Text by Walter Pickel and Jon Bojar

Images by Curt Bowen and Jon Bojar  

Photo: The cobalt blue subterranean waters of Chan Cenote are illuminated with giant underwater lights allowing our team to capture this time-lapse image of beauty. Natural light beams down through the five small holes in the ceiling. A 50-foot rope drop to the water’s surface is the only way in or out of this cave.

Photo by Curt Bowen

The Mayan word “Xibalbá” roughly translates as “World of the Dead,” a dangerous underworld ruled by demons. For the Maya, caves and water sources were symbolic interfaces between the surface and the underground world.

As the Mayan civilization evolved over the eons, a demonic mystique regarding underground cenotes has survived in most towns into contemporary times. One of the best-known rituals that took place at cenotes was called “ku chen.” Ku chen was the practice of throwing victims into the waters of a cenote, as was discovered at the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Yucatán. Our research and discoveries have shown that the cenotes contain a wealth of treasures such as a variety of offerings, jars, pots and even textiles. These breathtaking underwater caves are littered with spectacular geological formations and ancient artifacts, some even being used as aquatic graveyards, and provide us with a key to unlocking the mysteries of the past. Explorers from Advanced Diver Magazine have been exploring this region for over the past twelve years. As January approached, the ADM Exploration Foundation was busy working logistics for the upcoming expedition to the Yucatán. Veteran ADM Explorers and Photographers Walter Pickel, Jeff Toorish, Jitka Hyniova, and Jon Bojar would be accompanied by explorers Brendan Nappier, Bob Atwater, Josh Bernstein, and, of course, our fearless Leader/Team Coordinator/Cave Man: Curt Bowen, for two weeks of hopping holes, archaeology, and videography. 

Photo: Explorer Walter Pickel rappels into a large diameter jungle cenote in search of underwater cave passages and Mayan artifacts. All discoveries are documented and turned over to the proper authorities for record or retraction.
Photo by Curt Bowen

This year’s expedition would be multi-faceted and particularly exciting and complex. We would be filming and exploring in conjunction with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH), Mexico’s Federal Anthropology Department. Our prime objective was to reveal and prove the existence of an extraordinarily unique piece of pottery that was discovered by Walter during the 2010 expedition, and believed to pre-date the onset of the Mayan civilization. We would also be prepared to retrieve it for them, should they so desire. A simultaneous effort to produce a video segment for NBC’s “Today Show” would show real-world cave diving exploration as it unfolds. In addition, this expedition would carry an Explorers Club Flag and, of course, discover new cenotes under permits from Departamento de Conservación y Manejo de Sistemas Kárstico. To produce the scenes required for the “Today Show,” Josh Bernstein, host of “Digging for the Truth” on the History Channel and “Into the Unknown” for the Discovery Channel, joined our expedition. This segment would incorporate both new exploratory dives and the co-op work with INAH, so that all the objectives of the expedition would be interlaced. By combining these two aspects, the TV viewer would get a realistic feel of actual cave-diving exploration. At the request of Bob Atwater, an Explorers Club Fellow, our team received the honor of displaying the Explorers Club flag at our dive sites.  


Above: Multiple sets of human remains where discovered in the deeper section of the cave. Could have these individuals climbed down into the Cenote to obtain water during the giant drought period 1700 plus years ago. Photo Curt Bowen


Above: The prize discovery of the expedition was this 1800-year-old ceramic vessel with a braded handle. Used to froth chocolate, this is only the second ceramic vessel ever discovered with such a handle. Note the carved eyes and nose above the pour spout.


Our particular flag (see above image) has been on expeditions since 1918, and has traveled to mountains, poles, oceans, and now a special Mayan cenote in the heart of Yucatán. The Explorers Club promotes worldwide scientific exploration, and various members were the first to reach the North and South Poles, the summit of Mt. Everest, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific (deepest spot on the globe), and the surface of the moon. (more on the Explorers Club)  


Left: Josh Bernstein, host of the History Channel’s “Digging for the Truth” and Discovery Channel’s “Into the Unknown,” prepares to rappel through a village well shaft into an unexplored cenote. Photo by Jon Bojar


As always, Curt chiseled our expedition plan in stone, but he used soapstone. As usual, the team had to be flexible in dealing with the ever-changing logistics that occur in the field. After the normal challenges of acquiring adequate vehicles, team provisions, and finding approximately twenty working tanks and getting them filled, the team met up in the small Yucatán town of Colonia Yucatán. Colonia Yucatán was developed in the 1950’s as a logging town and a veneer factory, and would serve as base camp for our expedition. It was here that we hung our hammocks, charged our lights and cameras, and took our cold tick-soap showers. After unpacking crates of gear, performing shake-out dives, verifying the artifact was still intact, and training Josh on vertical climbing techniques specific to our style of exploration, we were ready to hit the jungle.  


