Text by ADM Photojournalist Jeff Toorish Photography by Curt Bowen and Jeff Toorish
When most people think of flying into Cancun, Mexico, images of skimpy bikinis, sandy beaches, and fruity rum drinks come to mind. But for a team of intrepid ADM explorers, writers, photographers, and videographers, Cancun Airport is merely a waypoint on a journey into the harsh scrub jungle of the Yucatan.
Forget what you know about Mexico
The Yucatan, and much of Mexico, remains mostly undiscovered and undeveloped, filled with places most tourists will never see. There are mysteries, hidden Mayan relics, and human remains awaiting discovery. Advanced Diver Magazine publisher Curt Bowen and other ADM explorers have made a decade-long commitment to return to Yucatan each year in an effort to help archaeologists and government researchers learn more about the area. It is a commitment to preserve the history of the Maya, who dominated this part of Central America for thousands of years and then nearly vanished. Much of the legacy of the Mayan culture remains, but much of it is hidden, waiting to be discovered.
Photo: 2008 Yucatan Expeditions Director of Photography, Nathalie Lasselin, shoots HD footage of ancient human remains discovered deep inside Cenote San Antonia Excucul
Photo: Exploring and documenting the Yucatan underground requires a massive amount of climbing and rappelling equipment. As explorer Brett Hemphill is searching the underground, videographer Nathalie Lasselin is lowered into the cave entrance to capture the possible excitement of new discoveries.
This expedition brings a new and complicating twist: in addition to exploration and discovery, a team from ADM Productions will videotape the entire expedition. Director of Photography Nathalie Lasselin, and videographer Olivia Aravecchia, from Pixnat Productions recorded the teams activities for a future joint ADM/Pixnat video production. They worked on land and deep within Yucatans mysterious underwater caves.
Other team members are veteran cave divers and explorers Brett Hemphill and Jon Bojar; cave diver Kim Smith, whose company Jetsam, manufacturers the KISS rebreather; Mexican archaeologist Norma Garcia; ADM Chief Photojournalist and explorer Jeff Toorish; long time guides Enrique Soberanes and Elmer joined the team in Homun, Mexico.
Its a cigarette lighter, 007 but not just a cigarette lighter.
You know that scene in every James Bond movie when equipment-meister Q shows 007 his new and nifty gear like the cigarette lighter that is also a welding torch? It means Bond always has exactly the gear he needs for his espionage escapades. Every piece of gear is used, and there is never a crucial piece of equipment not at hand.
Unfortunately, thats not exactly how it goes on an expedition. Each explorer and diver gears up in a different location. That makes communication very important. For example, the team needs a good tool kit for in the field fixes. But the team does not need half a dozen tool kits taking up space and weight. One person brings the tool kit. The same rule applies to anything the team can reasonably share, but it requires strict coordination.
For this trip there were also additional questions about exactly what kind of videotape cameras and which underwater housing would best suit the needs of the production team. Nathalie chose two Sony HVR-Z1U high-definition video cameras, one in a Seacam housing to record the expedition. Underwater lighting came from a pair of high intensity Solus LEDs. For the most part, we would employ natural light with bounce modifiers for above water videotaping.
Other photo equipment included Nikon and Canon cameras in Aquatica housings, Inon Z-240 strobes, and Underwater Light System (ULCS) strobe arms, the choice of most ADM photographers. Additional scuba equipment came from Dive Rite, and climbing gear from CMI Climbing and Rescue Gear.
Most of the team uses Armadillo side-mount harnesses as their BCD. Aluminum 80 tanks filled with air are pretty much all you can find for breathing gas in rural Mexico. Each member also uses a climbing harness and other gear of his or her choice.
There was a bit of a wrinkle at Mexican customs in Cancun. Customs officers were very interested in the teams equipment, specifically cameras and scuba gear. Any divers planning to travel to Mexico for a scuba/photo trip should check with Mexican customs for the latest policy on bringing your gear into the country a concern that never seems to affect James Bond.
