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 01 January, 2014


The State of Quintana Roo is home to many of the longest underwater caves in the world. Current explorations in northeast Quintana Roo reveal an growing complexity of horizontal underwater cave development within  a coastal zone that extends 12 kilometers into the jungle. This coastal cave zone underlies elaborate tourist resorts, growing cities and towns, and the highest concentration of permanent inhabitants for the region. The Municipality of Tulum serves as a guardian for the greatest share of this cave-rich coastal zone. Over 808 kilometers of underwater cave passage encircles the municipal capital of Tulum. QRSS maintains a large speleological archive that documents a sensitive and largely unexplored aquifer for this region. We find a zone concentrated zone of underwater cave networks begins with 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 an broad complex of elaborate cave passages that are punctuated by collapsed underwater cave entrances known as cenotes. Their 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 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, and the social and economic success of the peoples of northeastern Quintana Roo. This very 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 normally 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 however fail to clearly communicate basic aquifer and cave characteristics to inexperienced cave plot users. Plots of this type can also 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. Today's karst explorers in Quintana Roo must find a responsible middle ground to describe known areas of a sensitive aquifer.

Line plots for certain caves in this region were made available to State, Federal, and local agencies since 1995. Plots were superimposed on topographic maps and aerial photographs by 1999, labeling sensitive cave areas and landfill sites to guide future local and regional planning. In retrospect, this approach has been an unproductive effort for many reasons. 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 an unbiased speleologist, planners and politicians have difficulties in interpreting token information by crude line plots.

Regional planners, politicians, and the general public require useful information. and basic type of map. We should refine token information to include casual, and most importantly highly concerned local users maps cannot  be mislead by their token information.

  If planners and politicians are confused  is lost for the public, should caves be encountered in regional planning.

Unfortunately, speleological experts can impart a casual interpretation of aquifer and cave characteristics to meet their own agenda. QRSS is presenting a 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 what 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 during 2010. We expect the same requests to double for 2011.


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

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