The Underwater Cave Accident: Donald Cerrone’s Harrowing Ordeal

Incident LocationDiver Names
Mexico, Cozumel, Aerolito CaveDonald Cerrone, Alex

Donald’s Background and Adventures

Donald Cerrone was diving through Aerolito Cave in Cozumel, Mexico when something went horrifyingly wrong.

Donald Cerrone was born in Denver, Colorado on March 29th, 1983. Growing up, Donald was considered a bit of a troubled child. As a teenager, he took up street fighting and this would result in him often ending up spending the night in jail.

When Donald was 16, his parents had had enough of his behavior and the fighting and sent him to live with his grandmother. His grandmother welcomed him with open arms and would even bail him out of jail after some of his street fights. The next morning, after she would bail him out, she would never bring up what happened the night before.

At the age of 20, Donald started kickboxing and then Muay Thai after that and as it turned out, he was pretty good. After winning a few kickboxing competitions, he decided to pursue a career in MMA, also known as mixed martial arts, where he adopted the nickname Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone for his tendency to wear cowboy hats.

He would win his first 9 fights in a row and was soon contending for championship fights in the WEC. After leaving the WEC, Donald signed with the insanely-popular fight promotion company — The Ultimate Fighting Championship, also known as the UFC. As a fighter in the UFC, Donald rose to superstardom and became one of the largest drawing fighters in the promotion’s history.

In addition to fighting on the world stage in the largest fight promotion in the world, Donald is a bit of an adrenaline junkie as are many of the individuals in that community. In his spare time outside of training and competing in the UFC, he competes and participates in all sorts of other high adrenaline pursuits like dirt biking, off-road racing, water skiing, and even bull riding.

Another thing Donald really loves to do is scuba dive. After getting his certification in high school, he fell in love with all things diving. In his own words, he just loves diving. He loves shipwreck diving. He just loves everything about it. However, his favorite is cave diving. In August of 2018, Donald Cerrone was in Cozumel, Mexico, where he planned to go diving with a friend of his who will call Alex.

The Remarkable Cenote Aerolito de Paraiso

The first three or four days of their trip, they went diving to some shipwrecks and to some coral reefs with a few other friends of theirs. They also planned a slightly more serious dive for just the two of them at a cave known as Aerolito Cave. In the old South Harbor of Cozumel in an area known as Caleta, there is an unremarkable-looking pond that is easy to get to and easy to access.

Most divers and tourists pass by this pond and think nothing of it. However, this pond is actually very remarkable. In fact, it is actually named Cenote Aerolito de Paraiso. A cenote is a natural pit or sinkhole that forms when the limestone underneath the surface collapses, revealing the groundwater underneath.

On August 17th, Donald kissed his wife and new baby goodbye before he was leaving to go meet up with Alex. Before he left, his wife told him that she was really uncomfortable with him going caving with Alex. The reason she was uncomfortable was that she was worried about Alex’s capabilities as a diver.

Concerns and Precautions

For many years, Alex and Donald had been caving together and Alex was even sort of a mentor to Donald but Alex was now getting older and his motor skills had declined with age. His mind was still as sharp as ever, but his body just couldn’t keep up. Donald reassured his wife that everything was gonna be fine and that he was gonna come home after the dive just like always.

His wife was still worried though, and so as an extra precaution and to reassure her, Donald ordered an extra cylinder of air. Originally, he had planned to take two cylinders for the dive and so now, he would have three total. For their dive, as is typical in cave diving, they would be diving in thirds.

Cave Diving and Guidelines

This means that they were going to use a third of their air going in, a third coming out, and then they would have a third in reserve in case something unexpected happens. In cave diving as well, the first divers who discover and map out a cave will run long ropes called guidelines throughout the cave to help divers find their way in and out of the caves.

These guidelines are also marked with directional signals, known as cookies that are clear and easy to read and point towards the exit of the cave. One of the leading causes of death in cave diving is when the guidelines are improperly used or improperly marked by the divers as they navigate the cave. These guidelines typically come in two different varieties.

Fixed and Jump Lines

First are the fixed or main lines that are permanently installed in the cave system and eliminate the need for divers to install a large portion of the lines in a cave each time they dive. These can either start right at the exit or a bit into the cave to ensure that recreational divers don’t find them and then enter the cave without proper training or equipment.

Main lines are also not all connected, requiring that divers bring reels with them to connect from one to the other, using lines known as jump lines. Jump lines are attached by divers as they move through a cave to connect from one main line to the next. Jump lines are also removed by divers as they exit a cave to help simplify the lines within the system.

