Text by Jennifer Bowen
Illustrations by Curt Bowen
Photography and video by all group members
The morning sun casts a brilliant glow through the hazy, volcanic skyline. Domingo stands at the lake’s shore. Feeling the hard surface of rocks beneath his feet, he pushes his fishing canoe off shore and leads the men across the lake. His small Maya village is already alive with a bustling of activity. The children play along the shore while gathering sticks for the fires. Women and elders diligently carry out their routine tasks, some foraging for herbs and fruits, while others grind corn to prepare the daily meal.
Kalajoti is a tiny island, positioned off the shore of Lake Atitlan, a vast volcanic caldera that was formed centuries ago. The island is inhabited by the Kalajoti clan, whose presence defines every aspect of the landscape and creates a distinct, exclusive community. With less than a hundred inhabitants, the clan is self-sufficient and isolated from other civilizations. The island provides a sanctuary for Domingo and his people, shielding them from the threat of predators that roam the mountainside. With the highest mound raised 10ft above the lake, the island presents the clan with a strategic advantage, allowing them to spot approaching merchants or the potential invasion from rival tribes.
As Itza, Domingo’s wife, grinds corn on a large stone to make tortillas, a clamorous flock of birds passes by, their chirping fills the air overhead. Itza’s intuition tells her that today holds an unfamiliar energy. She has an odd feeling that nature seems agitated. As the day went on, the birdsong grew more animated, as if they were communicating a sense of excitement in their surroundings. Meanwhile, the island peks (dogs) appeared jumpy and cautious, their senses heightened. She noticed that even the ants are busy piling dirt higher than usual around their mounds.
After a long morning of fishing, Domingo and the other men return. Each of the men hoists large baskets of fresh fish over their shoulders. As Domingo approaches their hut, he calls out to Itza, his voice echoing through the air, “Lots of fish this morning! A good catch! But the nets were hard to pull. A strong wind is blowing white water across the lake and the foolish bird’s frenzied back and forth trying to grab the fish right from the boats.” Domingo chuckles, “Some days, I have to wonder about nature!” Brushing the ground corn from the stone onto a ceramic plate, Itza replies, “Even the ants seem extra busy today. Leave me the fish and go see your father. He seemed anxious about your return.” Closing the thatched door on their hut, Domingo heads through the village towards his father’s house.
As Domingo passes the north shore, he sees his father, Aapo, moving a large canoe onto the beach. The sound of his cheer echoes in the distance, “Papa! The gods have blessed the boats this morning!” Aapo replies, “That is good, my son. It might be a few days until we can fish on the waters again.” Aapo declares, “The Lake gods have awakened. The animals have warned me there is a storm coming to our land. Help me pull the rest of the boats up onto the shore. We have much to do!”
Over the years, Aapo had weathered countless storms on the tiny island. He knew that when the animals howled and their movements seemed frantic; it was a sure warning that there was a powerful storm coming, bringing potential danger. Domingo held his father’s wisdom in high regard and respected his guidance. He never hesitated to follow his instructions. He learned many things about survival and life from his father. Domingo secured the boats ashore as Aapo had directed him to. Having sensed his father’s urgency, Domingo asks, “Papa, are we in danger?” But Aapo keeps working. Domingo had heard countless tales of the big storms, but he had never experienced one quite like his ancestors did when the tornado-force winds howled through the mountains with anger, devastating the tiny village.
The storm moves closer, and the elders gather in the Great Hall. They acknowledge the need to send a village-wide call, summoning all the men to assemble. Domingo sits next to his father. He has attended elder meetings in the past, but those were dedicated to the yearly harvest, tasks that were carried out by the younger members of the clan. This was different. Domingo had an eerie feeling and couldn’t help but to be on edge. He nearly jumped out of his skin each time the lightning struck and thunder roared. How big was this storm? He wondered, but didn’t dare ask. It was disrespectful for anyone but an elder to speak out at meetings unless chosen.
