Cave divers are the world’s most witless people. This is not mere Freddian assertion but a neurological fact. They have fewer brain cells than normal people. MIT did a massive study, and concluded that a cave diver has the reasoning capacity of a lemur. A smaller study by CalPoly equated them intellectually with woodchucks, though a peer-review team noted that no one had ever seen a woodchuck diving in a cave. All agreed that people who strap on scuba gear and swim far back in dismal grottos full of water represent a dangerous counter-evolutionary trend.
I decided that Quintana Roo, in southern Mexico near the Yucatan, was the place to do it. The region is pockmarked with cenotes, which are caves called something else to gull the unwary. I had seen pictures taken in cenotes. Invariably they made these sordid pits look like the cathedral at Chartres submerged. Rays of sunlight from openings to the world speared through lovely clear water and divers hung in green transcendence. Lovely.
My flight landed at Cancun and I found a bus to Playa del Carmen and then a van to my hotel on the beach between Playa and Tulum. It had all the credentials of a (you will admire my linguistic originality) tropical paradise: Water, sand, and an insufferably arrogant Mexican owner who believed himself to be a Buddhist. Off to the dive shop, clutching mask, contact lenses, and dive computer.
I booked a dive in Chac Mool, a cenote. I also met, I’ll call him, Pablo, who was the cave guide. I’m not going to name the shop because I suspect most of the others in the region are as bad and I see no reason to pick on one. Anyway, Pablo was short, brown, maybe twenty-six, amiable, and a cowboy. Mexicans are. It’s part of why I like them. Anyway we agreed that he would pick me up at the arrogantly-owned pseudo-Buddhist hotel in the morning. He did. We bounded through the jungle in a four-wheel drive toward Chac Mool.
Now, a certified American cave diver (and, believe me, they’re all certifiable) will tell you don’t just plunge into an intricate cave as if it were a warm bath after a night of dancing in a dirt bar. No. Cave diving involves certain compelling realities, such as the difficulty of surfacing through forty feet of rock if something goes wrong. It is therefore thought expedient to have some faint idea what you are doing. You plan. You discuss contingencies. You agree on hand signals. You have three dive lights per diver. Caves by their nature are not well lit.
None of these thoughts disturbed the tranquil surface of Pablo’s consciousness. We hopped out, suited up, and staggered off toward a tree-fringed hole in the ground as if we knew what we were doing. When you put on a wet suit in the tropics you have about thirty seconds before going into sunstroke. We staggered into dank obscurity and fell — aaaah! — into cool water, below the surface of which was the entrance to Chac Mool.
Whereupon Pablo handed me one of those lame little tourist dive lights that dive shops use. That was it: Four tired C-cells and three ounces of plastic. So much for planning, recognition of inherent risk, the Anglo-Saxon penchant for control. You know, like the Apollo landings.
So we were floating half-way over our masks in dark clear water and I tested the sad little light and it didn’t work. Nada. Pablo looked puzzled and took the light. He slapped it hard. It began to emit a sort of fungal glow. The batteries were probably the original beta versions of Duracell. He indicated that we should submerge.
Now, anyone who engages in risky sports — skydiving, caving, rock climbing and so on — will tell you that there is a difference between courage and stupidity. When things just don’t feel right, or the equipment isn’t up to par, it is not cowardice simply to say, u201CThis isn’t a good idea. I’m not going to do it.u201D Intelligent sportsmen always recognize when it is time to choose judgement over bravery. This was one of those times.
Inside, Chac Mool was a grey, mud-walled, ugly, preternaturally uninteresting tube, maybe five feet wide and four high. Nothing whatever recommended it, at least nothing I could see with the wan glow of my alleged light. It reminded me of caves I had been in during my above-water caving days. Cruddy tumbled rock. More cruddy tumbled rock. No slanting beams of sunlight, no stalactites like fluted Corinthian columns and suchlike nonsense. Crud. I felt like a geologic tapeworm in its natural habitat.
I’ve been had, I thought. I’m going to find that photographer and kill him.
Some people are courageous. I am not. My response to unnerving situations is to turn my head off and not worry too much, except about relevant readings on the computer. I followed Pablo’s fins darkly flapping in front of me, thinking roughly, u201CThis is incredibly boring and I’m probably going to drown. How very reasonable. Eeyore would understand.u201D
I once wrote a diving song to the tune of u201COh Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz.u201D The words ran through my mind like squirrels in an exercise wheel.
Oh Lord, woncha help me
Nursa dese bends
My friends got computers
I jes jumps in….
On and on we went, back back back into the small intestine of Mexico. u201CThis is really stupid,u201D I thought with delayed reason. Ssssssss-wubbawubbawubba. I kept my fingers lightly on the first stage of Pablo’s regulator: If both our lights failed at once, I was going to go out with him, or he wasn’t going to go out. I had no idea where we were. I wondered whether he did.
My light slowly dimmed. We came to a fork in the tunnel. A sign with a skull and crossbones warned us that one branch was dangerous. Oh. We were hundreds of yards, nay, perhaps miles, maybe parsecs, away from life and air in the bowels of nowhere in particular — and cave divers wanted us to know that somewhere else was dangerous. Roger. Got it. I wondered what lay down the bad branch. On thought, I stopped wondering.
Hotel. Note Pseudo-Buddhist.
Finally, purely by accident I am persuaded, we got back. My computer told me thirty-eight minutes with a max depth of forty-two feet. I had 1200 PSI of air left. I told Pablo that it had been a dive of surpassing excellence. Idiocy abetted by mendacity. But that’s how the thing is done.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.