Monday, 28 January 2008

GUE Cave 1 – The Journey To Heaven’s Gate

For a long time I’ve had a bit of an obsession with an underwater cave in Mexico called Nohoch Na Chich. Until the late nineties it was the longest diveable cave system in the world with around 100km of surveyed passages. It is widely held to be the most beautiful cave dive in the world with a colossal number of Speleotherms (cave features like Stalactites and Stalagmites created by mineral rich dripping water) and a picture by the EKPP photographer and diver JP Bresser has been the desktop on my computer for as long as I can remember.


Now I find myself standing on the edge of Cenote Nohoch which marks the entrance to the main line into the system. Next to me is Fred Devos our Cave Instructor: one of the founders of the Ox Bel Ha Exploration Group who uncovered the mysteries of what now replaces Nohoch as the world’s largest underwater cave: Ox Bel Ha sits just a few miles down the road from Nohoch and has a colossal 170km of explored passages. A continuing, ten year labour of love for Fred and his colleagues at Zero Gravity – the GUE training centre in the Mayan Riviera, just south of Cancun


All week we had been learning to cave dive with Fred, one of the sports leading explorers and Instructors and all week I’d been gently pestering him about diving Nohoch. I knew from speaking to other people who had been trained by Zero Gravity that although it is not a difficult dive – they normally do not take novice divers because the slightest buoyant moment will have your fins destroying tens of thousands of years of geology.


Each time I asked him during our five day Cave 1 course he offered a guarded “we’ll see”. At the end of the week we’d booked two days of guided diving with him on the Saturday and Sunday before we left in order to consolidate our skills and enjoy some more of the stunning diving this unique area has to offer.


On the first day’s training on the way to pick up “Ochos Dobles” from the fill station James (who is possibly one of the dirtiest and funniest people I have ever met) insisted on breaking the ice with our new Instructor by describing in graphic detail a sexual act called “The Halmstad Fish Hook”. This pretty much set the tone for the week and the atmosphere remained dark and funny throughout.

Several trips to the fill station later – Fred told us that the past five long days had elicited three Cave 1 qualifications and we were all chuffed to bits. None of us had dived together before, we barely knew each other. "The Badger", although an experienced recreational Instructor with 1400 dives under his belt, had only passed GUE Fundamentals two months previously. It really was an interesting test of GUE’s philosophy that any DIR diver can dive with another on an appropriate dive with a minimum of preparation because we are all “on the same page”. By the end of the week we had formed a highly cohesive team which is the backbone of safe cave diving and we were taking the piss out of each other mercilessly on every possible occasion, which felt extremely familiar from the diving I’d been doing with the Chimps back home.


Clearly a major contributing factor to our success on the course had been our decision early in the week to acquire cave diving names. A brief check on the pioneers of the sport like Sheck Exley, Parker Turner, Lamar English, Bill Hogarth-Main and Jarrod Jablonski had made one thing quite clear: To have any success: you need a stupid name and preferably with the surname and first name reversed. Clearly the Scottish, slightly Presbytarian sounding "Iain Smith" wasn’t going to cut the mustard at all. So Shaniqua “Danger” Smith was born. The “Danger” was only added on about day three when Fred was discussing patterns in cave fatalities and pointed out that people with high risk lifestyles were twice as likely to die underwater caving than your average accountant. “Shaniqua” had both skydiving and deep technical diving as hobbies – danger was definitely "her" middle name. James and I insisted on calling Iain Shaniqua at every available opportunity, which she loathed as only someone with three first class honours degrees from Cambridge University can. Every dive he would surface to a chorus of “Shaniqua where you at girlfriend!” and scowl like mad. Being a large clumsy oaf: I became become “Shrek Exley”.

Discretion being the better part of valour we left James “The Badger” Sanderson well alone. We never dared ask what “The Badger” meant, but after the Halmstad Fish Hook incident this was probably very wise. It came as a relief that James was such a fine diver because I don’t think a career in children’s TV presenting is likely to materialise any time soon.

Once you realise the true importance of a name to a cave diver – so many other things become clear and fall into place: The massive chip on George Irvine’s shoulder was clearly down to name envy. Adding “The Third” as a suffix clearly hadn’t improved his mood any either. Years of internet slanging matches and small man syndrome could have been cured overnight by just changing George to something more befitting like “Beyonce” or “Laqueesha”. Clearly we had a lot to offer the sport, even with so little experience.

Fred had proved to be a revelation. Zero Gravity do not assign an Instructor prior to the course commencing. You simply turn up and are taught by either Fred, Danny Riordan or Chris Le Maillot. Either way you end up with one of the worlds leading cave divers with countless training certifications under their belt. They are amongst the very best at what they do and our experience proved that this unusual system works just fine.


Fred’s easy going manner and unbelievable attention to detail had blown us all away. Each skill and procedure he had introduced to us throughout the week had been run through on dry land several times to gain familiarity. Line wrapped around trees had served to teach us the skills to handle cookies and arrows, lost diver, lost line drills, blind exits and out of gas scenarios plus countless other subtleties that were essential for the cave environment. After one such blind line drill, we finished and opened our eyes to find Fred chuckling as he exclaimed “we don’t want that in your undersuits now do we” as he stamped on a black scorpion that had been a few inches from our feet as we fumbled around the line. Suddenly walking around the cenote car parks casually in flip flops didn’t seem quite so attractive.

