THE GREEN EXPEDITION - 8/1/2000

Afonso Pinheiro, Jr., Director of IANTD Brazil, sponsored my wife Debra and I to visit this beautiful country for an Instructor Institute. After an eight-hour plane ride, crossing over the equator, we landed in the fifth-largest city in the world, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Afonso and his girlfriend, Denise Bueno, picked us up in Sao Paulo for the start of our journey. Our flight was pleasant, and the Brazilian coffee waiting for us at the airport was so strong that we didn't need any other help to wake us up. We later found out that the airport coffee was only a small dosage of how strong they drink it, just enough to break you in and not scare you away.

Bonito, which means beautiful in Portuguese, has another meaning for us as well, Cave City. With over 80 caves, both wet and dry, centrally located around Bonito, it's easy to see how it gets its name. The remote area also receives tourism because of the abundance of exotic wildlife, waterfalls, rappelling, horses, and rafting. It is located in central western Brazil, at the south of Pantanal, in Mato Grosso du Sul State.

Afonso gave us the opportunity to see as much of the country as possible. We landed in Sao Paulo and would travel across the country 1200 kilometers to Bonito. We could have taken a hopper flight to Campo Grande that would have put us much closer to our destination, but we were there for an adventure. The traverse through the city was quite an experience. We saw everything from high dollar skyscrapers to people with small fires and huts underneath the bridges. It took us a couple hours to get out of this huge city. For our first authentic meal, we had lunch at Rodoserv Restaurant, a very nice bistro style diner. I quickly learned my lesson here about the translation of the language. I thought that I was asking for extra pimento peppers, when what I really ordered was an extra serving of "tree". The translation dictionary was in my hands from then on.

The roads were very good for travel at the beginning of our journey. I didn't know quite what to expect, but for the most part, we were able to travel as fast as a Ford pick-up could considering we had four adults in the front seat. In the back we hauled a compressor, five sets of doubles, and at least fifteen stage bottles, our dive and survival gear for the next couple of weeks. We passed many federal roadblocks and checkpoints. This made it very evident that Bolivia and Columbia is close by. Fortunately, we had no problems in passing through. Brazil has stepped up its security to try and stop the trafficking of cocaine from coming through their country. The United States has sent our troops there to help train the Brazilian Army. A lot of their training was done at "Lagoa Misteriosa", also known as Mysterious Lagoon. They practiced rappelling from the high cliffs into the deep lagoon. This site turned out to be one of the highlights of the journey. After reading so much about Gilbert Menezes explorations here, I felt very privileged to be able to dive it.

After about 12 hours of driving the first day, it was now time for our first night in Brazil. We stayed at a couple of Afonso's close friends house, Silvio and Mari's. Their hospitality was very much appreciated. Refreshed the next morning, we got an early start for the rest of our travel. We would arrive the next evening at Pousada Figueira, the farmhouse that would become our home for the next two weeks. The facilities are very clean, and the farmhands are very attentive. We were able to set up the compressor and all our dive gear in a building close to our rooms. This proved to be very convenient since a great deal of our time would be preparing and setting up for our dives.

There was no need for an alarm clock, each morning we had a wake up call from the roosters. We shared the farm with ducks, pigs, cows, horses, sheep, and even deer. Debra got a little upset when she was petting Bambi one day, and the next evening we were eating venison for dinner. We also enjoyed fresh fruit every day, mangos, pineapple, limes, and they even had a large grape vineyard in the back yard. It was like stepping back in time 100 years.

Thursday, November 11, 1999, our first dive at "Gruta do Mimoso", or Mimoso Cave. It sits in the Mimoso Farm in Bonito county. Before entering the dive site, tradition has it that you visit the owner of the property first, which in this case is Maria Aparecida, called Cita. She runs the farm and lodging for tourists and divers that visit the town of Bonito. Mimoso is one of the most beautifully decorated caves situated in this area. It was once a dry cave, and now it boasts many different cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, and giant flow curtains that drape the high walls of the room. The passages are very large, and you can surface into two separate dry domes on opposite ends of the cave. Afonso told us that once a group surfaced in the far back room, and since the air is contaminated, the diver went unconscious from taking the regulator out of his mouth. They had to swim him out a distance of around 500'. In this same cave, you will find the cone room that hosts numerous cones protruding from the floor. They dwarf a diver that swims through them at a height of at least 15' - 20' each. The cones and walls are a creamy white color, average depth of the cave is 50'. Without any detection of flow or silt, it is an excellent backdrop for video and photography. The water level was the lowest that it has been since cave diving started there five years ago. The permanent line, which was normally at 20', was now visible several feet out of the water. We entered the water with a 28% nitrox mix. Afonso led the dive in and after traveling approximately 150', we encountered a T and took the left line. This led us to another T in the line, where we took the right line and explored the deep section of Mimoso Cave. We reached a maximum depth of 130'. The duck under pinched off in this section of cave. Returning to the T, we then explored the forest of cones. In this area, there is a section in the back that once collapsed, called Lobster Hole, which is where we believe the continuing cave would have been. We did not see any possibility for future exploration in this area. Upon leaving this room, we ascended up a fissure in the ceiling to discover a sidemount passage that already had line laid in it. It starts to pinch off tight after about 60'. This same section of cave also has a dry dome room with a chimney in the ceiling, but unfortunately, although it is large enough to enter, it's inaccessible. The diving in Mimoso was a once in a lifetime experience. We were able to do the whole dive within an hour. After surfacing, we knew that this was a place worth coming back to for video.

