Tortuga, the Cave of Surprises.    

(click here to go to the main Tortuga page on this website with a lot more pictures)

This cave starts as a small pool of water in the middle of the jungle. Actually, this cave really starts in a local town where you have to find a special house, knock on the door and ask for “llave por Vaca-Ha y Tortuga” – the key to the gates that guard the jungle road. 

The family that owns the caves (both Vaca-Ha and Tortuga are on the same jungle road) is very rarely home and getting the key in the past proved difficult and some people tried for weeks without success. On our previous trip, we lucked out on the first try, got the key and did both Vaca-Ha and Tortuga on the same day. I loved both caves but felt that they deserved a day each to enjoy them. Surfacing in the dark and having to drive the jungle road with the dry suits on chased by hungry mosquitoes was, while certainly memorable, not one of my favorite experiences.

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This year, we started with Tortuga. Actually, we started back in the little town where I knocked on the door expecting nothing and got a live person.  Miracle, we were in business! Even more miraculous was the fact that the “llave” was broken and we would not need it to return to dive Vaca-Ha as we could just leave money under the door in case there was no one home. The gates were marked by the sign on the highway and instead of lock, there was a garbage bag tying the ends of the metal chain together. Having let ourselves in, we drove to the end of the road to Tortuga and set up the gear. Similarly to Vaca-Ha, the entrance of the cave is narrow, but it opens right up.

In both Vaca-Ha and Tortuga, the line starts right in the open water. Within a few feet of the entrance in Tortuga, there is a T in the line with the left branch of the T going deeper to the saltwater zone and the right branch staying shallower in the freshwater zone.

That line configuration was ideal for rebreathers diving – we could explore the saltwater left branch first knowing that at 80 ft depth, we may incur some deco and then come back to the T (which was close to exit) and go right at the T, exploring shallower freshwater zone and decompressing at the same time. By the time we’d return to original T, we would have no decompression and we’d never be too far from the entrance to safely bailout onto the four AL80’s that we were carrying with us.

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We reached the first T and took off into the deeper saltwater passage. Similarly to other salt-water passages, the walls were bleached white and had a typical “swiss cheese” appearance. Unlike some other caves, the passages were a bit tighter and had a definite river shape to them. Some passages were wide and low, some were narrow and tall, but all had the signs of how water had shaped them. Depending on the depth and halocline, the ceilings were either white (all salt water) or yellow and brown (fresh and tannic water influences). I loved that part of the cave, but the best was yet to come.

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After a bit of swimming, we hit another T that was not on my map. Taking the left branch soon led us to a passage with the restrictions ahead and I realized that on my map that T was a jump. I did not want to go through the restriction, so we turned around and retraced our route back to the second T and went to the right. After a while, we turned back and returned to the original T and the fresh water passage. 

Immediately, the cave exploded into wide open decorated spaces. The amount of open space was astounding after the smaller passages in the salt water zone. I noticed that my light did not reach as far as usual and realized that the visibility was not the best and later understood why.

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The formations in both Tortuga and Vaca-Ha were yellow colored, very unique compared to other caves. It was during the dive at Tortuga that I realized how the yellow color came about – the upper layer of water was tannic, creating surreal effects for the photography and reducing visibility.

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Shooting the formations, playing with the tannic layer effects, we soon came to yet another T, marked our exit direction and decided to go right. Immediately, the cave character changed yet again and we were suddenly swimming in the very dark and gloomy passage, shaped much like the salt water one. The color and the darkness and the monotone of that passage did not give me a warm and fuzzy feelings and I soon decided to go back.

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We got back to the T and followed the other branch, encountering some brown colored decorations along the way. That cave was full of surprises.

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Eventually, we ran out of room on our digital card and seeing that it was getting close to 3 hrs underwater, we made our way back to the entrance. The total time was 3:15 mins but the memories of that dive would last for a while, especially looking at the pictures.

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