Wednesday, August 01, 2007

GUE Cave 2 - March 2006

I just got back from taking Cave 2 with Chris Le Maillot in Mexico. It was an extremely challenging course but I am pleased that I learned a ton and was pushed to constantly raise my diving skills to new levels.


Chris and Danny Riordan run DIR-Mexico, a training facility based in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico. They have lived in the area for some time and are the original explorers of several cave systems down there. They remain active explorers today, continuing to discover and map new cave passage. Immediately after our class ended, Chris went on to spend a few days mapping the Ox Bel Ha system. DIR-Mexico is run out of the retail store Zero Gravity. We met there each morning, did our lectures there, and stored our gear there.

Chris is a very nice guy and his love of the caves is evident. He always stresses conservation, so that we and others can enjoy the beauty of the caves for years to come. In class, his demeanor changes a little. He has extremely high standards when it comes to cave instruction and doesn't settle for half-assed efforts. He made this very clear at numerous times during the course when our (or should I say my) performance was not up to his expectations. Yet, he is patient and all issues are open to discussion. Just don't mess up in the cave and everything is fine with him.

The Place

I flew into Cancun airport and a car was waiting for me to take me to my hotel. I stayed at Hotel Villas del Caribe Xpu-Ha, a tiny hotel on the beach a short walk from Zero Gravity. My feelings about the place are mixed. On the plus side, the prices are reasonable, it is on a beautiful beach, it has a quaint beachside restaurant with great healthy food, and is run by very nice people. On the minus side, the accommodations are very basic - no hot water, no refrigerator, very dimly lit rooms, and I saw four cockroaches in my room in the course of nine days. If you are like me and are deathly afraid of cockroaches, this may not be the best place for you.

Zero Gravity is a 15 min walk or 5 min drive away. Each morning, I walked to the main road and Chris picked me up to take me to the shop.

Day 1

Day 1 started at 8am at Zero Gravity. We did our paperwork and made our introductions. My teammates were Markus and Andy from Germany. Both were Tech 1 certified and had a fair bit of experience diving deep lakes in Germany. Markus has also participated in EKPP projects in the past.

We discussed basic cave diving procedures and Chris gave us a lecture on how to do jumps and Ts. Then we drove over to Taj Mahal, a cave system only 5 min away from Zero Gravity.

Prior to every dive, we did our bubble checks and equipment checks on the surface. Then we descended to about 3m/10ft and took turns to do our valve drills and s-drills. Once the whole team was done, we surfaced to review the dive plan and calculate gas. Most dives (except in the Minotauro system due to the numerous restrictions), we took our deco bottles into the cave and dropped them on the line at 6m/20ft.

Dive 1: Taj Mahal
Depth: 13m/42ft
Dive time: 82 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

Markus led the first dive of Cave 2. We did 1 jump and 1 T, turning on thirds. I was immediately struck by how different the caves were from the ones I was used to in Florida. Visibility was excellent, the water was warmer, and the cave was beautifully white and decorated. The halocline was new to me. A halocline is the interface between fresh and salt water, and appears as a beautiful, shimmering layer until it is disturbed. The first person going through a halocline has good visibility, but the others will have their vis greatly blurred if passing through the same area. On this dive, I learned that team positioning relative to the line is very important when going through a halocline.

On this dive and the other dives, Chris left us alone until we turned the dive, then he started introducing "scenarios". These were simulated failures, including light failures, valve problems, out of gas scenarios, and others.

Dive 2: Taj Mahal
Depth: 13m/42ft
Dive time: 72 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

After a short lunch break and debrief on the surface, we went back in for another dive. This time, I led the dive. Chris' debrief was hard, with him telling me that I was rushing all the time, and I needed to work on my fin techniques. I would hear the same comments many more times that week.

By the time we got out of the water, it was getting dark and the bugs were everywhere. We packed up quickly and headed back to the shop for a lecture on circuits and traverses. It was a long first day of Cave 2.

Day 2

We started Day 2 with a lecture on the various valve problems and the protocols for dealing with them. This day, we would set up, and then complete a circuit in the Minotauro system.

Dive 3: Minotauro
Depth: 14m/47ft
Dive time: 90 min
Deco: min deco

Our objective on this dive was to drop our cookies at the furthest point of penetration. This would set up the circuit that we would attempt on the next dive. Minotauro was explored by Chris and some others some years ago and the original survey line is still in the cave. It's a very beautiful cave that has a lot of tight, winding passages near the entrance. This forced us to work on our precision finning techniques. We did not take our deco bottles into this cave, for fear of damaging the fragile formations.

Dive 4: Minotauro Circuit
Depth: 14m/48ft
Dive time: 70 min
Deco: min deco

Somehow, we were a lot faster this time around, and our dive was a lot shorter than the first one even though we completed the 4000ft+ circuit. Perhaps it was because the restrictions seemed a lot easier to navigate the second time around.

We had another lecture to end the day, but the topic of the lecture escape me right now.

Day 3

Day 3 we headed to Tulum, with is a town about 40 min south of Puerto Aventuras. We were to dive Naharon, a very black cave due to the tannic acid of a nearby swamp.

