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Wednesday 20 Nov 2013
Tulum, Mexico

Cenotes Part 1 Clouds at 27m

After a last lazy day around Cozumel, we packed up and finally moved ourselves out of the cosy Amigos nest.  Christina had tried unsuccessfully to change her flights from Guatemala City up to Cancun, after we decided that we really didn’t want to go to Guatemala after all, but had to go and speak to an Air Mexico rep in person as nobody in the call centre could speak English.  We stored our bags in the bus station and set off for an address we’d found online, but it must have been an old one as there was definitely no Air Mexico office there now.  Instead, Christina had to bounce it back to the travel agent in Sweden to resolve and we caught the bus down to Tulum.  This time, we had to catch the second-class bus, which was hot and sticky but thankfully only an hour’s journey. 

In Tulum, we found our hostel and checked into a private room.  There was a very noisy bar next door, but the owner assured us the music would finish at 10pm.  We got the basics covered and dumped our clothes at a launderette, before scoping out the dive shops in town.

Tulum is the centre of the cenote dive area.  The whole of the Yucatan peninsula is a maze of underwater caves - known as the best cave dive area in the world and attracts many people for this reason.  Cenotes are sinkholes in the ground’s limestone crust.  Thousands of years ago, this area was a huge coral reef under the sea.  After it was lifted by seismic activity, the porous calcific rock was gradually eroded by water passing through to create a huge network of caves.  Over time, the weight of the new vegetation growing on the surface became too much for the limestone crust to bear and sinkholes were formed as the rock gave way, crashing into the water below. 

Some cenotes are simple open pools, while others are partially covered by overhanging rock around the outside.  A few are isolated pockets of water, while most are still linked to the cave network, and through this connected with the sea.  The inland water table is 10-20m lower than sea level, allowing freshwater to sit on top of the saltwater. Because the liquids have different densities, they don’t mix, instead forming a halocline between them.  This can be a strange oily layer, or in some cases, a sulphurous cloud.  The freshwater is filtered through the rock, removing most of the impurities, so it is generally very clear.

We spoke to a couple of dive centres and decided on a place called Motmot.  The instructor, Jamie, had worked in the area for three years so knew the cenotes well.  They had very good equipment in a well-maintained shop, which was reassuring after our experiences in Cozumel.  We discussed the different options and settled on three cenotes for the next day.

We started the day with breakfast at the Motmot bakery, included in our dive package.  Jamie was our personal guide for the day, which was great for our confidence after such a mixed group in Cozumel.  We drove up to our first cenote: Angelita.  Like many cenotes, Angelita was hidden in the jungle, so we had a walk in from the car.  We went in to have a look at it first.  It looked just like a pond in the woods.  It was about 15m across with a drop of about 2m to get into the water. Once we’d geared up, we didn’t hang round too long because of the mosquitoes infesting the water’s edge.  Christina is particularly appetising for the little biters, and she picked up several bites while putting on her fins.

Jamie jumped in first and I followed.  Most of my dives have been from boats where I’ve entered the water by rolling backwards off the edge.  Goose-stepping off a ledge is a bit different and I wasn’t holding my regulator tightly enough as I jumped in.  The water pushed the regulator upwards and cut into my gum, while jamming the purge button open on my second-stage, so I lost about 20psi of air before Jamie sorted it out for me.  It was a bit of a shock, but Jamie was very calm and gave me a few minutes to collect myself (and stop bleeding) before we descended.

Diving in freshwater is a little different from saltwater.  The lack of salt means it is easier to sink and buoyancy control takes some adjustment.  The freshwater was so clear that it was almost invisible.  We could see the walls of the cenote all around us and the peculiar halocline cloud 27m below, looking like dry ice in a movie set.  Reaching it felt just like being in a plane at that moment before dropping through the clouds when coming into land.  We were the first divers of the day in Angelita, so the cloud hadn’t yet been disturbed.  It can vary anywhere from 1-7m thick depending on dive activity.  We held hands with Jamie and dropped slowly through the cloud. It was a very strange sensation – going from the pure clear water above into the misty, cloudy whiteness, before emerging below into equally clear water, but this time with a darker greenish tinge as the daylight was muted by the halocline.  There was still a good 6m below the cloud, which allowed us to swim around and admire the unusual surroundings.  It was very odd to see trees resting on the bottom, their branches disappearing up into the cloud. 

We rose back up through the halocline, again feeling that odd sensation of coming out into the freshwater that felt like it wasn’t really there.  I came up above Christina and watched her emerge.  She looked just like she was walking on the cloud, so I grabbed her camera and took her picture.  Another group of divers had arrived when we first got in the water, and we watched them reappearing from the cloud too.  They sat in a line on the emerging tree branch, looking for all the world as if they were sitting by a stream dipping their toes in the water.  I’d never even heard of cenote diving before a few weeks ago, but after this example, I loved it.

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #2 Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica

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I met Christina in April. We travelled a bit of Australia together and both learned to dive. Now we're off to Mexico and Belize to see what the Caribbean and the Great Mesoamerican Reef have to offer, before I head down to Costa Rica for 10 days.

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