For those of you thinking that the world will end in 2012, I'm sorry to inform you that Dec 2012 only marks the end of the Mayan Calendar - not the end of the world. In ancient times, this means that sacrifices will be made, and another pyramid/altar will be built on top of the existing one to mark the beginning of another calendar/era. (Facts to be checked!) Life goes on the way it has since the Millennium, the way we move from one calendar year to another.
Anyway, I digress. The Yucatan is largely a limestone slab, and rain over the years have seeped through and created huge caverns, making this area a haven for cave diving. (fact check!) I imagine the place to be an underground network of caverns, like the ants' nest.
I had the opportunity to dive in a couple of the cenotes, and it was an experience of a lifetime. Cave diving is somewhat different from open water diving, and my buddy and I were given a mini briefing by our guide before proceeding:
1. Swim where I swim
2. Do not swim above or below me
3. The cave is pitch black in some parts, stay within an arms reach
4. If you need to surface, let me know instead of wandering around and getting lost
5. Where the saltwater and fresh water meet, you may encounter a haze, this is normal. (Me thinking 'What is this guy high on?')
etc, etc. I lost interest and stopped paying attention. I nodded periodically and waited for him to finish so we can start the dive.
Despite the weather being hot and humid on the surface, the water was chillingly cold, and very refreshing. There are signs of some life in the waters, but nothing very interesting compared to tropical reefs. The caves however, were beyond amazing.
For people who have visited caves on foot, remember how you “Oooh" and “Ahhhhh”ed over the cave formations? The huge ceilings, stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. You were allowed to view them, but always from a distance, and never allowed to touch them? Now imagine you can FLY, and are given unlimited access to (respectfully) touch/inspect them from ANY angle. I was in heaven! I swam between columns with the tiny fishes, checked out the underbelly of a cave ceiling, swam from one cavern through a tunnel to another, saw rays of sunlight lighting an otherwise dark cave, and finally surfaced in a closed cavern with tree roots that have grown down the cavern for water. I was half tempted to climb up the roots to the ceiling of the cave, but decided not to due to the poor lighting from our torches and my equipment weighing me down.
That surface also helped us to re orientate as I kind of lost my bearing 'flying' through the caves. At one point we stopped and switched our torches off. It was pitch black and I remember now knowing which way was up. I figured it out only with the help of my bubbles after the lights were back on.
We passed a sign warning us not to go beyond that point as many people including experienced dive instructors have lost their way and died. My guide went straight through it (I'm sure he was high!) and I was in no position to protest, as I saw no exit to surface, so I obediently followed and prayed fervently that he knew what he was doing.
At one point, we came to the cavern where the saltwater meets the fresh water, and I finally understood what my guide meant. This effect is called the halocline. Initially, I thought I was seeing things, if not for the prior briefing we had, I'd be absolutely certain I was drugged. Everything looked hazy and out of focus, like what is showed on television when someone is high, and the temperature fluctuates between warm and cool depending on whether salt or fresh water is getting into your wet suit. It was a most bizarre experience. Eventually, I figured how to get out of this 'haze'. All I had to do was swim a little higher than the meeting point. However, I am now presented with another optical illusion of air space. I swear this is the stuff of dreams. It looks exactly like I am now floating in the air, and there is a lake (of saltwater) in the cavern, except I know I am still submerged because I am still breathing through my regulator. Wish I have a photo!
I also managed an open water dive off Cozumel where dolphins came to swim with us during our decompression stop. They were circling us and close enough to touch, except they'll always be just out of reach if I were to extend my hand. One dolphin even turned sideways to check me out when I swam along doing dolphin kicks, as if asking why I'm swimming funny. After 3 minutes, we had to surface as my buddy ran out of air and I didn't have a computer.
I went and bought a dive computer immediately after that trip.