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Akumal Cave Project 2004 – 27th March Update

Saturday 27th March 2004

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

All good things must come to an end. 

Today we made our way home.  We were early to rise after packing most of the night.  It is surprising just how much equipment and baggage is needed to conduct an expedition.  Of course there are luxury items, but if you are going to be traveling heavy might as well have the creature comforts when we work this hard. 

The students joined us last night for a final dinner.  They are leaving tomorrow.  They get one day to have an actual Spring Break.  They each wrote a small piece about what they feel they are leaving the program with.  We all had an opportunity to say something about how we felt the expedition went.  I felt that the students all showed amazing strength and courage in overcoming a great deal of personal barriers.  It is awesome to see a young person step up when challenged.  I think it is often overlooked that all people will rise to the level of expectations placed on them.  This is even further re-enforced when the students are faced with the results mattering immediately in a profound way. 

The teachers, Dora and Shane, were amazed that we placed such confidence and responsibility in the hands of teenagers.  But, if you are going to teach and expect performance you have to trust that they will be able to come through when it really matters.  That is not to say that we did not double-check everything that the students did, but we did continually extend the level of responsibility as the students grew into areas they were interested in. 

For the dive team, the students were blending nitrox.  They were first guided through the process, then they were supervised while doing it and then they were responsible for all of it.  They were closely supervised, but they will forever remember that their effort was directly responsible for our life support.  What is the point of educating them if the results did not matter? 

The students were completing all of the gas analysis for the cylinders the dive team was using. The individual diver would verify the oxygen reading, but the students would complete all of the documentation for the foundation, check pressures, oxygen percentage and functionality of the regulators.  They were responsible for all of the diving logistics.

They would complete the predive checklist, load the van, unload and transport the equipment to the dive site and help the divers put the gear together.  Prior to the dive, they would turn on the gas in each cylinder and lower it into the water for the diver to place on their kit.  When the divers would ascend, the students would recover all of the gear, record final cylinder pressures and begin to drain them so they could be refilled with nitrox.  The students would reload the van and double check on the divers status for post dive symptoms of decompression issues. 

The students were very helpful.  Personally, I had developed tendonitis in my wrists and right elbow.  This is a normal problem I experience when I am moving a lot of cylinders every day.  One of those overuse injuries that develop in this business.  The students were not there just to move gear, but with their assistance over the second week, my tendonitis completely went away.

By the end of the week, the students were collecting all of the water sample data without much feedback from Amy.  They would collate and process all of the data themselves, and then they would report it to Amy.

Where I witnessed the most remarkable transformations was in the dry cave at Aktun Chen.  The students showed amazing courage in an environment that is totally foreign to them and would intimidate most people.  Josh had been there the previous two days prior to me going in.  So, I told him that he would lead in and be responsible for safety.  He took charge and I would never have known that he was as young as he is.  He really stepped up.  Plus, he was so gung ho in exploring the cave.  He used his curiosity and deductive reasoning to find a new opening to the cave that no one else knew was there.  That is a big deal for anyone.  It was incredible to see the expression of joy in his eyes when he realized what he had found.  Cenote Hidden Breeze will be his discovery forever.   Josh joined this trip as a first year college student.  He had participated in previous Cambrian projects as a student at the Fuqua School.  

Artie, former college intern, showed he is a true cave hound, as he would investigate anything that he was asked to look at.  Artie found the Bat Cave.  Annie showed a real talent for cave exploration.  Meg was right there with us every step of the way.  She even crawled into the water of the Bat Cave to help survey the line out.  Now, I will tell you that experience was one of the most disgusting I have ever had.  Let’s just say that there was a rather strong odor in that part of the cave.   The source of that smell was suspended in that water.  She also crawled up into the new cenote that Josh found to help survey that even with a strong fear of spiders.  There were a lot of spiders in that passage.   What a trooper. 

Boz and Woody injected humor with an incredible work ethic.  Brain worked really hard while portraying a steely confidence.  That young man has big things in his future.  It is always the quiet ones that you have to watch out for.  Amanda is just is a worker.  She will do whatever is asked of her.  She took an especially strong liking to the water sampling and data collection.   

Meagan and Jeremy are go-getters.  They followed Artie almost everywhere he went.  All of the students showed real maturity in that cave.  They always looked out for each other and considered safety first in all of their actions.  The real prize goes to Dora who overcame a huge fear of water to enter the system and join her students in their exploration.   She was right there on her hands and knees crawling through passage with her students.  What a gem.  She is truly dedicated to her work and her students.

