20 Mar Submerged: Grappling with Imaginary Monsters
I could see the bottom of the pool, but only where the light shone through the natural ceiling. The column of sun pierced through the surface of the water, illumining massive slabs of rock piled at the bottom, twenty feet from the surface, with fish weaving through gaps in the stone. Darkness encroached on all sides, coupled with the bedrock surrounding me. I could feel my heart racing as I tried to peer through the murk into the rest of the pool. The black water remained impenetrable, teeming with imagined monstrosities. All I could muster was a grimace.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Mexico during December. While the experience was culturally revealing, I also had the opportunity to confront some personal fears. Of course, there’s the blank stare resulting from language barriers, but there are also more visceral fears. Staring down a sinkhole? It’ll get the blood flowing. Climbing straight down into the sinkhole? Pulse soars. Plunging into a hidden lake within the sinkhole? This is the only result I could imagine.
“Cenotes,” the Maya term for the aforementioned sinkholes, are characteristic of Mexico, and particularly the Yucatan Peninsula and around the Chicxulub crater (the impact site of the meteorite that likely extinguished the dinosaurs). The sinkholes result from the collapse of limestone bedrock, exposing large pools of groundwater. The water is often impeccably clear, as these pools are simply surface connections to subterranean bodies of water that accumulate through rain water filtration. The cenotes are often connected through underground channels to other cenotes, creating extensively linked cave systems that are still being explored and mapped.
Enter my imagination and my fears.
I know it’s relatively irrational to believe in cave and river monsters. But staring into a pool of dark water connected to dozens of miles of unmapped caverns leaves a little room for doubt. Combined with an active imagination, moderately embarrassing fear of total darkness (and, naturally, caves), and fear of seeing things swimming beneath me (fish, crabs, or even seaweed being pulled by the current), my grimace turned into a shiver.
While I wrapped my arms around myself and quaked, I watched children climbing the walls of the cavern. One particularly enthusiastic boy had managed to cross several small gaps in the bedrock to reach a natural ledge. Perched a solid fifteen to twenty feet above the surface of the pool, he shouted to his friends and without hesitation cannonballed straight into the darkness. Moments later he surfaced, unscathed and without jaws attached to his legs. His friends cheered and I chided myself: twenty-three and terrified of doing half of what this impetuous kid didn’t think twice about.
I took another look into the pool, watching fish dart through the column of light, disappearing again into the murk. I felt the shiver rippling through my shoulders again. Images flashed through my mind: glinting jaws, serpentine coils, and finally only darkness. But through the darkness cut a column of light. Oh what the hell. So in I plunged.