Sidemount course at Protec Tulum

After a lot of silence on this blog I felt like adding a new story. Two months ago Saskia and I did a last-minute sidemount course in Tulum. And it was awesome 🙂

Sidemount course at Protec Tulum


Being annoyed by the dark, wet and cold weather of the last two months Saskia and I decided we could use some sun. The Dominican Republic came up first, but a lack of experience in side mount diving would prevent access to a lot of cool caves. To get a flying start and get our gear properly sorted we decided to book a course in Mexico. The caves there are a brilliant training area as they are warm, shallow, clear and infinitely numerous. Also, a lot of experienced instructors can be found in the area.

Within 48 hours of the initial idea, we had booked flights, a course, and accommodation. In three weeks we’d get our sun 🙂

We left Brussels airport on another cold and rainy Saturday morning and, after the usual stress of checking in and lots of waiting, departed in our new and shiny TUIfly 787 Dreamliner. 16:00h Mexico time we touched down at Cancun, took 2 buses traveling along the 304 highway with a short stop at Playa del Carmen and by 21:30h checked in at our hotel. Finally, bedtime!

Unlike any diving holiday before we had a day off before our course started. Now what?! 🙂 So with no real plan we had breakfast, bought some fruit and nuts as lunch at the local supermarket and took our bikes to the beach. Yes, bikes! Because no car was needed for the first week, we decided to not get a car in Cancun this time but travel by bus and bike until we needed a car for our diving after the course.

The bikes had seen their fair share of (ab)use but brought us safely to the Tulum public beach – 5km from Tulum center. Enjoying a bit of sun and sea at one of the world’s most beautiful beaches never gets old. But enjoying that view from a proper chair, with a cold beer makes life even better, so we relocated from our beach towel to the nearby beach club. Pelicans were hunting for fish in the surf, a vulture circled over the jungle looking for a meal and we just relaxed. Nice!

Day 1: Gear and cenote Carwash

The next day we checked in at Protec Tulum dive center and met our instructor Kim Davidsson. As an active explorer in the Tulum area, he’d learned his fair share about sidemount cave diving and the next 5 days we’d try and learn as much as possible from him. But – after grabbing a large mug of coffee – we went into the classroom. After paperwork, ‘sign your life away’-forms and obligatory talks about safety and risk management, we started setting up our gear.

Saskia already did some dives in her harness, but mine was brand new. Both needed a lot of adjustment though. The Diamond sidemount harness has a lot of parts that are ‘optional’ and therefore had to go 😉 ‘Don’t bring what you don’t need!’ A couple of hours later we ended up with two streamlined pieces of kit, and a whole bunch of no longer needed hardware. Next up were the regulators. As we’d start the training using a longhose to prepare for mixed team diving, not really a lot changed from the normal back mount setup. One short bungeed regulator from the left tank and the longhose, partially tucked away under the tank bungees, on the right tank. Donating is a 50/50 chance if it’s from the mouth or the shoulder D-ring. ‘Always know what you are breathing!’. Another one-liner to remember. We grabbed some tanks from the well-stocked compressor room and put everything in Kims Toyota Hilux. By four o’clock we were finally ready for some diving. Onwards to Cenote Aktun-Ha a.k.a. Carwash, just outside Tulum on the Coba road.

Cenote Carwash was where we started our initial cave diving training in 2013, so it’s always a nice place to come back to. A beautiful green pool of water in the jungle just next to the road offers swimming pool like conditions, ideal for training. By the time we hit the water, the caretaker just left, but we agreed to close the gate when we left. It was going to be a long day… The dive started with a briefing and after a quick check to see if there were any leaks (yes: always spg swivels!) and a balance check. Surprisingly everything worked and fit perfectly. 15 dives of trying all kinds of well-meant tips and tricks resulted in a ill-fitting and hard to handle kit. Now it was smooth and streamlined. Tanks clipped on easily and were nice and horizontal in the water. As Kim called it: ‘be like a ninja!’

Next up: fin kicks: (modified) frogkick, (modified) flutter, helicopter, back-kick… until Saskia gestured to look behind me and showing two hands with the palms flat on top of each other and opening and closing them. It took a second or two to register: Crocodile! AWESOME! 🙂 We knew he lived here, but being quite shy he always hides during opening hours. Being this late in the water he came out of hiding and leisurely swam by us. At about a meter long he’s not really anything to be afraid of, but a bit of respect is always better than missing some fingers. Kim got a nice shot with his GoPro. The croc made our technique look silly. Bastard.



After some gas sharing drills, we ended the dive after about 90 minutes and drove back to the dive shop. A video debrief followed where every detail about the last 5% of not perfectly adjusted kit was addressed. And once again that croc made our fin kicks look pathetic. At around 2030h – a 12 hour day – we were ‘dismissed’ to have dinner. A quick meal followed, the dive was logged and we crashed once again into our hotel bed. This was going to a week of hard work.

Day 2: Cenote Mayan Blue

We started off again with some more theory and discussions and a bit of fiddling with our kit. When done the three of us headed for cenote Mayan Blue. The first dive was an open water session with lots of blindfolded touch-contact, touch-and-go training and gas sharing. All the gear now was where it was supposed to be, so time to go for a real cave dive. The second dive we went to ‘Hostage Hall’. Being a bit deeper we were happy to just reach the hall when having to turn on gas limits. The exit – as always – is littered with failures. Bubbling valves and regulators and broken masks pop up randomly when Kim is around. All failures were dealt with and the dive ended with a debrief and some lessons learned.