Shane had the opportunity to apply the Spanish he teaches to these students on a daily basis.  I think this trip opened his eyes a bit to the differences between academic Spanish and actually using it in the Yucatan.  Shane is a powerful presence in his students’ lives even with one of the most understated demeanors I have ever seen.  He is one of the most unassuming people I have ever met.  A lesson I certainly took to heart and probably need more than a little of.  He pushed his own limits to a point where I thought he would break, yet every time he came bouncing back like a true champion.  The teachers are the true heroes in all this.  Anyone that would dedicate his or her life to educating young people full time is worth calling a hero.  At least I do. 

It is difficult to quantify the impact this will have on these students’ lives.  Terrence and I were talking about it, we wondered if for some this might be the most challenging experience they face in their lives.  The lessons learned and skills taken home will remain with them for the rest of their lives.  I have a feeling that the small inconveniences and not quite right luxury problems people carry with them will not matter to these students as they did prior to this trip.  You can see and feel the tangible difference in all of these young adults confidence just by how they carry themselves now.  I think what is more remarkable is just how much their transformation has given back to the adults involved.  We are all changed people because of each other.  That is very rare for any situation. 

Being on expedition together creates very strong bonds for all involved.  This group will always share something together that will never be taken away.   If we do not see each other for twenty years, there would still be the expedition between all of us. 

The pure results of the expedition were fairly profound for such a small team; one new cenote (Kaibab, this will come in handy in the future for sure.), several thousand feet of new passage added to the system, water quality data from every cenote in the system, all the data necessary to produce a map of a previously unexplored cave at Aktun Chen, some good hard driving cave dives and the satisfaction of putting it out there to stretch the limits of our bodies and mind.  Not bad at all.

The goodbyes were bitter sweet.  The students made each of the Cambrian Team Members individual cards thanking us for what they felt they received in the past week.  It was very touching and heart felt. 

I have a feeling that this is not the last we see of all of these students.  These are the leaders of the future.  It completely reaffirmed for me why I do this.  I can only imagine that everyone else on the team feels the same way.  

I thought I would include a piece I wrote during the 2000 Akumal Expedition.   I was inspired to write this after a long week of major push diving.

Moments of Discovery 

It is moments like this when those who live it can only understand what is experienced.  But, I shall try to make it come to life here.

So few are lucky enough to be friends with people where you literally place your life in their hands.  As cave divers we have that privilege.  As with any privilege, there is a cost.  The reverse holds true.  For if my life is in another’s hands, their life rests squarely in mine.   Someone else’s mistake can kill me, but just as easily mine can kill both of us.  A tangled web that binds people together like so few other experiences can.  I have heard that going to war can bring about similar circumstances.  Not that cave diving can compare on the strategic level.  However, I think on an emotional one the two are very comparable.

For some, the cave diving as war mentality holds truer than seems clear.  They lay siege to the cave.  Doing battle with every inch of passage.  Fighting to gain ground and retreating to gain advantage or reassess plans and perspectives.  This may work for some, but it seems to counter the deeper connection that comes from this baptism by water. 

The earth is open.  Passage lain down by water tens of thousands of years ago, decorated and sculpted.  Now packaged under a veil of the very water that created it.  The passage is not an enemy to be concurred or seized.  Rather, the passage is given to us by the very earth and water that created it. 

The gift is not given freely, almost as if the gift itself grants permission to the receiver.  The cave makes the terms of the exchange.  Really, the cave could care less.  As humans we have a need, an almost habitual obsession to attribute human character to things we find hard to understand.  We cannot grasp the totality of something where changes occur in thousands of years rather than in months.  The cave does not have an emotional attachment to the outcome of exploration.  It, the cave, simply is.  The cave continues to do what it does, uninterrupted and unnoticing of our activity.

We, humans, are the ones with emotional attachments to the outcome of exploration.  In our emotional state, we do receive great joys and great heartaches at the hands of a very unemotional master.

Many choose to avoid such mind-bending thoughts by simply staying home.  This forms an artificial world by which people can introduce an element of control into their life, a cocoon of sorts.  But by hiding from the world are we really living or truly successful in life?  We try to feel powerful.  When faced by something (the cave) that literally carves holes in solid rock and decorates it in the process, most people lose any false sense of power they may have.  We are powerless on that level.  Oh sure we can drill, dig, carve and blow holes into the ground, but we will never be able to match this splendor.

When faced with such an awesome perspective, you can put forth the delusion that you have a hope to lay siege to such a creation.  But when we do we build a glass house.  The magnitude of the truth overwhelms us.  The true nature of the gift is not in the cave, rather it is in what it allows us to experience in ourselves.  The gift is perspective, appreciation, the freezing of time, scope of the universe and our short time here.  

