I’m glad this hadn’t been my first cave system in Florida, or I could have been in trouble. This is the kinda place that you hear about, the ones that make people give up normal lives in normal places, sell it all and move to Florida’s cave country and live in a mobile home (not that I have anything against mobile homes).
Some of the passages look like they’ve been painstakingly carved by miner, perfectly straight and round, with little scalloped cut marks lining ever surface of every wall. It’s truly bizarre, they look too perfect to be natural but that’s exactly what they are.
With tremendous good fortune we were there when the flow of the water was particularly low which meant that only a mild current was encountered while swimming. But I would imagine when you get into one of those perfectly round tunnels while the flow is high and you’ll find out what the spitball feels like getting shot out of a straw.
There is a good chance if you’ve only heard of one cave system in Florida then this is it. Perhaps the most commercialized of any location in the state that features cave diving there is also a considerable open water area for "normal" divers (who haven’t lost their mind yet), tubing, canoeing, as well as swimming.
If you’re diving the caver zone, which any Open Water diver is allowed to do, what you will see is similar to the first shots on this page. Cool stuff, particularly if that’s all you know. Underwater trees, ground that percolates with the bubbles of the divers below - showing just how porous the rock here really is, which in part explains how the caves were formed in the first place. You may even be able to find the grate, essentially a manhole cover with a lock on it that prevents divers from trying to get in somewhere silly. When you swim up to the grate and feel the power of the water flowing out you get a sense of how good an idea it really is.
Now, if you’re silly and are cave trained, the pictures which follow might be more in line with what you recall of Ginnie. There’s still more than a little bit of flow from time to time, particularly at the restrictions, but it’s a good place to work on your pull-and-glide technique while trying in vain to save your fingerprints from getting sanded off. Good luck with that. Some areas of the cave are gorgeous with bright tan coloured sand and limestone walls, while others are nearly black. Being a relative cave novice I haven’t been very far but you could spend more than a dive or two trying to find your way around in here (understatement alert!!).
Every which way you can imagine
I hear you asking, "So what is it like to dive in Truk Lagoon?" Good question, I’m glad you asked. It’s easy. Most people see the area on either of the two liveaboards, Truk Odyssey or Truk Aggressor. These fairly luxurious ships ferry you all over the lagoon, hitting the best spots and staying on the premiere wrecks for multiple dives so you can explore them properly. The Aggressor, being part of a chain, is better known but without hesitation I’d choose the Odyssey again in a heartbeat: it’s longer, has larger rooms, and carries less passengers (I’ve never been on the Aggressor but the owner of the Odyssey is a former captain of the Aggressor and I’m guessing knows the ship rather well). I’m not sure I could say enough good things about the Odyssey, so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say Odyssey is one of the few liveaboards in the world of that class where the owners are the captain and first mate (along with husband and wife) - they have a vested interest in making sure the customers are happy and have won BEST LIVEABOARD IN THE WORLD honours several times which demonstrates how well they’re doing.
Other options include the Thorfin (a ship which doesn’t move much), and some shore-based dive operations, which use small boats to get people out to the wrecks.
The water is warm, 82ish degrees year round, so most dive in 3mm wetsuit. Four or five dives a day is quite common, with the night dive always taking place on the same wreck as the afternoon dives so you’ll know your way around better. There is plenty of wreck penetration potential (for those properly trained) and you can get deep inside many of the wrecks, but most divers during our two weeks there didn’t venture inside and still raved about the trip. Wrecks ranged from 60′ to 200′ deep, with the vast majority of diving done at 100′ or less, so there was something for all comfort levels. Throw in a well orchestrated shark feeding dive and it is a hard trip to beat. On the non-diving days you can go on tours of the islands and see the remnants of the Japanese fortifications (pill boxes, canons, underground shelters, a sea plane base and more) which really bring history to life.
That Truk had great wrecks was not a surprise, they’re everywhere, it’s what the place is known for. The shocking part was the small stuff, the critters of every shape, size and colour. Pipefish, clownfish, lionfish, crabs, nudibranchs, blennies and gobies abound. If small stuff isn’t to your liking they also have the usual large stuff like sharks, napoleon wrasse, and even the odd manta.
It is disappointing at first to discover Truk Lagoon is mostly full of merchant vessels and not warships, but it has to be remembered they were carrying the implements of war. Most ships were retrofitted with sizeable gun for self defense, some carried tanks, trucks, artillery, landmines, ammunition, torpedoes, fighter planes, and more. And they’re not ALL merchant ships. There’s a destroyer, submarine and Betty bomber which sound like they should be highlights of the trip but aren’t. In comparison to the other wrecks these military vessels are smaller with vastly less penetration potential and character. It’s believed the sub was not hit during the attacks but tried to escape by submerging but in their haste not all hatches were closed in time and it went down with all hands. It was later depth charged so it could not fall into enemy hands.
Technically the place is called "Chuuk", the name it used to have before it was occupied by hostile forces that couldn’t pronounce it right and changed it to "Truk", but divers still generally call it Truk Lagoon, or just "one of the best places to wreck dive in the world".
