OUR WORLD UNDERWATER SCHOLAR
2016 Scholar, Felix Butschek, heads to Mexico for Cave Camp and learns to cave dive on a CCR.
My latest trip as the European Rolex Scholar was dedicated to cave diving. I travelled to Tulum, the Mecca of underwater caves, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. There, Lanny and Claire Vogel welcomed me at Underworld, a brand-new and purpose-built dive centre. Their place turned into the venue of Cave Camp, drawing together expert instructors and cave enthusiasts from around the globe.
Caves have been my passion for several years, but so far I have only made it into dry limestone and glacier caves. So, I was extremely excited to combine this with my enthusiasm for diving. I cannot thank Lanny and Claire enough for being such wonderful hosts, as well as Ian France and Sami Paakarinen, who taught me safe cave diving techniques.
Ian, one of the UK’S most-committed mine and cave divers, taught me the CCR Intro to Cave course. He showed me how to lay lines into caves and connect to the main line, first practising dry above ground before going into the subterranean world. To prepare for the overhead environment, we also performed extensive checks and s-drills. I soon realised that cave diving is a psychological challenge in equal parts to its skill and equipment requirements. This became particularly clear when practising zero visibility or complete light failure scenarios with a black-out mask. The cardinal rule of cave diving dictates to maintain a continuous line to the surface. We trained blind exits and simulated lost line incidents. These drills drove home the message that you must take every precaution to avoid such from happening in real life. Safeguarding through pre-dive checks simultaneous to mental preparedness for the possibility of calamity becomes a vital dualism when diving below ground.
After four days of the introductory cave diving course, Sami continued my training towards the full CCR cave certification. He taught me how to navigate complex cave systems making jumps and bridging gaps. We completed two circuits and continued to work on rebreather and cave skills. Advanced dive planning was a key component of the full cave course, to make extended dives into the underworld and bring sufficient bailout gas.
My first dives into caves, however, where so much more than a normal course aiming to fulfil skill requirements. The Mexican cenotes around Tulum are beautifully decorated mazes, with awe-inspiring speleotherms waiting behind almost every corner. Below a depth of 8-15m dependent on the site, denser salt water fills the cenotes. This percolates the limestone from the sea and creates a magical halocline at the boundary to the shallow freshwater layer. When undisturbed, the halocline looks almost like a false ceiling, shimmering like a mirror. Yet once the first diver penetrates this boundary layer, the mixing of fresh and salt water blurs the water into a hazy fuzz. For the teammates that follow, this can feel like looking through an unfocused lens, and trying to discern the cave line nearly gave me a headache. But simply moving a little to the side rather than following in the exact path of the lead diver easily remedies the problem, giving the second and third team diver gin clear perspectives. Once we entered the saltwater part of the caves, we were rewarded with deep sky-blue water that appears to remove all darkness from the tunnels.
It is difficult to capture the beauty of the cenotes. Subterranean caves held a special status in ancient Mayan and Greek culture. On my dives into this mysterious world, I gained some insight into why these civilisations felt such a strong connection to the underworld. It was a true privilege to be introduced to underwater caves by Ian and Sami, two such seasoned cave divers who I have long admired. And I am looking forward to joining Lanny and Claire for Cave Camp 2017, where they have put together such a fabulous event packed with enlightening talks, workshops and great parties. Cave Camp was the ideal opportunity to learn how to dive overhead environments, but it will be just exciting to return there to explore more of the Mexican cave systems.