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Cenotes: Diving into Mexico’s Freshwater Holes

Crystal clear water, incredible light rays, stunning rock formations and indescribable haloclines, cenotes really are a special place to dive.

As a scuba diver, we can have fresh water or salty ocean dives. Fresh water dives are usually in murky lakes, quarries, and riverbeds where the visibility doesn’t really warrant the best conditions for underwater photography.

But then there are the cenotes. If you’ve never heard of them, after reading this blog you’ll be wanting to add these freshwater caves and caverns to your diving bucket list.

What are Cenotes?

Cenotes are natural deep-water sinkholes which contains fresh water which is run off from the rain and filters through the limestone rock below.

It is believed that they are all connected by a vast series of underground rivers and caves and a new cenote is formed when the roof of the cave collapses and exposes it to the world above.

Close to Tulum is the underground river system named Sac Actun, which is the second longest cave system in the world and has been mapped at over 335 kilometers long.

The name ‘cenote’ is derived from the Mayan word d’zonot, meaning ‘well’. Cenotes were revered by the ancient Mayans, as they believed them to be the entrance to the underworld, called Xibalba, and that the god of rain, Chaac, lived at the bottom of these sacred wells. The Mayan people performed special rituals and ceremonies at cenotes to ask for rain and good crops.

Inside cenotes archeologists and divers have found skeletons, bones and remains of animals, pottery and jade and gold ornaments.

The cenotes are the only fresh water source in the area which contributed to the Mayan people being able to create such an expansive and successful civilization in this area of the world over a thousand years ago.

Where In The World Are Cenotes Found?

There are thousands of cenotes peppered all over the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. But only a small number of then have been discovered and dived in. Many more remain hidden in the dense jungle and have never been entered by humans before!

Popular diving cenotes have been plotted and found along the coast between Puerto Morelos and Tulum. As a diver coming to the area, it is often a great privilege and experience to try diving in these magical places, instead of the usual ocean dives.

Do I Need To Be a Cave Diver to Dive in a Cenote?

Although you do not need to be specially trained to scuba dive within a cenote, it is vitally important that you have a good sense of buoyancy and are a reasonably experienced diver.

Cenote diving is extremely regulated and needs to be led by a guide, who knows the cenote well.

The dive is described as a cavern dive, which means you are always in sight of an exit, which is visible in the water as a patch of light. You always follow the pre-marked line within the cenote too, so that you stay on track.

Top Tips on taking Underwater Photographs in Cenotes

  1. Excellent low light capabilities – Since lighting in the cenotes is extremely low in most cases, having a camera that can reach high ISO without significant quality loss is crucial, to make the most out of the little light you have.

  2. Do your research – Every cenote is different. Most of the “famous” cenotes for underwater photographers have their specific angles and positions in which you can get the best and most dramatic photos. In most cases, getting the lighting right requires having the sun at the right place at the right time. Doing proper research in advance, such as talking to other photographers who dove there, checking the weather etc., can significantly increase your probability of getting great photos!

  3. Use your strobes wisely – Know your strobes and understand their range / limitations. Using fairly high ISO will increase the range of your strobes so that you can light up an entire cavern with a single strobe. This is quite different from shooting with strobes in the open ocean in broad daylight. Try to experiment using different settings, distances from objects and intensity of strobes to get different results.

  4. Use your buddy – In many cases, a cenote itself isn’t enough to produce a powerful composition. Since fish or any type of marine life for that matter are scarce in cenotes, using divers as your main subject is a great choice. Especially since they are usually holding a torch! That always looks fantastic in photos. Make sure you decide before hand exactly how and where you need your buddy to hover to create the best photo. Also decide on hand signals to move your buddy around so that you can get the best composition.

  5. Great sunrays guarantee great photos – If you’ve done your research right (see tip no.2), you will probably be aiming for a time of day and specific location in the cenote where you’re likely to get those beautiful sun rays piercing through the water. Depending on the intensity of the sun that day and depth, you may need to significantly increase ISO to capture the rays well. Quite often it’s not as strong as it looks in your own eyes, so the camera needs that extra boost. Pro tip – to enhance the sunrays in post processing, simply increase the ‘Clarity’ slider in Lightroom (or your photo editor of choice). It can do wonders.

  6. Last but not least – Buoyancy! For your own sake, for the sake of those around you, for the sake of the Mayan gods who still protect the cenotes, do NOT kick up sand! Most cenotes are covered with a very fine and deep layer of silt on the bottom. If you’re not comfortable enough with your buoyancy, if you still can’t hover properly or frog kick gently, don’t get anywhere near the bottom! Or rather, stick to the ocean rather than taking photos in a cenote. It takes one wrong kick to cover the entire cavern / cave with powdery sand which takes a long time to settle down. This means ruining the vis for yourself, for your buddies and in certain situations can even be life threatening, causing disorientation among the divers which leads to panic and accidents. I urge you to work on your buoyancy before attempting to take photos in a cenote.



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