“If people have true callings, I have found mine – and it's a strange one.”
If people have true callings, I have found mine – and it's a strange one. Cave diving, perceived by many as the world's most dangerous sport, is my solace, passion, and profession. I didn't even know the sport existed until my mid-twenties, and when I discovered cave diving, I thought most cave divers had a death wish. The cave divers I met, usually gruff, intimidating men, did nothing to dispel that opinion. Now, thirteen years into my career, I think these tough dudes had it all wrong.
Cave diving shouldn't be about ego, adrenaline, or proving one's worth. It's about control, curiosity, beauty, discovery, and most importantly, about awe – that sense of selfless wonder when you realise you are such a small, tiny being on a big, complex planet, in a vast universe that you know so little about.
How did I become a cave explorer? It's a simple question, but as I trace my journey, so many factors aligned that there's no simple answer. Instead, I would say I have always been a cave explorer, I just didn't know it. Growing up in Southern California, I watched Star Trek with my parents, hiked in the hills, and played in the mud. It was a beautiful childhood, but I never quite fit. Captain Picard's statement – to boldly go where no one has gone before – resonated with me, and when adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would often say I wanted to be an explorer. I was scoffed at, told there was nothing left to explore and discouraged by nearly every adult except for my parents – who knew me better than to try to dissuade me from anything and who understood the value of a dream. And so I wandered, seeking adventure.
“There was a whole second level of the planet that almost no one knew about! I had found my final frontier and I was never turning back.”
I moved to San Francisco, where I graduated with a degree in biochemistry, then to New York City, where I worked in restaurants, and finally, I flew to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to work on a coral reef research project. During this time, I was invited on a guided cavern dive – a way for certified divers to experience diving underground without cave training. I expected to hate it.
I remembered the stories of those tough divers, the dangers they faced, the difficulty of diving in the caves. I thought I would be terrified. Yet, when I dropped below the surface and pointed my tiny light into the darkness in front of me, I found peace. Tunnels lined with white stalactites, like Roman columns, stretched into the distance, forking and twisting off into the unknown. The complexity and length of the tunnels were intriguing.
Ever since that moment, I wanted to be a cave diver. I wanted to explore caves, own a cave diving shop, and teach cave diving. There was a whole second level of the planet that almost no one knew about! I had found my final frontier and I was never turning back.
In 2008, I met Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, my best friend, exploration buddy, and now business partner at Under the Jungle. Vince has the same disproportionate drive and adventurous spirit that I do. We started slowly, exploring caves near my house, but soon had projects across the Yucatan Peninsula. Together we have been the first people to dive, explore and chart over 20 new cave systems, and we have surveyed over 80 kilometers of previously undiscovered cave passageways.
Every exploration project has been a privilege, but one stands out. Like all cave discoveries, it's often all about who you know. In this case a local captain, Jorge Castro, took a liking to us and brought us to a secret fishing spot at the edge of a mangrove swamp. From the boat, we dropped down into murky, stinking water, and entered a cave unlike anything I had ever seen.
Thin, meters-long stalactites dripped from the ceiling, and when I swam towards them, they twisted and turned in the gentle subterranean current. As I exhaled, my bubbles hit the ceiling and flakes of soft, spongy goo slid off, burying themselves in the floor, which jiggled like jello. Nothing in this cave was solid. Was there rock under all the goo, or was the whole place unstable sediment that would soon collapse on us? As I floated there in thought, enough flakes rained down on us that the visibility dropped to zero. We had never seen anything like this, but instead of fear, I felt amazement. Vince made oohing and ah-hing sounds behind me and we continued, calm in the face of the unknown.
“I named the cave Pandora, after the planet from Avatar filled with amazing creatures, and after the mythological character who released chaos. Both are fitting.”
Surfacing from the dive, the reality of what we had done hit me. What was this place? What were those strange, soft growths covering the cave walls? Were they toxic, dangerous? It turns out they are not, and initial analysis of the growths suggests they are a form of archea, an ancient microbe that thrives in extreme environments. I named the cave Pandora, after the planet from Avatar filled with amazing creatures, and after the mythological character who released chaos. Both are fitting.
Vince and I have been working in the area for over five years now, and along with our team we have discovered 7 new cave entrances in the region, pointing to an extensive, highly developed network of caves where no one thought such a system existed. I expect this to be our legacy and our life's work.
The dives into Pandora highlight the most important aspect of cave diving – that once you get the physical control and techniques down, extreme cave exploration (and all cave diving) is about mental control. You must achieve a bit of zen, consciously controlling your breathing and thoughts. It simply doesn't cross my mind to be frightened. The anxiety of a big dive comes before or after, out of the water when I can afford to analyze what happened. Underwater, I experience a complete dissolution of ego and pure mental clarity. It's flow, in every sense of the word. It's wide-eyed wonder.
You have to be cold – not scared, and certainly not excited. Excitement can and does kill cave divers, and at the beginning of my cave exploration career, it almost killed me. In 2010, I stumbled upon an abandoned cave exploration site that already had about 150 meters of mapped passageway. With a little research, Vince and I learned the cave was called “Cenote X” and that the previous explorer was uninterested in continuing the project.
