Expert divers eager to explore can’t make it down passageway
SANTA ROSA – Santa Rosa’s Blue Hole isn’t ready to give up its secrets.
A weeklong exploration meant to probe the underwater caverns yielded mostly just frustration for some of the country’s best cave divers, who removed a protective grate on Saturday only to find old passageways choked with small boulders and silt.
Even for expert divers from the ADM Exploration Foundation, the entry to the cave system was considered too narrow and unsafe to traverse, so divers only went a few feet into the passageway and spent the next several days enjoying the town and pondering what might have been.
“Ain’t nobody getting in there. They’d be out of their minds,” ADM President Curt Bowen said on Saturday, after he and a team of divers removed a long “snorkel” pipe covering the 1970s-vintage grate and stared into the narrow, black hole about 91 feet below the surface of the cenote.
“We can’t get in that cave. There are four tons of rocks on (the grate),” Bowen said. “You aren’t going to get in that cave without dredging for a month.”
The seven-day visit was a reconnaissance mission for the ADM team, which hoped to update a crude map of the caves that New Mexico State Police divers produced after they recovered the bodies of two divers lost there in 1976. City of Santa Rosa officials enthusiastically supported the project, hoping to get a better understanding of the local aquifer and draw attention to the community’s biggest tourist attraction. If all had gone well, ADM and its video documentary team hoped to return for a more extensive exploration in the future. But for now, it appears that Blue Hole’s secrets will remain buried for a very long time.
Based on the 1976 exploration, city officials had hoped the crews could go beyond a series of upper chambers and beyond a never-explored opening said to be at the 225 foot mark.
But before the first recon dives, Bowen expressed skepticism and tried to tamp down expectations, saying that for every 100 underwater caves his crews scout, only about two of them pan out.
“This is not one of the two,” he declared by mid-morning Saturday.
Divers described finding silt, tire-sized rocks and larger boulders blocking the passageway once mapped by the State Police divers. They said they were enticed by peering into narrow crevices that did appear to lead down into the depths.
But with the passages so narrow, it was not considered safe, said lead diver Brett Hemphill, who joked that he had too many burritos to go into the caves.
“If I was a little bit skinnier, I would have gone in,” Hemphill joked, saying the passage was so narrow that nobody wearing dive equipment could get in. “If I was naked, I’d scrape myself up,” he said.
Even so, he said the thought of going into the deepest chambers and beyond remained “tantalizing” – so much so that he even ordered a sledgehammer and a chisel to take underwater in an attempt to make the opening slightly wider.
“There’s still a cave system down there. We just can’t get to it,” Bowen said.