Around 66 million years ago, a 15km-wide asteroid smashed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and is believed to have wiped out almost all the dinosaurs. The impact caused a megatsunami, liquified billions of tonnes of rock and created a 200km-wide crater in the Earth’s surface into which water seeped, creating thousands of sinkholes. Over millennia, some of these limestone sinkholes collapsed while others in the region eroded, forming vast networks of flooded cave systems.
Known as cenotes, these underground water reservoirs were more than just life-sustaining water sources for the Maya civilisation’s settlements; they were also believed to be sacred portals through which they could communicate with the gods of rain and creation. As such, the Maya routinely cast human sacrifices, gold plaques and bowls brimming with jade beads into the wells’ cavernous depths as offerings. Through these deep sinkholes, the deceased were thought to pass into the dark and treacherous underworld of Xibalba, where humans and deities were reborn.
Today, while cenotes still provide 95% of the drinking water for much of the local population, visitors from around the world flock to the Yucatan Peninsula’s Riviera Maya to bathe, snorkel and scuba dive in their aquamarine pools. Their cathedral-like roofs and mineral-rich waters have become some of the most popular natural attractions in the region. Yet, thousands of cenotes still lay hidden many metres below the region’s lush jungle, and researchers believe these submerged labyrinths may contain valuable clues that help connect the Maya’s mysterious past to the present.
In fact, several years ago divers discovered one of the oldest human skeletons ever found in the New World, which revealed insights into the origin of the Americas. And just last year, the cavern where this skeleton was discovered was found to be a small part of one of the world’s longest cave networks: the 348km-long Sistema Sac Atun.
Now, a team of scuba divers, photographers, archaeologists and computer graphics experts is venturing into dozens of unexplored cenotes in the Riviera Maya. The goal is to capture images of their interiors and transform them into immersive 3D visuals so that people can virtually “explore” the caves from their homes.
Known as the Wonderland Project, the effort involves diving with head torches to access and document some of the deepest and most remote cenotes that have never been open to the public. Eventually, this footage will be published online and anyone around the world with a 3D-enabled computer, VR headset or VR mobile adaptation will be able to virtually explore the caves and discover whatever ancient mysteries they may hold – from ancient fossils to bones to precious Maya artefacts.