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Exploring the Mayan Underworld
By Sam Meacham
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2001, Vol. 16, No. 3

I find myself in a palapa hut in the small Mayan village of Xocen, Yucatán. Outside, the sound of thunder competes with a symphony of frogs welcoming the coming rains. Flashes of lightning illuminate the procession of guests to the traditional Mayan wedding to which I have been invited. Candles placed in the roofbeams dance light across the ceiling and cast shadows onto the scene before me.

I lose count at 125 Mayans, mostly women dressed in their traditional huipil dresses, sitting talking in hushed tones waiting for the ceremony to begin. In the center of the palapa stands a table, and on it rest the sacraments for the ceremony: an adorned cross and two gourds. One gourd is filled with cacao beans and the wedding rings; the other is filled with water drawn from the seven sacred wells or cenotes that encircle Xocen. For the Mayans around me and for their ancestors, the significance of the sacred water cannot be underestimated for it represents the blessing of life itself.

Fresh water: the one resource that we human beings depend on more than anything, and the one that most of us take for granted. As we enter the 21st century, world attention is turning to dwindling fresh water reserves and the need to conserve them for future generations. To find a large pristine fresh water supply in this world is rare. Mexico's Yucatán peninsula contains such a resource.

The peninsula is a land rich in both human and natural history. Dominating the landscape are temples and pyramids that testify to the achievements of the ancient Mayan civilization. Today, the Mayan culture still thrives on the peninsula with many traditions and a strong cultural identity intact. Below the ground runs a common thread that has woven the fabric of life and directed the distribution of human settlement on the peninsula for the last 10,000 years; the world of the cenotes and underground rivers. These underwater labyrinths are part of an intriguing puzzle that explorers and scientists are only just beginning to piece together.

A combination of geologic events and climatic change has led to the development of these unique ecosystems. Limestone comprises much of the bedrock of the peninsula. Over countless thousands of years, rainwater, mixing with carbon dioxide formed a weak solution called carbonic acid that dissolved the limestone, forming rivulets that carved out the cave systems. During the last Ice Age, water levels of the world's oceans were approximately 300 feet lower than their present day levels. The caves of the Yucatán peninsula were dry during that period. When the Ice Age came to a close 18,000 years ago, the climate of the planet warmed up, the glaciers receded, and the caves flooded as sea levels rose. Scientists have varying views on how fast water levels rose, but most agree that the water reached its current level around 1,000 years ago. Carbon dating of artifacts found in some area caves shows them to have been visited by humans more than 9,000 years ago.

Located on the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula, the state of Quintana Roo is world renowned for its beautiful white sand beaches and Mayan temples. Over the last 20 years, dedicated cave diving explorers have discovered more than 40 submerged cave systems beneath the jungles of Quintana Roo. In total, more than 200 miles of submerged passageway have been surveyed and mapped. The three largest underwater cave systems in the world: Sistema Ox Bel Ha, Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich, and Sistema Dos Ojos, all exist within 20 miles of each other. Combined, they account for 55 percent of explored passageway. Two of them, Ox Bel Ha, and Nohoch Nah Chich, flow directly into the Caribbean Sea. This is only a fraction of what exists below the surface. Today's diving technology, combined with improved logistical support, now means that exploration can proceed at a rapid rate.

Scientists have followed behind the efforts of the explorers. What they are finding is nothing short of amazing. Biologists have identified three new orders, seven new families, fifty new genera and 200 new species of organisms living within these and other similar underwater caves. These discoveries help shed light on chemosynthesis and the way in which life was distributed and developed on Earth. Furthermore, high-tech data loggers can be left in the caves for months at a time providing valuable scientific information. Data on tidal fluctuations, water temperature, flow rates, salinity, and turbidity are being used to understand the complicated dynamics involving the movement of fresh water to the ocean and the intrusion of saltwater to the interior.

From an archeological standpoint, much has been observed but little has been done to provide an explanation for the existence of human and animal remains found deep within these caves. It is not uncommon to find more `recent' Mayan artifacts at the entrances to the caves. Perhaps some of these artifacts predate the Olmec civilization and could shed light on the distribution of human life in pre-Columbian America.

