Having been cave trained in Mexico where, let’s face it, there’s a great deal more detail to see in the underwater caves, I was greatly concerned about what there would be to see in their Floridian counterparts. There would be no amazing formations hanging from the ceiling, no corresponding spires from the floor either.
Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Peacock. The walls were not as smooth as Ginnie or Little River, and there were actually a couple of really interesting formations: one a horizontal hole and the other a near-vertical column. Ok, so there are likely many more interesting things than those in this very system but hey I was new, and didn’t make it all that far.
So this is duckweed. Doesn’t look much like a duck. It’s the green stuff contaminating the surface of the second last photo. It’s actually millions and millions of little green circles, micro lily pads of a sort. They infest the surface of some cave systems, and here they’re quite good at it. I’ve heard they were artificially introduced years ago to clear up the visibility which sounds rather like adding more dynamite in the hopes of getting a smaller explosion.
I was a Florida cave virgin before this site, so in essence, she was my first. While she wasn’t exactly the Marilyn Monroe of caves, it was still a nice introduction despite having been rather heavily used as a training cave so it was more like a Janeane Garofalo. Finger and fin prints in the sand were frequent, and you could see bright spots on the walls and ceiling where divers had bumped their tanks.
It didn’t take long to see how seriously they take cave safety - ran into the stop sign in the first shot virtually right away. My guess is that’s a good precedent to set, yet likely remains something most people don’t stop to actually read.
Florida caves can be deceiving. The "lake" you enter through can be quite sizeable, suggesting wide open spaces while lying to you through it’s aquatic smile. Madison Blue is one of those places. Descending the stairs to a sizeable pool of water you’re prepared for a nice easy entrance, not the kind of squeeze necessary to get just about anywhere. Short but wide, would be a good description, similar in stature to my own, which compresses poorly into such restrictions but this is cave diving and squeeze you must.
The passages of the cave system were considerably wider than the entrance (thank goodness for that) but still narrow overall, and the fine sand and silt made it necessary to keep close tabs on any gear that hung a little lower than it should. Not the kinda place you’d call particularly camera friendly when your camera is 7′ wide, but the frequent air pockets that clung to the ceiling were too attractive not to shoot.
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!!).
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).
Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich (Myan for "Giant Bird Nest") is a guided dive - ie. you need a guide to get in. It’s for good reason. This place is simply gorgeous. Without a doubt it is the most decorated cave I’ve so far encountered in Mexico - if they get better than this I may just have to move there.
The diving platform is massive, the entrance pool is gorgeous, and it just gets better from there. One of the most memorable items was a giant root ball from a tree that extends from above the surface (see photo just below). Surrounded by rock passages of white it really stands out.
It costs months of research and thousands of dollars to get into digital photography, but only one cave like Dos Ojos to make it all worthwhile. Yes, it is that beautiful.
At the surface pool the water seems to glow this iridescent azure blue that looks like something you make jewelry from. After that it only gets better. Ceiling and floor decorations abound, some massive and others delicately slender. The setup area, tables and stairs are exemplary, all combining to make for a damn fine day of diving. That’s the upside.
The downside is this system has gotten so incredibly popular it was overflowing with cars/trucks/vans/bodies when we visited last (Jan. 2009). Wall to wall tourists (just like us) who didn’t particularly want to be crammed in right next to other tourists (just like us, funny how that works), some with questionable music tastes they had no qualms about sharing via their (mercifully underpowered) car speakers.
Naturally, once past the open water area the cavern divers, snorkelers, paddlers and swimmers are a thing of the past - it’s unlikely you’ll see other cave divers once inside. If you stay in the cave long enough they’ll all be gone by the time you come out - cave diver paradise having the place to yourself, the reward of a 3+ hour dive in the afternoon. Granted, when you come out shortly before (or in our case fractionally after) closing time you may be greeted with, "Is that your truck???? Oh thank GOD!!" You get the feeling they’ve had the unfortunate experience of having more vehicles at the end of the day than divers to drive them home, which means bad things. Their relief vented, they now let you know it’s time to go, Mr. Tourist With The Faulty Watch, the workday is over, get out. Politely, of course, this is Mexico.