Do you think a fruit fly would worry about whether it would get a vacation next year (assuming, of course, a fruit fly was able to think)?  Probably not.  They only live for about a month.  In terms of the cave, we do not even match the life of a fruit fly.

In sharing with us this experience of the cave, we get a rare glimpse into time itself.  We are here for such a very short time.  The gift is that realization.  You do not have to cave dive to receive that gift.  It lives in all of us.  Just paying attention is the only price.  As cave divers we just get reminded more often.

I guess perspective is not easily molded.  Advertisers would have a much easier time of it if it were.  But, this crazy activity would not be possible without other people.  The exploration process requires people.  From talking to local landowners, to searching through jungle, to huffing equipment in for a dive, to diving in teams, to plotting data, to publishing the map, it all requires the cooperation of many people.

We miss human connection in the modern world.  In fact, we are really bad at it.  That is why most marriages end in divorce.  When we place so much into the hands of so many we learn how to make it work.  The prize for all involved and all gain equally is a connection with other people.

I think that is what makes this and war so powerful for so many, because by its nature, they both force us to relate and connect with other people from a gut level.  Which only issues of survival seem to instill in people.

Connected to all of these benefits is one that is connected to the cave.  That is the water.  For us water is life.  While, we are not adapted to breathe it, water is necessary for our existence.  With that necessity comes a certain excitement with trying to figure out where it wants to go.  That path is critical to our continued access to this necessity for our life.

Having the privilege to try to chase that is an awesome one because the chase can be so exciting.  The discovery is nice but the process of reaching it so much sweeter.  For it is not the final connection, it is the passage we swim to get there. 

That passage is laid out before us.  Often times we make many wrong turns before we find the right one.  That connection simply leads to more passage.  Perspective of how it all fits together is helpful, but the strongest joy lies in that moment, the moment of connection or discovery or both.  When it all comes together, it can only be called magic.

Sistema Camilo Exploration Team

  • Terrence Tysall
  • Renee Power
  • Karl Shreeves
  • Grant W. Graves
  • Steve Berman
  • Bob Giguere
  • Andy Henderson
  • George McCulley
  • Nat Robb
  • Michael St.Germain
  • Cliff Sifton
  • Dave Duguid
  • Joe Fortuna
  • Anna Olecka
  • Mark Corkery
  • Andy Peterson
  • Kyle W. Creamer
  • Steve Gerrard
  • Tony Lee

Cambrian Team 2004

  • Terrence Tysall
  • Renee Power
  • Amy Giannotti
  • Artie Ahr
  • Karl Shreeves
  • Grant W. Graves

Fuqua School Team


  • Shane Newcombe
  • Dora Bounds


  • Annie Rudy
  • Meg Barkley
  • Amanda Massie
  • Meagan Jones
  • Jeremy Wyatt
  • John “Boz” Boswell
  • Woody Dunkum
  • Brian Mackintosh

Former Student

  • Josh Owen

The expedition would not be complete without thanking our sponsors.

  • Aktun Chen
  • Aloha Motel
  • Aquatech/Villas De Rosa
  • Atlan, Inc.
  • BOV, Inc.
  • Brian Ricci and family
  • Dive Rite Inc.
  • Equinox Documentaries 
  • lorida Department of Environmental Protection
  • Fuqua Schools
  • Gypsy Divers
  • Karst Environmental Services 
  • Law Offices of Patrick Magill
  • Magic Screen Graphics
  • Maitland Middle School
  • Middle Creek High School
  • National Association of Cave Diving (NACD)
  • NortekUSA
  • National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS)
  • National Undersea Research Center
  • PADI Project Aware Foundation
  • Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse
  • Port Orange YMCA
  • Publix Grocery Stores
  • Splash Dive Center
  • Sartek
  • Scuba World
  • Sea Dog Diver
  • Town of Apopka
  • United States Coast Guard Station – New Smyrna Beach
  • Volusia County Marine Science Center

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

Grant Graves
Grant Graves
Grant has been diving for over twenty years and has over 5000 dives.  He is a trimix instructor trainer and PADI Course Director.  He has a BS in marine biology from Long BeachState.  He has been technical diving, as such, for over 15 years.  He is a published author and photographer.  He is a working cinematographer / videographer / director.  You have probably seen his work on the diving adventure series The Aquanauts.  He has been a participant in many of DSAT’s productions to develop media for PADI and others.  He is the owner Scuba And Film Enterprises, LLC, a water safety/coordination company that facilitates water work in the entertainment community. He is a Board Member of the United States Apnea Association. No matter what mode he is diving, Grant is striving everyday to help advance the sport and share his love of the sport and its environment with the world.