Underwater Cave Explorer/Cartographer
Photograph by Paul Nicklen
Photograph by Daniel Riordan
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I grew up in Venezuela, where I spent most of my holidays in the ocean. At age five I already owned a pair of fins and mask. I knew I wanted to be in the water as much as possible but I took a long detour. I studied computer engineering and worked in the Silicon Valley for about 15 years. The moment I visited the Yucatán Peninsula [in Mexico] and in particular the underwater caves near the city of Tulum, I realized that is what I want to do: explore, map, and document these incredible environments.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I learned to cave dive in 1998 and visited the caves as much as possible during my vacation from my engineering job. At the beginning I was just another cave diver visiting the area, but as time went by I became familiar with the caves and their structure and met some of the local cave explorers. Eventually, I got involved with the exploration of new passages and together with my friends Alex and Franco we mapped about 100,000 feet of passages. During this time we discovered Hoyo Negro and [the skeleton] Naia, and at that time I knew this is what I was supposed to do. I quit my engineering job and dedicated all my time to recording the site and working with researchers to unravel the secrets of Hoyo Negro. The underwater caves of the Yucatán Peninsula are a time capsule of how Mexico looked like at the end of the Pleistocene and can teach us a great deal about the climate and fauna at that place in time and how Earth's climate has evolved to its present state.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to exploring underwater caves?
Once we found Hoyo Negro and started to understand the importance of the site, I felt responsible for what we have discovered. The site had been sealed for at least 9,000 years and we have opened it again by finding one of the tunnels that led into the pit. I felt we had to do all we could to make sure the site was not altered and that Naia's story and the stories of all the other animals that rest at the pit's floor were understood and shared with the world. I think we were selected to find the site and we became responsible for it. It was our destiny to bring Naia back to the world and tell her story and the stories of the people of that time.
What's a normal day like for you?
During our field season in Tulum the days start quite early. We need to put our rebreather together, which takes time and needs total concentration to make sure it's done properly. We then go out for breakfast at one of the local street taco stands. During breakfast we discuss the plans for the day and then we head into the jungle. We have to move our equipment about ten kilometers [six miles] into the jungle and then we have to lower it down at the water level. Our dives begin around noon and oftentimes we go down for three to four hours. Every minute we spend down at the bottom of Hoyo Negro costs us about two minutes of decompression on the shallow parts of the caves as we let inert gas come out slowly from our bodies. By the end of the dive we're getting closer to losing sunlight so we have to get out of the water quickly, pack all the gear, and head back to town for some more food. After dinner we process our data and images. Oftentimes we Skype with researchers to share our findings from the day, and about midnight we go back to bed to start all over again the next day. Our field season lasts two or three weeks.
Do you have a hero?
Naia and her people are my heroes. Paleoamericans survived in a landscape so different than ours with dangers at every corner and they still managed to conquer the caves that I love so much. They were able to exploit water and possibly find shelters in these environments. They were the original explorers of the caves of the Yucatán Peninsula. We're merely following their steps. I can't imagine going in there with torches and walking over rocks and boulders to get your drinking water, and having to face big megafauna on the way in and out. When I'm faced with a difficult situation I think about Naia moving through the tunnels and her challenges, and everything becomes easy and small compared to that.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience was in 2014 during the filming of a National Geographic/NOVA documentary in Hoyo Negro. We brought 17 surface-powered lights in order to illuminate the 200-foot-diameter pit. We had to move a two-ton generator into the jungle and laid about 10,000 feet of cable to power all these lights. The effect of having all those lights inside the cave was mind-blowing. We could see the entire pit and the tunnels leading away for at least 200 feet. During these dives my teammates had to drag me out of the cave as I did not want to leave. Those vistas are imprinted on my brain, and I still dream of being there with so much light.
My most challenging cave dive was one where I got trapped inside a small passage. My friend Franco and I wanted to visit another section of the cave and used a tiny passage to avoid getting out of the water and walking on the jungle with all our heavy gear. Franco is substantially smaller than me, so he went first and I went second. Visibility went to zero after Franco moved through the passage and I got stuck inside this narrow tunnel. I could not move forward or backward. I was totally stuck. It took me about 15 minutes to get out of it and I had to break most of the cave formations on the way to free myself. It was a very stressful situation and it showed me that we can all get into troubles if we push too hard or make bad decisions. It made me appreciate how much I love life and what I do. I understood that I wanted to continue doing this for a long time. I understood that we need to be smart [in order] to one day be part of the old cavers/explorers club—the ones that did it for a long time.
What are your other passions?
I love teaching. I have taught computer science, scuba diving, and many other subjects. I enjoy learning a subject until I understand the basic principles of it, and then figuring out ways to teach them to others. I really enjoy making models or presentations for lectures or classes.
Swimming is my favorite exercise. I can tune out and just swim for hours at a time. I really like to go out at night and take photographs of different parts of cities, especially if I can get light reflecting in the water (ocean, rivers, or lakes).
In Their Words
It was our destiny to bring Naia back to the world and tell her story and the stories of the people of that time.