Swimming in a Cenote

My wife Claudia and I have been at a conference in San Jose, California. Called ‘Science and Non-Duality,’ it was a forum for scientifically-trained people looking to expand the framework of scientific knowledge to encompass broader human experiences. Although it’s been held annually for ten years now, it was the first time I’ve been to the meeting.

The conference attracted physicists, therapists, physicians, mystics and practitioners of psychedelics. There were biologists and mycologists, too.

One evening Claudia and I watched British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, a playful 87 year old. He began his talk by invoking Maxwell’s equations. He went on to say that in opposition to some quantum physicists, Schrödinger's cat could not be alive outside the box and dead inside it at the same time—and that was Schrödinger's point.

I knew Maxwell’s equations once and I vaguely recall another Penrose reference—Gödel’s Theorems—which I waved to as they went by in my Physics and mathematics studies circa 1993.

I tried to bend my mind around Penrose’s references, which are bread and butter to a physicist. My understanding was obstructed. I felt lost. Sometimes maths and physics goes over my head.

Science and Non-Duality  Conference logo.

Science and Non-Duality Conference logo.

Leaving the lecture, Claudia said brightly, ‘If I’d had a maths and physics teacher like him, I might have enjoyed those subjects and even learned something. I don’t know all those theorems by their English names. But I understood that he says that Artificial Intelligence can’t encompass human understanding. I liked it that he said that.’

Another author whose book I admired but did not read in the nineties, Fritjof Capra, spoke next morning. He is for a body of sciences based on networks rather than machines. I guess I’ll return to his book.

In the smaller sessions there was also a great line-up.

A man who specialises in fungi has found one that seems to help bees recover from colony collapsing virus. He offered to buy a dispenser of the medicine for a poorer country for every one of us who bought one for the park or the garden in a richer one.

Mycelium of the portobello mushroom. Photo from his own work by  Rob Hille .

Mycelium of the portobello mushroom. Photo from his own work by Rob Hille.

He also speaks for the under appreciated mycelium that forms the nexus of the soil. Mycelium, the supportive network grown by fungi to flourish, could be called the brain of the trees—allowing them to communicate with each other.

A Colombian-American doctor told us how he helped to establish a Native Medicine Healing Center in Peru, working with the Shipibo people. He has trained with them to become a shaman, using plant medicine. I’m reading his book.

The day after the conference Claudia and I flew to Cancun in Mexico and drove down the freeway to one of the beaches.

A close friend, Waltraud Binanzer, was able to meet us there.

Waltraud was one of a small group of friends and family who were a vital support network when Claudia and I cared for her parents. They died nine months apart in a physically taxing (if spiritually enriching) year we spent in Germany.

In that intense time, Waltraud brought us news of the town and the world. She appreciated Claudia’s cooking and held a space (as they say in California) for Claudia to be the self she used to be and the woman she was becoming. Waltraud, also called Walla, and Claudia have been friends since their teens.

In the way of such a great friendship, Walla has no fear of giving emphatic advice after listening intently. She is a strong woman with big, pale blue eyes, a lifelong tan and sunbleached hair.

On our second day on the Mayan Riviera, Waltraud took us, with a guide named Rodrigo, to one of the cenotes.

Grand Cenote near Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Photo by  anjči  via Wikimedia.

Grand Cenote near Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Photo by anjči via Wikimedia.

A cenote is a sinkhole, a deep round waterhole formed by the collapse of a limestone roof, exposing a cavern and the cool groundwater underneath. The water is exceptionally clear, filtered through stone.

The cenote we visited, ‘Cenote Media Luna’ is part of a network of limestone caves where fresh water and salt travel alongside each other. The waterholes and caves form a unique ecosystem on the Yucatan Peninsula, the realm of the Mayan people.

Claudia and Walla are hugely experienced scuba divers. I am a beginning scuba diver and an expert snorkeler.

The challenges of scuba diving in the cenotes are common to some cave diving: there can be a roof, sometimes with stalactites, above you as you tunnel through caves to the cenotes. You need to avoid hitting your head on it or breaking off stalactites with your tank. You can probably go to jail in Mexico for doing such things.

