Working in the restaurant industry in New York City in 2004, I’d recently fallen in love with scuba diving after a brief trip, during which I completed my open water certification at John Pennecamp State Park in Key Largo. After that trip, I started hanging around a tech diving shop in the East Village on my days off when I first discovered that cave diving existed.

"The current was ripping at Ginnie, man! I almost died!" Some big, tough, diver-dude was telling a group of rapt listeners gathered around him on the sales floor. He continued to regale the group with his cave-diving adventures in Florida. " Dave silted it out, and I was totally blind. I had to follow the line out. It was inSANE!" This did not sound like fun to me–it sounded stupid. I immediately lost all interest in cave diving. 

A few years later, I moved to Mexico for a 6-month internship in the tiny, idyllic town of Akumal. I'd found a researcher studying coral chemistry, and it seemed like an excellent way to combine my new-found love of diving with my degree in biochemistry and perhaps move into conservation work in the future. Upon my arrival, I received information that the internship had been canceled, and the non-profit organization had failed to communicate this to anyone.led to communicate this to anyone. 

At a loss as to what to do for the next six months, I decided to regroup and complete my divemaster internship with a local shop. I worked at the desk doing sales in exchange for dives, and the shop decided I must join one of their guides on a guided cenote cavern dive, as I needed to know what I was selling. Knowing I would hate cavern diving and have no desire to ever consider cave diving, I was dragged along with a group. 

My first cenote dive was at Dos Ojos, and the moment I dropped below the surface, my life changed. A clear, blue tunnel twisted off into the distance. Sparkling white sand covered the floor of the cavern, thin, delicate stalactites adorned the ceiling, and massive columns rose like trees around me. Almost out of sight, I saw two cave divers in doubles swimming off into a dark hole. What was around that corner? Where were they going? I needed to know. 

I surfaced from my first cavern dive inspired. "I am going to be a cave diver!" I proclaimed. "I want to explore new caves! I want to teach cave diving! I want to have a cave diving shop!"  

"Sure you will," the guide told me, observing my 4'11" frame. "You know you will have to carry double tanks, right?" I didn't care. I spent the first five years of my cave diving career dragging around tanks that weighed more than me. 

As it became accepted, I moved to sidemount. I became an open-water instructor, started guiding cave divers, and slowly moved to become a cave diving instructor. I met my exploration buddy Vincent Rouquette-Cathala in 2008, and together, we've mapped more than 100km of previously unexplored caves. In 2016, we opened Under the Jungle, our cave and technical diving center, and we both became instructor trainers. In 2018, my friend Luca gave me his old Sony A7S camera, and I fell in love with underwater photography and videography. They inducted me into the Woman Diver's Hall of Fame in 2020. 

Now, with almost 20 years in Mexico, I am shocked at how time has flown and how much has happened. I've seen significant changes in my adopted country, some good and some bad. Perhaps the most concerning thing is the pace of touristic development–with houses, hotels, and even a train going in with little planning and no environmental impact studies. While it's not the entire solution, I do feel that photography and videography can be tools to show land owners and locals who do not dive into the beauty of the caves that lay just under their feet and hopefully inspire them to conserve it. 

All Images © Natalie L. Gibb 2024
(Click to Enlarge Images)

Top of page: Miranda Bowman floats in front of my favorite column at Cenote Concha, near Tulum, Mexico. This image is one of my favorites. Much of my photography is on the fly; I arrive at a specific spot in the cave and am inspired. Conversely, this photo had been sitting in my head for at least a year before I captured the image, and it's just how I envisioned it! I have seven lights (not counting the model's). Can you find them all?


Above: This image of Sac Pepem has a sad story behind it. Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, Anders Knudsen, and I were the original explorers of Sac Pepem in 2011-2012. The cave was once a several-kilometer walk from the highway, and we spent a few blissful summers working on the cave. As the area near the town of Muyil is being developed, a local businessperson purchased the land containing this cave system and is in the process of dynamiting the cave to make a river system. This room may have already ceased to exist. The model is Miranda Bowman

Below: A curving crack runs through the floor at Manak Balam, and I couldn't resist shoving a bunch of lights in it! Heather Jean McCloskey waited patiently while I fiddled with the lights and redirected her until I finally achieved the lighting I wanted. At this point, there was so much organic sediment in the water that my image wasn't perfectly clear. Still, I was so happy with the shapes I created that I wanted to include it.

