we laid a course in the trees using the techniques taught to us we were to close our eyes and using touch contact follow the line back to the start. Nando had timed the whole thing and pointed out that although we had laid the line and entered the trees in 2 minutes it took us four to find out way back with our eyes closed. This demonstrated the importance of making haste during our emergency exit. Twice the time equals twice the gas and so speed should be a big consideration when an emergency occurs. Ponderosa was also a very lovely cave and although we exited “River Run” once and “Little Joe” twice in the dark, while sharing air, the swim in was very interesting. We asked Nando about all the formations we had seen in pictures of the area and he told us certain caves were reserved for training to reduce the inevitable damage these caves will sustain from the multitude of divers who come here every year to enjoy this underwater realm. “When you see stalactites is when you start getting good” he told us, which we took to mean he’s not letting us near a stalactite until we are in control of our buoyancy and trim.
We started day 4 with line drills again. This time we practiced lost line and lost diver drills. Let me just pause here to say Nando spoke fluent English and his accent was very easy to understand but one expression caused Ron and I to look at each other with surprise. “When a diver gets separated from the line you must attach a line arrow pointing to the exit and then tie off your safety line before searching for the body”. “ Say what” I interrupted. “You know your body, partner”. “I think you mean buddy” I corrected not a big stickler for correct English this particular one was a little more important to our feeling of well-being.
Lost line drill was one that gave me a little apprehension going in. The thought of being in the dark, in a cave, away from the guideline was just a little frightening but I found it to be surprisingly easy. The apprehension was more severe than the actual experience. The lost diver was fun too, when it was my turn to search for the lost body, er buddy Nando purposely stirred up silt in an area which would have lead me out of my other team members line of sight which is a no-no so I turned around to find Nando hiding a mere 6” above Ron’s head who was waiting on the cave side of the line and while watching me was unaware of his presence. He explained later he had matched his breathing to Ron’s so that Ron could not hear his exhale bubbles.
Our final dive of the course took us to the white line of Taj Mahal we were quickly impressed with the many rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites that were here in the cave. Ron and I looked at each other and smiled. Nando had taken us to a decorated area of the cave and we felt like he had trusted us with a special secret. This was what attracted thousands of divers to the Yucatan every year and why many, like Nando just stay.
After all training was over Ron and I both felt we were far more at ease, even though we were at times ½ hour’s swim away from daylight than we ever expected. A great level of trust is required to enter the cave zone. Trust in your equipment, trust in your training, and your trainer. Most importantly Ron was an excellent buddy and friend. I had lots of fun with him although I don’t think Nando always thought we were as funny as we thought we were. I would take training from Nando any day. His knowledge and love of the cave system is very apparent and his calm manner made such a challenging course very easy and relaxing.
Ron and I finished our cave experience with 2 dives unescorted by an instructor. Using techniques we had learned, we performed 2 more dives. The first at a cenote called “Car Wash” where they actually used to use the cenote to wash cars there. Ron’s girlfriend Patti was diving her Megaladon rebreather in the cavern zone while Ron and I borrowed the services of Patti’s cavern guide, Bernadette to help us locate the main cave line. I am glad we did because it turns out a primary reel has just barely enough line to get to the permanent line at “Car Wash” if you don’t run it right you won’t make it. In fact I discovered my primary reel after years of use and cutting a foot here and a foot there came up quite short. We extended it with another spare spool and although it took us nearly 14 minutes to make the tie in we finally reached the main line and got some good practice at laying line.. We waved good-bye to Bernadette and proceeded in. This was a very ornate cave and had a large number of formations. The cave was darker than others we had been in due to the colour of the rock, which was made up of deep grey and brown hues. The turn pressure in my tanks came way too soon and we found ourselves back in the sunlight a mere 46 minutes later.
The last dive of the trip was a real treat. We entered the Sac Actun system at Grand Cenote and, once again with Bernie’s help located the permanent line. This line took us into the most ornate caves yet. The labyrinth of tunnels held some of the most remarkable rock formations imaginable. The only disturbing part was we passed an area where there appeared to be a very intense vibration from within the cave which seemed to focus on one area but was with us for most of the dive. Had I seen any debris falling I would have thumbed the dive but there was no signs of anything abnormal. We proceeded through the tunnels until we came upon a light zone at another cenote known as “Ho-Tul”. This was to be our turn around point and we returned to the cave entrance a mere 47 minutes later. Since the girls were still enjoying the cavern zone we made a new dive plan and followed the golden line through the cavern zone. This area was also very ornate and we saw very beautiful rock formations everywhere. Ron later commented, “It feels like we just dove through a National Geographic magazine”.
After writing this I feel my words are inadequate to describe the majestic beauty found in these caves. I will be returning next year for the second phase of my cave training . Karen, (my wife) told me daily what a great time she is having so I am sure it will be a much easier sell next time I want to go see some caves in Mexico.