My involvement in exploration in this area goes back five years. In the last three years I have been involved in the exploration of Sistema Ox Bel Ha with my friends and fellow explorers, Bernd Birnbach, Fred Devos, Christophe Le Maillot, Bil Phillips, Daniel Riordan, and Sabine Schnittger. Exploration of Sistema Ox Bel Ha began in May 1998. Over four expeditions, and in less than 250 dives, a total of 231,792 feet (44 miles) of subterranean passageway has been explored, mostly from remote jungle basecamps. This immense system interconnects 44 cenotes, has three exits into the Caribbean Sea and still has much to be explored. Sistema Ox Bel Ha is now considered to contain the world's largest underground river and ranks within the top 20 largest dry caves in the world.

Because of these projects, I found myself in the offices of Aguakan, the local water company that delivers potable water to the popular resort destination of Cancun. Because Aguakan has a vested interest in providing quality potable water to 65 percent of Quintana Roo's population, they were concerned that encroaching development will affect the quality of water taken from their 12,000 acre well zone, twenty miles west of Cancun. They believed our proven methods of exploration could add to their database of information about the well zone and help educate the local communities about the importance of the cenotes and underground rivers. Aguakan volunteered to put up the major funding for a project in the area surrounding the well zone, and donated a new portable Bauer compressor.

On Aug. 15, 2000, with Explorers Club Flag #152 hanging in our base camp, the project began to explore and document cenotes and underground rivers in the well zone area. Our expectations for finding major underground rivers were low, based on the fact that not one of significance has ever been found so far inland. Unlike coastal cave systems, such as Sistema Ox Bel Ha, the norm for this area are cenotes that drop straight down to varying depths with no associated cave passageway. While not as dramatic, they are important, for each is its own unique ecosystem. During a two-week period, 23 cenotes were located and 12 were explored, at the same time, a standard was set to combine exploration efforts with thorough documentation, building a foundation for continued scientific research of the area. In addition, our efforts included a public awareness campaign based on the slogan "Do You Know Where Your Water Comes From?" to educate the local population about the importance of preserving and protecting these natural wonders. Our team consisted of Explorers Club members Robert Hemm, myself, Marcelo Mendez, and Bil Phillips, in addition to Steve Bogaerts, Matthew Hemm, Marike Jasper, and Beto Siguenza.

Working from our jungle basecamp and using the expertise of local hunters and woodcutters, we began the process of locating cenotes. Each cenote and its access were carefully documented using GPS. This information was transposed onto a topographical map of the area. Then each cenote was assessed in terms of ease of accessibility for divers, and a list of dive sites was drawn up. Access varied from very easy (pulling up in a truck right next to a cenote) to extremely difficult (using horses to carry equipment and rappelling 40 feet down to the water surface). A one or two person dive team explored the more accessible cenotes first. Underwater, exploration lines were surveyed, and digital video footage was shot to document anything of interest to scientists. At the surface, team members documented the characteristics of each cenote with digital video, photographs, sketches, measurements, and observations.

Each of the cenotes we were able to explore had something different to offer. Depths ranged from a mean of 50 feet to a maximum of 110 feet. Biologically, we found isolated populations of mysid (small shrimp-like crustaceans) numbering in the thousands, in addition to the usual complement of fresh water life found in the caves. We also documented unusual sponges and encrustations growing on the sidewalls of some caves. Geologically, we found very defined limestone deposition the likes of which we had never seen before. In the jungle surrounding the cenotes we observed paw prints and scratch marks left by large cats and saw a wide variety of plant, animal, and insect species. Our biggest surprise came from the abundance of evidence found to support the fact that a large ancient Mayan population once inhabited the area. In addition to pyramid structures, small temples, platforms, and stairways, near to or within cenotes, we also observed and documented artifacts within the cenotes themselves.