Entering Aerolito Cave

Donald and Alex entered Aerolito Cave from the little unassuming pond on the surface. They then traveled along the various lines of the cave to explore the gorgeous and expansive system they had come to see. At some point, they needed to transition from one line to another. Alex went first and grabbed his light and hung it around his neck so that he could make the switch with two hands.

Incident in the Cave

As Alex went to tie off, his buoyancy device, which is a little device that fills with air to increase or decrease your buoyancy got loose and shot up to the ceiling of the cave. He then kicked his feet spun around and when he did that, the guideline, their lifeline wrapped itself around him. Donald immediately swam over to Alex to help him try to untangle the line but Alex started panicking.

Silt is the dust and sediment that sits at the bottom of the cave and when it gets kicked up in the small spaces inside of a cave, it brings the visibility to almost zero. It’s like swimming around in mist, so thick that you can barely see the hand in front of your face. And Aerolito Cave was now completely silted out.

A Dangerous Situation

Knowing how dangerous this situation was, Donald took a few big steps backward away from Alex so he didn’t get caught in the line either and so he could regain visibility. Within arm’s reach of the main line now, Donald watched helplessly as Alex thrashed around even more. One of the unspoken rules of cave diving, according to Donald, is that you only worry about yourself in a panicked situation.

The Dilemma

The idea is the panicked person poses a threat to anyone trying to help, and there’s no reason for two people to die if one person can still make it out. As he sat there holding the main line, he looked towards the exit of the cave and knew that he was safe if he went that way. He knew where the exit was; he could easily swim to it and be sure that he would get out alive.

He also looked at the completely silted-out section where Alex was and knew that Alex would almost certainly die without help. In the panic, Alex had somehow turned off his light, and Donald just sat there thinking that he hopes that he also didn’t drop his mouthpiece and that he wasn’t drowning to death just a few feet away from him.

Breaking the Rules

Donald decided to break one of his unspoken rules and decided to go into the silt to try to save Alex. As soon as he entered the silt, he lost all sense of direction, he didn’t know which way was up or down, and then he started to panic as well. All of a sudden, he was taking deep, fast panic breaths, completely freaking out, more panicked than he’s ever been in his entire life.

In his panic, he smashed his head off of the ceiling of the cave and then closed his eyes. The hit to the head gave him a brief second of calm, and then he managed to tell himself to slow his breathing down. With his breathing slowed, barely able to see the hands in front of his face, he looked at his glowing watches that indicated his depth and time.

Searching in Darkness

He then checked the two pressure gauges on each of the cylinders he was using and knew that he had a third one that was completely full, still unopened. He then closed his eyes and sat there in the pitch-black silted-out room, trying to think through the panic and figure out a plan. The first thing he did was try to feel around the silt and try to find Alex, but Alex was nowhere to be found.

Thankfully, he had calmed himself down a little bit more and then decided to start moving his hands along the wall of the cave to see if he could figure out where he was. Typically in good visibility, divers will make a mental note of the different landmarks in the cave so they can find their way out. But the channel that they were in was one that they were on their way to explore, they weren’t coming out of it so it was entirely unfamiliar to him.

The Direction and the Walls

He then decided to check his compass because when they came into the cave, he had measured the direction of the exit from the first jump to be 126 degrees. This was a bit of a long shot because in the winding tunnels of a cave, you can be facing the correct direction towards the exit, but if you’re not in the right section of the cave, that direction might just lead to the wall of another tunnel.

Without any other choice, he tried to swim in that direction, but immediately came up on a wall. He then tried to swim lower and went right into another wall. And now, he was right back in full panic mode. So now, he’s kicking and thrashing and freaking out and swimming violently, and then all of a sudden, he exited the silt and stumbled on the main line.

The Wrong Side

Donald grabbed it and tried to calm himself down once again, but there was a new problem. He was on the wrong side of the silted section of the main line. Behind him, deeper into the cave, was silt-free and clear. The way out of the cave, the way that he needed to go, was completely silted out still, and the exit was almost a thousand yards away.

Finding a Way Out

In addition, there was a jump in between where he was and where he needed to be, meaning that he would have to find his way untethered through the silt to make it out of the cave. He sat there for a moment, thinking about the maps of the cave that he had scoured before they entered that day. He knew that up ahead, there was a split in the cave.

One side went to the exit and the other went deeper into the cave. So he reentered the silt and started to feel around and managed to find a hole. Not sure if this was correct or not, he kept on going and came up on another hole. He felt around and thought that it felt familiar and decided to swim into it.

