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Bacalar Exploration Project 2001

Cave exploration begins at the surface, long before the dive.

By Andreas W. Matthes

Located in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico there is a large freshwater lagoon named Bacalar. Stretching some 40 miles from North to South, it is the largest body of freshwater in the region. While cave explorers have been busy exploring the caves in the northern and central part of Q.Roo only a few have ventured down to Bacalar, which sits near the coast just before Belize and the river that divides Belize from Mexico.

After three months of planning and two day's loading and packing of two compressors, oxygen and helium k-bottles, generator and plenty of tanks and equipment we finally got the convoy going and down to Bacalar, some 300 kilometers away from Playa del Carmen.

The expedition was scheduled to take place from March 18th to April 2nd 2001. The participants of this expedition were the project director's Jim Rozzi and Andreas W. Matthes, press corps Curt (our on site paramedic as well) and Linda Bowen, safety officer Benja Sacristan, camp manager Marike Jasper, logistic expert Scott Carnahan, surface support Vegie Matt, local knowledge source Roberto Hashimoto and cave explorer Dan Lins.

The base camp was set-up on a lagoon side property owned by Roberto. Besides the luxury of a roof and walls we had a beautiful view over the lake with its breathtaking sunrise and fresh breeze during the night. This was a bonus luxury since we we all had prepared to camp in the jungle. Besides the space for our hammocks we had plenty of space for the two compressors, trucks, trailers and the works.

In the large palapa hut (palm thatched roof hut) we assembled each morning for our breakfast and morning meeting. During each day up to three separate teams were out exploring various areas in the neighborhood and while doing so all information was recorded on detailed dive report sheets which allow a later re-evaluation and study of the area explored.

A nice local woman was hired to serve up delicious meals that helped keep our us full of energy and spirits. During the evenings we celebrated the ritual of night meetings, listening to reports from the individual teams that had explored in different areas during the day. Upon these daily discoveries and evening team meetings the next day's team assignments where laid out and required logistics taken care off.

The first day after arrival and setting up camp a small plane was leased in Chetumal, the state capital, for an aerial survey and to collect aerial photographs, video, slides and GPS coordinates of interesting targets for further exploration in this area. During the flight over the lagoon we discovered and located four large, circular blue holes and four little creeks that seemed to feed the lagoon and were deemed worthy exploration targets. The area along the border with Belize is formed of mountains and valley in contrast to the flat table like limestone flats of the central and northern Yucatan peninsula. Along one of these valleys, hugging a mountain ridge, we discovered a chain of 12 large cenotes.

An 18 foot aluminum boat with a small outboard engine allowed us to cruise the lagoon, and locate and dive the target areas with GPS coordinates taken during the survey flight. Three of the blue holes were inside the lagoon, a fourth one is separated from the lagoon by a small land bridge.

All of the blue holes turned out to be old and filled in sinkholes with old flow stone on the walls in some and depth ranging from 245 feet in Cenote Azul to 110 feet in blue hole II, 160 feet in blue hole III and 175 feet in Myrna's blue hole. Various trips to the promising feeder provided nothing but dead ends as they turned out to be dead end creeks with no flow at all. In some places sand boils were encountered which would become familiar sights in the days to come.

One of the other areas of interest was the coast along the southern peninsula that separates the bay of Chetumal from the Caribbean Sea around the villages of Majahual and Xcalak. During the first scouting trip some 8 possible cenotes where encountered and placed on the list to explored. Most of them however were in a swampy area and filled with tannic acid. During a later exploration trip a fair sized crocodile halted all further exploration in the swampy area. During the first scouting trip only one cave opening showed any flow: a vent in the reef some 150 feet offshore that was explored first while using a power snorkel and then the following day by a full dive team which discovered some 200 feet of cave passage. A local dive operator and cave diver in the village of Xcalak told us about various cenotes in the area, all of them without horizontal cave passage but one with a traverse of a mile long connecting the inner lagoon to the outer bay of Chetumal.

After the aerial survey into the boarder area a scouting team was sent in to investigate the most promising lead, another cenote with the name Azul, near the town of La Union and right on the river that forms the border with Belize. The flowing water out of the cobalt blue pool had us dreaming of possible cave passage but only sand boils were found. Interesting here is a local tale of a golden crocodile living in this cenote, luckily for us we did not have an encounter with it.

After having a good look around southern Q.Roo without much going and explored cave passage to account for (our compressors had run only seven hours so far) the whole team broke camp and headed into the state of Yucatan. We opened up camp in the little village of Homun some 70 kilometers away from Merida. The Ecology Department of Yucatan and the president of the local municipality offered us their local cultural center to serve as our base camp during our five day exploration.

As in last year's Yucatan 2000 exploration project, we hired local help from the village to help with the cooking and we heartily enjoyed the fresh local cuisine.

During these four day's in Homun we explored 28 Cenotes, many of them turned out to be filled-in sinkholes with shallow crystal clear water pools but no depth. The access was difficult at times. Our ropes, harnesses, carabiners, belays and pulleys had little time to rest. All but a few cenotes required a coordinated team effort to enter and exit the water.

Amazingly some of these filled-in sinkholes have an exceptionally high population of blind cave fish, isopods and amphipods even if not connected into a cave system but confined to a small pool of water. Those critters go where no man has gone before I guess. Most amazing is that in one location a large blind cave fish population was living at the edge and inside the daylight zone. This is uncommon and unprecedented in the area.

Only one of the Cenotes turned out to have cave passage leads at some 210 feet of depth. A 60 foot rappel leads the adventurous diver into a large dry chamber some 150 feet across and 60 feet high. The water was crystal clear and the sunbeams were performing a silent ballet on the transparent surface with rays of light dancing in a bizarre pattern in the blue water below. At 50ft of depth, the top of the tallus cone revealed a huge and circular chamber. Old dried and thick clay banks on the floor told the story of ancient times when this submerged cave has been dry. Promising leads beckoned for a return in one of the future expeditions.

During this Bacalar 2001 expedition we explored just shy of 40 cenotes and blue holes. The expedition reinforced the idea that virgin cave exploration starts on the surface, long before the diving begins. If one is pointed to a line to follow, one may never experience the great feeling of discovery, nor the feeling of frustration the buffers the thrill of great adventure.

The great success of this expedition can not be calculated and measured in feet of line laid but the survey of a vast area previously unexplored or at best explored without documentation, which provides no insight into the bigger picture that is geological and hydrological composition of the Yucatan peninsula.

Again this expedition could not have been done and it's results not been discovered by individual people. Without the tremendous help and vision of people like Jim Rozzi and Curt Bowen projects like that don't happen. The commitment and enthusiasm of expedition participants plus the steady concern toward safety cannot be bought while working long hours day after day toward a common goal and dream. It is the pure spirit of discovery that drives these expeditions. The help, patronage and guidance of our many local guides, Sherpas, cooking staff and care takers can not been praised enough since they are the real heroes of expeditions like this one.

Special thanks and recognition goes to the Ecology Department of Yucatan and the Presidente de Municipio de Homun.

Matt is a local cave and technical instructor. Learn more about his explorations at his site Mayatech.