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  Field Notes From
Maya Water World

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Maya Water World On AssignmentArrows

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Wes Skiles

Maya Water World On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Author

Priit J. Vesilind

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and Jodi Cobb


Maya Water World

Field Notes From Photographer
Wes Skiles

Best Worst Quirkiest
    The governor of Yucatán state, with his entourage, decided to pay a personal visit to our main worksite. He was stunned at our accomplishments and asked if there was anything he could do. So I asked for a helicopter, and he obliged.
    Our goal was to circumnavigate the impact ring left by the meteorite crater and look for sites we would otherwise not have been able to find in the inhospitable jungle. The flight path took us out over the ocean, and that's when we discovered a series of freshwater fountains, openings in the sea bottom where huge amounts of water churn out of the Earth. So we stopped the inland expedition and headed for the beach to dive.
    About a half mile (one kilometer) offshore, we managed to squeeze down through one of the holes and discovered a cave system beneath the seafloor. The network was unique, the first of its kind to be found in the region. We even discovered new life-forms. The passageways near the entrance were only about 18-inches (46-centimeters) high, so I had to measure my camera and my partner, Tom, to see if they would fit. We got some really dramatic images.

    One of our biggest challenges was lighting the dark subterranean world of the cenotes. We used two monster strobes that we affectionately called the "great balls of fire" or GBFs. They're dangerous and must be handled with great care. An accidental flash directly in the eyes or a short circuit of 60,000 volts from flooding can potentially cause devastating results.
    While I made the big room picture on the
opening spread, biologist Tom Morris discovered that his GBF was flooding and coming dangerously close to making contact with the capacitor and its circuits. Not good. We quickly—and carefully—raised the GBF out of the water with ropes. It was like watching the New Year's Eve ball go up in Times Square. But we were in a cave, and the GBF was a potential bomb.
    On the surface Scott Shepard, our electronics wizard, disarmed the bomb by taking it apart and discharging the capacitors with a crude yet effective resistor. It let out a loud crack, and we all thought Shep had gotten electrocuted, but he just laughed and went about his work. In the end we were able to find the problem, fix the strobe, and get the shot.

    We discovered a cenote that had been a major funerary site. We went down and found 115 skulls lying on the floor of this giant cavern, and there were probably many more beneath the silt. Next to the hole, we also found a maintained altar where local Maya visit and leave little symbols, statues, flowers, and burning candles.
    I was looking for a place to string up my hammock for the night. The only way to do it was to tie one end to a tree hanging right over the hole and the other to a pole next to the Maya altar. Everybody thought I was nuts, but it was magical being suspended over this giant chamber of the dead watching candlelight cast shadows into the treetops above. I had a wonderful night's sleep.

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