But then, he noticed that he was swimming against the current. When they had come into the cave, he also noticed that they were swimming against a small current, meaning that given that he was now traveling in the opposite direction, he was swimming in the wrong direction. Beginning to panic once again, he frantically swam back to the main line on the opposite side of the silt.

Desperate Measures

Sitting there, literally hyperventilating from panic, all he could think of that morning was when he kissed his wife and baby and assured them that he was coming home. So he swam back into the dark abyss of silt once again and panicked once again. And now, in the pitch-black darkness of the cave, he thought to himself, All of this heavy breathing is sucking all of the air out of my tanks.

So in addition to being lost in the darkness, he started to worry about running out of air entirely. Trying to calm himself, he looked at his watch and then his gauges, and then back at his watch and managed to figure out that he had roughly an hour left of air. He started to think about what would happen once he ran out of air.

On the air-only system he was using, once he ran out, the mouthpiece would just fill with water, and then he would inhale the water and he would drown. Ironically enough, one of Donald’s biggest fears is drowning. So not wanting to drown, he grabbed his buoyancy device and began breathing into it to fill it up completely.

With it full, he shot up to the ceiling of the cave and was now resting upside down. At first, he sat there thinking about his wife and daughter and thought about grabbing his grease pen and notepad to write a letter to them about how he had messed up and how sorry he was. Then, he thought about how terrified he was of drowning and decided that once he ran out of air, he would breathe from his buoyancy device until there was no more oxygen left in it.

Once it was only expelled carbon dioxide, he would keep breathing until he slowly passed out. At which point, he wouldn’t be awake when he drowned. As he sat there thinking about writing the goodbye note and how he intended on just going to sleep in the darkness, he was infuriated with himself that he was giving up hope and succumbing to the situation.

He thought to himself, “I’m a fighter. That’s not what fighters do.” and so he began crawling along the ceiling of the cave upside down. This time, he remembered that there was a large crack that ran the length of the cave on the ceiling. In his panic, he frantically crawled along the ceiling, breathing, hyperventilating, and then all of a sudden, he found it.

The Light at the End

So he latched onto the crack, crawled along it, and then it started to widen. And then, there was light off in the distance. He could see the green glow of light filtering into the cave. So Donald swam frantically to the glow all the while still panicking, still hyperventilating, and when he reached the opening, his tanks got stuck, and they wouldn’t go through.

And so he was kicking and thrashing and freaking out, but he managed to follow the crack some more and then his tanks went through, and then… there was the opening of the cave. He made it. Upon making it out, the relief was just unbelievable. One second, he was writing a goodbye note to his wife and kid, and the next, he was going home to see them.

Reunion and Reflection

As he left the water, he saw that Alex was just sitting there. As it turned out, Alex managed to somehow grab the main line in his panic and just followed it out of the cave. The two of them looked at each other, and Alex said to Donald, “So we’re not diving together anymore, are we?” And Donald would answer back, “Nope, that was it.

Donald then grabbed his phone, texted his wife, and said, “Had a bit of a scary moment today, but I’m coming home.” This story is based on the first-hand account given by Donald Cerrone.

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Who is Donald Cerrone?

Donald Cerrone is a professional mixed martial artist who was born on March 29th, 1983, in Denver, Colorado. He gained fame as a fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and became one of the biggest draws in the promotion’s history.

What is cave diving?

Cave diving is a type of scuba diving that takes place in underwater caves. Divers explore submerged cave systems, which often require specialized training and equipment due to the unique challenges they present.

What happened to Donald Cerrone during his cave dive?

During a dive in Aerolito Cave in Cozumel, Mexico, Donald Cerrone and his diving partner, Alex, encountered a dangerous situation. The cave became completely silted out, reducing visibility to almost zero. Alex became entangled in the guideline, causing panic. Despite the risks, Donald chose to enter the silt and try to save Alex.

What precautions do cave divers take?

Cave divers follow specific guidelines and safety measures to minimize risks. They use a “thirds” rule, where they use one-third of their air going in, one-third coming out, and keep one-third as a reserve. Cave divers also rely on guidelines and directional markers, called cookies, to navigate the cave safely.

How did Donald Cerrone escape the cave?

After becoming disoriented in the silted-out cave, Donald Cerrone managed to find a crack on the ceiling that led to an opening with light. Despite initial difficulties, he eventually made it out of the cave and reunited with his diving partner.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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