Above: Lilia Cabrera Gallaga is an instructor at my dive center, and we headed off to Coop One (again! I love shooting that place) to capture a room filled with fields and fields of stalactites. I was impressed by the intricate and detailed shapes of this particular stalactite, and made poor Lily hover there for a long time while I photographed the scene from every angle. She was super patient with me, and we got the shot!

Below: A fallen tree branch at Cenote Ponderosa landed so that it looked like a small tree growing out of the cavern's floor. I noticed this tree right after a hurricane. I rushed back to photograph it with model Nick Wheeler as quickly as possible. Several days later, it fell over. I'm so happy to have taken advantage of this unique opportunity.

Above: Tony Won floats through a low passage in Cenote Fenomena. I love to play with trapped gas pockets on the cave ceiling. I use these reflective surfaces to scatter light throughout the chamber. I can often achieve a sparkly, almost glowing effect in my images if I position the camera and the lights in the perfect location relative to ceiling bubbles. Here, a light I placed reflects on the pool of exhaled gas and looks almost like an evening star

Below: A massive, blob-like column nearly fills the tunnel at Cenote Fenomena. This photograph was challenging to capture simply because the subject was so big. I probably spent thirty minutes moving the lights and model Tony Won around to get the shot. I used seven lights to illuminate the room, and Tony!

Above: Miranda Bowman illuminates tree roots in Sac Pepem. The Riviera Maya is karst or a landscape formed by the dissolution of soluble bedrock. In our case, the bedrock is limestone, and it's so porous that all our water seeps through the tiny holes and cracks in the rock and flows underground in caves. Large trees force their roots through weak points in the limestone into the cave systems to access water.

Below: Cave diver Jinuk Song illuminates delicate stalactites in Cenote Coop One. This room, close to the entrance, is one of my favorites in Mexico. The flowstone on the left side of the chamber is an ashen gray, most likely from ash rinsed in from ancient wildfires. The right side of the room is filled with crystalline, nearly glowing stalactites. The juxtaposition of the two sides of the room makes the photo work.

Above: Heather Jean McCloskey and I scooter’d and swam several kilometers back in Sistema Manak Balam to arrive at one of the prettiest semi-flooded rooms our team has ever explored. The place is filled with tree roots, shining surfaces, and a surprising amount of organic silt. Even just hovering in place somehow disturbs the sediment! This makes capturing a clear image difficult, but we still caught a nice mirror effect!

Below: Bre Butler hovers beneath streams of sunlight at Cenote Ponderosa. Bre's an excellent cave diver, and we've spent many wonderful dives together deep in remote caves. Sometimes, it's nice to just relax and enjoy a simple dive in a beautiful cavern. This photo is from my first shoot with my Sony A7S3. I got off the plane and went straight to the cenote with Bre.

Above: Cave diver and explorer Arielle Ginsberg swims through the cavern zone of Cenote Taak Bi Ha, which is connected to the famous Dos Ojos System in Mexico. Like all of my models, Arielle is one of my former students, and she's become an accomplished leader of her own exploration team. I snapped this photo at the end of my shoot, when I only had two lights left, and it ended up being my favorite. Sometimes, less is more.

Below: The green glow of the JJ-CCR HUD is reflected in cave diver Harris Hancock's mask, making him look a bit like a cyborg. This is the only photo I'm submitting where I used a lighting assistant – I usually prefer to set my own lights and work with just the model. I have to say, Arya Hintsala did a great job of reading my mind and backlighting Harris while I snapped several hundred photos until I got one with the HUD blinking.

Above: Cave diver Sev Regehr rides a DPV over floors covered in "gours" (a.k .a. rimstone pools). Cave floors are often overlooked, but it's impossible not to notice the floor in this tunnel. These are my favorite cave features of all time, and I am happy to have finally found some nice ones to photograph.

Below: Why do we cave dive? For me, this image captures everything. The vast spaces underground, the incredibly delicate and detailed formations, and the sense of smallness that one gets when immersed in nature. The model is Lilia Cabrera Gallaga.