Written by Frank Gutierrez
Day 6 | December 4, 2009
Restrictions, Complex Navigation and Lost Diver
Apparently, there are quite a few people reading this! I love it!
Today we went back to Taj Ma Ha’. Once again, I am exhausted, but I did realize that I have become an adrenaline junkie. Although I slept 12 hours last night, the first dive kicked my ass, but as soon as Nando said “let’s get back in for dive 2”, I was full of energy. After the second dive I crashed. I actually slept during the 20 minute car ride home.
The first thing we did today was go over some gas matching procedures. Nando loves to talk, so a 30 minute lecture turned into a couple of hours. Just being at the cenote makes it worthwhile except we had a doctor fly biting us the entire time. My eye is very swollen from a bite. It doesn’t really matter since I haven’t used my eyes much during the course anyway. Nando says that every cave has two faces, the way it looks when you’re going in, and the way it looks when you’re coming out. Come to think of it, I have NEVER seen the outbound face since Nando is a dick and the way out is ALWAYS in zero visibility.
Things are going to get pretty tight around here.
Once we got in the water Nando mentioned that we would be going through my first restriction. Part of the Full Cave Diver portion of the course, a restriction is a place where 2 divers do not fit side by side. By my definition (after seeing one) a restriction is a place where ONE diver can barely squeeze through wearing double tanks. This dive had several jumps and lots of complex navigation and restrictions. Basically, it was a recipe for disaster. Nando told me exactly where I had to go during the dive. When he finished about 15 minutes later, I had no idea where I was going, but what the hell, I did not do this course because it’s easy.
I went into the cave and skipped over a couple of jumps but Mauro and Nando where quick to point them out to me so I did not mess up their plan. I lead 3 jumps to other lines and penetrated the cave for 38 minutes. In ocean diving that is about 200 meters. In caves you swim at about triple the pace so I assume that we were about 600 meters in, but I actually have no idea. There were a few big boulders, lots of decorations (stalactites and stalagmites), blind fish, and really cool blind shrimp that where no bigger than this font (not cause I ran an eye test, they simply don’t have eyes, ITS CRAZY!!)
How do you find a lost cave diver?
Just before we turned around I signaled the team asking if they were OK. Unlike open water, you don’t look back to look at the divers behind you. In caves you signal with your light and wait for responses from the 2 teammates. When I asked, I only got one response. This made me turn to look for the third light. Of course, Nando was gone! I instructed my teammate Mauro to grab the cave’s main line and started thinking about a way to find Nando. We went back on our trail about 5 meters and stopped. I looked everywhere and could not see him. I turned my light off so that maybe I could see some of the residual lighting from Nando’s primary light but he is too smart to make a (training) mistake like that. About 30 meters away from us, I saw some sediment in mid-water. This had to be Nando since sediment would only be present if a diver was in the area. I then tied a reel to the main line (so that I would always have a continuous way out) and went out to look for him. When I finally reached Nando it was a cluster fuck! He was out of air and his lights were not working. Even with my light on, I could not see anything because he stirred up so much silt. I quickly grabbed him and showed him the way out as we were sharing my air. During our exit my light “failed”. So once again, I was exiting the cave sharing air, blind, through complex navigation, and very small restrictions.
Getting through the restrictions blind is extremely difficult because not only do you have to get through them, you have to know the way your team thinks and where they are. If you don’t know the way they think, it’s like being a virgin, getting through restrictions takes forever. Since this is worst case scenario and we were also sharing air blind, time is a luxury we did not have. It took us long to get through them because we got entangled in the line twice (again, like a virgin). Once through, I had 4 jumps to look forward to. Today my directional markers were clearly marked so getting out of the cave was “easy”. Nando had set up some traps (markers pointing the wrong way) but he didn’t fool me. We got out of the cave in only 18 minutes when it took us 44 minutes to get in.
That was dive 1. I just realized I combined the stories for both dives. Sorry I’m tired and have had 5 or 6 beers, I’m going to bed!!
Day 7 | December 5, 2009
I am back at Tequila Town. There is a mariachi playing a solo of “La Bikina” on his trumpet at the hotel across the street. I have a great tequila, an XX Lager, and a Cohiba cigar in hand. Life sucks!
Today was a really cool day. I mean extremely cool. We went to Gran Cenote for both dives. We planned on doing a circuit on the second dive so the first was where we set it up. A circuit is basically making a loop inside the cave. Since you normally come out the way you went in, the first dive is all about connecting lines inside (jumps, creating the loop) and checking you have enough air to complete the circuit because running out 3/4 of the way would suck!
Before entering the cenote, we did all of our normal checks and Nando explained how the setup dive would work. This dive had 3 spots where I had to connect lines. I am terrible at remembering the way to go. But, boys will be boys, so I tried my hardest not to ask for directions. It took a really long time to get to the second jump. After 20 minutes, I thought I had gone past it but we were still far from it. When we made it, I had to fill a pretty large gap between two lines and go through 2 tiny restrictions. As I got to the first one, I inched myself along the restriction trying not to hit the cave walls with my tanks. This was impossible with doubles on my back. I finally got through it without causing too much of a mess.
Running out of my cave diving bread crumbs.
After the restrictions I looked at my watch and we were 48 minutes into the cave but I had not used too much air. The cave systems in Mexico typically run about 12 meters below the surface making air last a really long time. This is what makes the caves so unique and popular among divers. We later got to an intersection where I had to use a marker to point the way out. I noticed it was my last marker!!! This means that I would not be able to mark the circuit’s halfway point when we decided to turn later on. I looked down at my air gauge and saw that we had reached the dives turn point based on my air at the exact moment we reached the intersection. Nando had planned it perfectly. This guy is like a cave diving computer. He noticed the rate at which I was breathing, and adjusted our swim speed so that we reached that intersection just when I decided to turn the dive. He knows the caves like a frat boy knows the inside of a sorority house.