Dry Cave and Vampires
Traditionally, the first day of an expedition is primarily to check out gear, what sailors call a shakedown cruise. Travel can be tough on critical, life-support equipment so the team uses the first day for thorough checks of climbing, diving, and photo/video equipment. That was the idea at least.
This is a team of explorers and it is pretty much impossible for them to stop exploring, even for a short period of time. In Huhi, Yucatan, while Jon Bojar was testing his gear in a cenote, Brett Hemphill wandered off and discovered a large dry virgin cave nearby. It contained several deep passages. It was a perfect opportunity to explore and ensure the video gear had not been damaged in transit. The cave itself supported a large colony of bats, including vampires.
As team members crawled deeper into the cave, the bats quickly became curious, and within minutes they were literally whizzing past our faces. There were large deposits of vampire bat droppings, oozing with parasites and glistening a deep azure color. Vampire bat guano is extremely toxic so everyone did his or her best to stay clear.
This cave also sported something even more fascinating than flying rodents: elaborate cave markings, including handprints, most likely from Mayan times. The Mayans revered caves and often used them in ceremonies and for rituals. These markings are significant to archaeologists because they provide important clues to Mayan culture and daily life.
Right Photo: Team Archaeologist Norma Garcia is lowered into a never-before-explored cenote as she continues her studies to better understand the Maya culture and the role the cenote played throughout history.
Team explorer Jillian Morris poses beside an old Mayan hand-made wall we discovered deep inside a dry cave passage. Note the small door entrance located in the wall leading to an inner chamber. Another man-made wall was discovered beyond this, leading into an even deeper chamber.
With the team out of the caves and cenotes, and the gear eventually all checked out, it was time to move on to our real mission: discovering, diving, and documenting cenotes.
Three cenotes stand out as memorable: San Antonia Excucul, San Miguel, and Cenote Carril. All three are the final resting place of human remains, but each has its own remarkable geological personality that can be even more fascinating.
San Antonia Excucul
As our two extended vans bounce along a narrow, uneven path through the jungle, the branches of trees, pricker bushes, and other plants scrape along the sides creating a tense, grating sound. The noise tells us we are deep in the bowels of Yucatan, and paved roads are only an occasional luxury. Atop distant trees there is ominous movement. A wake of vultures has perched to watch our progress. Their presence lends a sinister pall as we drive past. Seeing birds like that always makes me wonder what they waiting for ?
More than a dozen human remains are hidden beneath the waters of San Antonia Excucul (abbreviated to San Antonia). To enter, we must rappel through a narrow well shaft and drop about 40 feet to the water, after which it is a relatively straightforward dive.
This would be a major video operation, with videographer Nathalie Lasselin in the water for about three hours. Lasselin was first into the water, and I dropped in immediately after for support.
While our emphasis was clearly on the video work, we would also need still photos. This presented a problem; normally, we would use strobes on the digital still camera. But the flash of the strobe lights would flare-out the video camera. The best option was to use the video lights only, with no strobes. This would mean the still photographers, Curt and myself, would have to work with the available light, which would be tricky at best.
Left: Explorer Brett Hemphill assists Curt Bowens camera as he illuminates newly discovered underwater human remains.
Above: Searching for an alternative to replace underwater camera strobes, cave photographer Curt Bowen incorporates twin Solus SV1 video light heads capable of delivering over 2500 beam lumens. This technique allows the cave photographer to place multiple high-intensity lights and meter the camera as if shooting outside.
Right: Ending result from the shoot above.
As we waited for the topside team to lower tanks and cameras, I noticed something moving across the surface of the water. As I shined my 24-watt Salvo HID light in the direction of the movement, I could clearly see what was headed our way: spiders. Lots of spiders. They looked like large, aggressive daddy long legs rapidly skimming along the top layer of water toward Nathalie and me. The scene was vaguely surrealistic, reminiscent of a B-grade horror movie. A few gentle splashes and the concentric circle of waves sent the skimmers back to their respective lairs. We didnt see them again.
