Tragic Incident at Cenote Vaca Ha: A Deep Dive into Cave

Incident LocationDiver Name
Mexico, Tulum, Cenote Vaca HaUnknown

On Saturday, July 12, 2020, a 49-year-old male American citizen decided to dive into the far reaches of Cenote Vaca Ha, which is a part of Systema Zapote located in Mexico. He was a seasoned cave diver who had done approximately 470 cave dives before this fateful dive. He was quite familiar with Cenote Vaca Ha, but his fateful dive didn’t turn out as planned.

Description of Cenote Vaca Ha

Cenote Vaca Ha is a section of Systema Zapote in Mexico and is situated four miles from Tulum on Cobra Road. This cave has an average depth of about 70 feet, which is the deepest section. The flow runs in a southeastern direction from Cenote Vaca Ha towards Cenote Tukaha, and it’s mild by Mexican standards.

Diver’s Background

The diver was a male American citizen, age 49. He received his initial training in Mexico and became fully certified as a cave diver in 2007. On numerous future journeys, he continued to train and gain experience. He had certifications for using numerous extra tank stages, DPVs (underwater scooters), and advanced side mount diving, which uses specially built underwater scooters. After receiving his initial certification, he frequently visited Mexico. In 2019, he retired from his professional career and moved to Tulum. At the time of this dive, he had made about 470 cave dives. He had been re-surveying, investigating, and drawing line maps of the caves ever since relocating to Tulum. He created numerous line maps and projects, and he was a highly active cave diver.

The Fateful Dive

On Sunday, July 12, 2020, at about 9:30 a.m., this eager diver dove into Cenote Vaca Ha. The diver had re-surveyed all of the existing lines to create a line map of the system, so he was well familiar with the cave and its surroundings. Additionally, he expanded his research and expanded the system with new lines since he had visited the dive site regularly over the previous months. The property caretaker knew him well. He dove in, but he failed to emerge. This was unusual, and when the caretaker expected him to exit but he didn’t, he became anxious. After a considerable amount of time, he informed a Diving Center that the diver had failed to exit, and the Diving Center alerted the search and recovery team.

The Search and Recovery Operation

The search team included divers Patrick Whitman, Rob Bartlett, and Skonda Cofield. They gathered at Pro Tech Dive Center around 7:30 PM after receiving the call. The victim was rumored to have intended to dive to the far reaches. Therefore, the search crew prepared rebreathers and DPVs. This was the best choice because no one was certain of the diver’s route and depth. Robbie Schmidtner and Kent Stone arrived at Cenote Vaca Ha at 9:30 PM, just as the search crew was getting ready. They had conducted a lance search while scouting for Cenote Tukaha, another system-connected entry.

The search crew intended to dive using side-mounted closed-circuit rebreathers for a maximum of four hours, bringing two side mount tanks, a third tank for a bailout, and a DPV with oxygen for each diver to drop at 20 feet. The strategy was to first proceed to Cenote Tukaha, and if the missing diver was not located, then continue through the abnormal land area to search for clues.

Discovering the Diver

At 2 am, they descended, deposited the gas, and verified that the diver’s oxygen gas tank was still connected to the line and operational. After reassembling, the crew entered the cave. The diver’s route was assumed to have led to the location where they suspected he may be found at the first jump left, located around 300 feet into the cave. The team fixed a jump and continued, even though a jump spool wasn’t present. Skonda trailed behind Patrick and Rob, who were in the lead. Due to the low silty bedding plane in this area of the cave, which has a low floor-to-ceiling height and very fine sediment on the floor, silt disturbance increased significantly, and visibility decreased.

A barrier 700 feet from the entry was where the team found the diver, who showed no signs of life. The diver was discovered on the cave side of the restriction to cross. A diver carrying three tanks would have to discard at least one of them. All three of the diver’s tanks were discovered in his possession, and the DPV was still fastened to him. There was no indication of anxiety or agitation. A diver would need about 12 to 15 minutes to swim the distance from the entrance.

The search crew left from Cenote Vaca Ha to notify the local authorities and to begin arrangements for the body’s recovery. After having verified the demise and whereabouts of the missing diver, the search team’s dives lasted a total of 40 minutes. The next morning was designated for the body’s recovery, and a group of three divers, Rob Bartlett, Patrick Whitman, and Kim Davidson, went underwater to collect data. With less than an hour of dive time, recovery was accomplished.

Equipment Analysis and Conclusion

Officials from the police, the coroner’s office, and civil protection were there, in addition to the recovery crew. Skonda and another diver had to do a third dive to find the diver’s remaining equipment items because of the silty conditions, which resulted in zero visibility during the retrieval. Following the equipment retrieval, a dive accident analysis was carried out to determine what went wrong. According to a forensic analysis of the equipment, there were no failures or obvious causes for the disaster.

After the accident test, it was revealed that all regulators, valves, and tanks were in good working condition. The tanks had no liquid in them. The Seacraft EPV (Emergency Purge Valve) was completely operational and had a battery life of 73 percent. The victim dove into the cave with equipment that was adequate, including all required safety gear. The diver was found to be using side-mounted cylinders along with a second-stage tank filled with 32 percent nitrox and a deco tank of oxygen that was left at the entry. He dived in Cenote Vaca Ha while using a DPV for speed.

Final Reflections

In summary, solo cave diving is a heavily debated subject. It means not having a companion or backup brain to support you in an emergency or difficulty. Also, this is diving without getting a second or a third opinion during the dive’s preparation or implementation. But locals frequently do so, particularly when navigating tiny cave channels. It is possible to question if solo cave diving enhances or lessens dangers, given the particular type of cave. Who knows with certainty what transpired during the dive? All the details we knew for sure were the victim’s starting point, the finishing point, maximum depth, average depth, and the moment the victim ran out of gas.

We have a general idea of the diver’s location and path. What specifically occurred during the victim’s final dive, one may only offer conjecture and draw logical conclusions. Most likely, a factor was becoming incredibly comfortable in an atmosphere that is often highly uncomfortable and harsh. Other potential contributing variables included solo diving, intricate navigation, exploration, the use of a DPV, recalculating gas ranges, and penetration. However, as was already said, this is at best an assumption.

What we do know is that scuba diving with a restricted gas supply in water-filled tunnels may be a very harsh and hazardous activity. The diver can make one deadly error or numerous lesser ones.

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What happened to the diver in Cenote Vaca Ha?

The diver went missing during a cave dive in Cenote Vaca Ha and was later found deceased.

How experienced was the diver?

The diver was a seasoned cave diver with approximately 470 cave dives before the incident.

How was the diver discovered?

The search and recovery team found the diver about 700 feet from the cave entrance, on the cave side of a restriction.

Was there any equipment failure?

No, a forensic analysis revealed that the diver’s equipment was in good working condition with no obvious failures.

What are the risks of solo cave diving?

Solo cave diving is debated due to the lack of a companion for support during emergencies. It can increase risks, especially in complex cave systems.

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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