Yucatan 2010 Expedition
By Jeff Toorish
A large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything. Laurence Sterne (1713 - 1768)
The remarkable thing about the town of Colonia is it has its own two lane bowling alley. The lanes are in some disrepair, but you can still hit a strike. The bowling alley is part of the downtown general store and is run by a charming woman named Elsie. Colonia is about 70 Kilometers West of Cancun in Mexico’s rough Yucatan Peninsula, an area once the home of a thriving wood products industry that now faces much more difficult economic times. The veneer factory has closed, taking with it the prosperity that Colonia once enjoyed. For 10 days in January on 2010, Colonia was the base camp for an elite team of Advanced Diver Magazine explorers.
The team consisted of ADM publisher, explorer and photographer Curt Bowen, veteran of a dozen years of exploration in the Yucatan; cave explorers Brett Hemphill and Walter Pickel, and Mike Young. Jose Pool, Joined the team in Mexico; and your reporter for this article, ADM chief photojournalist and explorer Jeff Toorish.
Working under the auspices of the Yucatan Department of Conservation; our mandate was to seek, find and document Yucatan’s cenotes, or wells. These could be anything from an open pond or sinkhole to a crack in the ground leading to an intricate cave system.
As with most ADM expeditions to Mexico, the team flew into Cancun Airport. Eventually we cleared the necessary government checks and piled nearly a ton of gear into two fifteen person vans and one ancient VW bug. After fueling the vehicles we headed west to Colonia and what would be one of the most productive Advanced Diver Magazine expeditions ever.
FORMER LOGGING TOWN
Most visitors to the Yucatan enjoy the coastal areas and perhaps a side trip to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza or Tulum. Frankly, that is not the real Mexico; the Mexico with a proud, mysterious and stunning history. The Mexico we sought.
Colonia is a small town, closer to a village with warm and welcoming citizens who made our stay all the more pleasant –even including the half dozen of them awakening us on our last day at about 4am with a prolonged booy serenade of slightly suggestive Mexican songs.
Historically, Colonia’s heyday was in the early 20th century when it was a center for logging activity. A massive decrepit mill still dominates the town today, abandoned, festering and portraying a sense of what had been, and will probably never be again. People in Colonia told me when the mill was productive nearly everyone in the area was either employed at the mill or worked for a company that supported the mill. Photos on the walls of local shops attest to this economic boom.
During the evenings, after dark, the team would enjoy a few beers (and perhaps a shot of tequila or two) at Elsie’s restaurant/store/bowling alley while uploading photos and video to laptop computers. The pictures from Colonia’s past would look down at the new photos on the computer screens in an odd juxtaposition of ancient and modern, past and present.
The mill itself opened and closed several times over the decades, eventually closing forever in 1990s. It produced beautiful veneer used to make furniture. Loggers harvested trees from a hundred miles around. The problem was the logging companies and mill operators did not plant replacement trees. Instead, the chose to clear the land and, eventually, move on leaving the local population with nothing but scrub and a broken behemoth of a building, decaying slowly in the Mexican sunshine.
For all that, the people of Colonia speak of the days in which the mill provided wealth and prosperity with fondness not bitterness, as if it were a fine drink consumed and enjoyed, but not expected again.
As with all exploration, it is important to understand the area in which you are looking. This is the background for the area in which we would make our base.
SQUARE VERSUS ROUND
The question I am asked most often about exploration is, “how do you find cenotes?”
The simple answer is we ask the local residents: farmers, policemen, the mayor, people walking down the road –whoever might know where there is a hole in the ground. Sometimes that pans out, sometimes not. On this expedition a local official insisted we visit a cenote “about a kilometer” off the road. It was a “sacred place,” according to the official and he believed it contained many wonders. He told us some workers were preparing the path to make it easier to carry our gear to the sacred cenote. We were assured once there, we could simply climb in to investigate its magic. The one kilometer was closer to two, each way, through extremely difficult scrub jungle growth. In the end, the small hole in the ground proved nothing more than a small cave of no particular significance to us.
And then sometimes we might pass by something extraordinary many times without even realizing its fantastic possibilities; something we would learn late in this expedition.
The water table in this part of the Yucatan runs from about 25 to 50 meters beneath the surface, depending on the ground elevation. That made for some memorable rope climbs out of deep holes.
“This type of expedition is unique in that it requires the explorer to be proficient in many disciplines,” says Explorer Walter Pickel “not only is cave diving required but being able to side mount, no mount, power snorkel, rig ropes, repel, climb, cave, survey, sketch and maintain data integrity is critical in order to accomplish the team's goals.”
