I have two passions: diving and photography. Recently I got to hang out in the Yucatan Peninsula, where I got to combine both passions and explore the underwater realm of the cenotes (pronounced, say-no-tays) that dot the areas here. Cenotes are essentially freshwater sinkholes, where the limestone and earth has caved in to reveal crystal clear waters and unique ecosystems. I’m used to taking my camera underwater, but what I found inside the cenotes was a whole other world. Here are ten images of my journey underground.

1

Close to the town of Chemuyil lies Dreamgate: a deep sinkhole full of bright blue water inside a cave full of bats and swimming geckos. Since this dive is considered more advanced it is less often visited, so our small group of three were the only divers here this afternoon. After exiting the dark cavern zone, I explored different rooms filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and turned around to see a view of the platform where we entered naturally framed by massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

2

Photographing light rays underwater is a challenging task. Fighting camera settings in a dark environment all without a tripod, two tanks strapped to your body, controlling your own buoyancy so as not to damage the environment, and the close quarters of a cenote gave me a new appreciation for this kind of underwater photography.

3

Cenote Aktun-Ha is located close to the highway near Tulum. Once discovered, it was common for locals to stop here and use the fresh cool water to wash their cars, hence it’s also know by a nickname: Carwash. When cenotes became more popular with snorkelers and divers it was turned into an attraction with an admission fee. Carwash is one of the cheapest cenotes to visit, and is easily done by local transit or taxi on your own. To swim it will cost 50 pesos (about $2.50 USD); to dive 200 pesos (about $10). Water lilies, small crocodiles, freshwater turtles, and crystal clear water makes this easily one of my favourite spots in the area. At each end, a small underwater cavern opens up into a cave system. The opening of these caverns gave some of the best photo opportunities where light poured into dark places. I snagged this photo on a single breath while freediving into the cavern.

4

Cenote Aktun-Ha (Carwash) usually has such clear water that you can see the fish from the surface, but after a heavy rain, tannic acid from the soil leaves a cloudy green layer on the surface; only divers who can passed below the surface got to see the clear water beneath. We were the first to arrive early in the morning hoping the last night's rain would give us a chance to experience this rare phenomenon. The green colour is all natural and light from the sun makes it glow (this isn’t a photo edit). This shot is from inside the cavern zone looking out at the tree branches, freshwater fish, and my dive buddy.

5

When going on a cavern dive in the cenotes you pass from pocket to pocket (like moving room by room) where different sinkholes have exposed the underwater cave system below. On this dive, my partner and I surfaced for a conversation in one of these “rooms” and found the sky was visible through the trees and vines above. In these places, huge beams of sparkly light pour in and are almost brighter below the surface than above.

6

Many cenotes are quite shallow and tend to spread outwards rather than down into massive cave systems. Cenote Angelita is one of the rare dives that is a deep drop. Those who dive it descend into a thick layer of hydrogen sulfide that hangs out at about 30 meters. The hydrogen sulfide gives off the strong smell of rotten eggs and it’s so strong it can be smelled even underwater. We passed through this layer and discovered under it all, sunlight is blacked out but when we turned on our torches. Yet, the water was astounding clear, making it one of the more unusual dives I've ever done. Be prepared to pay a 500 pesos ($25 USD) extra to bring a camera here.

7

Cenote El Pit is also uniquely deep and the cave system doesn't begin until you reach the bottom at around 25 meters. The steep steps down to this cenote mean tanks need to be lowered by rope and pulley from above directly into the water. About 12 meters into the descent is a halocline where the fresh and saltwater mix. The denser salt water below changes the buoyancy and make it hard to see until passed through. The light filtered through the trees above gives off beautiful light rays that glitter and sparkle, only adding to the surreal nature of the experience.

8

Most don't dive the cenotes for the fish life, since they're not incredibly impressive compared to the tropical species found in the nearby Caribbean. But for fish nerds like myself, their bright colors and their unique behavior make them a unique part of cenote diving. In some darker cavern areas, some fish were white and blind, relying on other senses to find prey. Some fish in the shallows would crowding around my exposed skin hoping to get a free meal. This small catfish that hung around light beams like in this photo would dance around the light rays in search of prey.

9

Whether from green and red tannic water or from crystal clear visibility, the colors found in the cenotes will amaze you. Reds, greens, yellows, blues, and oranges fill every space. Inside cavern areas where only your torch illuminates the limestone walls you'll find the bright colors of stalactites and stalagmites. Closer to the surface, the water lilies mix with the red earth and green algae. Vines and tropical trees from the jungle surround these sinkholes giving each a unique ecosystem. Many cenotes were only discovered by accident while others were scouted out by plane deep in the jungle. It’s no wonder these were sacred places for the Mayans. The cenotes feel otherworldly and very special, like an actual oasis in the jungles of the Yucatán.