Sunday, August 08, 2010
Scuba Diving at the Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo, Mexico
As my friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook (www.Twitter.com/MarkusEgger and www.Facebook.com/MarkusEggerEPS) may know: Ellen and I became NAUI certified scuba divers in early June (2010). So needless to say, we were eager to get into the water for our first non-training scuba adventure in the ocean. (We have done a few lake dives, but they were not very exciting by comparison). In fact, we had already brought our scuba gear on our recent trip to Italy, but we knew that was a long shot, and indeed, we didn’t get to dive.
So our first real ocean dive was going to happen in Mexico. We just got back from a relatively long weekend at the Riviera Maya (think Cancun… although we like to go a bit further south and away from the party/retirement crowd) where we went for my birthday with the specific goal to go diving. There are tons of places to dive down there. The entire Riviera Maya (well, at least the part I have seen) seems to have a reef just off shore that is easy to dive on. Of course people also love to go to Cozumel for diving, which is an island just off Playa del Carmen (so one could do a day trip to Cozumel from where we were). Personally, I have not been a big fan of Cozumel since our cruise to Cozumel a few years back. Not that the cruise was awful, but it just wasn’t all that great either. But maybe, now that we are divers, we will go back to Cozumel for some drift diving.
Our very first ever ocean dive, we did in Puerto Morelos, a tiny town about half way between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. A friend had made suggestions for 2 dive outfits he had used before, both of which looked pretty good, relatively speaking. (Don’t expect a pristine German-run dive operation in Mexico!). They were Dive In, and WetSet. I contacted Dive In first (for no particular reason), but they were booked solid when we wanted to go diving, so we ended up with WetSet.
As you would expect, our first dives took us to the easier locations (as described on the Dive Locations page on WetSet’s homepage). In particular, we dove “Cabezas Grande” and “Rodman’s”. Both turned out to be very easy dives. About 30 feet of water. No current. The visibility on these dives was excellent. The water temperature (86 degrees Fahrenheit/ 30 degrees Celsius) is such that one is perfectly comfortable without any kind of wet suit or just with a dive skin.
For us, this was a very exciting dive, obviously, since it was our very first ocean dive ever. So for us, just being under water was awesome, and we also saw some interesting things. Although, truth be told, we didn’t see nearly as many fish as I would have expected or have seen just with a snorkel before. The most exciting marine life we saw was a large moray eel. But it didn’t matter all that much. For a first dive, this was awesome!
I also made some first attempts with an underwater camera. I still have to figure out the best settings for underwater photography (which is quite different from above-water picture taking, I discovered), but here are some shots:
Taj Mahal Cenote, Tulum
So that was it for the ocean dives. In addition, I specifically wanted to dive in a Cenote. Cenotes as “sink holes”. Basically holes in the ground (usually in the jungle) that lead to vast underground river systems. The entire Yucatan peninsulas is perforated with such cave systems. (Check out Wikipedia’s definition of Cenotes for more info). More than 10 years ago, Ellen and I snorkeled in the famous Dos Ojos cenote. It was an amazing experience. We snorkeled at the top (there is air and light everywhere we snorkeled) and we saw scuba divers swim along beneath us. In fact, I wrote about that experience here, and at the very end I said “I promise that if I ever start scuba diving, I will come back to Dos Ojos and dive”. Well. I wanted to make good on that promise.
Unfortunately, WetSet does not go to Dos Ojos. So that was a bit of a bummer (and I will go back to Dos Ojos do dive one day!), but they promised us another cenote that would be at least as good. So this wasn’t quite the same thing, obviously, but we agreed to do it.
The Taj Mahal cenote is south of Tulumn. So if you are staying in Cancun, get ready for a 2 hour drive (or so). The cenote is in the middle of the jungle and you will bounce along a dirt road for a while. Once you get to the cenote, you are in for quite an experience. The setting is quite nice, and the cenote itself is awesome. There is no question that the cenote itself is at least as good as Dos Ojos. Diving there was an experience I will never forget. When I got back to the hotel, I posted on Facebook that this was “both one of the most amazing experiences I ever had, and also one of the stupidest things I had ever done”. Why stupid? Well, for one, I wasn’t nearly qualified for this dive!
The Taj Mahal cenote is considered “cavern diving”. Personally, I am not very familiar with cave diving terms, so to me, a cavern was something with plenty of ambient light. Also, based on having requested the same experience as our Dos Ojos snorkeling trip, I assumed there would be both water and air in a “cavern”. As it turns out, Taj Mahal generally has no air in the “caverns”. You are diving in an overhead environment (meaning the water goes all the way to the ceiling). If you need to surface, you have to first swim through tunnels to get to a spot where there is a hole in the jungle floor above. Also, there was a lot less light than I would have expected. To me, this was a plain cave dive. Now I am sure, real cave divers would disagree. They would say “you saw ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ more often than not”, so it is a cavern dive. And they would say “you didn’t penetrate nowhere deep enough to make this a real cave dive”. That may all be true. But if you mention the word “cave dive” to a novice diver, she will probably imagine something pretty darn close to what we did. And I think all cave divers would agree, that the 4th or 5th dive ever, is not the time to do an extended “cavern dive”.
Anyway: I am very comfortable under water, and I have no general problem with confined spaces, so I was comfortable doing it while we were in there. We did 2 dives total with a total underwater time of about 1 hour and 45 minutes. We encountered 3 or 4 surfacing opportunities during that entire time. Nothing bad happened to anyone. So I guess it was just the fast track to gaining more diving experience, both in terms of actual dive experience, as well having learned a lesson about doing more research myself to know what to expect and whether or not I should be diving. But there is also no question that despite my great sense of direction, and despite there being some guide lines in that cenote permanently, I would have had a hard time finding my way out if that need arose. Also, I would have not been qualified to assist another diver in the case of emergency. So that is not good.
With all that said, Taj Mahal is an amazing cenote! We saw stalactites and stalagmites. We saw thermoclines and haloclines. We saw amazing light shows where rays of light penetrate the surface. We even saw “laser lights”, which are thin beams of light coming through the jungle floor overhead and then being refracted both at the surface of the water as well as various layers underwater, creating an amazing zig-zag pattern that words can’t describe. We saw bats. We surfaced at a “puddle” in the middle of nowhere, which if you saw it from the jungle, you’d swear is no more than a foot deep. The water is “layered”. While you come up, you’d swear you are about to break the surface, just to see that there is more water above. There were several such layers at that point. Amazing! We saw roots growing from the jungle floor into the caverns, giving it all an “Indiana Jones vibe” (in fact, one of the caverns is called the “Indiana Jones Room”).
Due to the lack of ambient light, there is practically no life in these caverns. Only at the entrance, did we see some very small catfish that nibbled at the hair of my legs. Quite the experience, especially if you are as ticklish as I am… :-). The water is about 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) which seems warm, but compared to the outside air temperature, you will be freezing! I recommend a wet suit. I had a shorty, but was cold in the end.
Here are some impressions from this dive:
Bottom line: I highly recommend doing this cenote to everyone who’s qualified, but I recommend to only go if you are comfortable with your diving technique (especially buoyancy control) and are not afraid of dark and enclosed small spaces.
Posted @ 2:32 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)