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Crystal Clear Cenotes
Phenomenal Cavern Diving in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
It seems like everywhere you look, divers are buzzing about cenote diving. In 2021, Mexico has become an even hotter dive destination due to easy entry requirements for foreign travelers. So if you’re looking for a new underwater adventure or just need a dive vacation, consider cenote diving in the Yucatan.
What Are Cenotes
Cenotes are underwater caverns created by natural sinkholes that have filled with water. Centuries ago, the Yucatan peninsula was actually under sea level. Then, as the land began to rise, underwater rivers formed intricate limestone cave systems. The caverns we see today are the result of this ecological shift.
Cenotes were considered sacred by the ancient Mayans. They saw the sinkholes as the portal to Xibalba - or the underworld. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Road to El Dorado, you are sure to remember the procession of gold offerings “to Xibalba,” however real ancient Mayans also offered up their dead.
Water at the surface of cenotes is freshwater and famous for its fantastic visibility. However, as you go deeper, between 10m-30m depending on the cenote, you will encounter a halocline layer where freshwater mixes with saltwater. This mixing creates a dreamy cloud-like effect with incredibly poor visibility.
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Open Water Diving in Cenotes
Open Water certified divers can dive in many of the cenotes in the Yucatan under supervision from a fully certified cave diver. Although further certifications are not necessary, excellent buoyancy control is. Cenotes are fragile ecosystems. So, it’s crucial divers are in control to avoid breaking off delicate stalactites.
Cenote dives for open water divers are cavern dives due to the overhead environment, but not cave dives. For an open water diver to cavern dive, there are three limits they need to be aware of.
Open water cavern divers must:
Never be more than 40m from the surface
Always see natural light
Never enter caves, meaning a spot that you have to turn around to exit
Special Considerations for Cenote Diving
Cenote dive guides must have their full cave diver certification and can only bring up to four people underwater. Guides will typically dive side-mount since a single tank does not meet cavern diving safety standards. They also must bring multiple torches.
During a cenote dive, you will follow your guide and typically a pre-fixed line. The water is colder than one might expect in steamy Mexico. While I usually dive in the ocean nearby with only a rash guard, I was chilly in a full 5mm wetsuit in the cenotes!
For divers new to cenote diving, it’s important to realize air consumption rules are different than an open water environment. The Rule of Thirds is also used in cave diving and states one-third of the tank is used on the descent, one-third on the ascent, and the last third is a reserve.
On an ecological note, be sure to be clean of any sunscreen or bug repellent before entering a cenote. Cenote ecosystems are incredibly delicate, and harsh chemicals can easily cause damage. Luckily, there are showers available at many popular cenotes to rinse off.
What to Expect Diving in Cenotes
After a hot walk from the parking lot to the site in a full wetsuit, you’ll be thrilled to jump into the cool water of the cenote. Then, after everyone is ready, you will slowly descend into a hole filled with crystal clear water.
In cenotes such as The Pit, the light from the surface plays beautifully on the cavern walls. With such excellent visibility, it’s truly a sight to be seen.
While there are few fish, all the cenotes in the Yucatan are full of gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites. Since limestone stalactites form at an incredibly slow rate of less than 10cm every thousand years, it’s especially vital divers refrain from breaking them.
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Diving in the Cenotes Near Tulum
While I’m lucky enough to live on the nearby island of Cozumel, I only recently made it out to Tulum to go for a couple of cenote dives. I’ll tell you; it was phenomenal!
We chose to dive with a small SSI shop called Scuba Tulum that has been operating in the region for more than a decade. Our guide Martino was super friendly and knowledgeable both about cavern diving and the cenotes themselves. Scuba Tulum is also an excellent value price-wise.
Just like dive sites, there is no “best” cenote as it’s up to personal preference. However, Scuba Tulum suggested two incredible cenotes for our trip based on our skill level and site preferences.
Diving “El Pit”
The first dive of the day brought us to the Pit, a recently famous 121m deep sinkhole with crystal clear water like I had never seen before.
The journey to the Pit is in itself an adventure. After entering the Dos Ojos Natural Park, it’s another 10-minute drive on a bumpy dirt road to reach the site. Once we arrived, we assembled our gear and prepared ourselves for the long trek down the wooden stairs into the cenote.
The main draw of the Pit is the deep light beam penetration. On sunny days, the light appears to dance through the water and onto the cavern walls. While it’s possible to do this dive as an Open Water Diver, Advanced Open Water or a deep specialty is recommended to get the most out of your dive.
The Pit also features neat overhangs full of stalactites, a halocline layer around 12m, and a hydrogen sulfide layer around 27m. This milky cloud of hydrogen sulfide is the result of bacteria and the breakdown of plant material.
With the sun pouring in from above and an eerie cloud of hydrogen sulfide below, El Pit feels otherworldly; Xibalba, perhaps?
The Bat Cave at Dos Ojos
Dos Ojos, which translates to two eyes, appears to be two separate sinkholes from the surface but is actually connected by a 400m passage. There are routes divers can take in Dos Ojos, the Barbie Line, and the Bat Cave. While I’ve heard the Barbie Line is also great, I’m a big fan of bats.
Like diving the Pit, we drove to the site, suited up, and made our way to the entry point. Once in the water, we descended and followed a pre-fixed line.
Despite being a part of Sac Actun, the most extensive underwater cave system in the world, Dos Ojos is relatively shallow. Therefore, expect a max depth of only 10m on this dive. However, deeper is not always better. One of the most spectacular parts of this dive is a brief surface stop!
That’s right, regardless of what your dive computer tells you, a surface stop in an epic bat cave is totally still diving. Previously accessible to snorkelers, the bat cave at Dos Ojos now can only be accessed by scuba divers or swimmers with hard-to-obtain permissions.
Around 20 minutes into our dive, we surfaced into a gorgeous cavern full of tiny bats. Strategically shining our torches, we watched bats resting and flying around the ceiling. Where else can you see bats on a dive?!
After playing around in the bat cave, we continued our dive until we reached the second “eye” of Dos Ojos. Again, we surfaced to check it out, then continued to our entry point, where we exited the water.
Why You Should Dive Cenotes in Mexico
Cenote diving is the adventure of a lifetime, even for ocean lovers like myself. So pack your fins and come on down to Mexico for a unique and remarkable dive vacation!
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