Snorkeling at Cenote Dos OjosAuthor: Michael OConnor
I was not so sure about pretending to be a licensed scuba diver. I had worked as a lifeguard when I was younger and still enjoyed swimming in the ocean, but mechanical breathing was something I had no experience with. My friend David is known for considering many rules optional so long as you are applying common sense and no one gets hurt too badly beyond scraping their knee. He also already happened to have a scuba license.
Our friends David and Alice had invited us to stay in an oceanfront hotel in Tulum, Mexico to celebrate Alice’s birthday. My wife, our 18-month-old son and I had flown to Cancun International Airport and traveled to the Mayan Riviera on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
We passed the first few days swimming in the ocean and the hotel pool. Our friend Alice grew tired of spending all our time at the resort so we explored Tulum and ate lunch at a local restaurant. Our hotel concierge recommended we go swimming or snorkeling at Cenote Dos Ojos which was a short distance from our hotel. A cenote is a natural pit or sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Commonly found in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
I had promised myself while we flew to Mexico I would be up for the adventure and try to live a little. In his book “Into Thin Air” John Krakauer explained that while he was flying to Kathmandu to begin an ascent of Mount Everest the plane was flying at the same elevation they would be climbing to. The least I could do would be to descend into a few feet of water in an underground cave system.
Sistema Dos Ojos (Spanish for Two Eyes) is part of Sistema Sac Actun, which is the longest underwater cave system in the world as of 2018. Exploration of Dos Ojos on the Mayan Riviera began in 1986 and discoveries are still being made today. It has been featured in the 2002 IMAX film entitled Journey Into Amazing Caves, and the 2006 BBC series Planet Earth.
Luckily the ticket seller at the entrance of Dos Ojos saved me. Based on the amount of time we had to make it back for feeding our son he suggested we snorkel through one of the cenotes and the bat cave with a guide. The admission price included snorkeling equipment.
Snorkeling may have begun as early as 5,000 years ago in Crete when sea sponge farmers used hollowed out reeds to submerge and retrieve natural sponges. Aristotle mentions snorkeling like activities in one of his major texts on biology.
On the way to cenote from where we purchased our tickets, I realized that I was not wearing contact lenses and my glasses would have to come off before putting on my mask. Here I was in a world-renowned snorkeling location and once in the water and I would not be able to see much.
I stuffed myself into my neon blue wetsuit and tried on a pair of swim fins for size. Luckily they had masks with nearsighted optical corrective lenses which would allow me to see perfectly underwater.
We walked to the entrance of the east eye of Dos Ojos. We were told to acclimate ourselves to the equipment and water. There are no currents or waves in the cenote as in the ocean. I was reminded of what Bruce Lee once said “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” Just floating in the water of the cenote with crystal clear visibility your mind is focused clearly in the present moment.
The water in the cenote is rainwater that has been filtered through natural limestone. The Sistema Dos Ojos is an anchialine cave system meaning that it is a landlocked body of water with a subterranean connection to the ocean.
Our guide Diego introduced himself. He had injured his knee scuba diving two months ago and was now relegated to snorkeling. He was friendly, inclusive and an excellent communicator. He said that he loved his job. For a moment I thought he may be the rarest thing we would meet in person today possibly.
Diego explained that thousands of years ago the entire Yucatan Peninsula was underwater. Subsequently, the sea level was greatly reduced. The exposed limestone was now above the waterline. Rainwater would collapse the ceilings of some limestone caves and create cenotes.
Mayans may have believed that the certain cenotes were entrances to their religious underworld. Other cenotes were used for drinking water and specific cenotes would be the place of human sacrifice for the request of rain from the god Chaak. The cenotes as sources of groundwater once supported the Maya civilizations, today they are the only source of natural potable water in the area.
We had been given flashlights to see in the dark underwater. I had no idea that some areas of the cenote would be so dark. At one point I noticed something much deeper moving in the distance.
As Werner Herzog said “What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.” What would a beautiful mysterious cenote be without some unknown lurking in the shadows or underwater even if it is of my own making? It turned out to be three scuba divers traveling through a parallel area of the cenote. I was excited to think that with just minimal investment of time and effort David and I were able to experience many of the same aspects that the scuba divers enjoyed.
Our guide took us through a variety of locations within the cenote. Some locations featured massive beautiful rocks where others were filled with an awe-inspiring collection of stalactites and stalagmites.
We were now going to travel through a narrow underwater passageway to the Bat Cave. The overhead distance dropped dramatically to where you could easily touch the ceiling above you. Diego warned us to surface slowly because of the variable ceiling height. This is not a ride at Disneyland. There is an element of risk and danger that is dealt with easily using common sense. It is nice to experience something where you are not constantly told to stay within the cordoned off area of safety.
Diego explained that fruit bats sleep on the ceiling of the cave. In the water, we could see partially eaten fruit and fruit seeds leftover from the bats’ meals. Our guide reminded us that because the bats eat only organic material there was nothing to worry about.
As I looked to the light above, I could see the hole in the cave ceiling the bats used to travel in and out of the cenote. I had descended to the bottom of this cenote and surfaced to see bats taking flight. Man has developed the ability to travel through air and space and even breathe underwater, yet the pathway through the human mind still holds undiscovered territory.