Exploration: Gentlemen, Start Your Regulators

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Exploration: Gentlemen, Start Your Regulators

In perhaps the most contentious race ever held beneath the earth's surface, two teams rush to claim the world's largest underwater cave system
By Dave Plank

On Saturday, June 15, the moment that 43-year-old cave diver Buddy Quattlebaum had been eagerly anticipating finally arrived. For more than a week, his team of 43 aquanauts had been shimmying through a dozen interconnected limestone caverns beneath Mexico's Yucat¤n Peninsula, diligently laying thousands of feet of guideline to mark where they'd been. Then the crew reached its goal: It had laid 162,000 feet of line, which meant that their cave system, Dos Ojos, was now the largest in the world.

It was a big relief, but as everyone on Quattlebaum's elated yet exhausted crew knew, the real race was about to begin. For virtually right next door lay another flooded cave system, called Nohoch Nah Chich, which had long been explored by 41-year-old cave diver Mike Madden and which since 1992 has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest. Years ago, working independently, both Madden and Quattlebaum came to the conclusion that the two systems are likely one-that somewhere, a passage exists that links Dos Ojos to Nohoch. And though this may not mean much to the layman, to the men leading the rival expeditions it means everything. Because when the connection between the two systems is finally found, the entire shebang will go into the record book under one name: the name belonging to whichever system is larger when the link is discovered. Or, as they say in the trade, big cave eats little cave.

It is this unavoidable reality that has transformed their earnest, intrepid reconnaissance into the bitter fracas currently unfolding within the planet's bowels. Like a pair of undefeated prizefighters, Madden and Quattlebaum now stand toe to toe, with an all-too-certain outcome: For one, official recognition for years of backbreaking work will soon go down the drain.

With Madden, a onetime elite sky diver who turned to scuba only after shattering an ankle in a 1979 landing accident, the seeds of this race were sown back in November 1987. Deep in a jungle about halfway between Canc÷n and the Mayan ruins at Tulum, he stumbled upon the cenote, or sinkhole, that would serve as the entrance to the Nohoch system. The next day, he returned to the site with two other divers and found a complex network of passages opening into giant rooms dotted with exquisite rock formations. Because the system is unusually shallow (it averages 25 to 35 feet), the explorers could spend hours poking around inside without having to set aside time for decompression. "It immediately became a labor of love," reflects Madden. "It was this wonderful thing that you could just chip away at over the years." By the end of 1995, he had explored more than 140,000 feet of cave, earning himself both the spot in Guinness and a healthy income guiding snorkelers and divers into the threshold of the Nohoch system.

In the meantime, Quattlebaum-an accomplished diver who moved to the Yucat¤n in 1989 to work with a sea-turtle preservation project-began mapping Dos Ojos, reached through a cenote just three miles away. With his friend Steve Gerrard, a longtime scuba instructor and guide, Quattlebaum spent every spare moment pursuing his passion, undertaking arduous two- and three-tank dives through the frustratingly complex maze and methodically taking notes to create a computer-generated schematic of the system. Then, in June 1995, it became clear that Dos Ojos had record-breaking possibilities. "A project of this nature doesn't happen too often," explains Gerrard. "This cave system just keeps giving and giving."

And so the race had begun-and as a result, the normally painstaking process took on a sense of urgency. "The competition was a healthy thing," says Michael Menduno, former editor of the now-defunct technical diving journal aquaCorps, who has worked with Quattlebaum at Dos Ojos. "If it weren't for that, it might have taken ten more years to explore these caves."

Nonetheless, things soon began to turn ugly. On January 21, Quattlebaum and Gerrard issued a press release stating that the long-awaited link had been found, a claim that turned out not to withstand independent scrutiny. (What they had "discovered" were two cenotes, one belonging to each system, a few hundred feet apart but not connected underground.) Madden took a crew to the site of the supposed link and found himself perplexed. "I had been there two years before and didn't really see anything," says Madden. "It was just a cheap publicity stunt, an attempt to take credit for years of good work by other divers." Then the battle got downright ridiculous. Quattlebaum tried to have Madden charged with trespassing for attempting to explore the "link." Madden responded by saying he had a handful of letters from locals demanding that Quattlebaum and his cohorts pack up and leave. And so on.

By the beginning of July, however, the bickering had subsided--and the race had heated back up. While at press time it's anyone's guess when the true link will be found, both sides say they will focus on finding the connection and let the chips fall where they may. "We're still going like a freight train down here," says Gerrard. "Big cave eats little cave is on everyone's mind."

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