In the Mexican cenotes4 mn de lecture

Rainy spring and Covid variants… So-so, eh? Come on, I’ll take you to the Yucatan.

A little early, I admit. But the spring showers and this never-ending health crisis make me very impatient. Next July, I’m going to descend into the heart of these submerged chasms called Cenotes, in translucent waters, in the middle of extraordinary, cavernous and dreamlike landscapes.

In 2008, I had splashed around in them for a few timid apneas that left me hungry and from which I had taken mediocre pictures.

I hope that this article will teach you a little more about these fascinating underwater worlds and allow you to share in the prodigious anticipation I have of finding them.

What are cenotes?

Geological formations specific to the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, although they are also found in Central America, these aven form a complex network of flooded galleries: their gaping mouths open at ground level, in the jungle, and their alternately turquoise or dark green waters sink underground and branch out endlessly, labyrinths of fresh and salt water that communicate with each other, disappear or reappear, then finally flow into the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.

How were the cenotes formed?

At present, it is generally agreed that they are the result of the collapse of eroded limestone terrain above underground rivers or caves.

However, around Tulum or Merida, and in general on the Yucatan peninsula, it is also considered that they may be the result of a prodigious cataclysm: that of the Chicxulub meteorite which fell there sixty-six million years ago, and to which the extinction of the dinosaurs is attributed.

You can imagine that I prefer this hypothesis, and that the idea of exploring this Cretaceous crater by diving has everything to seduce me. Starting with the emotional memory of my first reading of this novel by Jules Verne:

A curiosity of the cenotes: the halocline

The halocline is a chemical phenomenon: different strata of water, charged with a different density linked to salinity, form layers separated from each other.

It is a bit like the thermocline – layers of water of different temperatures – that we are experimenting with in the Mediterranean sea, for example. It happened to me, after a night of mistral wind on the Porquerolles side, that I saw a sort of liquid floor when I was already underwater at about twenty-five or thirty metres from the surface. It looked exactly like this photo found on the Web, obviously taken in a cenote. You are already underwater, and yet you have the strange feeling of flying above the surface of a pool. Fascinating.

The halocline is a specificity of the cenotes, linked to the presence of fresh water and salt water which mix without mixing – or almost. During my last stay, snorkelling in Gran Cenote towards Tulum or on the side of Chilquila and Holbox, I had a curiously blurred vision in places, as if sun oil from bathers had mixed with the translucent water.

Now this phenomenon, when it is really marked, offers absolutely fantastic landscapes, such as those of the Cenote Angelita, at the bottom of which seems to flow a river made of gas, and from which the naked branches of dead trees protrude. The photo of what looks like a thermocline and the following shot of Angelita are by Anatoly Beloshchin.

Where does the word "cenote" come from?

In the Mayan language, the word “d’zonot” means “sacred well”. It was transformed under Spanish influence into “cenoté”.  For the Maya, these liquid chasms communicated with the underworld, which can be roughly compared to the underworld of Greek mythology – but if you want to have a more precise idea, I recommend reading the Popol Vuh.

In important cities, such as Chichen Itza, the cenotes were both freshwater reservoirs and sacrificial wells. I remember the impression the one at Chichen left on me when I first visited the ruins in the mid-1990s. A bit remote, overgrown with forest: a large circular crater of white limestone overgrown with green water. I had imagined piles of bones beneath the surface.

A video preview?

Phocéa Mexico, the organisation I’m going to dive with, made this short presentation video: may it make you dream as much as I did.

I’ll tell you how it was when I get back!

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