Once we turned around, I knew what was coming, lights out, right? I think Nando had a fever or something because he actually let me see the way out today. I really slowed down during the exit as I just wanted to take it all in. Today’s cave was so different that the rest. Every inch was covered by decorations. I noticed some light in the distance shortly after we turned around. I did not see it on our way in, but there was another cenote right next to where we were. The sunlight coming into the cave looked very nice. I could feel Nando swimming above me so I knew it was time to go. I wasn’t really done looking around when we parted, but I did know that I had limited air supply and could not violate my rule of thirds by taking longer on the way out than the way in.
On the second dive, we planned going in a different direction than on the first. Hopefully, we would get to my line marker that I set on the first dive. This indicated we had reached the half way point and we could keep going with the circuit. After about 35 minutes we reached the line marker which is called a cookie. We were all good on air and decompression limits so we decided to keep going on the circuit. I picked up all the reels and markers that I left behind on the first dive and headed for the exit.
The sunlight hit the cave’s exit perfectly. It was breathtaking. If you Googled “images of Heaven”, this scene should be the only shot listed. I had to stop. It was out of control. Since we were in the safer cavern zone, Nando just swam past me letting me take it in. I even screwed up my trim (position in the water) to get a better view, but he didn’t notice. Unless you see it, it’s impossible to imagine. I wish I had a picture to show you. This is the only scene that has EVER brought tears to my eyes. I’ll leave it at that.
Day 8 | December 6, 2009
Today was the most relaxed day of the course. We went to Pet Cemetery. It is a very big cenote and the owner has a really nice setup.
Nando decided that he was going to lead this dive. This meant I did not have to do any jumps or gaps since he was up front. He told me that we were going to swim a bit faster than normal because if not we would not make it to a surprise he had for me. He said that we would only have to swim fast for about 45 minutes! My legs are really sore.
This cenote is unusual because it has a huge area where the water only fills the cave halfway. We swam on the surface for about 15 minutes until we reached the underwater cave’s entrance. During the surface swim I saw hundreds of bats. They were everywhere!
Once we descended into the cave, Nando began making tie-offs off of the cavern line. The site is called Pet Cemetery because there are animal bones all over the place. We saw a couple of femurs, jaws, and other strange looking bones.
There were 3 jumps during the dive. The cave was usually very big, but sometimes we came to restrictions. For about 5 minutes, I was sandwiched by the ceiling and floor. I am sure it was more, but it felt like I only had an inch of clearance below my chest. One both sides, I had stalactites that connected the ceiling to the floor. At one point it felt like I was crawling through a forest of rock pillars.
About half an hour later we went through a very cool tube-like formation. It looked like we were inside a huge drainpipe. We then started a very steep ascent. Nando made me chuckle when he signaled (for the first time during the dive) that there was a restriction up ahead. I thought “restriction! What the fuck do you call what we just went through?!?” I few seconds later I realized why he signaled. This thing was small, ridiculously small. I tried to think of how I would get out of the cave through this little hole if my lights were off while sharing air. It would have been close to impossible.
After the restriction the white rocks started getting darker until they were black. We were in water that had a higher acid concentration which stains the calcium based rock. It was pretty cool to see. After a few minutes, my light stopped reflecting off of the rocks. I thought it was their color but I was wrong. Suddenly I looked down and there was nothing. I thought I was in space. I could see the caves ceiling above me but nothing below. Nando signaled “go down to 110 feet.” I thought “but these caves are only 40 ft deep”. Apparently, not all of them are. We started descending along the caves line which disappeared into the blue. When we got deeper, I looked at my computer to check depth. We were at 72 feet and I felt like I was at Sunjam on Utila. Narcosis in caves is a huge factor. It is nothing like ocean diving because it hits you much shallower. I liked feeling drunk. It made my fear grow a bit. I truly respect the work the cave explorers do. They set all these lines through very small passages, and they are usually alone. Nando later told me the line stops at 235 feet. I can’t imagine how the explorer must have felt when he put it down there.
After 6 or 7 minutes of exploring the HUGE chamber, it was time to go. I said “see you later” to The Blue Abyss and started my ascent (thank you Nando, it was an amazing surprise!). Now I had to get home. The nearest breathing air was 50 minutes away. The way back was not hard since Nando did not play any tricks on me.
The dive was incredible. When I was getting undressed I found a tiny piece of stalactite in my wetsuit. I can’t wait to put it back to where it belongs.
So what do I think about the Cave Diver Course Experience?
I am now a Cave Diver. This has been a life changing experience.
Now that the course is over there are still a few things to say.
First of all, thank you for reading. I wanted to stop writing this after a couple days but your insistence kept me at it through very tired eyes.
Second, if you feel you are an above average diver, you MUST enroll in this course with the right instructor. It will push your limits and frustrate you, but you will find things out about yourself that you can’t imagine exist. This will make you one in ten million.
Lastly, here is what I learned:
- Every decision in life is significant. Just like a cave diver at a line intersection deciding the way out, every life decision will change your fate. There are no big or small ones. Every decision has to be thought out and made with the available information. Any decision can have an outcome where you are dead (physically or emotionally). Take your time, we all screw up, but it is not a race to see who fucks up the most.
- Tears were made for us to express big moments like the cave exit on Day 7. Try not to waste them on “show”. They seem infinite, but in the end, your tears may flow, but credibility will eventually run out.
- Do YOUR thing. Whether it’s good or bad, losing sight of the big picture by worrying about petty shit will set us back. Nando showed me on Day 6 (with the fake jumps) that you shouldn’t care about what other people are doing. I had to do my thing, making choices that would allow me to survive without being influenced by others’ actions (or words).