Wednesday 24th March 2004
Surprises around every corner.
You just do not know till you go.
Today, I was tasked with helping the students explore and survey the Aktun Chen semi dry cave. Wow, what an amazing experience. If you ever get the change to go dry caving it is incredible.
As a certified cave diver, I have always joked that I dive in caves; I do not walk in them. It has been a mistake. Aktun Chen is a dry cave system open to the public for cave tours. Lorenzo, the owner of the park, has been nice enough to allow the students to have access to an area of the park that is not open to the public. The cave the students are exploring and surveying is the upper portion of Aktun Chen. The main passage is totally dry and outfitted for the general public. The upper system is not. This is the area where the students have been working for the last two days.
The mouth of the cave is filled with water. You have to wade in about waist deep water and then crawl through water. Eventually, you make your way to a dry portion of the cave. This cave is only slightly above the water table. There is water all around the edge of the passage.
It is a remarkable system. There is a large cenote that is open to the jungle about half way into the system. The cave is highly decorated with almost every form of speleothem you could imagine.
The students have explored the cave for two days prior to today. The area surrounding the entrance is a huge collapse. There are surface depressions that run straight to the public system.
Josh had been in for both days. So, I put Josh in the lead to bring the team into the cave. The team was made up of Josh, Meg, Meagan, Jeremy, Dora, Artie and myself. The plan was to enter the cave going to the end of the surveyed passage. Once there, we would look for leads and then survey out. Artie was to birddog while Josh ran the reel.
The students found several good leads. One was named the BatCave, for obvious reasons. There were bats everywhere. This passage was filled with water. The area appears to be one of the fresh water sources for this cave. The passage continued underwater. The students did all of the survey back to the point of old exploration.
When we were back at the big room where the old line ended. The group started to search around the area. There are several side chambers. All eventually tie back into the big room, but there is a lot of distinct passage before it ties back in.
Josh was searching around a large breakdown area. He felt a breeze. I was working with another group around a corner when he called me over. We systematically worked the lead. Breeze in a cave generally means an opening to the surface. He worked the area and found an opening that was the source of the breeze. He and I cleared the passage. As we stuck our heads up through the hole we cleared of debris, we saw sunlight. A bit more clearing and crawling we had found a new opening to the system.
Since Josh had found it, he got to name it. After reflecting on the decision, he came up with Cenote Hidden Breeze because that is exactly what it was that led us there. The cenote had a massive slab collapse across its entrance. The piece of rock must weight over one metric ton. We looked to see if there was a way to exit around the slab, but none were found. We did not try to dig out from under the slab, as that is not considered a good idea from inside the cave.
So, I took out my GPS and stuck my arm out between the slab and the cenote wall. It took about twenty-five minutes for the GPS to pick up enough satellites. Finally it was able to secure a mark.
We had been in the cave for over five hours at this point. Batteries in lights were beginning to die and everyone was tired. Josh and Meg surveyed out of the cenote to tie it into the main line. Artie and Jeremy returned from exploring other leads. We decided to leave the remaining survey till tomorrow. It is just not a good idea to spend any more time than necessary on backup lights. Safety first.
The team followed the line back out of the cave, through the water in the opening into daylight. There is plenty of cave left to explore. The project is progressing very well. The final survey will have to be completed tomorrow. Lorenzo was quite happy to hear of the new cenote. He was eager to have the GPS data, which we gave him on the spot.
The dive team was back to look for leads off the Chamber of the Gods. They entered the system at Muchachos. They had five cylinders each. Several good leads were investigated and some line was laid. No major passage was discovered, but many more leads remain.
Exploration goes in spurts. There are dives where you go and look at things you are sure will go. Once there, even with all that confidence nothing happens. This can happen over and over again. Then, there are times that you go expecting nothing and find a huge lead. The activity increases as the new lead is explored. Then, things slow down as the cave shuts down that lead and becomes difficult to read. It really is a series of puzzle pieces that fall into place over the duration of a project.
The puzzle can be small, but often what appears to be a small puzzle becomes larger and larger as things progress. It is all about figuring out where the water goes. Where the water goes, the cave goes too. For me, that is the great fun of this work. Where does the water go? A question every member if the team asks themselves every time they are trying to figure that out.
The jungle team had a huge day. They visited every cenote on the system and cut trail between Kaibab and Coati Mundi. Then, they cut trail from Kaibab to Little Cave, all the while collecting water sampling data.
The students are becoming true field scientists. You can see and hear it in them. They speak with confidence about the things they have learned. They will even correct you if you mistakenly give bad information they know to be incorrect. It is great. It is amazing to see such an evolution in such a short time. I wonder who is learning more the students or us.
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