In the realm of eternal darkness - 14km in caves - Polish world record

The south of Mexico, Yucatan Peninsula. Beneath the rainforest-clad ground, stretches a huge system of water-filled caves, called cenotes. Two Polish divers, Leszek Czarnecki and Krzysztow Starnawski spent nearly 6 hours under water, covering 14 km in the labyrinth of cave corridors. We are talking to Krzysztof Starnawski about this extraordinary achievement.

DS How did it all start?
KS Leszek Czarnecki created the concept for the expedition – he had travelled across Mexico a couple of years previously and this gave him the idea. He organized the logistics for the expedition and invited participants, including myself. I was made responsible for the technical part.

Which part of the project was the most difficult?
By far the most tricky element was learning the topography and finding the right way. Cenotes are a vast underground structure of corridors stretching for kilometres, where you can easily get lost. We chose Dos Ojos system near the town of Tulum for our trip. We spent there 9 weeks altogether. The whole cave got carted, but we did not draw detailed plans, only something like technical plans. We knew precisely where each corridor starts and which way it goes. I had a notebook full of notes I had made during my earlier dives. We marked more important locations, to make sure we know which way to go. Another element to which we devoted lots of attention was logistics. We had to plan diving at a distance of 14 km with 8 oxygen bottles an 3 scooters each. The problem was that we did not have anywhere to draw experience from. The only source of knowledge were our former expeditions and that became the basis for our planning. It turned out to be good enough, as we did not have major problems.

8 bottles and 3 scooters is a lot of equipment. How did you manage to cope?
We started diving with 4 bottles and 2 scooters. The rest of the equipment was waiting for us on the way. The day before we swam quite deep in order to leave one scooter each and two bottles, and on day zero we drove into the jungle and left two back-up bottles at one of the sink holes; according to our calculations we did not need them, but they could come useful in case of complications. Later, as we reached these points, we changed empty bottled for full ones.

How did you exercise before the expedition?
This expedition was a consequence of two former ones, which can be considered a preparation for such conditions. I know that Leszek regularly takes part in triathlon, I run and swim, se both of us were fit enough. We did not do any special trainings or diets before the trip itself. Two former trips, 3 weeks each, gave us considerable experience in diving with such a lot of equipment. Those trips also gave us an insight into the general conditions of the region.

How did you hydrate?
It was freshwater diving, so hydration was not a problem. Local inhabitants treated these sinkhole springs as source of drinking water.

Did you dive non-stop or did you have any breaks?
The dive was non-stop, we emerged no sooner than after 6 hours, when we reached the planned exit. The only stops we made were to fix “jumps” for consecutive sections of corridors and to change bottles.

What breathing mixtures did you use?
We planned most of the dive with nitrox 40. For the deepest level we reached (41 m) we took nitrox 28. However, the Mexican reality was such that each bottle had a different oxygen contents, ranging up to several per cent. It was not a major problem, though, as most of our route was not more than 18 m deep, so we could accommodate for such inaccuracies without a serious threat to our health. In any case, however, we would be able to make the right mixture ourselves.

Did you need to decompress?
There were local shallow patches of 3 – 6 m and we had to make short decompressions there. At the end of diving we did not need to decompress, as the cave profile shallowed out gradually, so we were able to emerge right away.

Did such an expedition require special formal and legal preparations?
First of all we had to liaise with the owner of the cave and to sign a declaration that we were doing it at our own responsibility. We also consulted the Protec team in Mexico about logistics. The whole action did not need any special permissions. We only made an arrangement with local authorities that we would provide them with filming and photographic material.

Did you explore new regions?
No, the dive was purely a sporting achievement, not exploratory one. We practically did not discover anything, we just went down well known corridors.

If these corridors have been penetrated, why doesn’t the record belong to the explorers who discovered them?
The cave was explored section by section, not getting away from an entrance more than by 2-3 km. What we did, was to swim through all these sections together, using just one entrance.

Did you have enough time to admire the views?
During training we had lots of time for that, but after 9 weeks of seeing the same stone landscapes even they may get boring. Thanks to this action, however, we reached two regions which were not frequented so far. The route to the Pit, for one, hadn’t had more than 5 penetrations till then. One fragment was practically unexplored, so the dripstone speleothems remained intact; and that was a very interesting moment of the expedition. Everybody knows that frequented regions of cenotes, in spite of restrictive approach to ecology, are badly damaged.

How serious was the risk of getting lost?
This is by far one of the most important problems during an exploration like ours. That’s why most earlier dives we did there, were done to get to know the caverns. We had a lot of trouble with halocline, i.e. the point where freshwater meets the salty sea water and visibility dramatically drops. In many cases the thin railing was barely visible in the cloudy water and we were afraid that we could miss a turning. Fortunately, thanks to the log weeks we had spent in the cenotes, we knew them almost by heart. During the preparation stage we checked virtually all corridors, including those we had no intention to use, so as to know where we are and how to get back if we get lost. On the way back we had another small problem. In the narrow passages out scooters churned the water so much that it became almost completely opaque. We had to go groping our way and getting lost was a likely threat. Luckily, we never did.

Your reputation as an expert cave diver is widely known. How did it all begin for you?
I started diving in caves mainly in order to explore these fragments which were not accessible otherwise. Before that I gained lots of experience exploring dry caves. When I encountered a flooded area, I had to retreat. That’s why I did a diving course.

Do you have ideas for next expeditions?
Yes, Leszek already has plans for three next trips. Knowing his creativity and reliability I can assure you that these are going to be very interesting and well designed expeditions, but now it’s too early to say more about them. I would also like to thank all participants in our last expedition (more than ten people), without whom the whole thing wouldn’t be possible. Special thanks should go to Rysio Paluszkiewicz from Eques company, who not only prepared dry suits for everyone, but also came to the expedition with us and provided great help at every stage.

We are keeping our fingers crossed for your next expeditions...

Interviewer: Darel Sepiolo

Krzysztof Starnawski is a diving instructor and was the holder of record of Poland in cave diving (184 m) for many years. In 2003 the record was beaten by Leszek Czarnecki (193 m), also an instructor of cave diving, organizer of diving expeditions to different regions of the world.