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Sak Aktun

Sak Aktun ("white earth" in Mayan), in the vicinity of Tulum, is arguably the most photogenic cave we dove in Yucatan. Because of its beauty, we dove in Sak 51 times during our eight-year project, photographing and exploring this almost pure white cave. The most memorable area of this cave complex is the Cuzen Ah passage. This is a circuit off the main line into a crystalline, delicate fairyland. The formations on the uphill side of this narrow passage actually sparkle in the beam of divers' lights.

Sak Aktun is a very intimate cave, filled with several small passages and rooms. The smallest of the passages contain many major restrictions, which are places where divers must pass single file. As your partner carries your emergency air supply, the number and length of the major restrictions on any dive

add tremendously to the technical difficulties of that dive. To negotiate theses restrictions requires making moves that are more akin to rock climbing than to diving. The major difference, of course, is that the diver is neutrally buoyant in the water.

The most interesting campaign we did in Sak was accomplished in three dives, the first being in June of 1991, and finally accomplishing our goal of getting to the cenote known as Bosch Chen ("black well" in Mayan) in January of 1992. Here is an excerpt from my log of the first dive: Sak Aktun-The Maze June 5, 1991:

Diabolical! Fantastic! Evy and I went around the maze, as we had figured out how to do this on previous dives to a "T" at around 2,000 feet penetration. Turning basically south, we were led into an area of wonderfully difficult vertical major restrictions. We got into downstream flow at around 2,500 feet and turned the dive at approximately 2,750 feet. This was diving with doubles and one extra single bottle. (This is called a stage bottle, and with two thirds of its air supply remaining, it is shut off and left tied to the navigational guideline. It is retrieved on the way out of the cave, providing an adequate safety margin to our air supply.) Due to recent storms around Tulum, the flow along the west main line and around the maze was too strong to allow us to quite complete this 3,000-foot traverse. At the point we turned the dive because of air constraints, we were at another area of major restrictions. I felt like I was on Bolam glacier on Mt. Shasta, that the difficulty of the passage warranted wisdom, not bravado. If the passage at this point had been bigger, we might have been tempted to go further. The opening monologue to Star Trek kept going through my head and wisdom called the dive.

The best lesson we learned from diving in Sak has nothing to do with safety, or the mind-boggling grandeur of the cave, but rather concerns the art of relieving oneself while diving. This may not seem like a subject worthy of note, but the following anecdote shows that it can be very important for jungle cave divers.

Ever since infancy, we are trained not to urinate in our clothing. It is a hard habit to break; letting yourself "go" in a wet suit is difficult for this reason. The tendency is to hold it until you urgently need to relieve yourself, which generally occurs at the end of a dive, or during decompression. Usually this is not a big deal. Since Sak is a relatively shallow dive-50-foot schedule-dives with our doubles (double tanks) generally lasted about two hours and fifteen minutes, with a modest decompression schedule.

We had been diving in Sak for a few years, from a small cenote later named Ho Tul, before the grand cenote became available. There were reports of bees nesting in the karst wall of the cenote. These bees started harassing divers, interestingly enough, usually at the end of the dive when exiting the water. We thought this was odd, since thus far we had not experienced any problem with them, although we knew they were present.

And now, for the fun: At the end of a particularly long dive with a four-person team, we were breaking down our equipment, kneeling in the water with the bees buzzing overhead. When we began to stand up, their furor was aroused. They were so agitated that we abandoned our gear and ran quickly toward the road, where they finally let up a bit. One of the team members had an old-fashioned wetsuit with a flap, called a beavertail, which connected through his legs. He had unfastened the beaver tail before the bees attacked, and while fleeing pulled the tail up over his head in an effort to get some protection from the bees. As he pulled up this piece of his wetsuit, the bees followed the tail of the wetsuit from his pelvic region to the top of his head. I saw all this and yelled to him to let go of the tail. We realized that what had set the bees off was the urine concentrated in our wetsuits.

So, the lesson learned was relieve yourself early and often during a cave dive in the jungle. This allows water to continually flush out the suit, and by the time you get out of the water, the bees won't bite your behind!