Kicking your fins too strongly will stir up silt and obstruct the view of the other divers. It takes a gentle frog kick to propel yourself harmlessly.

Then there’s the halocline. In the northwest Yucatan cenotes fresh water meets seawater, forming a halocline. Swimming through the halocline takes skill. It’s a transition, with momentarily lowered visibility and consequent disorientation. It’s like dipping in and out of a gravity-altering cloud.

As a diver, I go up and down a lot in the ocean. I am still learning to manage my buoyancy. I would be a disaster waiting to happen, diving in and between the cenotes.

Before we leave for the cenote, there is a consensus that I will be snorkeling.

Rodrigo gets us out of town in his Toyota ute. We travel along a pitted dirt road, pausing about ten kilometres into the jungle to pay a man who emerges from a concrete shell of a house to lift a bamboo boom gate. The land is cared for by the Mayans, Rodrigo explains. It looks like a peaceful place to live.

At the cenote, Rodrigo takes us down a stepped and winding path to the shaded pool. We will enter the water at the opening of a ten metre cavern. An adjoining cavern has a pool of brilliant aqua in the centre of it. I can swim through there and into another shallow round pool, he explains. ‘It’s just like a billabong in your country,’ he smiles. I agree.

We return to the truck where I pull out my snorkel, mask, booties and fins, watching respectfully while the divers check their equipment. Waltraud is concerned about a leak from her tubing. Rodrigo locates it near her mouth piece and tightens it up. Claudia wets the o-ring on her connector and attaches her regulator to the silver airtank.

Rodrigo explains the plan for the dive to the women. ‘There is a rope, but we will use it as a visual guide only,’ he says. ‘When we reach the halocline, you will see a unique, royal blue. This is the signal I will use when we are approaching the halocline and visibility will be reduced,’ he says, fanning and wiggling his fingers.

Claudia and Waltraud both nod slightly as Rodrigo explains.

When he finishes, I say to him quietly, ‘You know, don’t you, that there is about sixty years combined diving experience here.’

‘It’s true,’ says Walla. ‘I had my first dive at age fourteen in 1968.’

‘Waltraud is a kind of diving royalty,’ I continue to Rodrigo. ‘Her father was one of the pioneers of scuba in Europe.’

‘I’ve been a diving instructor since 1983. Claudia has been an instructor since 1990,’ Waltraud says, in a pragmatic tone.

‘Makes my five years look like—’

‘A good beginning?’ I smile at Rodrigo.

Over coffee that morning Claudia and Waltraud recalled that the last time they went diving together was when they taught me to dive in 2009, in a municipal diving pool. Neither could recall the last time they dived together in natural water.

Storm brewing in Quintana Roo. The author on the way home from the shops. Photo by Claudia Jocher.

Storm brewing in Quintana Roo. The author on the way home from the shops. Photo by Claudia Jocher.

At the back of the truck, I help zip up the divers’ wetsuits. We women carry the lighter equipment down to the cenote. Rodrigo carries the heavy air tanks with grace, ‘It’s just a matter of balance,’ he says.

Claudia and Waltraud have each carried a planet’s weight of tanks for their clients over the years. I’m grateful to see the younger man carry for them.

Down in the shady cenote, at the water’s edge, I look down into the clear water while the divers make last checks and adjustments. The water is full of huge broken rocks. They’re covered in gold-brown algae. I can’t tell if the rocks fell in there two hundred years or two months ago.

There’s only the susurration of the tropical plants around the pool as the breeze passes through. Our soft voices ring.

Waltraud and Claudia step carefully into the cool, fresh water. Rodrigo hands them their jackets and tanks, with their weights. They put their masks on to look below the water at their equipment. Already I feel that Claudia is keen to be under the water. Rodrigo joins them and Claudia holds the tubing of her buoyancy vest aloft, sinking underwater as she releases air from the vest in the diver’s farewell.

Sitting on the slimy rock by water’s edge in the deeper quiet, I feel the trepidation of entering another country’s water. Little fish swim around my feet, the same everywhere. The divers’ bubbles gurgle and plop.

