CENOTE TAJ MAHAL - SISTEMA TAJ MAL
By Steve Gerrard
The land that contains this cave system is owned by the Feliciano Tun Canul family. During the years of 1992 – 1993 a German owned Robinson Club All-Inclusive resort chain bought the property at the very southern end of XPU HA beach and developed it into resort hotel. During the construction phase the Robinson Club management negotiated a lease deal to have access to the Canul family property to obtain natural wood, soil and limestone material to enhance the cosmetic appearance of the Robinson Club resort. This property was located across Highway 307 opposite of the new resort entrance. To gain access a crude road was bulldozed through the jungle. During 1994, Don Feliciano realized that the end of the bulldozed road was within 200 meters of a remote cenote that he was aware of. He tediously began clearing trees, limestone and extended the road to the edge of the cenote. The entire road was very rough and not drivable for normal vehicles.
Tony & Nancy DeRosa had recently opened their own dive business – Aquatech – at their beach hotel called Villas DeRosa in Aventuras Akumal and catered to cenote, cavern and cave divers and…at that time…was considered the central headquarters for cave divers visiting the Akumal – Tulum area. Don Feliciano approached the DeRosa’s and informed them that he had an accessible cenote that no divers have ever visited. During March, 1995, Nancy DeRosa along with her brother Wayne Nefzger used Wayne’s 4-wheel drive Chevrolet Blazer and managed to get to the cenote. With single tanks they performed the first investigated dive and discovered an adjacent air dome next to the cenote along with a second cenote, which would later become the cavern dive. Returning to Villas DeRosa, Nancy’s excitement convinced Tony to dive the cenote with double tanks to further explore the cave. Laying exploration line, they found another smaller air dome that they named “The Room of Reflections” as their primary lights bounced off a thin sheet of calcium carbonate that had laid at the surface undisturbed. Pushing further they discovered a huge room that had many off-shoot leads. Now Tony was excited and proposed to name the cave system – Taj Mahal – as it represented one of the Seven Wonders of the World. With this decided, the DeRosa’s used the information from an encyclopedia about the Taj Mahal Palace in India to provide useful names to identify the many features of the cave system. Thus, the giant room was named the “City of Agre”. A third day passed by with more exploration, but no significant gains. It was the fourth day that I was invited to dive. Loaded with several exploration reels, Tony & Nancy, Wayne and I returned to the cenote. We decided to swim to the “City of Agre” room and push the offshoot leads. After swimming past the Room of Reflections air dome, we had leveled back to a depth of 40 feet. Looking to my left I see this huge dark void that told me it was a big, virgin cave passage. I immediately flashed the team to stop and vigorously pointed into the potential lead. Everyone agreed and I tied off a reel from the main line and we begun swimming, laying line. After four minutes we entered into a gigantic area with rocks bigger than houses. I was stunned in awe and no doubt Tony, Nancy & Wayne were quivering in joy. Never stopping, we continued laying line as this tremendously large cave passage as it kept giving and giving. We entered into a second area bigger than the one before. I think everyone was gagging on their regulators in disbelief in the immense size we were observing. I know I was. We still had plenty of air in or double tanks and plenty of exploration string. We kept going. Finally the cave began to trim down to a normal size and we reached depths that gave us the annoying halocline. But the cave was still giving and we kept swimming laying line. We passed a huge breakdown area and now were gradually ascending up a slope. Suddenly, we saw a glimmer of daylight and reached the surface located inside a big ledge area of a huge cenote collapse. We later named this Cenote Buena Vista – beautiful view. Sitting at the surface of the water and examining the dry area with our lights, everyone was chattering in bubbling excitement about the size of cave passage and the distance we covered laying line. Later on we named this gigantic tunnel the JUMNA RIVER as it is discussed in the encyclopedia in reference to the Taj Majal Palace. Of course, this measured little compared to many other exploration dives by various cave divers laying thousands of feet of line, but it sure was fun as hell.