Courtesy of World War II this was the site of one of the pivotal naval battles of the entire war. Truk was one of the most prized locations in the world’s oceans: almost halfway between Japan and Australia, pretty close to the middle of nowhere. This is where Japanese warships and supply ships would meet to refuel, reload, and repair. The land based fortifications were considerable - if the allied forces had tried to take the islands by landing on them there’s a good chance they’d have gotten slaughtered because the Japanese had been building and digging in for years.
American forces had no plans to wage the battle on land - this was an air to sea battle of the highest order. An early American scout plane was spotted by the Japanese forces who raised the alarm and hurried many of the vessels out of the lagoon before the battle even started, but the ones left behind, mostly merchant ships, were sitting ducks.
Mayan Riviera, Quintana Roo
From the surface it looks like any other cenote. The pool is large and inviting, the water clear, wildlife abundant (even if the turtle was a little shy), and the entrance is easy to find.
Here the majority of similarities with most caves end and it gets spooky in a hurry. Unlike most caves with light coloured walls these have been darkened from years of tannins in the water as the material from a nearby swamo decays. Unlike say Gran Cenote or Nahoch which are white, gleaming and inviting, these walls eat light for breakfast. Maybe there are people who enjoy that kinda thing, I’m not one of them. Give me a salt water passage with all the character, detail, light walls and great visibility any day.
Like Little Red Riding Hood we ventured in, tried the main line, it was too dark. Tried the Double Dome line and it was just as dark. Tried the Sakbe line and it was just right. Slightly deeper, light walls, oustanding visibility, and no spooky feeling (and no bears, as far as I could tell, no porridge either - which is also a good thing).
Jumping into the entrance pool that looks like a puddle, only smaller, you suddenly realize how the sardines feel when being squeezed into that little can. Damn cozy in here, and watch that elbow. Or if you prefer you can think of it like a balloon: you jump into the little roundish bit that’s left over once you tie it, squeeze through a restriction and suddenly you’re in a massive chamber that you could never have guessed from the other side. Your choice, fish or party favours, you can go either way, whatever works for ya.
So now you’re swimming inside a fishy balloon. Not really like you’d imagined, is it? This balloon is stacked with things to see and is definitely different than the rest of the Mexican balloons… I mean caves.
It doesn’t take long to realize the halocline - where fresh water meets salt - is well defined and doesn’t vary all that much. It marks on the walls exactly where the two intersect: fresh water walls are darker and generally smoother, while the salt water affected ones tend to be much lighter in colour and pitted due to an increased acidity. You’ll know when the diver ahead of you enters the halocline - your world will instantly go out of focus, blurrier than on the worst bender of Keith Richard’s inexplicably long life. It’s much like when you shake your favourite bottle of oil and vinegar salad dressing and vigorously mix two liquids that would really prefer you didn’t. To say it does funny things to light is an understatement on par with saying Microsoft has slightly more money than what has fallen between the cushions of your couch, even if you have one of those rare money eating couches, I think they come from Ikea.
So to sum up: as you go through Vaca Ha on your Ikea couch, enjoying your salty sardines and balloons covered in salad dressing, enjoy looking around. Just make sure you’re on the couch in front or Keith Richards will ruin it for ya much like Microsoft ruins everything. (If that made sense to you then you must be as tired as I am)
"There can’t be a cave here," kept repeating over and over in my mind. The garbage dump out front of a wooden gate 10 minutes from collapsing under its own weight certainly wasn’t suggesting this was the way to a cave diving panacea. So much for truth in advertizing.
Unlike larger operations like Gran Cenote with sizeable signs, parking galore, modern conveniences like toilets and stairs, this site offered precisely none of that. You even had to go into a nearby town 15 minutes away and look for an equally unmarked house to retrieve the key (and pay your admission) - if she wasn’t at home you were outta luck. These are the kinds of things the CIA used to do (and likely still do) to hide their most valuable treasures in plain site, they’re like camouflage.
Standing at the edge of the micro-cenote it appears the CIA has done a particularly exceptional job when you’re HERE and still hear the voices in your head that you’re in the wrong place. At this point only the over-abundant mosquitoes know for sure, but what the hell, ya suit up and jump carefully into the tiny opening of water hoping the 12 little fish in there won’t be catapulted into the surrounding forest when you splash.
Immediately after squeezing through a restriction at the very edge of the tiny pool the passage opens up and you can finally accept this really is the place you’ve been hearing about. Even the CIA couldn’t keep you out. Ha! But it’s clear why they were trying to hard to keep the place a secret. Formations abound, and a plethora of lines mean you can explore this place for a considerable time before exhausting this playground. Go deep and you will be in the salt water zone, decorated, bright, clean looking, with a wavy-windy meandering river kind of feel to it at times. Stay on the lines in the shallower parts of the cave and you’re in the fresh water zone which was quite tannic (meaning tea coloured) and decidedly spooky. Great visibility enjoyed in the salt water zone is gone here and light struggles to penetrate even a few feet before being consumed by the tannin monsters of the deep (yes, I’ve been reading too many novels lately).