The clansmen receive instructions from the elders to prepare and bring the dogs for protection against any potential predators or intruders that might breach the island. The dogs are part of the clan and very important to the tribe’s safety. Especially when the village is vulnerable. The elders advised the men to return promptly to the Great Hall once they have gathered their families. All village members needed to be accounted for. Domingo and Itza securely store some of their pottery, tools, musical instruments, and other small treasures from the island under rock ledges and in crevasses. The island offered many large boulders, creating nooks and crannies where they could carefully store their belongings. Domingo rushes to the Great Hall with Itza and the children close behind. The rain has intensified and the winds have grown stronger. Entering the Hall, the sound of the harsh winds whistle and shake the wooden timbers and rain drips from the ceiling’s thatch. With a worried face, Aapo meets Domingo in the center of the Hall. Aapo informs Domingo, “The elders have agreed the winds are too strong for everyone in the clan to stay on the island. The strongest men will take the women and children to the mainland in the largest canoes. Once you reach the shore, follow the mountain trail and seek shelter high in the hunting cave.”
Aapo hugs Domingo and says, “Hurry, my son, you have little time. The darkness is quickly approaching.” Domingo responds, “Papa, you must come! The storm is too strong for you to stay on the island.” Aapo tells Domingo, “The elders are too old for the rugged journey to the cave. The gods have spoken to me and they have chosen you to carry on. Domingo, you are to be the protector of our clan now.” Aapo hands Domingo his sacred Dragon flute. “When the weather clears, play for me by the shore and I will hear you and the gods will then know that we have completed our journeys.” Domingo hears Itza and the children calling for him. As Domingo heads towards Itza, he looks back at Aapo and shouts out, “Papa! I will make the god’s happy again and I will play for you at first light.”
The chosen group bravely launches off into the face of the angry winds and pelting rain. The women and children huddle together at the bottom of the boats, praying out loud to the gods for safety. Powerful sprays of water and angry rain nearly fill the shallow canoes as the men paddled with all their strength, driving onward, through the turbulent waves and intense lightning. Reaching the mainland’s, the men pulled the canoes across the beach and anchored them high into the forest. Domingo had been to the cave-shelter on many hunting trips and knew its location well. He leads the small group over the upper ledge of the ceremonial rock and through the steep jungle trail as the night sky darkened and the weather intensified. The exhausted and cold group finally reaches the safety of the cave as the last glimmer of light fades behind the mountains. Safely inside, their only comfort would be the flash of lightning that momentarily illuminate their worried, tired faces. The darkness consumes the evening for what seemed like an eternity to the shivering group. The rumble and roar of the storm continued throughout the night, never letting up. Vivid thoughts dominated Domingo’s mind all night. How could his parents and remaining elders survive such a powerful storm on the island? Did Papa know their fate?
A faint red hue breaks the darkness with the morning light. Domingo climbs down from the upper ledge of the cave and walks towards the entrance. Looking out, Domingo feels the wind in his face, still gusting and strong, with occasional bands of rain showering over the mountains. He sees water rushing beneath the entrance towards the lake, splashing over the enormous boulders and branches and sees the forest-trees shredded of life. Mudslides and rock hurl past the front of the cave entrance. Domingo could hardly wait until the gods were at rest. He selects Beto and another clansman to leave the shelter and return with him to Kalajoti, hoping to reunite with the rest of their clan. Making their way down the treacherous, muddy trail, climbing over and under fallen trees, they reach the shore. As the brilliant reddish hue fades from the sky, the sun’s glow gleams brighter. The full aftermath of the great storm is now visible to them. Debris lines the banks and trees ripped from the earth drift in the moving water. The men look in awe of the lake: broken canoes, tangled fishnets and parts of thatched roofs strung along the shore. Afar, on the distant mountains, they see many raging waterfalls and mudslides crashing down into the lake with great fury.