Two days later, Tony, Nancy and I returned with more full exploration reels. We decided to swim downstream. Another beautiful passage, however not as big but it was highly decorated. About 750 feet downstream we found another air dome that we named “The Room of Cheers” in jest of the “Room of Tears” located upstream Cenote Carwash. We definitely were having fun! We laid an offshoot line from this room and found another cenote that Don Feliciano named Cenote Sacrado. This cenote has an ancient Mayan alter that looks like a bed made of limestone rock. In addition, all kinds of Mayan pottery shards found in the cenote water basin. This cave system was a joy to explore.
It was difficult for all of us to get away from Villas DeRosa as the business was growing and always busy with divers. During the next two weeks Nancy and I managed to get in a few more dives laying line as we found a passage that contained a hole later named the “Deep Bone Hole” that drops down to 75 feet.
However, that is the curse when your living depends on teaching and guiding, you never have enough time to truly explore.
Don Feliciano was anxious to make money from his cenote. The DeRosa’s loan him the money to buy sascab (crushed limestone) and he began smoothing out the rough road. After careful examination, we decided that the cave system offered a legitimate, safe cavern zone within the rules established by the National Association for Cave Diving (NACD). The adjacent huge air dome located next to the Cenote Taj Majal that presented two small holes on one side of the ceiling. These two holes allowed sunlight to enter the air dome as if bright laser beams and a great opportunity for video and photography. On the opposite side closest to the Cenote Taj Mahal is a larger hole to the surface providing more day light. I named this room the “Points of Light” taken from speech given by George H. Bush at the 1988 Republican political convention – “a thousand points of light”. From the air dome there is a passage that leads to a cenote I named Cenote Sugarbowl. The dimensions of this cenote reminded me of a large bowl with no lid. It was also a vivid example of a geological death trap for four legged animals as if they fell into this cenote it would become their tomb. The traverse distance stayed easily within the rules of 200 linear feet for a safe cavern tour dive. Swimming beyond Cenote Sugarbowl the cavern tour line was laid in a circular path that passed by a small hole or window to another collapsed area I named Cenote Mangrova. This hole was later named Bil’s Hole in honor of all inane attitudes. With the cavern tour line in place we were ready at Aquatech to officially take the first open water divers to Cenote Taj Mahal in late May, 1995.
I led the first official cavern tour with Mary Ellen Eckoff and Beth Exley. Mary Ellen was the former wife, soul mate friend and cave diving partner of Sheck Exley. Beth is the beloved younger sister of Sheck Exley. The women were staying at Villas DeRosa for a week enjoying open water diving, chilling out, and doing a few cavern tour dives such as the Grand Cenote and Cenote Carwash. This was one year later after the tragic death of Sheck Exley on April 6th, 1994 at Cenote Zacaton in northern Mexico northwest of Tampico. For the dive I warned the girls that we would encounter some bad percolation on the far side past Cenote Sugarbowl as the cave was still in a “virgin” status and there had not been enough divers passing through to knock all the loose debris from the ceiling with the air bubbles. Sure enough, when we reached the particular area near Bil’s Hole, the silt came down like rain and our visibility went to hell. We retreated and continued the completion of the dive thus officially the beginning of truly what has become a very popular cenote cavern tour dive with thousands of open water divers. With fifteen years of cenote dives at Cenote Taj Mahal, I figure a minimum of 23,000 open water divers have swam this cavern tour area. I would not be surprised if the figure was well over 30,000 if you throw in the cave divers…think about it.
The cave diving exploration continued with various cave divers pushing leads. German Mendoza Yanez of Cozumel led a team and explored and surveyed an area past Cenote Buena Vista that I named German’s Playground. During April, 1997, Kate Lewis and I pushed a Dan Lin’s line located beyond Cenote Sugarbowl and found a feature we named the “The Waterfall” as it is fresh water flowing into the saltwater zone.
