History of Ox Bel Ha
Cave System Exploration

First Dive in Los Canales February 1996

In February 1996, Orane Douxami, Travis Mack, Sam Meacham and Bil Phillips were shown Los Canales, a large cenote deep in the jungles of Quintana Roo. Getting there involved a two-hour hike and they carried with them a single aluminum 80 tank so they could duck into the cave and see what conditions were present. What they saw that day, large passageway and steady flow of fresh water confirmed that it was connected to a large subterranean cave system typical of the area. Back at home, Sam and Bil filed what they had seen that day in the back of their minds always thinking about ways in which they could mount a large scale exploration project.



Esmeralda Cenote

Cenote Esmeralda

First Dive in Esmeralda January 1998

It wasn't until January 1998 that Meacham and Phillips hiked out to Los Canales once more, this time to consider the logistics of exploring the system thoroughly. Returning along the trail they had been shown almost 2 years before, they followed a trail heading in the direction of another cenote that their guides had told them of on the previous trip. Within 30 minutes they had reached the edge of yet another large cenote called Esmeralda (the emerald) by the landowners. As they sat and soaked in the beauty of their surroundings and had a sandwich, Meacham's knife, a gift from his wife, slid out of his pocket and fell with a splash into the water. As it settled onto the bottom below, they realized that this was just the excuse they needed to come back and dive.

The following day with the help of 4 of the local land owners, they were able to bring in their cave gear and a full reel of knotted line to probe the interior of the cave. The going along the trail was hard, as it had not been cleared since Hurricane Roxanne had swept through the area the year before. Three hours after setting out from the trail head, all the equipment was gathered by the cenotes edge. Within 25 minutes both divers were in the water. Did it connect to Los Canales? Did the same encouraging signs of flow and large passageway exist here too?

As they sank below the surface and entered the cavern zone, it was immediately obvious that their reel would be emptied. The main line upstream was established on this dive with 1800 feet laid. The Mayan Skyway as they named it was an inspiration, at it's widest part, it spanned close to 100 feet, the ceiling to floor distance was 25-30 feet in some areas, fossils stuck out of the walls and littered the floor and a steady flow of fresh water could be seen skipping across the saltwater below. Side passages seemed to branch off in all directions. They turned the dive just after entering a room they would call the Giant Ballcourt where decorations hung from the ceiling and reached up from the floor, frozen in time since they were formed many thousands of years before. 2 hours later as they surfaced at Esmeralda reel empty and smiles covering their faces they began to formulate a plan to mount an exploration project.

Bil and Sam

Sam and Bil after exploring the first 1800 feet in Sistema Ox Bel Ha

Project Esmeralda May 1998

Permission was granted from the local landowners the Ejido Jose Maria Pino Suarez to improve upon the existing trails so that horses could easily transport equipment out to the edge of Esmeralda. A portable 3.5 cfm Bauer compressor and a trusty steed named Antar were purchased and by late April all was in place for the exploration to begin. In early May, 4 horses carried their gear and compressor out to cenote Esmeralda where a small area was cleared and a base camp established. Over the next 6 weeks and in just 28 dives, Sam, Bil, Fred Devos and Daniel Riordan were able to explore, survey and map just over 38,000 feet of cave passageway. A connection was found to Los Canales in addition to 4 other cenotes, including Cenote Yax Kai which would serve as the groups next base camp. The divers would hike out every day to the cenotes edge, dive then hike out at the end of the day. Considering that dives were 3-4 hours in length and that the hike was 1 hour and 20 minutes each way it took a considerable toll on the divers. It was decided that the next effort from the jungle would involve a permanent base camp where the divers could eat and sleep.

Project Del Mar July1998-April 1999

As the exploration in Esmeralda came to a close, Bernd Birnbach and Christophe Le Maillot began probing a cenote much closer to the beach called Del Mar. In the previous year, explorers Ted Cole, Tamara Kendall, Steve Gerrard and Sue Sharples had laid 4,000 feet of line in Del Mar. Bernie and Christophe began by resurveying the existing line, then over the next 10 months were able to lay 61,000 feet of line, establish three fresh water exits into the Caribbean Sea and connect to the lines layed from Cenote Esmeralda deep in the jungle. By April 1999, a total of 146,000 feet of line had been explored and surveyed primarily by 6 divers in less than 100 dives.


Project Ya'ax Kai May 1999

In April 1999 Sam and Bil began to prepare to return the jungle. With the support of the Ejido Pino Suarez, a trail was blazed and cut to Cenote Ya'ax Kai. Arrangements were made for the transportation of gear into the jungle, a generator was purchased and a real live-in base camp was set up. With the addition of Bernie and Christophe, Sabine Schnittger and camp supervisor Beto Siguenza the project was ready to roll. With the help of Don Selliano a local expert on pack animals we were able to transport all of our equipment to Ya'ax Kai in record time with no breakage of gear. Once again Antar stayed with us and transported our daily needs of water and gasoline. During the 23 day project, 22 days were spent diving, a total of 45,000 feet of passageway was explored and surveyed and 6 new cenotes were added to the system. By rotating shifts and staying out in the jungle, diver fatigue was dramatically reduced.




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Dedicated to the continued exploration of the world's largest underwater cave system.
Cave diving in cenotes and underground rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula,
Mayan Riviera, Quintana Roo, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Mexico



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