It’s 32 degrees, as I struggle to pull another tight wetsuit, over the one already squeezing my body. I am sure this isn’t my size but our instructor, Luca, assures me he picked the right one. He hoists a heavy tank onto my back, and I waddle barefoot down the slippery steps to the entrance of the Dos Ojos (two eyes) cave system, clutching the railings to keep from toppling.
As I enter, the water releases me from the weight of the tank and I bob gently. Cool, cyan water glides between my skin and the wetsuit, refreshing me. Luca signals for us to descend, and I swallow my fear as best I can. The water is beautifully clean and clear. Crepuscular rays filter through the surface to dance on the floor of this ancient cenote (sinkhole), once used by the Mayan people for collecting fresh water, but more recently featured on the BBC series Planet Earth.
The deeper we go, the darker and colder it gets. Gripping my torch, I follow the yellow guideline. The maze of underground tunnels in this cave system is not completely mapped, so straying from the guideline could be fatal. These caves were originally formed 60 million years ago when a 15km wide asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula, causing the limestone rock to collapse and expose groundwater. This catastrophic event, which incidentally wiped out the dinosaurs, shaped the area into the unique landscape that it is today. I wonder how stable the cave is now, however, and if it could once again collapse!
With embarrassment, I reach for Luca’s hand. It’s been 10 years since I passed my PADI, and I haven’t been diving since. We continue down, weaving through stalactites and stalagmites, which resemble the giant gaping jaws of a rock monster. In my mind, Bach’s Toccata (Dracula’s theme) is playing on loop and I gently let go of the fear (and Luca’s hand). Above my head, small pockets of trapped air create glassy reflections of an eerie, upside-down world.
I realise I am biting down on the regulator, teeth clenched and shivering as the double wetsuit struggles to keep me warm. We emerge briefly at the Bat Cave, which as the name suggests, is swarming with small clicking bats. It’s a welcome break, but I wonder just how much bat excrement is in the water and as we re-submerge, I am thankful nothing landed on my head.
After making our way through more dark tunnels, we are greeted with what seems like fluorescent, neon blue light in the distance. Ascending to the surface, I catch a brief glimpse through a circular Snell’s window, of the world above the water. Strangely, I am transported back to my childhood in 1986, where the character in my Commodore 64 computer game, Phantom of the Asteroid, was a tiny astronaut with a jet-pack exploring a subterranean maze. Now, here I am with my air-tank and torch on my very own adventure.