This information was compiled into a database back at camp and a booklet of information was produced, upon which scientists can base future studies. Already, scientists from the University of Bristol, England and from Texas A & M University have seen our documentation and are interested in pursuing field studies in the area. With the documentation in hand, and especially the underwater video footage, scientists are better able to assess what specific studies can be carried out and what sites need to be revisited.

Our public awareness campaign was also a success. We handed out t-shirts with our slogan on the back and gave mini-presentations in the small communities we visited. In the town of Leona Vicario we were able to remove five large bags of refuse from a cenote located in the middle of town. Furthermore, with the help of Aguakan, 10,000 pamphlets were printed (5,000 in Spanish, 5,000 in English) that explained the area's aquifer. These have been distributed to their customer base and also in area hotels and dive shops to help increase awareness.

The success of this project can also be measured from a logistical standpoint. We now have a mobile basecamp infrastructure that allows us to explore and carry out studies from virtually any place we choose. A large tent structure, portable generator, two Bauer portable compressors, and a NITROX blending station make up the heart of the camp. Moreover, we can now employ the use of both traditional open circuit SCUBA gear (both backmount and sidemount cavediving configurations), in addition to a recently donated Buddy Inspiration Closed Circuit Rebreather that allows us as much as 10 hours of bottom time regardless of depth. These configurations allow us to be prepared for whatever situation we may come across. Oceanic `Mako' Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPV's) can quickly deliver a diver thousands of feet back into a cave, dramatically reducing exposure and the risk of decompression sickness. Laptop computers allow us to assimilate data in the field. Onsite television monitors allow us to review video footage and in some instances show local landowners what is at the bottom of the cenote they have lived by for generations. Our hope in future projects is to employ the use of satellite telephones so that we can interact directly via the internet with scientists, school children and interested parties as we explore and carry out studies.

There is no doubt in my mind that the future for major exploration and scientific study in Quintana Roo is bright. However, there is a dire need to accelerate our exploration efforts in this area. The threat to this delicate ecosystem is, as usual, man. Rapid development of the coast of Quintana Roo has set the stage for the underground rivers and the aquifer they serve to be detrimentally affected. Sewage for most of the area is pumped into deep saline disposal wells. Garbage dumps are built with no lining, allowing contaminants to seep through the porous limestone to the water table. There is a growing ecological awareness here on the coast, and people are searching for solutions to the problems of growing human population. Now is the time to act in order to better preserve and protect these hidden wonders of nature. We need to accelerate the process of exploration and scientific study of this fresh water resource to help ensure its preservation for current and future use.

As the wedding ceremony draws to a close, the rain is coming down hard. I try to imagine the water as it seeks the water table below, to be used another day in the cycle of life as it has been for thousands of years.

I wish to sincerely thank the following institutions and individuals for their help and contributions that made this project possible:
Ivan Hernandez, Daniel Corredor, and the entire staff of Aguakan S.A. de C.V.
Ing. Pedro Ariel Santoyo Betancourt, Presidente Comisariado Ejidal, Ejido Leona Vicario
Lic. Fernando Doblado Rueda and his incredible legal eagle staff
Luis Cadenas and Bauer Compressors of Miami, Florida
Buceo Médico Mexicano and the SSS Recompression Network
Carlos Quintanar, Presidente, APSA
Robert Hemm
Marcelo Mendez
Bil Phillips
Steve Bogaerts
Marike Jasper
Matthew Hemm
Rodrigo Constandse, Carlos Marin, Juan Jose Stanglmaier and the staff of Alltournatives
Ferry Schaap
Don Iran and his family
Don Felix Betancourt and family
Don Dionysio Pol Popul
Don Francisco Ibarra Tovar

Editor's note: NOLS alumnus, Sam Meacham lives and works out of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. He recently started a non-profit organization based in Mexico dedicated to further exploration, education and scientific study of the fresh water resources of Quintana Roo, Mexico. If you have any questions, please contact Sam at makachik@webtelmex.net.mx For more information on the exploration of Sistema Ox Bel Ha check, check out www.mexicocavediving.com


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