After each dive we received a debrief: half an hour of step by step analysis of our every action in the water. His situational awareness and memory for every tiny detail of the dive was truly extraordinary. Countless times throughout the week he had picked us up and coached us on minute details that we hadn’t spotted. Always positive, calm and constructive in his Jack Nicholson soundalike drawl – he constantly pushed us to accept nothing less than perfection. If DIR is “The Dark Side” we were in the reassuring hands of a Jedi master.

By the end of the five days our own situational awareness for navigation and the constantly changing status of the rest of team had increased beyond recognition. By day four we starting to function as a cohesive unit and handle and prioritise multiple failures without drama. Despite modest beginnings we started to gain confidence in the last two days and actually relax and enjoy the dives.

Cave Systems like Ponderosa and Taj Mahal which usually begin in a Cenote (essentially a giant shallow, water filled pot hole formed from a collapsed dry cave thousands of years ago) had been our playground and training environment all week. Some cenotes had as many as 5-6 caves beginning or terminating in their basins.

Mexican caves, unlike many in France and Florida, are of a type known as Vadose. Essentially their features and topography were, to a large extent, formed when they were still dry caves many thousands of years ago. Changes in climate such as the Ice Age around ten thousand years ago caused large changes in the level of the natural water table and the dry caves became flooded. The water then started to channel between weaker areas or fissures in the rock forming the now diveable passages between the various dry formed underwater chambers.

This unique process means that all of the caves are extremely shallow – normally between 10-15m and highly decorated with the features that were formed by dripping water prior to the change in the water level. No photographs can do this surreal environment justice – it really is a privilege to take a glimpse into this truly beautiful world.

The first day of our guided pleasure dives on the Saturday had been spent at Cenote Car Wash (so named because the locals used to use it for washing their cars!) We had dived both the upstream and downstream sections including “The Chamber Of The Ancients”. This was something completely different and our deepest dive of the week at 26m. We squeezed down through a narrow restriction into a large bowl shaped cave that had a firepit sitting in the bottom of it. The charred wood sitting in the fire looked like it had only been left yesterday and has been carbon dated to 14,000 BC. It was like stepping back in time, a glimpse into the world of prehistoric man that few people have ever seen.


As we exited the chamber, we passed back through the halocline at around 12m, which must be one of the weirdest experiences in diving. Because the caves are relatively close to the sea, there is a point where the salt water meets the freshwater: that point being the halocline. The saltwater is obviously heavier and sits under the body of freshwater. The point where they meet is like a rippling layer of glass and as you descend or ascend through it you can hardly see through the shimmer and you feel a marked change in your buoyancy. On certain dives like the “River Run” at Cenote Eden, you can look up at the halocline from the saltwater below and it literally looks like surface of the water shimmering above you, even though you know that it’s nearly 40 feet below the true surface: a weird feeling indeed.

Other highlights of the week had included several dives at Cenote Taj Mahal. The massive passageways in the system dwarfed us as we floated through them weightless and silent in water so clear it felt like you were diving in air. We made it to an area known as “The DCS Dome” where the cave runs steeply uphill to a depth of only 3-4 metres and you enter the top of a chamber where you can poke your head above the water in a huge air pocket that sits underground yet devoid of any water. The silt in the cave was so fine that the importance GUE training pays to trim, buoyancy and finstrokes became all too apparent. As I turned to dive on reaching minimum gas, although the helicopter turn I used was fine, just the turbulence from the finstrokes was lifting the silt and reducing the perfect visibility. The consequences of a silt-out and losing your team and the guideline in a cave can be fatal – you really do have to be inch perfect.

Then all too soon the last of our eight days diving came and Fred told us with a big smile on his face “Lets go to Nohoch”. After a long drive up the dirt track leading from Highway 305 that runs all the way along the coast, we finally stood amongst the orange trees at the edge of the Cenote kitting up and checking our gas and gear. The excitement was tangible – I was like a small child. As we started the long walk across the rocks round the edge of the cenote and down the steep wooden steps – I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much trepidation before a dive. What if it didn’t match my expectations? We entered the water and the small tetra fish pecked at us aimlessly as we ran through our equipment matching, flow checks and dive plan.


We dropped down into the cavern zone and Fred led with me at No4: “In The Armchair”. Almost immediately as we found and tied our penetration reel into the mainline – I knew I would not be disappointed. Nohoch Na Chich is Mayan for “Giant Birdcage” and moments into the dive the huge quantity of white speleotherms that gave the cave its name started to come into view. Beautiful formations of almost pure white rock, giant pillars and clusters were almost everywhere you looked like the bars of a giant decorative birdcage. Tens of thousands of stalactites hung from the ceiling just inches from our fins as we progressed nervous trying to damage anything as went. After about 6 minutes I marked gas and time as we reached the small Cenote to the right of the mainline where Fred had explained that the BBC crews who had filmed “Planet Earth” had staged the generators to light their underwater filming.


The line turned to the left and started to drop a little in depth, so I knew from the briefing that we were moments from “Heavens Gate” the cave’s most famous and striking feature. And there it was in front of us. A huge vertical pillar to the right around 30 feet high and to the left an equally huge C shaped formation that formed a natural gate in the cave. Heavens Gate was no idle boast, we rested for a few moments and picked out the shape with our lightsabres in awe.


120 minutes after we had started, our longest dive of the week by far, we finally surfaced and laughed at what we had just experienced. The finest dive of my life was never deeper than 8 metres and used barely over an Ali80 full of gas. We chatted and took a few photos and someone said “Well that’s ruined ocean diving forever” No-one was going to argue.

Pictures to come when I can sort the IT out!!