The men’s eyes search for the island of Kalajoti. Through the agitated waves, Domingo can faintly make out what appears to be the tops of trees reaching above the water’s surface. He rubs his eyes dry. Was that the Island of Kalajoti? He couldn’t tell. Standing on a large rock platform, bewildered, Domingo recognizes where he was. It was the upper ledge of the ceremonial rock. The group climbed over it in their rush to reach the cave-shelter. Every year, the competing clans selected their best fisherman to dive from the ceremonial rock’s edge into the water, 30 feet below! It was their traditional way of asking the fish gods for good spoils and a bountiful harvest of full nets for the new year. The highest dive concluded with a loud cheer from all who watched, slapping the water with their wooden boat oars.
But now, with horror in their eyes, they gasp! Beto shouts! “The ceremonial rock!” “Why is the lake touching the rock” He cries out, “Shouldn’t we be standing far above the lake? Not in the lake!” Their eyes widened with disbelief! Beto’s voice shutters with fear; “Why can’t we see our island?” The angry lake gods had swallowed the entire island of Kalajoti. It was gone! Their clan and homes were gone, sunken beneath the depths of the rising lake. Domingo falls to his knees and calls out to his father, “Why, Papa? Why didn’t you come?” With a tear in his eye, Domingo looks afar. Domingo knows that there isn’t any hope that his family survived. In his lost stare, he sees a small pack of island dogs. They cautiously approach Domingo, barking excitedly once they recognize the clansmen! As Domingo rises in disbelief, brushing the mud from his clothes, he feels Aapo’s flute under his garment. Remembering his father’s wishes, he pulls the dragon flute from his pocket and plays a song of hope for his father, thus completing their journey of the gods.
The music of the dragon flute transcends through time, past, present, and future. They say on calm and colorful mornings the “Song of Journeys” can still be heard along the shores of Lake Atitlan.
(click on all images to enlarge)
Located into the far reaches of Guatemala, Lago de Atitlan, or the Lake of Atitlan, is a mesmerizing natural wonder formed by the remains of an ancient super volcano that last erupted over eighty thousand years ago. The tremendous explosion gave rise to central America’s deepest lake, reaching depths of over 1000 feet / 300 meters. Lake Atitlan has no natural river exit. Every year, the water levels in the area rise and fall drastically, often exceeding a meter during the rainy seasons. Extreme storm conditions can cause a sudden surge in water levels, leading to the flooding and destruction of existing buildings and docks built closely along the lake shore.
As our home base for the week, La Iguana Perdida is situated at the water's edge in the Village of Santa Cruise. The docks are easily accessible from here, offering stunning panoramas of twin volcanoes and the untouched beauty of surrounding scenery.
Leading our “2023” expedition to Atitlan is Keith Ambrose, a highly trained technical rebreather diver and renowned team coordinator. Advance Diver Magazine has featured Keith’s remarkable contributions to various expeditions in several issues over the years.
Keith waits for his long-time friend, Captain Domingo Chavajay at the boat dock in front of La Iguana Perdida. Domingo's ancestral roots trace back to the esteemed Kalajoti clan, a name that commands respect throughout the area. The loud rumble of the boat engine catches Keith's attention. He turns to see a familiar sight, The Tornado, a 20-foot red and white Panga, cutting through the water with ease as it approaches the dock. Keith happily greets Domingo! After tying off the Tornado, they make their way up the stone steps of La Iguana Perdida. They join the dive team as the men are inspecting their closed circuit SCUBA equipment. A closed circuit rebreather provides the team with extended dive times, reduced decompression obligations, minimized gas requirements, and the luxury of breathing warmer gas under the cold water, as opposed to traditional open water scuba gear.
Keith introduces Domingo to the team. The team, comprising of six highly trained rebreather divers from the United States, is prepared to embark on their mission. Team members include: Keith Ambrose, Team coordinator and CCR explorer; Curt Bowen, Cave explorer and publisher of Advanced Diver Magazine; Mike Young, Owner of KISS Rebreathers; Randall Purdy, Technical dive instructor trainer and owner of Hartland Scuba Center; Mike Henry, Technical dive instructor; and Dane Motty; technical CCR explorer.
