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Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

Have you ever pictured the world as part of a fractal dimension? A cauliflower dividing into fractions of itself. The space we occupy into it is as immense as microscopic? It is all a matter of perspective right? Just like we are made of cells, we might as well be just a singular cell, a part of another being, itself being a cell part of another being. And within our own self, within our intestine, another microcosmos universe has developed … A never ending story isn’t it?

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

This story began in the intestine of our planet. The submerged caves. And most precisely an unvisited submerged cave in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Or so I thought at the time preparing for the visit. The whole experience wraps up into a word cave lovers always crave for: Exploration, or pure exploration.

As a cave diving instructor, I do my best to train my fellow students to be safe for themselves, for their team, for other teams on site, and for the unforgiving gem they intend to visit. In a way, it gives one a bitter taste of exploring when diving a place for the very first time. But, the guideline always reminds us that someone stepped foot here first. That’s the gap between exploration and pure exploration I guess.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

Caves, dry and submerged, are a living entity evolving throughout millions of years but relatively to our short living scale it is a world frozen in time, and probably the last playground on this planet where one has the privilege to be the first. To be the one to leave a print where no one has ever gone before. To me, nothing seemed to equal the exhilarating feeling as to venture into the unknown of this hidden world until the unexpected close encounter of our kind. But let’s rewind the series of events.

Long story short, I was spending my tenth winter in the Quintana Roo State of Mexico, spoiled by the beauty of the Cenotes I had visited more than once, and the last minute invitation of my friend Sabine Sidi-Ali to join on a few days of exploration in the Yucatan seemed more than appealing. Two women loading a car with a bunch of cylinders filled with all possible gas mixes. Hitting the road, sharing a few tacos, gossiping on the way, and a room in a remote Mexican village. What better to do with one’s time?

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

Sabine had been visiting the place a few weeks earlier and had spotted a dry cave entrance. She had snorkelled the upstream and muddy downstream parts with hope to revisit for more. Here we were now, arriving early in a bright sunny afternoon to meet the mayor of the village with permission to dive both parts.

The small population of inhabitants had gathered on the main square to witness two eastern blond women ‘spanglishing’ their access to the entrance and trading a few snacks and sodas with whomever would help to carry part of their equipment to the cave entrance. It did not take long before the mayor and one carrier jumped into the back of our car to lead us back to a water trough for cows. The slope to access the dry cave stood just behind and cows had long been replaced by wasp nests, which made the transportation of equipment down the hole tricky and surprisingly fast and efficient. The dry cave part was a fair fifty meters diameter, populated with a mix of old and new – abandoned beer cans, mud, stones, and cow bones.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

As we started gearing up, we agreed to check out first the submerged upstream part of the cave, which is somehow always more inviting for collecting less debris compared to the downstream part. My stoic mood to most things in this world expected a short dip into the clear water pool before moving to the muddy downstream one, wrapping up all equipment, and driving back late at night to our shared room.

Stoicism being the best cure for disappointment, when heading underwater, I felt somehow surprised to see there was no sight of anyone having laid a line down there before and even more to follow our fresh guideline into what seemed to be an underwater passage. As we were gliding down into the darkness, a yellow rounded shape on the ground caught my attention. My first thought was, ’Oh ! A coconut !’… until the right part of my brain questioned how a coconut would have rolled down all the way from the dry cave entrance where no palm trees grew whatsoever.

It is all a matter of perspective isn’t it? When examining closer, the cracked round yellow ball from another angle, the coconut fell far from the tree of my assumptions. ‘Oh my god, a skull. It is a human skull !? No. Here is another one. And a third. Fourth. Fifth?’

Photos courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

My interest for the whole cave exploration had suddenly vanished. I just wanted to stay there, with all of them. I just wanted to understand what had happened, when it happened, and why it happened. I simply could not help but stare at this reminiscence of living things past. These would never grow older, these would only decay from a fractal perspective, and shall we have not found them, they might have disappeared for good without anyone ever questioning their presence in this place. These would have rolled down the tree of life and as far as people of their time’s memory. But, at this very moment, the print they left in my memory gave them life again.

Photos courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

I could not help observing their distorted shapes buried into silt and coppers of minerals. It looked like a graveyard of human remains. Skulls, tibias, ribs, and a jaw pierced by another bone. What fate would lead to such torturous ending? I had heard and read about Mayan sacrifices during the pre-columbian era, a ritual offering of nourishment to the Gods. The analysis of skeletal remains extended from c. AD 1524 up to the final stages of the Spanish conquest in the 17th century. Torture and sacrifice by decapitation are depicted in Classic period of Mayan art such as reliefs of Mayan pyramids and other archeological sites. Blood served a very important purpose in Mayan culture. It was offered to the deities by auto-sacrificial bloodletting. Practitioners would cut or pierce themselves with a variety of tools including bone awls. I could not help to look at this bone piercing through a jaw and wonder. The Cave was still to be explored but we hovered there, speechless for some time.