On our first dive into Cenote X, we followed a guideline placed during the original exploration. As we swam, our exhaled bubbles knocked loose rocks from the ceiling, which came raining down on us like gravel. The passage appeared to terminate around 24 meters of depth, but just as we were about to turn around, I noticed a small hole in the wall at the end of the chamber. I could just fit through the hole if I squeezed sideways.
As I grabbed the rock to pull myself through the hole, my fingers sank into the walls; the rock was soft, more like hard clay than limestone. This was an indication that the cave was unstable, and a seasoned explorer would have turned around, but I was filled with adrenaline and enthusiasm. I had to see what was on the other side.
I popped through the hole into a 60-meter-long chamber, with bright white limestone and sparkling blue water. My fingers were tingling with excitement as I swam to the far end, found another small hole where that cave continued, and turned back to get Vince who was waiting on the far side of the first hole.
And there it was: a huge rock, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, had fallen directly behind me as I swam through the chamber. My bubbles must have knocked the unstable ceiling down, and if the boulder had fallen 10 meters farther down the tunnel, it would have blocked the hole I entered through. I would have been trapped alone in the cave, waiting to run out of air with no way to escape.
“I had let my excitement to discover something new push me into the diving in a highly unstable cave, and I almost paid with my life. ”
I had let my excitement to discover something new push me into the diving in a highly unstable cave, and I almost paid with my life. Since then, I have faced a variety of situations, including gear failures, broken guidelines, and complete visibility loss, but never again have I gone knowingly into an unstable cave.
When I tell people I teach cave diving for a living, they often want to hear stories of how I have rescued my students from dangerous situations and near certain death. If that were happening, I would be a terrible cave diving instructor! My role as my students’ mentor is to provide a safe learning environment, and to teach them to how keep themselves alive.
From a safety standpoint, I must be sure that my students have the knowledge and skills to independently exit the cave if something happens to me, even on a training dive. I am constantly evaluating their decisions and judgement.
During my courses, we practice emergency protocols first in easy scenarios and then slowly add layers of complexity and go further into the cave as divers gain confidence. I allow my divers to make mistakes and experience the consequences, but stop situations before they ever become remotely dangerous. On training dives, my students have dealt with real situations that sound frightening, like broken tank valves, zero visibility and regulator failures. In every case so far, they have done so calmly and without my assistance.
Thankfully, there are often early signs that a student is losing focus – a diver who stares at the floor instead of looking around, a student who starts to obsessively consult his dive computer, or someone who starts finning sloppily. I try to notice signs of stress, end the dive, and safely exit the cave before dangerous mistakes are made. Out of the water we analyze the dive and assess when things started to go sideways.
I sometimes feel more like a psychologist than a diving instructor. The most important question I ask my students after a dive, is “how did you feel?” It's a challenge to coach my students to observe their mental state, learn to control their thoughts and exit the cave calmly if something goes wrong. It's the most single important thing I can teach my divers. I must have confidence that a person will react rationally to problems before I certify him to independently cave dive. To do otherwise would be negligent and could lead to death.
A second aspect of leadership that I did not consider when I started publishing articles and giving talks about cave diving, was that being a small, female cave explorer could be inspiring. I didn't consider that this inspiration was needed. For me, females have always been an integral part of cave diving – most of the original cave projects and explorations in my region, dating back to the 1980's, involved both men and women. Strangely, this is not common knowledge.
“What makes cave diving sweetest is not the personal accomplishment, but the moment you lose yourself in the endeavor and find that sense of awe that is so lacking in modern life.”
Perhaps some women felt it easier to enjoy cave diving for its own sake, and let the men take the credit and glory, because it didn't matter. There's obvious exceptions to this, such as Jill Heinerth, but it's a shame that women have not been recognized for their integral contributions to the sport. I want the credit for the things I have achieved and I am willing to fight for it. I have slowly changed my opinion from not caring about gender, to thinking that strong female leaders are important. I feel that we lose many potentially gifted cave divers when the sport is perceived as male dominated. It is not and never has been.
Now, I delight in showing up to dive conventions in heels, full make up, and a girly dress, and giving a detailed, technical talk about my extreme cave exploration projects. I can see the cognitive disconnect happening. And really, why shouldn't someone be able to have long hair and a gentle manner, be bubbly and happy and goofy, and still be an exceptional cave explorer, an excellent cave instructor, and a successful business owner? These are not mutually exclusive.
Flooded caves are amazing – not scary or dangerous if you learn to be meticulous and maintain mental control. Like mountaineering, rock climbing, and other extreme sports, you have to train and there is a physical and mental challenge. It's rewarding to improve your skills and accomplish difficult projects. However, what makes cave diving sweetest is not the personal accomplishment, but the moment you lose yourself in the endeavor and find that sense of awe that is so lacking in modern life. It never gets old or less impressive, and this planet never ceases to amaze.