With the mission at hand, the team is determined to collect compelling evidence to help support Curt Bowen's theory, which he has documented over a 25-year span, during 100’s of expeditions to Central America. His discoveries reveal a massive drought took place between 200 AD and 1400 AD, resulting in a significant and prolonged drop in water levels in lakes and water retaining caves. As the water levels continued to diminish, indigenous people had no choice but to adapt to the drought like conditions, either by resettling their villages closer to a water source or seeking shelter in the depths of lower-lying caves. Multiple discoveries from many of Curt's expeditions show that the drought ended abruptly and a supernatural event resembling a massive flood took place, resulting in an extreme rise in water levels, submerging everything in its wake. Moreover, they sought to discover tangible evidence of the whereabouts of the mythical island of Kalajoti’s, its existence would serve as a validation of Curt’s extensive research.
As part of their standard practice, the team deems the first dive after airline travel a shake down dive, to test and adjust any equipment if needed. Given the potential for TSA mishandling or removing gear from travel bags, it is essential to perform a safety check-dive to ensure that the integrity of their life support equipment is intact. As the team shuffles their gear to the dock, Domingo’s son Aku’ arrives with the second boat, swiftly loading all the gear onto his vessel while the team members board The Tornado with Captain Domingo. Domingo and Aku’ guided the team across the lake to the cliff-side diving rock, where they would begin their checkout dive near Santa Cruz. The team has planned a quick 70 minute dive, with a maximum depth of 130ft. During the checkout dive, team member Randall Purdy returns to the surface with an outstanding discovery of a decorative ceramic dragon face flute. The guys made their way back to base-camp, encouraged over the first discovery and relieved that all their gear was in working order.
Sitting down to an authentic Mayan dinner at La Iguana Perdida later that evening, the team gathered around the table. Their excitement is clear as they discussed finding Randall’s archaic relic and exchanging ideas and strategizing their dive itinerary for the upcoming week. Keith splits the team into two groups, designating three men to Team A and three men to Team B. To help eliminate confusion underwater, the dive plan would remain the same throughout the week. In the basic dive plan, both teams A and B enter the water from the shore, descend along the sloping bank to the first zone, set at a maximum depth of 130ft. Both teams will turn away from the boat once they reach the 130ft mark - team A to the left and team B to the right. Each searching in their pre-planned direction for precisely 40 minutes. In the first zone, teams A and B will disperse. Each team has one man covering the site at 130ft, another at 120ft, and a third at 110ft. Once both teams reach the 40 minute time limit, they will ascend to the next pre-planned zone at 100ft, 90ft, and 80ft, again each of the three-man teams will expand to their own depth, this time turning back towards the boat, covering the designated grounds. After exploring for 40 minutes in the second zone, the teams should be close to the boat, where they will complete their short decompression obligations before they returned to the surface.
Best laid plans go awry.
Despite its simplicity, one would assume that nothing could go awry with such a straightforward dive plan. Let us give a warm welcome to team F, a dynamic individual eager to differ. Curt Bowen, a renowned CCR explorer and publisher of Advanced Diver Magazine, possesses an extraordinary knack for losing sight of all divers the moment they begin their descent, resulting in forming his unique, solo, self-assigned, dive team, team F. One would think that during a two-hour dive, solo team F, could find a member of team A or B, but no, not Curt! Throughout the week, he consistently proves himself to be a one-man show.
As the team maps out all explored locations, days two, three, and four pass by with little in the way of exciting discoveries. As they moved further east on day five, the team entered an area rich with potential, a place where Keith and Curt had uncovered several remarkable finds in 2018 with a preceding team of expert divers. Stretching out into the lake, there is a large rocky peninsula. This location potentially holds the lost island of Kalajoti or another ancient shoreline village that the fast-rising flood submerged. The dive teams descend to the 130ft depth and turn toward their designated directions. Just a short distance after turning, Dane Motty spots a small piece of ceramic emerging from the muddy silt. Carefully extricating the ceramic from the soft muck, he uncovers a nice cooking steam style vessel. Because of its fragile and cumbersome size, Dane elects to cut his dive short and bring the ceramic vessel back to the boat. Continuing the search, Randall spots another ceramic piece, partially concealed in the silt amidst the large boulders. Carefully excavating the loose rocks and silt, Randall unveils a well preserved ceramic pot once used to brew coffee.
