Gran Acuifero Maya (GAM), a subaquatic exploration team, had been working to find something for over a decade, and on January 10, 2018, their search was over. The team discovered two underwater caverns in Tulum, Mexico that are interconnected. Together, the two systems make up the world’s largest underwater cave. But this find was not an easy task.
“Cenotes” is the Mayan word for natural sinkholes, which happens to be one of the unique features found in the Riviera Maya. These holes were caused by the cave ceiling’s collapse, which expose the groundwater below. Cenotes are naturally beautiful and crystalline. They’re also geological testament to the history of the archeological region where they were created. In fact, if you’re looking for more Cenotes, then the Yucatan Peninsula has plenty of them.
The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey suggests that there are over 10,000 cenotes in the entire Yucatan Peninsula, which provide several interconnecting underwater caves. But fourteen years ago, German explorer Rober Schmittner and his GAM team went out to explore in the hopes of finding one of these amazing connections.
The GAM team led by Schmittner acquired maps of Sac Actun and Dos Ojos, two large underwater caves, in Tulum, a tourist town. The maps revealed that there was once cave inside another, but explorers couldn’t find the junction. They only stumbled on walls of rock, because the twists and turns of the labyrinth hid the juncture. But even as mapping technology advanced, actual diving was still the best option.
The most recent GAM project was headed by research director Guillermo De Anda, and they found the junction. For the next ten months, they dove a few hours at a time, and they used a lifeline, and used an unspooled reel to calculate the distance using knots. They also recorded the direction and angles of the reel with a compass. The work was dangerous and hard too.
De Anda knew the diving team had put a lot of effort in the work, and that included Schmittner. “He didn’t rest for 14 years until he found the interconnection. Every day very early, filling and loading oxygen tanks, suiting up, finding a new entrance, making a new map,” he recognized. Fortunately, the hard work produced results.
The Ox Bel Ha system in south of Tulum, was known as the largest underwater cave because it had a length of 270 km (168 miles). To the northeast was the Sac Actun system with a length of 264 km (163 miles), which was in 2nd place. The Kook Baal system was in 3rd place with 93 km (58 miles), and Dos Ojos took up the rear with 83 km (52 miles. But on January 10, everything changed.
De Anda and his team were able to find the juncture between Dos Ojos and Sac Actun using the diagrams they mapped during each dive. In total, the caves measured 347 km (216 miles) long and 20 meters (66 ft) in depth, which made it the world’s largest underwater cave. But there’s something more important about this cave, and it has nothing to do with its size.
It was the “most important submerged archeological site in the world,” according to De Anda, who compared the cenotes in the Sac Actun-Dos Ojos cave to time tunnels because the archeological finds had remained well preserved. GAM explorers found vestiges of the Mayan civilization, as well as the remains of prehistoric humans and ancient animals.
The GAM’s exploration team found ruins dating all the way back to the days of the Mayan, which included human remains, walls, stairways, rock paintings, and even ceramics. These discoveries were part of a puzzle that would help humanity get a clearer image of what this civilization was like ages ago. But the team found something that went further in time.
Studying the geological features of the cave could help them understand how life began in this part of the world approximately 30 to 40 thousand years ago, according to De Anda. The remains of ancient megafauna, sabertooth tigers, ancient cougars, bears, elephants, and giant sloths were found, along with early humans, believed to be the peninsula’s first settlers. But his team’s geological work is far from over.
Archaeometric analysis will begin on the fossils and the other objects that were found by the GAM team in order to determine the approximate age of the materials. But Schmittner’s crew will not be staying on land. The divers believe the cave might also connect to other tunnel systems and they want to continue to explore the caves.
Their exploration paid off as the diving team found another tunneling system which they called “the mother of all cenotes.” The system is 18 km in length (11 miles) and 20 meters deep, and is located north of Sac-Actun-Dos Ojos, and they believe it’s part of the vast sea cave. But exploration alone is not the endgame of this project.
The Gam team will start analyzing the Sac Actun-Dos Ojos system’s water quality, while studying the cave’s biodiversity and interdependence. The animals, the jungle, the coral reefs, and the mangrove rely on the overall health of this aquifer. However, De Anda fears that it might be in danger because of the quickly growing level of human development that is concentrated in this area.
De Anda stated: “The biggest dangers are unplanned urban developments, pollutants, garbage, human interactions in general, uncontrolled pesticides. We are contributing with our work, with the information we gathered to provide to authorities and even make recommendations for public policy based on scientific data…The notoriety of this finding should serve to achieve adequate conservation and protection of the aquifer.”