Sometime in 1998, Bernie Birnbach (who worked at Aquatech) discovered the best cave dive of Sistema Taj Mahal – “The Chinese Garden”. Sniffing around the same line that leads to the “Waterfall” he noticed obvious flow of water coming out of a corner on the left wall and was able to punch through a restriction and found two beautiful rooms. The second room is like a stadium with gorgeous decorations. Luckily, all the speleothems are located along the walls of both sides of this huge room, thus somewhat protecting them from any careless buoyancy control or bubble damage. It was kept a secret for nearly six months until a little “birdie” at Aquatech gave me a clue and I found it. You know me, I love to share as I loathe this “my cave” mentality. I wish I could tell you more of the history of this area of the cave, but I know little and hopefully this article will bring out more of the facts.
Lying to the southeast of Sistema Taj Mahal is another cave system first explored by the French Federation cave divers named Sistema Minotauro. There have been several attempts by various cave divers trying to connect the two cave systems with no success. There is a severe collapsed area that blocks, so far, any union though it has been proven by water samples and it is quite obvious it is the same water. During early 1998 Christian Thomas of the French Federation cave diving group presented a cartography map that featured both Sistema Taj Mahal and Sistema Minotauro. The only copy I know of is on the wall in the equipment room at the “original” Akumal Dive Shop.
During the third week of June, 2000 I organized and conducted a six day survey project for Sistema Taj Mahal. The problem is when a cave is explored by a variety of cave divers there is no systematic procedure to combine all surveyed data into one concise map. Plus, mix in the egos and personalities and you have a logistical not going to happen situation. Sad as it is, it is people being people and normal cave diver behavior. That is why when I see small groups or teams of cave divers exploring and surveying a cave system, the chances of success of collecting the data and presenting the information to the cave diving community in a form of a “stick” or cartography map is an awesome feat. Of course, that’s if they are willing to share.
With the success of a survey project I conducted at Sistema PonDeRosa a year earlier I sent out letters of invitation to both local cave divers and abroad that I knew. The cave divers participating were Jeronimo Aviles, the Father – Son Vince and Vinnie DeKan, Herve Gordon, Doug Hoyt, Marike Jasper (deceased), Kate Lewis, Lamont Machamer (deceased), Judy & Merle Pierson, Donald Reiland, Benja Sacristin, Steve Serras and Gonzalo Vaccaluzzo. Together we divided the cave into sections and resurveyed the cave. After six diving days we had close to 90% done. During that summer I surveyed the remaining parts, which were mostly difficult areas of the cave to reach and resurveyed those lines that had questionable data. Finally, as of March, 2001, I finished putting together the stick map adding features as a bird’s eye view reference. I sent everyone a copy and laminated many more to use as a guide for cave divers.
Unfortunately, with my busy life style, the deaths of my parents during 2005, working a “real” job on the Deepwater Horizon (which is now infamously known throughout the world) for five years and currently working a very interesting job traveling around the Pacific Ocean my existing copies of the laminated map slowly were given away or disappeared.
Recently, I met a cave diver who lives in my community of Puerto Aventuras whose name is Alan Formstone. Alan is from England and he, his beautiful wife Liliana and their two young children Lara and Karin live in a condo directly on the shoreline while their new house is being constructed. Alan is a Communications Software Engineer who travels throughout Central and South America as a consultant. His passion is cave diving and recently became trained and certified using side mount techniques. He sent me an email introducing him and inquiring about maps. That’s all it took as I love sharing. So…I went to his home to visit two days before I left for the Philippines for a month. I presented every map I could muster and electronically sent him everything I had on file through emails. No doubt he was a very happy cave diver. I had one remaining map of Sistema Taj Mahal glued to some thin particle board. It had stains and marks on it. I said, “It is yours, if you clean it up and somehow get on an electronic file I would be very happy”. By golly, that’s exactly what he did. A few days ago I received an email with an attached file of the map on PhotoShop CS2. Holy new map, it was clean and wonderful. Alan is now really motivated as he diving Sistema Taj Mahal, learning the cave and he’s found some more small passages and wants to improve and expand the map. I say great. Do it, make the map better and allow everyone learn more about Sistema Taj Mahal.
With this wonderful action by Alan, it motivated me to write this article and share what I know about the history of Sistema Taj Mahal. Now, if only we can get all cave divers to share so we call can learn and enjoy!