Diving San Antonia is breathtaking. As we corkscrew to depth around large rock outcroppings and debris and into the cave area, we come upon the remains of humans and animals. There is also evidence of the long-ago Mayan culture that made Central America home. We discover tools, shards of pottery, intact pots and other ceramics, which we carefully photograph and videotape.
Top: Team coordinator and explorer Curt Bowen rappels into Cenote San Miguel as the Director of Photography Nathalie Lasselin captures the event on HD video. Middle: Jon Bojar examines a giant curtain of flowstones located high on the outer walls of Cenote San Miguel. Bottom: Brett Hemphill discovers ancient Maya pottery nestled in calcite crystals inside Cenote San Miguel.
This is a true cave, with a deep passage that drops to more than 200 feet. It will be the deepest dive of the expedition, barring a significant new find. Curt Bowen and Jon Bojar will lead the team, diving to the deepest depth of 200 feet. Videographer Nathalie Lasselin and I will hang back a bit, with a maximum depth of about 150 feet and explorer Brett Hemphill will act as safety diver and spotter.
The team has a limited number of aluminum 80 tanks. This is exploration diving, so there is very little margin for error. Bottom time will be short, and we will begin racking up a decompression obligation very quickly. This will also prove to be a challenging dive for Nathalie because she is not used to side-mounting, and she must control the large video camera housing.
The geology of San Miguel affects its dive characteristics. The water is clear and blue with a depth of about 90 feet. But there is a thin layer of calcite that covers the top of the water in most places. Exhaust bubbles eventually break the calcite, causing it to float to the bottom of the cenote. The calcite causes the water to take on a milky look. But first, while the calcite is still in larger chunks, it looks like snow gently floating to ground.
The drop from the surface into the cenote at San Miguel is about 60 feet, and relatively simple. In all, five divers, ten tanks, two high-power Solus LED lights, one digital still camera, and one high-definition video camera went into the cenote. Making matters slightly easier, there is a large debris mound under the well opening, and while everyone had to be careful not to begin a cascade of silt down the side of the mound, it did provide a convenient place for staging air tanks.
This is a beautiful cave; and while there was serious work to be done, there was also a sense of great adventure. The dive team made a circuit about half way around the silt mound and then began swimming into the cave. Each diver had rehearsed his or her specific job, but timing was critically important. Video lights made it impossible for videographer Nathalie Lasselin to use hand signals. To further complicate the dive, Curt and Jon could not point their hand-held lights anywhere near the video camera because the housings 180-degree dome port would completely flare the camera lens, ruining the video.
Hemphill used his light to illuminate Lasselins hands; or, in some cases, gave the signals himself while staying above and behind Lasselin. In this manner, Curt and Jon could see the signals but Brett Hemphills light did not affect the video camera.
The swim into the cave went smoothly, and generally as planned. Curt and Jon made their entry and Nathalie videotaped it. We immediately turned and started our return trip.
With a growing decompression obligation, the team began a slow ascent through a series of stops. It was then that one of my second stage regulators experienced a partial failure. It had been breathing wet for the past few minutes; eventually the wetness became a free flow with every inhalation. However, I could use my tongue to stop the flow.
Back at the church in Homun that evening, I could see the problem was a ripped outer cover on the diaphragm, essentially allowing water to seep into the inner chamber. For the next day of diving, I would switch to a back-up second stage.
This cenote presented the most daunting physical challenges of the dive because of the difficulty getting equipment to the small opening, and then getting explorers and photographers into and out of the hole.
Cenote Carril is a spectacular dive with a large, ballroom type cavern. Because of the extremely small surface opening, there is virtually no light penetration. It is a cave, for all intents and purposes. ADM teams have attempted to videotape Carril on two separate occasions, and both times the complications of geography and equipment failures ended the mission.
There are two features in Carril that together make it unique among cenotes in this part of Yucatan, one geological and the other archaeological. The first is a giant stalagmite, indicating that this cave was once dry. Hoping the third time is a charm, the plan was to videotape the stalagmite and also attempt to measure it for documentary purposes. Carrils second feature is a completely intact skeleton. Based on forensic evidence and the position of the remains, the victim was most likely murdered and disposed of in the cenote some time ago.
