Os and I recently went to México’s Yucatan Peninsula for a week’s cave diving. Although I originally learned to cave dive here and have been back several times, it was four years since my last visit and Os had never been at all, so we were both very much looking forward to it. It was also going to be more of a holiday, certainly compared to our last trip to the Hérault in France which was more remote in terms of diving logistics and access to the water was much more physically demanding.
Logistics and filming
Our plan on all but the first day was to do “only” one dive per day, although most days that one dive was somewhere in the region of three and a half hours underwater, so we didn’t feel short-changed in any way! For the video work, this required a change of plan from what we were used to. Previously, for us a “video dive” had been just that: starting the dive with the camera rolling and lights blazing and filming for most of the dive. However, here we had to be selective: even if all the batteries would last that long, I don’t have the patience to sort through three hours worth of footage every day!
By around the third day, we had worked up a system pretty well. We would discuss the areas of the cave which we thought would make for good footage (we were diving with the guys from Zero Gravity so this was a huge benefit from a planning perspective) and then just film those, together with any other areas which I spotted on the way in (and would mark with a cookie so I could remember to film them on the way out). I had rigged up the camera so it could be carried more like a stage bottle, and soon we had a well-oiled system of deploying the camera arms and changing over the E/O cords from dive lights to video lights at each location. The rest of the time, everything would be stowed and we carried on our dive as usual.
I had some new lights to play with this time. On-camera I had some very small LEDs. Although more powerful than the HIDs I had been using before (at around 3,000 lumens apiece), ultimately they were a little disappointing in terms of consistency of colour and beam spread. I’m working on sourcing an alternative to these and will report back in due course.
Off-camera however was very much a success. I had bought two of Sartek’s 10,000 lumen LED lights. Each about the size and weight of a small tin of beans, they are tiny enough to stick in a pocket, work well with our existing canisters and E/O cords, have a wonderfully wide and diffuse beam, consistent colour output from edge to edge and, oh yeah, each put out around two thirds of the output of a 200W HMI light! Knowing that you can generally never have too much light in caves, especially ones as vast as many in México, I devised a way of running both units side-by-side, creating a 20,000 lumen monster!
Added to that, I also brought my older Additech Mangrove lights which we used from day four onwards alongside the Sarteks. Again bolting both together, they didn’t disgrace themselves in the company of their new larger brothers and brought another 8,000 lumens to the party. It’s pretty amazing seeing some of these places with that much light (the total of all the filming lights was near to ten times the output of our three “normal” 18/21W HID lights) and I think Os is now pretty much addicted to taking the sun in his pocket on all dives!
We took advantage of our time with the guys from ZG. Not only did they all have large capacity exploration battery packs which wouldn’t flinch at the prospect of running a light that pulled 20A, but they also agreed to do short interviews on-camera on most of the days. Himself a very accomplished underwater photographer, Danny especially seemed well into the creative side of the whole video-making process, but all three (Fred, Chris and Danny) were well-up for helping with the filming, in terms of interviews, making time for filming top-side B-roll and for doubling as lighting divers.
After a shake-down day with Fred on which the battery for the video lights had failed, the first real video diving day was day two and Dos Pisos. A friend of ours had recommended this cave as one of her all-time favourites and so, when Danny suggested this for his first day with us, we leapt at the chance.
This is a relatively recently discovered cave (compared to some of the more established caves that were first dived in the 80s/90s) and there’s an interesting article in Diver Magazine by Martyn Farr from 2001 which documents one of the first exploratory trips there the year prior to that (though describing access from the Cenote we dived through to (the charmingly-named Cenote Pig) rather than from).
Our plan was to video the section containing the varied tree roots and also a short section further on from that. The roots section is off the main line in a self-contained little side tunnel. Although it looks like the roots must hang down directly from the surface of the water, this is still a completely flooded tunnel and the roots have in fact pushed their way through the soft limestone rock and on into the cave: a trick that all the trees on the peninsula have learned for their survival given that there is no significant topsoil and all water almost instantly goes underground the moment it falls.
Another section further on proved less successful on film but we did manage to film some nice passage on the way to it. Overall, there are much more impressive sections of Dos Pisos than the ones we filmed. Almost as soon as we left the camera on the line, we continued to swim through room after room of perfectly-preserved delicate pure white formations which left Os declaring afterwards that it was his best ever dive (a statement he repeated several times that week!). Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy what we did manage to capture and I’ll just have to go back to film the rest of it another time.
I plan to work through our México footage chronologically. There should be enough for one dive per film: I’ll try and keep them brief for the ADD generation! Episode Two will be our dive from Cenote Muchachos (Sistema Camilo) with footage of areas known as the Grand Canyon and the Black Forest, so stay tuned!
I’ve edited together the uninterrupted interview sequence (minus the B-roll) of Danny talking about the cave for those who might be interested.