Dive 5: Naharon
Depth: 19m/62ft
Dive time: 88 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

I laid the line on this dive. On the way out, we stopped to do a lost buddy search drill. Again, during the debrief, Chris told me that I was rushing into the cave. I wasn't taking the time to read the cave and to make mental notes of key landmarks. While I managed to find the main line and jumps, the dive would have been smoother and more enjoyable if I had taken my time.

Dive 6: Naharon
Depth: 22m/74ft
Dive time: 64 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

As we were starting dive 6, I had a real light failure. My Helios 9 light had not been charged fully. We called dive, I switched batteries, and we headed back into the cave. This time, part of the dive was below the halocline, in very white passage (salt water had bleached the limestone), a sharp contrast to the blackness of the rest of the cave. This dive ended with no lights and me breathing off Andy's long hose. We managed the scenario well, feeling our way out of the cave successfully while remaining calm.

Once we surfaced, Chris laid a 20m line in the open water. We were to do a breath hold swim without a mask. This consisted swimming on a breath hold to a diver waiting on the other end of the line, and taking the reg out of his mouth in a controlled fashion. Being not a strong swimmer, it took me two tries before making it.

We picked up "roadkill chicken" on the way back to Zero Gravity, where we had a discussion on stage diving techniques and deco.

Day 4

Day 4 was by far the most strenuous day, "hump day", as they call it. It started out with the swim test and breath hold test in Mayan Blue cenote. The cenote was very beautiful but I was too tired and preoccupied to notice.

Dive 7: Mayan Blue
Depth: 24m/79ft
Dive time: 93 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

We were to do our first stage dive in Mayan Blue. Together with the deco bottle that we would drop at 6m/20ft, we would have 2 bottles clipped to us at the beginning and end of the dive. I had not done this before, having only dove 1 stage/deco bottle at once in the past. I had some balance issues during the valve drills and s-drills, but thankfully they resolved themselves as the day went on.

Dive 8: Mayan Blue
Depth: 23m/77ft
Dive time: 75 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

Our next dive was also in Mayan Blue, but to the Death Arrow Passage, so called because the original explorer put line arrows facing into the cave, potentially causing some confusion. It was truly a beautiful passage with breathtaking formations.

We ended the day practicing towing an unconscious diver up and down the cenote. While the technique is effective, it is also very tiring. I would hate to have to do that from deep into a cave.

I was really exhausted by the end of Day 4. We picked up "roadkill chicken" again, and went back to the shop for lectures on deco and cave surveying.

Day 5

Everything had to come together on Day 5 and I had to prove to Chris that I was capable of diving consistently at the level he expected from us. I had had my moments, but had also made mistakes and lapses of judgment that I could not afford to make today. My body was very tired, my back ached, and my legs were tired from all the kicking. But I could not let any of these niggles get the better of me.

Dive 9: Carwash downstream
Depth: 26m/88ft
Dive time: 64 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

On this dive, we got a taste of cave surveying. Andy laid line from the cenote to the main line in the Chamber of Ancients, which was a long way in. Markus was taking survey measurements and I was in the back helping out. When we reached the main line, Markus and I switched roles. In the Chamber, there are ancient fire pits, where you can still see the remains of the coals that people burned there centuries ago. Surveying was fun but challenging, and really showed us how involved the process of mapping a cave can be.

Dive 10: Carwash upstream
Depth: 12m/40ft
Dive time: 43 min
Deco: min deco

The next dive was a short one, where we practiced a lost line drill. In darkness, Chris took us off the line one by one and asked us to find our way back. I took a little longer than my teammates did to complete the drill, and this was a valuable lesson to not lose the line in the first place.

On the surface, Chris said we had done well and the last dive would be our graduation dive. For me, he said I had shown enough improvement throughout the week and enough consistency at the end to make him happy. Now, our reward was a dive without any scenarios, where we could enjoy ourselves and actually have our lights on the whole dive.

Dive 11: Carwash upstream
Depth: 18m/61ft
Dive time: 87 min
Deco: 5 min on O2

We made it past the Room of Tears and into a tight, restrictive passage before turning the dive. Apparently, the Room of Tears got its name when its original explorer, Mike Madden, was moved to tears by its beauty. It was indeed stunningly beautiful, though I don't think any of us shed tears over it.

The day ended with the final exam and a celebratory dinner at my hotel's cafe. Chris congratulated us on our passing the class but at the same time warned us to progress one step at a time, so as to not exceed our training/comfort level.


I took the next day off to recuperate, look around a little, and reflect on the class. After that, I did 2 more days of diving with my German buddies and a visiting EKPP diver from the Netherlands. We dove Naharon again, heading towards Mayan Blue, and did a 2 hour dive at Ponderosa, heading towards Xtabai. All in all, I did 13 dives on this trip, with a total of more than 1000 minutes of bottom time. Looking back, I really enjoyed Cave 2. It was very challenging and the bar is set very high, but that's really what you want when you are attempting long cave dives with complex navigation. Chris is a great instructor - very knowledgeable, a good teacher, and has his ways of making sure you never forget the important points. I'd recommend highly seeing Chris for cave diving training.

Now, I'm back to reality in cold, miserable Chicago, dreaming of the spectacular Mexican caves that I hope to dive again in the near future.

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