Because of the difficulty entering and exiting this cave, team leader Curt Bowen decided that the team would be divided into two. The first divers in would be Nathalie on video, followed by Norma, Brett and Curt. Everyone else would remain topside to assist. Once they had finished their work, team one would climb out and team two, consisting of Jon, Kim Smith, and myself would enter the cave for additional still photos. Only explorers with their full cave ticket would be going into Carril.
Below: The teams video lights illuminate a complete human skeleton lying on her side. Undisturbed for possibly hundreds of years, her skeletal position tells a tale of accidental mishap or maybe a premeditated murder.
The stalagmite in Carril is magnificent huge and very difficult to photograph. Its size is hard to determine. It dominates this large cave and also makes for a handy reference point.
It is clear that Carril has never been visited by recreational divers. It is about 60 feet from the entrance to the water, but the drop is hindered by a small opening that is extremely difficult to navigate. There is no visible damage from human intrusion, and the light walls and silt are pristine. Delicate, thin stalactites drop from the ceiling, looking like long soda straws.
The remains of Carrils only apparent victim are intact. The form of the skeleton is clearly visible. The skull is slightly turned, as if sleeping. The color of the bones indicates this skeleton is probably not from the Mayan era, and one can only wonder how it came to its end in such a remote place. Based on the visible evidence, the victim was probably already dead prior to landing in this final resting place.
Above: Kim Smith, owner of Kiss Rebreathers and a sponsor of the ADMs exploration team, assists with lowering needed equipment into Cenote Miguel.
Middle: ADM Explorer Erik Foreman returns from the subterranean passages with new discoveries of virgin cave and ancient artifacts.
Below: Explorer Brett Hemphill poses under 25-foot tall giant bacon flowstone curtains located inside Cenote Carril, one of the Yucatans most beautiful and well decorated caves discovered by the ADM teams.
The plan was successful, and the team captured unique video and photographs of Cenote Carril. Some of the photos you can see here, and there are more on the web at www.advanceddivermagazine.com. Watch for additional information on the release of the video.
The true purpose of any ADM expedition is discovery and exploration. In the case of Yucatan, it is also to pursue as much knowledge as possible about this fascinating part of the world. This trip proved a bit different than Yucatan adventures of the recent past. Normally, the explorers will split into two, three, or even four smaller teams, often to pursue different objectives, such as biological or archaeological research. This year, all members stayed as a single unit because of the video production.
This trip also saw greater exploration of fewer cenotes, allowing the archaeologists longer investigation at each location. Archaeologist Norma Garcia has made important observations about Mayan cultural practices, specifically related to human sacrifice.
Often people assume the human bones and skulls are from some sacrificial victim thousands of years ago. But even over the vastness of time, body positions often remain remarkably in place, which can tell trained investigators a great deal. Someone falling, or being
pushed, into a cenote while alive will wind up in a very different position than someone who was already dead. Because of the longer time spent at each cenote, we were able to gather more evidence, including photographs and video, to help further unwrap the mysteries of the Mayan civilization.
Jeff Toorish is the Chief Photojournalist for Advanced Diver Magazine. He lives in Maine with his wife and children.
Advanced Diver Magazine will be embarking on more video production expeditions in the coming months and years. Watch for details in Advanced Diver Magazine, ADM E-zine, and AdvancedDiverMagazine.com
Special Thanks to our ADM Exploration Team Sponsors
Diverite Kiss Rebreathers
Solus Submesible Products
Golem Gear CMI Climbing Equipment
Below: The 2008 ADM Yucatan Expedition Team members. Left to right bottom row: Jeff Toorish, Enrique Soberanes, Elmer Echeverria, Nathalie Lasselin, Brett Hemphill, Olivia Aravecchia, Jillian Morris, Jon Bojar. Left to right top row: Curt Bowen, Erik Foreman,
Norma Garcia, Kim Smith
Join the team of Advanced Diver Magazine as they make astonishing discoveries of ancient Maya sacrifice and lost relics.