Underwater Cave Survey in Quintana Roo Mexico Quintana Roo Speleological Survey

Cave Maps and Karst Aquifers
Cave Zones, Underground Rivers, or a Coastal Aquifer Zone?

last updated 14 January, 2023


The State of Quintana Roo is home to many of the longest underwater caves in the world. Current explorations in northeast Quintana Roo reveal a growing complexity of horizontal underwater cave development within  a coastal zone. This zone extends 12 to 14 kilometers into the jungle while enjoying a companionship with numerous dry caves as well. We document coastal caves that underlie a complex array of tourist resorts and smal towns. These areas present  the highest concentration of permanent inhabitants for the region. The Municipality of Tulum serves as a guardian for the greater share of this cave-rich coastal zone. Over 1200 kilometers of dry and underwater cave passage is found beneath the municipal capital of Tulum.

QRSS maintains a large archive of speleological studies that documents sensitive and largely undocumented aquifer characteristics for this region. We find a concentrated zone of underwater cave networks and a series of widespread freshwater discharge centers on the coast. These networks trace inland towards an interior frontier of lagunas that are associated with the Holbox Fracture Zone. The coastal band of cave systems contains a broad complex of convoluted cave passages that are punctuated by collapsed underwater cave entrances known as cenotes. These underwater tunnels allow explorers to survey and observe a very small portion of a fragile aquifer that saturates the limestone strata of northeastern Quintana Roo.

We have come to know these caves as a shallow fresh water drainage conduits that participate in moving large volumes of inland precipitation towards the Caribbean Sea. This singular freshwater aquifer guarantees the vitality of coastal jungle ecosystems while guaranteeing the social and economic success of the peoples of northeastern Quintana Roo. This same aquifer sustains the biological life and ecology of the second longest barrier reef ecosystem in the world.

A Preliminary View of Known Cave Zones near the City of Tulum

Tulum Cave Regions 2011

Credit to Google Earth Maps: A Red outline defines known cave zones. Note proximity of proposed airport runways to known cave zones.

Underwater caves in Quintana Roo are often surveyed to meet the needs of the exploration teams. Many of these cave surveys create a fairly accurate, yet simple line plot. Line plots, or "stick maps" are valuable tools for trained cave divers and speleologists. These plots fail to clearly communicate basic aquifer and cave characteristics to inexperienced cave plot users. Plots of this type can be used to convey misleading information about the aquifer to a casual user. Conduit shape, room dimensions, aquifer details, anthropological sites, openings to the jungle surface, connections to dry cave sumps, and important speleological details are simply not documented through "stick maps".

Sensitive information, such as significant anthropological objects or cave entrances on private properties should not be shared with the general public. Yet regional planners, government officials, and the public require reasonable, unbiased information to make educated decisions in how best to plan for future interactions with the aquifer and karst region of Quintana Roo. As responsible explorers we must find a responsible middle ground to describe the known areas of a sensitive aquifer.

Line or survey plots for caves in this region are made available to State, Federal, and local agencies since 1995. These surveys were superimposed on topographic maps, aerial photographs, and eventually on Google Maps. We find and label sensitive cave areas to guide future local and regional planning. Regional planners in Quintana Roo are not cave explorers or speleologists. State and Federal politicians cannot be expected to be knowledgeable hydrologists. Without the advice and close support of unbiased speleologists local planners and politicians will have difficulties in interpreting token data and information presented by crude line plots.

Unfortunately, speleological experts may impart a casual interpretation of aquifer and cave characteristics to meet their own agenda. QRSS would like to present a different view of cave zones, or cave "footprint" view for the public. We compute these images from real-time cave survey data. The cave data is buffered by 250 meters to include smaller passage that cave divers cannot report in their line plots. Scientific literature appears to support a 300 meter buffer to a central cave line plot.

QRSS supports responsible regional planning that conserves both regional aquifer purity and terrestrial ecologies. These are easily compromised by irresponsible or mismanaged actions. Requests for our collaboration with regional planning and cave documentation doubled since 2010. QRSS collaborates with all parties interested in preserving the caves and fresh water aquifer of Quintana Roo.


Updates and corrections are welcome: chac<at>consolidated.net

QRSS, 2000-2023