In their continued exploration, the team members are thrilled to come across a cache of additional relics in the same area. Mike Young uncovers a fully intact ceremonial incense burner, and Mike Henry finds several notable pieces, thus showing a community once inhabited this area. Amongst the other artifacts found were a steam pot used for cooking, a food bowl, and various pieces of broken ceramics. Based on the many discoveries in this confined area, we can conclude that an ancient village, once thrived along the submerged shoreline, estimated to have existed around 500 years ago.
During previous expeditions to Atitlan, teams from Advanced Diver Magazine discovered two additional nearby areas, at depths ranging from 90ft to 120ft. These areas yield impressive artifacts, such as large, weighty, grinding stones, and stone boat anchor. These and other remarkable artifacts will be recovered in future Advanced Diver Magazine expeditions.
Video Clip of Discovery
On our last evening, Domingo and Aku’ shuttle the team to the lake village of San Pedro and the Tzunun’ Ya’ Museum. As the group arrived, the curator and staff eagerly assembled, prepared to take possession of the recovered relics. Each artifact is thoroughly examined by the museum staff, giving their expert opinion on the intended use and estimated age of every relic. As the meeting concludes, the museum staff lights four candles, casting a soft glow on the ancient Maya relics. They then proceed with a brief ceremony, symbolizing the return of these precious artifacts to the people of lake Atitlan. The museum carefully dated these artifacts to a time-period spanning from 200 AD to 1400 AD. With certainty, these items could have been relics from the fabled lost island of Kalajoti and Domingo’s ancestral tribe. Still, to this day, the island dogs run wild throughout Atitlan. Many believe they are searching for the lost island of Kalajoti.
Successfully, our Atitlan 2023 journey ends.
To inquire about upcoming expeditions in 2024 or 2025, contact Curt Bowen at Advanced Diver Magazine.
Video Clip of Donation to Museum
Recovered Artifacts (Click to Enlarge)
Additional Relics Recovered from 80 to 110 ft
360 Degree View of Museum Tz'unun Ya'
Depth Map of Lago de Atitlan
2023 Atitlan Team Members
Team coordinator and CCR diver Keith Ambrose has been exploring Lago de Atitlan along with several other Guatemala locations for over two decades.
CCR Explorer Dane Motty holds an ancient Maya relic he discovered in the depths of Lago de Atitlan. All artifacts recovered are donated to the Museum Tzunun’ Ya’ in San Pedro.
Cave explorer and KISS Rebreather designer Mike Young. Mike has spent over 20 years in rebreather design and manufacturing. Past owner of KISS Rebreathers he is the designer of the KISS Sidewinder CCR unit.
Randall Purdy, Owner and operator of Heartland Scuba Center in Kearney Nebraska, TDI Technical Dive Instructor Trainer and CCR cave explorer.
Mike Henry, CCR cave explorer and dive instructor with Heartland Scuba Center in Kearney, Nebraska.
CEO and Publisher for Advanced Diver Magazine, underwater photographer and cave explorer Curt Bowen joins the group as the best member on Team F.
2023 Group Photo: Left to Right:
Randall Purdy • Mike Henry • Tana Henry • Dane Motty • Shannon Motty • Mike Young • Paige Purdy • Jennifer Bowen • Curt Bowen • Keith Ambrose
Volcano Fuego June 3rd 2018 Eruption (video by Curt Bowen)
Expedition Corporate Sponsors
Lake Accommodations and SCUBA Facility
Lake Transportation and Guides
Advanced Diver Magazine Related Materials
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Help Perros Libres Save the Dogs of Guatemala (Donate Today)