Back at the hotel, Waltraud showed us a photo of a sharp toothed croc her group encountered in a different cave. With a sincere thought telegraphed to the reptiles that I do not need to see them today, I dismiss the image of it.

Easing into the water, I wish I’d worn a wetsuit as the cold water soaks through my shirt and leggings. There are little brown bits all over the water’s surface. They’re like the flowers of pine trees. I’ll get my hair full of them.

Turning in the water, I see the divers’ headlamps at the end of the cavern, illuminating the white limestone wall. I glimpse their finned shapes, black in the blue lit water. Their bubbles echo. Then the fields of their lights narrow until they disappear into blackness.

Pulling my mask up from my neck, I breath in, sucking it tight against my face. I adjust my snorkel and relax onto the water. The transparent water supports me with no effort. I see a sandy bottom sometimes below between the tumbled stones. What looked like brown vegetation on the water’s surface is actually the baby fish. They have transparent bodies. I can see their gut tubes and spinal cords. Some have an iridescent red spot on their heads.

Looking down I can see tumbling greenish gold rocks. The one in front of me has a face on it, not unfriendly, not quite human.

I kick around a curved channel. A baby turtle swims up to the surface directly in my path. Who can resist an inch-long turtle?

I smile under my mask and sing a little.

Pressing my hands into my belly, I feel the bones in my back shift slightly, as if making themselves right after too long in planes.

Gently kicking my fins I glide around another mossy corner. There, the turtle mother rests on a shelf, still and stately with her boxy shell.

Light streams into the water in brilliant white rays. When the rays hit the algae-covered rocks, the ripples of the water break the rays into colours. The rocks shimmer and seem to vibrate with yellow and blue light. Moving into the adjoining cavern I find the brilliant aqua spot. Light is pouring around me through the bright water. If I make a small movement, the waves from my body cause a luminous tessellation: octagons, hexagons and almond-shapes move over the rocks. It’s mesmerising to watch.

I hang suspended. There is no time.

After a while I’m curious about the billabong outside. I head out into the daylight, away from the overhanging cavern roof. There are different fish there. The patterned roots of the trees in the yellowish water are engaging, but I feel called back into the aqua spot.

So, I return to watch the patterns of water and light rippling over the submerged rocks.

Floating there, my shadow falls on the sandy floor of the cavern, perhaps seven metres below. A bigger fish swims into my shadow and stays there, as if my shade was some kind of an event. I think about what a big animal I am in that ecosystem.

Putting my hands on my hips, the light shines in the spaces between my elbows and my waist. It looks like bright eyes in a shadowy monster face. Thus I am amusing myself when I see a light coming from the back of the cave.

Hands on hips, making a monster face on the bottom. I am in the centre.  Waltraud Binanzer  photo.

Hands on hips, making a monster face on the bottom. I am in the centre. Waltraud Binanzer photo.

Deep down in blackness, two, then three lights emerge. Peering into the space around one of the lights, I can make out the frame of Waltraud’s underwater camera. Another light bobbing near where her head would be is Claudia, I’m sure. I wonder what I look like from there. Waltraud takes a photo or two so I can see the view later. The lights disappear as they turn away from me back into the dark.

Paddling out into the billabong, branches in the water look as though they were carved by hand. I see tree stumps that look petrified. Diving down, I touch them, but can’t tell if they are stone.

Fish go about their business, guarding territory, feeding.

After exploring awhile, I climb out inelegantly. The divers emerge soon after, their faces big with smiles. They are talking excitedly about the brilliant blue—called Mayan Blue—they saw coming out of the halocline.

Claudia and Waltraud after their dive at the cenote. Photo by author.

Claudia and Waltraud after their dive at the cenote. Photo by author.

I wonder if the algae helps the cenote communicate with itself the way that the mycelium apparently carries messages between the trees. What is the basis of the sense of oneness and connection we felt in the cenote? Does the feeling exist only in our brains? Or is there another aspect to reality there that we sense, but cannot yet describe scientifically?

I’d like to visit more of them, and carry their fresh stillness inside me when I leave—especially when we return to the desert.