Cenotes – Natural Wonders
February 2011

by Natalie Novak

I grew up in Canada about half an hour from Niagara Falls and when out-of-town friends and family would visit, we would take them to see the falls. They are beautiful and getting close to them is always a rush. But having them so close and having gone so many times, I never really remember appreciating them—not until I went with my husband for his first time to be close to the falls, and under the falls, and right beside the falls. When you live so close to a natural wonder, it's easy to forget how wonderful nature can be.

I have never lost my awe of the ocean. Every time I visit, there can be something new. Last month, I saw my first hammerhead shark in Mexico. It swam by, 20 feet away, ignoring my student and me, scanning the sand, doing its thing. It took me well over 2,000 dives to see one here, but my student was on her third certification dive when she saw it. And two weeks ago Ivan saw a blacktip reef shark when diving with another instructor who is a client. You never know what you will find in the ocean. Each day it surprises me with different creatures and their different interactions, and I had forgotten how amazing the cenotes are too.

It took a friend's coming all the way from my home town for me to rediscover my awe of the cenotes. Cenotes are underground caves with fresh water moving through them. In the open, sunny parts you may find a few birds, freshwater turtles or maybe tetras and small catfish, but in the caves and caverns it is the rock formations that are the main events.

You can swim between stalactites and stalagmites that took thousands of years to form, as water dripped through the porous limestone. In the alien environment, swimming through the clear water often feels like drifting through outer space. There are some fossils in the walls and, in a few cenotes, there are still Maya artifacts like pottery and bones. I love haloclines; these occur where lighter fresh water sits on top of heavier salt water, forming a mirror-like layer. When disturbed, the visual effect looks something like when your satellite TV signal is interrupted by heavy rain clouds—all pixels, only you are not looking at this, you are swimming through it.

The thing I like watching most in cenotes is my air. I don't mean my air consumption, though that is VERY important in a cavern ... I mean my air bubbles. Each time you exhale, your bubbles flow up and into the highest points in the rock above you, the way water flows down and into holes when you pour it on the ground. I find it mind-bending to watch gravity work its magic.

Which way is up? This is not a puddle of water on the ground,
but a puddle of air trapped on the ceiling of a cenote.

Dive Tip: There are several cenotes which non-divers can snorkel. I like Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos for snorkeling. To dive a cenote, you need to be at least Open Water certified and have good buoyancy. On a dive vacation, plan to dive in the ocean first. This way you can fine-tune your buoyancy before you dive in the enclosed spaces of the cenotes. It is important not to hurt the rock formations or stir up the bottom of a cenote. It is an overhead environment and there is added risk, which is why a maximum of 4 divers can go with a full cave-certified guide, who should be wearing double tanks and other specialty gear.

Make every dive count when you Dive with Natalie and Ivan.

natalie and ivan