Photos courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

It is not worth exploring a cave without surveying it. Distances, bearings, and depths are collected on the way out and the collection of data supports further exploration, mapping, and cross checking when another exploration happened nearby to extend cave systems knowledge. Sabine and I had been trained as such and knew the importance of it. What we were clearly unprepared for is, what to do when facing testimony of past Mayan lives? The grin behind our masks when we surfaced from the cave exploration part was as huge as the question mark in our minds. What to do with the ‘coconuts’ now? We informed the Mayor about our findings and offered to share the pictures and video content we had gathered.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

We packed and drove back to the base camp for the night. We spent the evening prepping line for the next exploration day and discussed what were the best options with the unexpected encounters. I guess option one was a self-protective path. Remain silent about it all. Thinking twice, we knew other explorers would come at some point, spotting the line we had been laying. Shall the next visitors have less genuine exploration purpose than we did and steal any of the remains; we might become accountable for the missing. It became clear to us that the second option was the wisest one. Inform the authorities, protect and conserve the site. But what authorities in this matter?

We contacted a few friends that night, fellow explorers of the area. In a nutshell, the answers came as random as vague – ‘You found skulls? Oh well, it is not a first! Sleep well’. ‘Probably good to register and report’. ‘Better remove your names on the exploration line in case some skulls disappear, and you might be held responsible for stealing them’. So, here we were, back to square one – beyond exploration, how to initiate conservation?

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

I hardly slept that night. A sense of excitement mixed together with a sense of opening the pandora box. In the morning, we decided to measure and photograph the skeletons and move on the cave exploration part. I felt as the amateur I was doing my best to document all without damaging what was a treasure to me. Frustration animated all my moves around the objects. I suddenly wished I had traded my business school years to study underwater archeology instead and that I had known how to analyse samples to identify when, how, why all these skulls rested there all this time.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

When surfacing that day, a friend, cave explorer himself, had sent us more information about the documents one needs to fill out to get a registration number identifying the location, the findings, and the explorers. In parallel, we had received the contact details of a supposed famous local specialist authority in the matter, archeologist and photojournalist operating for a popular American magazine. One of the most widely read magazines of all time, not to name it. His credentials made us trust that contacting him was the right move to have the whole site protected and investigated with the support of local authorities.

It seemed our first message did not catch much of his attention. However, a few WhatsApp messages later, the pictures did. He could not wait to meet us, bring support, go there himself to check all out. Driving back to Quintana Roo state a day later, the appointment to meet him and his assistant had been settled in Playa Del Carmen late in the evening. We were as excited as exhausted but we wanted to move on fast to prevent the access of any other person to the place until it would be protected. To our surprise, the meeting had been arranged in a random Taquillera. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a Taquillera is a noisy crowded Mexican fast food restaurant. I was not expecting such place to discuss such matters to be honest but the chock of cultures is never disappointing.

For starters, we delivered all survey data, pictures, and videos, insisting to have the whole thing officially registered as a first step and join the future scientific study of the site. It seemed to be the regular procedure when such discoveries happened and we aimed at doing things right rather than popular.

For dessert, we stepped outside from a noisy family gathering to have a chat with the assistant sitting on a bench in the street. She promised she would come back to us to have the whole thing investigated. All we asked for was to have it registered through the archeological department in order to underline our only exploratory involvement in the matter. Gradually, a subtle feeling of having handed over the right things to the wrong people arose. It felt like the conservation came second after who would take over from there and gain public recognition for the discovery. I strongly believe exploration leads to conservation rather than fame and to our stupefaction. It was obvious we had engaged with the wrong lead this time.

I traveled back to Europe. Sabine stayed in Mexico where she lives. Covid kicked in. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. The few WhatsApp chats that followed this meeting never led to anything despite my fellow buddy’s efforts and up to this date, the registration number was never delivered nor did the joint visits with scientists on site ever happen.

Looking back, I think we were fouled by our conviction that beyond exploration, things can move on the right way so that each and everyone benefits from its outcome. Exploration is a mindset. Conservation ought to be a collegial process supporting it and turning it in an educational process. Instead, personal interests often prevail and annihilate the chance to learn from history.

This event dates back from early 2020. As such, the name of the location and the people involved remain protected. Sabine and I still hope for a better outcome. We still strive for conservation, analysis, understanding, and education out of what lays down there. From a personal perspective, I wonder what I would do differently tomorrow in order to achieve such an objective. To be honest, I deeply regret I still have no answer to this question.

Letting go is a consequence, not a wish. This episode might be a glimpse into a fractal dimension where we are nothing and at the same time everything, it is all a matter of perspective. 

Photo courtesy of Audrey Cudel.

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