Often we would spot potential exploration sites from the road by seeking large trees or wind mills; both indicate water underneath. Often the cenotes would be a well, or pozo, surrounded by a stone wall. If the wall is round, it generally indicates that the pozo was dug to the water table. But if the wall was square, it was most likely an existing crack in the surface leading to an actual cave with water at the bottom.
It is the square walled wells that would interest explorers and certainly interested us.
The goal of the expedition was to document cenotes, and the team set a new record for cenotes explored; in all we passed along information on 92 cenotes to the Department of Ecology. This is a record number of cenotes discovered, documented and explored by an ADM expedition. But one of those cenotes would hold a treasure like no other.
A secondary goal was field testing two experimental side-mount rebreathers build by explorer Mike Young. The idea is to use open circuit, side-mount and no-mount diving for basic exploration. But in the event a large passage is found, our basic open circuit equipment would no longer suffice and a designated explorers would switch to semi-closed circuit rebreathers for greater cave penetration.
Mike Young, working with Brett Hemphill, has created a prototype side-mount unit that would fit the bill and this expedition saw the units get wet for the first time in real field conditions.
Occasionally during a town stop someone will ask for specific help. In one small town, a young boy solemnly and in remarkably clear English came up to us and earnestly requested help. He told us that something was in the large open pozo we were preparing to explore.
His demeanor and gravity belied his age, probably about twelve. It would not be the first time we had been asked to look for the remains of someone who had drowned. We asked the youngster what he wanted us to find.
Gravely he said, “soccer balls.”
Curt Bowen was already in the water and we quickly found a laundry basket to send down to him. In a valiant effort, he managed to find four still intact and
As the young man who made the initial request walked away, he turned and said simply, “thank you.”
On day five of the expedition the team was in a town we nick-named “Cinco Wells” because the town square was peppered with five open wells, each painted a vibrant turquoise. Each of these wells went to the same cave, which turned out to be a huge room. When I asked a local policeman why so many openings to essentially he same water source, he explained it was for convenience. Because so many people came into town for water, over the years the town had added additional well openings.
The water table in this particular area was nearly a hundred feet below the surface making for a long, hard climb out for Curt Bowen and Walter Pickel who had done the initial exploration of the cave. They discovered the remains of three people who had most likely fallen into the huge cave long ago.
Upon a subsequent return days later, team members discovered additional remains in the same cave.
FINDING THE FIND
While all of these discoveries are important, none were particularly significant. That would come on the last planned day of exploration and it would come from a surprising place. The team had passed one particular pozo many times but had not explored it because it was a round shaped well, and unlikely to yield anything other than a straight shaft to the water.
As Mike Young says, “Exploration is hope and expectation. You rarely find what you expect but there is hope you will in the next hole --then you find that one that just blows you away.”
The explorers did not realize next to the round well was another pozo obscured from the road; a square pozo. Brett Hemphill, Mike Young and Jose Pool were headed back to base camp and decided to take a quick look at the round well; it was only then that they discovered the additional opening that led to a significant room.
Hemphill and Young dropped into the cave and found the remains of several unfortunate drowning victims as well as the debris from centuries of use. They made a circuitous exploration of the cave, noting details for the written record and then climbed out to meet up with the rest of the team in Colonia.
There was still daylight left when the entire team assembled and Hempill and Young described the most recent find. It was almost a lark, but the entire team decided to head back out for a second look into the well.
Photographers Curt Bowen and Jeff Toorish, along with Mike Young, dropped into the well for another inspection. The drop was about 20 meters to the surface of the water. The room itself was about 40 meters across and dropped to a depth of about 35 meters. There were human remains at various places on ledges and in what appeared to be a narrow passage to one side. That passage pinched off abruptly.
All in all, it was not a particularly noteworthy cave. The debris pile started at about 10 meters and was filled with the usual assortment of lost items, mostly buckets.
Curt Bowen continued to explore when he spotted what would be one of the most remarkable finds on an ADM expedition. At the bottom of the debris pile was what looked like an old teapot but upon further examination Bowen realized it was far from a teapot. It was unique, pristine and a very important find.
Curt Bowen and the ADM exploration team had discovered what appears to be a pre-Columbian pot most likely used for ceremonial purposes. According to a representative from the Yucatan Department of Conservation, There have been discoveries of only two similar pots, both of which are in museums.
This find remains in the cave, as part of the heritage of the Mayan people, The government of Mexico may decide to remove it at some point, a delicate and difficult operation.
For us, the pot along with all our other discoveries, are a monument to the fascinating Mayan people; a civilization that spanned thousands of years and mysteriously vanished, only to leave tantalizing clues about their existence.
Clues like a priceless pot at the bottom of a well.