Akumal Cave Project 2004 – 23rd March Update

Tuesday 23rd March 2004

Links: Check out photos from the expedition here! | Read more on the expedition

Not everything is as you remember it.

Sometimes the second time is sweeter than the first.

Diving is in full swing again.  Karl is managing his illness well, on the mend actually.  We headed to the far side of the moon today.  We were investigating leads off the freeway tunnel.  I had not been there since he and I laid the line in the tunnel in 2000.  It is funny how you think you remember something so vividly, yet when we went back it was only slightly as I remembered. 

Now, that can be because the first time the excitement of exploration colored my impression a bit or because it was new and I just was not able to process the detail that well.  However, it was even more spectacular than I had even imagined.  Another nice thing was that for the first time since Karl and I found the Chamber of the Gods I was able to swim the connection from Cenote de Muchachos.

The cave is just huge, incredibly decorated and massive.  In smaller cave, you feel an intimacy with the passage you are in.  Especially during exploration, you feel attached to that portion of cave.  Almost like it is an extension of you.  You are putting yourself forward into it and it is accepting you as go.  Each small piece of new line connects deep within you. 

Big cave like this is a completely different experience when you break into it.  It is every explorers dream to push down small tight passage and break into giant cave that eats reels of line like they are going out of style.  There is a rush of excitement when you are lucky enough to experience that for the first time.  You never grow tired of it.  In fact, it was one of the things that keep you coming back, again and again.   It can feel like you have to pay your dues and earn that privilege at times. 

Chamber of the Gods was my first big cave.  Boy, what a big piece of cave it was.  In 2000, Karl and I had been working downstream from Cenote Camilo through small silty passages for three days.  We even called the area the Low Silt Line.  I was bird-dogging for him as he ran the reel. 

Bird-dogging is swimming slightly ahead of the person with the reel in the passage being explored so he could follow you while running the reel.  This allows the reel operator to concentrate of good line placement and shots rather than having to make decisions about where to go with the exploration.  This is only done when the cave is not so small as to cause a safety issue.

I turned a corner and my light reflected off a high ceiling.  The effect was very strange.  I remember thinking how strange it was.  Then, slowly it began to hit me. 

It is very strange how the brain works in moments like this.  It really does not register what you are seeing right away.  You are acting in slow motion as the world passes by in real time.  Strange as it may sound, the experience is one you never forget.

I realized that the reflection was white ceiling and it was very far away.  A few more kicks and I was able to turn into the passage.  All that came to my mind was Oh My God…  As the tears, yes tears ran down my face in my mask, I was filled with a sense of being very small.  It was awesome and overwhelming at the same time.  It is a feeling that is almost impossible to explain unless you have experienced it.  I was hanging in a void of water with nothing around me.  This is made even more dramatic having just come from small dark passage.

I turned and signaled Karl who was busy making a tie off to the sidewall just before entering this giant passage.  He could see the smile on my face.  I have to admit I violated good cave diving etiquette.  I dropped out of working position into a vertical position and just hovered.  Not a major problem when the bottom is forty feet away.  I think I was screaming or laughing.  Arms widespread and laughing.  I regained my composure and remembered that now that we are in big cave we have more work to do. 

Up to this point in my exploration career, I had been thrown little leads on big projects or left to my own devices in small systems with little passages.   New line was hard fought for me.  I had many successes and very many more failures with hundreds of dives picking at cave.  Really, all of it was successful because I learned a great deal and made it back to tell the story from every dive.  But, this field hardening taught me how to deal with small cave and how to read trends in the geology.  When systems are difficult to work, you tend to get really good at everything that will help you progress more easily.  Sistema Camilo has been throwing big leads and big cave at all participants from day one. 

I sometimes wonder if those who participate who are new to exploration truly appreciate and understand just how special this system is.  It is so uncommon for people to have the opportunity to spool a reel on their first exploration dive.  Heck, it is unusual for most explorers to lay any line on their first exploration dive, even in their first year of exploration. 

The Cambrian Foundation projects are open to those who qualify for the diving program.  The Akumal Caveproject has remained open to all that had the necessary skills regardless of experience with exploration.  This project has produced line for more than a dozen first time explorers.  That is unprecedented. 

While the lack of experience by some of the team members from year to year may slow things down a little, it is also part of the mission to help educate those who are participating in the expeditions as well.  The learning does not stop in the field.  The projects are as much a growth period for the participants as the educational outreach that results from the project is for those who participate in that.  The only way to produce cave explorers is to have them actually explore. 

This passage led to many more great experiences for many people.  It is not Karl’s or my passage.  We just happened to be lucky enough to be the ones swimming in it that particular day.  It is not even the project’s passage.  It is the cave that allows us to be there and really we are but a passing blink of the eye for the cave.  This is just one of many stories just like it for those who broke into big cave in this system.  Many more remain to be discovered. 

Today, we made our way through the Chamber of the Gods into the Freeway passage.  We were looking for leads off this passage.  We investigated several leads and most walled out.  We turned the dive on gas.  Many good leads remain to be investigated. 

There are several reasons to turn the dive.  On this day, we turned because we consumed one third of our gas supply, leaving two thirds for the return trip back out of the system.  We also turn dives based on reaching maximum time available, reaching a depth that is beyond the depth we have available due to gas mixture or decompression gas or simply because we have a bad feeling.  I have turned many dives just because something just did not feel right on that day.  It is one of the most important rules of technical diving.  Any team member can turn any dive for any reason with no consequences. 

Following our training and the rules of accident analysis, we made our way back to the entrance.  When you are that far back in the cave your mentality changes.  It is a point where you either trust your training and let go of the idea that you are just so far away from home that you are completely dependent on your equipment or you fall victim to the chattering monkeys (that would be the distance monkey in this case) and turn the dive.  Once you are able to overcome that barrier these dives a very calming psychologically.  No, really they are.

The students from the Fuqua School who quickly removed all of gear from the cenotes greeted us once we surfaced.  What a luxury it is to have this level of support.  The students are so excited to learn and eager to help.  It takes a little longer to get through the predive process and post dive break down, but that delay is completely worth it to help the students learn more about what and why we are doing this.

The jungle team for the day made their way to all of the cenotes in the system except for Kaibab.  They sampled in Muchachos, Mud and Raphael. They actually took the trails from Cenote de Muchachos through the jungle to Coati Mundi and then cut back to one of the survey trails that are already cut in the jungle.  This trail brought them very close to Carrie’s loft and No Name Cave.  They sampled the rest of the cenotes including Little Cave.  The students marked trails and actually did a jog back through the jungle testing the sure footedness. 

The Aktun Chen team continued exploration of the semi dry cave.  They found a new passage that they named the Scorpion Pond Line because it ends at a small pond that had a cave scorpion in it.  They surveyed their work and tied it into the main line.  Bob joined the team to film the work being done.  The students capture some great images of their work.

The students processed their data in the evening.  They corrected for declination and transferred their data to paper.  They students are responsible for all data collection and processes.  They are holding the survey sheets and are responsible for the line plot data and growing map.   Once all the data is collected, the students will produce a map for the facility at Aktun Chen.

These students are so motivated and dedicated to this work.  It is very exciting to see them actually using the skills they have learned and those they bring with them to produce good work.  They really want to do the work correctly, the first time.  They are not afraid to ask questions if they feel they need to know something and never hesitate to participate when asked to. 

This was a very good day.

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Links: Check out photos from the expedition here! | Read more on the expedition