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Wednesday 20 Nov 2013
Tulum, Mexico

Cenotes Part 2 Claustrophobia and Cathedrals

Our next cenote dive was at Calavera, the Skull. The main opening was no more than 5m across, with two small holes nearby looking like eye sockets.  We had a good 3m drop into the water this time, but I managed it.  The cenote is undercut around the outside.  Discussing the cenotes with Jamie yesterday, we’d both said clearly we didn't want to go into any caves.  Cave diving requires special training and equipment, e.g. tanks on the side of the body instead of the back to protect the regulator connectors.  Jamie had assured us that we wouldn’t be going into any caves, just into the undercut areas around the cenotes.  We’d be able to explore the stalactites and rock formations under the overhangs, but see the way out the whole time.

Calavera was a lot darker than Angelito because of the smaller opening.  We had torches with us so we could see our way and look around under the overhangs.  We descended and followed a fixed line down to the rock walls, where we were greeted with a big sign:

“STOP! Do not go any further if you are not a qualified cave diver.  Unqualified and inexperienced divers can get lost and die here.  There is nothing here worth dying for.”

Jamie shone his torch at it and then swam past.  I looked at Christina, as if to ask, ‘are we really doing this?’ but she just shrugged.  We still followed the fixed line and I recognised this would lead us back to the entrance, but I was unhappy about where we were going.  We followed Jamie cautiously through a large cavern.  There were beautiful patterns in the rock and rock columns supporting the overhang.  We could also see a shimmering haze of the halocline below us, which Jamie had said to avoid disturbing.  I was still having difficulty with my buoyancy.  I was scared of hitting the rock above or disturbing the halocline below.  Though I had several metres of space to move around in, I was feeling more and more claustrophobic.  I felt like Jamie had disregarded our wishes and taken us straight into a cave tunnel, laughing at the sign as we went past.  He looked back occasionally to check we were ok.  After 10 mins or so, I stopped pretending and let him know I was feeling claustrophobic.  I couldn’t see the way out and felt like we were moving further and further from the entrance.  I have a fear of getting trapped in caves above the surface, let alone underwater.  Jamie was very good with me, seeing how unhappy I was.  He brought me level and held my hand to make sure I was calm, then had me follow the fixed line with my hand the whole time.  It was reassuring, but didn’t really solve the problem.  He tried to distract me by pointing out interesting things to look at on the way, but I could feel myself getting more and more panicky.  He even pointed to the light coming down from one of the smaller holes in the rock ceiling.  It took a lot of self-control not to bolt straight for it, but I was afraid of getting stuck there and not being able to get out.  The main opening had a ladder waiting for us, but for all I could tell, heading to the smaller ones might have been more like sitting at the bottom of a well.  I trusted Jamie to get me out, but I was almost in tears trying to hold down my panic and keep my breathing under control.  

After what felt like forever (but was really less than 15 mins) we reached a junction with another STOP sign.  The fixed line branched off up towards the light from the surface, or continued ahead.  I looked at Jamie and he indicated a turn.  I thought he meant we just had to swim around the sign before going up, but then realised he meant we were turning around to swim back the way we had come.  That was the final straw for me.  No way was I going back into the cave when there was an exit right here and I demonstrated as much.  Sign language may be limited under water, but I think I stated my position firmly enough.  Jamie was surprised – I don’t think he’d realised just how scared I was – but he didn’t try and stop me.  I felt really bad cutting Christina’s dive short, but I couldn’t continue. 

As we followed the line up, understanding dawned.  This was actually the same line we’d followed in and the same STOP sign we’d seen before. Once I had got my bearings again, I felt the panic dissipate.  Jamie made sure I was ok, told me to do my safety stop and left me happily watching the small fish playing around me.  I shooed them both off and he took Christina back down into the undercut and spent another 20 minutes playing in the halocline.  I surfaced and sat on the bottom of the ladder, getting my emotions under control as the adrenaline gradually left my system.  I climbed out and sat in the sunshine with my feet dangling over the edge.  Watching the bubbles appear around the edge of the water, I finally understood properly where we had been swimming.  We hadn’t actually been in a tunnel at all, just following a channel around the outside of the cenote.  Because it was so much darker in the cenote, I hadn’t realised that it had been open on my right the whole time.  The smaller holes were above the water level in the main part of the cave, rather than individual wells, as I’d feared. 

The situation highlighted again the importance of a full dive briefing.  Jamie had shown us diagrams and explained the cenote’s layout yesterday, but I hadn’t been able to correlate that with what I’d seen today, being thrown particularly by the STOP sign.  It had actually been referring to the cave tunnel that led off directly behind it where we had turned right to follow the line.  I hadn’t seen that tunnel, so had assumed it referred to where we were going.

I watched Christina and Jamie approaching the surface and waved as they broke through. Christina had a huge grin on her face.  She’d had a great time floating up and down through the halocline, marvelling at the blue water above and the green water below.  I wish I’d had a better understanding of where we’d been as it looked so cool in her video clips, but there’s no way I could have held on to my panic long enough to play if I’d gone back around with them.  I’m glad she was able to continue the dive and enjoy it properly.  She still rates it as one of her favourite dives.

Our last stop was the Grand Cenote.  This was a much larger sinkhole with a wide, open central area.  Several wooden floating platforms had been built in the middle for the snorkellers and sunbathers.  We traipsed in and had an audience as we descended.  It was funny to see the snorkellers all stuck on the surface while we could go and explore further.  The undercut in Grand Cenote was much bigger.  Huge stalagmites and stalactites created pillars supporting the roof, which made it feel like swimming through a submerged cathedral.  I didn’t feel claustrophobic because I could always see where I was and how to get out.  The big opening let in so much light, with sunbeams cutting through the water and rippling over the rocks and pillars creating beautiful effects.  I had so much more room to move and so much light to see by, that I could relax and enjoy the dive.  In fact, I loved it!  A very unusual day’s diving.  Despite the fear in Calavera, the overall experience was really special.  I appreciated the way Jamie looked after me when I was scared and I’m proud that I kept control and didn’t bolt. 

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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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