Day 3: Cenote Zacil-Ha

Just after cenote Carwash is the gate to Zacil-Ha. Cenote Zacil Ha, part of the Carwash cave system, is something different from most other cenotes. This place used to be a tiny mud hole but was dug out to a much bigger pool. Decks were built, palapa’s added to provide some shade and a restaurant/bar separated the cenote from another couple of swimming pools. Cabins were built and are available for rent through AirBnB.

The first dive we went to the end of the mainline. Through Ariana’s room, we came into Cellblock where things got tiny and brittle. We’d tried to come this far in backmount once, but this time it went a lot easier. On the way out there was of course more training and about an hour and a half after entering the cave, we were back in the cenote and had lunch.

The second dive we took the hidden jump into the Room of tears. Although the jump is hidden, the amount of damage around the hole just left of the mainline is a horribly big white sign of where you need to go. I put in the jump spool and Saskia followed right behind me. From there we passed the beautiful decorations in the chamber after which this section got its name. Tiny, glass-like soda straws all over and massive stalactites/mites forming a big mirror calcite forest. A little bit of tannins in the water added a bit of mist in the top layer, adding to the atmosphere. We continued until the next line T, went left and immediately jumped again to the Dreamland section. Here the cave became a lot shallower, more silty and darker. The water was colored dark brown by the ingress of rotting leaves above us on the jungle floor, making the water like strong tea. Another jump to the right turned us in the direction of a small cenote near Adriana’s room, which we saw on the first dive. But just before reaching the end of the line, I’d had to call the dive on reaching turn pressure.

Because this section is very little visited a lot of percolation, disturbed by our exhaust bubbles, had started raining from the ceiling. A perfect combination of dark water, silt and percolation caused near zero visibility. And that my friends, is why we train blindfolded exits! Slowly and careful not to stir up more silt we headed towards the exit by using the guideline to keep us on track. After about 20 meters we were back in better conditions and picked up our normal pace again. The swim out was pretty uneventful and we enjoyed the beautiful cave as we went back to the cenote. Another cool day of diving.

Day 4: Cenote Mayan Blue

On the fourth day of training we changed from a ‘mixed team’ configuration – in which diving in a team of back mount divers is possible while maintaining standard procedures – we now switched to ‘advanced sidemount’ configuration. More streamlined, short hoses are used, as we don’t plan on sharing gas (but can switch out a tank with a buddy when needed). Sharing gas from a longhose would be the default option in backmount cave diving – however, when diving in small caves you’re basically diving solo when it comes to gas. Your buddy might not be able to turn around and help you within the next couple of minutes, so you are expected to be fully self-reliant. Having two fully independent tanks and regulators – both with always enough gas to bring you safely to the surface. Also a helmet is added to protect your head from low ceilings, but more importantly – to be able to temporarily put the light away and have both hands free for other things.

We spent a solid three hours in the cenote doing blindfolded circuits, tank swapping, no mount swim troughs, breathing from a bare tank valve, swapping regulators while breathing from them… Basically doing enough stuff at the edge of the comfort zone to make yourself more comfortable in the water and train to solve any mess you might encounter and have a spare bit of brain capacity left to keep yourself orientated. As multiple failures came simultaneously the lesson was in which sequence to solve them. A gas leak is far more important to immediately resolve than a loose hanging tank – no matter which problem came first. Fun day again! Just one more remaining.


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Day 5: Cenote Grande

On the final day of the course, we were going downstream at Cenote Grande. In the previous years, we’ve spent many hours diving the Sac Actun upstream section from cenote Grande. Large, white passageways are a trademark of that section of caves. Downstream it’s a bit different. The cave starts pretty large, but immediately is characterized by a silty black bottom and dark stalactites. Further on, after the first T, at cenote Snake, the cave becomes tight and twisty. The first dive went to the left: small cave, with a couple of restrictions and coming to an end after another 10-15 minutes. A one-tank-off restriction fitted with two tanks on, but it wasn’t pretty. Kim showed how it could have been done and the exit through the same restriction went like a ninja with one tank in front of us 😉 More blindfolded swimming and failures followed of course.

The second dive went to the right at Snake cenote in the direction of cenotes Four doors. These cenotes popped up one after another with the last at 40 minutes runtime. They provided a nice emergency exit in case the flow would be too strong to swim back all the way to the exit. Being tight downstream cave and having had pretty wet conditions in last weeks, the flow was quite strong in this section, so I turned the dive a bit earlier than strictly necessary, knowing there would be a lot of extra effort getting out and some more time spend on blind exit – and not wanting to do a ‘walk of shame’ from one of the earlier cenotes.


On the way in I put markers on the line just after the two one-tank-off restrictions, so on our way out we’d be able to recognize them by touch. That might come in handy knowing how much blindfolded stuff we were doing 😉 A lot of time was lost in a ‘let’s wait for each other to do nothing’ situation and as Kim had removed one of those cookies Saskia got confused a bit and swam into a restriction with both tanks still on.. With a bit of a wiggle that fitted and on we went. Vertical cracks in which one has to swim sideways are a bit of a puzzle as well it turned out.


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Just before the exit, the blindfolds came back on and with Saskia in the lead we found the reel to be cut (!). So much for our easy exit. After a while of trying to figure out what happened (a spool was added causing some extra chaos) we grabbed a safety spool and made an educated guess towards the surface. Following the cave floor upward and a bit to the left turned out to be exactly spot on and so we arrived back in cenote Grande. Yay! Lived to dive another day 😉

This dive concluded our course and, after a firm handshake from Kim, we were given the green light to ‘go and explore’ (and be like a ninja!). As we had a couple of days left, we dived Xulo, Caterpillar, Kan Ha, Kalimba and Chan Hol, before going home.

~ door ehoogma op mei 1, 2018.

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