Above: Cave diver, Jon Bojar prepares for a drop into the Cenote through the farmers well shaft. Yucatan farmers often build man made well shafts beside natural Cenote openings making it easier to get water from the cave for their livestock.


Over the next few days, our team discovered many new cenotes, a few skeletons, and more unique Mayan artifacts, all captured with both video and still footage. It’s said that into every life a little rain must fall. In our case, this rain took the form of ticks and bees. Unfortunately, the cattle dip and concentrated tick soap (made for dogs) proved no match for the garrapata (ticks), and we all graciously provided a never-ending banquet for endless populations of these vicious little bastards.


Above: The famous Mexican folk singer Miguel Ruiz, who happens to reside in Colonia Yucatán, even created a song in our team’s honor – “Garrapatas.”  


Although our meeting with the INAH team was initially delayed, our sacrifice (in blood) made to the garrapatas was sufficient to placate the Mayan gods. Good fortune smiled upon our team in the form of two archaeologists from INAH, one with a cave diving certification, who met us in Colonia Yucatán. Unfortunately, the INAH archaeologists informed us that retrieval (often referred to as extraction) of the artifact would not be possible at this time. Needless to say, we were less than happy, but we were able to conduct a successful dive with one of the archaeologists and showed her the artifact. She found the artifact extremely exciting due to its being both unique and in unexpectedly superb condition.  


Above: A second ceramic vessel discovered has a design of a face and painted surfaces. This vessel was discovered on the opposite side of the Cenote along side a couple sections of human remains.


As a result of her report and the recent experience with ADM Exploration Team’s expertise and procedures for exploring these dangerous cenotes and artifact preservation, our team received some groundbreaking news that night. INAH not only gave the ADM Exploration Team approval to photograph and video the artifact as we saw fit, but they would choose ten cenotes with artifacts of interest and have our team retrieve the selected artifacts for Mexico!

These artifacts are rightfully considered national treasures and are jealously guarded and protected. This decision to use the ADM Exploration Team to assist with documenting and retrieval shows the high level of confidence in the team’s abilities and past record of working with governmental agencies as well as academic institutions.  


Above: Walter Pickel and Curt Bowen in search of new cave.


Josh, in his capacity as producer, host, model, and frequent videographer, did not rest much during his time in the field. Along with the topside shots, Curt and Jeff shot underwater, typically with two models and two divers acting as light monkeys. In a cenote with multiple openings, Curt hung fifty feet above the surface of the water in order to shoot multiple divers rappelling and climbing into the cenote. After all the divers were submerged, which was fifteen minutes after he had lost total feeling in his legs, Curt climbed out using his frog climbing system. All of the ADM Exploration Team explorers use this type of climbing system in which components are worn under the Armadillo side-mount harness. While Curt, Jeff, Josh, and Jitka were actively rolling the cameras, Walter, Brendan, and Jon continued to throw rope and hop holes, often with Bob manning the recording equipment.  


Above: Cave explorer Jitka Hyniova awaits for the morning meeting and planned routes for the day.


After twelve days in the field, we took measure. Three flat tires – check. A minimum of 1,000 combined tick bites – check. A hive of very aggravated Africanized bees that stung the crap out of our climber – check. Of course, we also had the footage for Josh’s “Today Show” segment, material for the Explorers Club field report, Walter found three new artifacts and a skeleton, Jitka and Jon both found skeletons. Jon was awarded the Chac Mool award after squeezing into a well shaft too small to allow him to rappel with gear and discovering a crystal clear cenote that went to 265 feet. Our team documented fifty-six new cenotes for our database and the Departamento de Conservación y Manejo de Sistemas Kársticos.  


Above: Curt Bowen on left with Walter Pickel on right.  Just when you think we are true cave diving professionals…


Above: Photographer and cave explorer Jeff Toorish is on the ever looking eye for the next best photo.


Above: Cave explorer Brendan Nappier is given 15 minutes or 1500 psi to return from this virgin cave dive. Better move fast Brendan.


Below: ADM Exploration Team Members; Left to right Curt Bowen, Jitka Hyniova, Josh Bernstein, Jeff Toorish, Bob Atwater, Jon Bojar, Brendan Nappier, and Walter Pickel.

Special thanks to Nena Basulto Soberanis, Elsi Dominguez Gimenez, Ileana Lopez, Enrique Uc Barbosa, Jose Ruiz, and Miguel Ruiz.