A good night's sleep, and its now time to dive "Buraco Das Abelhas", translated to English this means Bee's Hole. And believe me, this site has earned its name. There is a short walk down to the water for easy access into this system. The water level is also low at this cave, and a sidemount passage is visible 5' out of the water. We entered the system and swam over 50' with air over our heads. The cave then started to get deeper, and at a depth of approximately 65', we encountered a fissure that has some of the same characteristics of Diepolder Sink #2 in Hernando County, FL. This fissure dropped to 130', and the cave remained at that depth throughout our maximum penetrations for the visit. Tunnel "A" also has an intrusion tunnel with clear water present, which appears to be a different water source than the rest of the cave. I tried to push my way through this tight restriction, but was unable to pass through. Debra and I returned to this cave for a double-stage dive where we discovered new cave passage near our maximum penetration. The caves are very different here, and continuing passages often are found through vertical fissures leading into the ceiling. We tied our survey reel into the permanent line and started to ascend up the fissure. After rising 30', it branched off in two directions, so we chose the larger area to follow. The silt from the new passage zeroed our visibility, so we would have to revisit at a later date with more gas, since we were nearing our thirds anyway. We had a dive time of over 2 hours in 72 degree water. Tunnel "A" has a halocline that divides hundreds of feet of passageway. Tunnel "B" is harder to explore because of the need for decompression to ascend through some of the shallower passages hundreds of feet back in the cave. We were not prepared this trip for a roller coaster ride like this.

The next day we planned a Trimix dive at "Nascente Rio Formoso", or Formoso Springs. At this site there is also another cave with 50' called "Little Formoso". The site is beautifully landscaped and the whole area is draped in butterflies. Formoso Springs goes to a depth of approximately 200', and it T's into Little Formoso, which is still being explored at depths below 300'. We would do a set-up dive today in Formoso to set up for a traverse from Little Formoso for the next dive. The cave is very rocky and full of breakdown throughout the main passage, with an abundance of artifacts littering the cave. We had about 50' visibility that disclosed huge fissures throughout the cave. We were amazed at the formations of quartz jetting out of the floor that our lights illuminated in a passage known as "Afonso's Secret Passage".

We spent long evenings getting ready for our deeper dives the next couple of days. We planned a maximum depth of 325', with an EAD of 130 on the first dive. The helium is the most expensive part of the trip, but at least the K cylinders are filled to 3,000 psi. We were not used to seeing this, since our fills are usually around 2,200 to 2,500 psi. In my free time, I was able to help the locals repair their dive gear; valves, seals, lights, regulators, etc. Somehow I ended up being called McGyver. This name stuck with me throughout the trip, and since returning, has yet to elude me.

As we followed the long, clay, windy roads that led us to this beautiful ranch named Ceita-Cure, we came across a large herd of cattle in the road, with cowboys. It was just like out of a movie. We were amazed at the enormous size of the pond that this small spring fed. The ranch uses the spring for irrigation and also to feed their swimming pool. We noticed several gators in the pond, but we were assured that they stayed out of the run to the spring. The sherpas would assist us in putting in our decompression cylinders. It was a short walk with doubles to the site. We would drop our oxygen cylinders at 20', and then we would encounter a restriction at 30' that we would have to pass through with our stage bottles being pushed in front of us. We continued down the sloping fissure crack until we hit complete vertical at a depth of 60'. At this point, we could see the divers ahead of us illuminating the air-clear blue vertical shaft. This one also has the same characteristics as Diepolder Sink #2, but come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen a crack as clear as this one. The first chance we had to drop our travel cylinders was at 268', where the crack splits, and goes in two different directions. The permanent line T's off to each side, and then the two lines connect again after the restrictions at a depth of 318'. Debra and I took the right tunnel to observe first, and then we ascended back up to the T, and checked out the left tunnel, which was much larger in size. Since this was our first visit to this cave, we did not feel comfortable doing the circuit. When we turned to exit the cave, our visibility had dropped to almost 0 from our bubble percolation. We found the need for a creative decompression because of the single file restriction we needed to pass through to get to our oxygen bottles. Once we were on oxygen, we could see ambient light from above, and we could also see the sidemount passage that led off to the right. There were transparent yellow-brown shells that I have not encountered in any of the other caves. Ceita-Cure has been explored and maxed out by Gilbert Menezes in March 2000. He has searched for ongoing passages, but has come up empty handed so far. Thus far, this was my favorite cave and I'm already looking forward to a return visit. The only bad part was that we had one day of diving left and would not be able to return to Ceita-Cure until next year.

Our last evening in Bonito, I would learn the old Brazilian tradition of blowing the cow horn. This is not as easy as it looks, and as myth has it, it seems to attract women to the men that can get the right tune. I couldn't believe my eyes after practicing with the horn, there was a stampede of cattle coming toward me. I yelled for Debra and Denise, and all they could say was "I see it, but I don't believe it". This goes to show that the cattle understand English.

The next morning we were able to sleep later than usual. We had four sherpas that would assist us in loading all our dive gear in the four-wheel drive vehicles and haul it to the dive site, Mysterious Lagoon. We would give the sherpas a three-hour head start on us, and we would soon realize why they needed it. When we arrived at the site, we were met by the owner of the farm, Mr. Julio. The rough road is very long and bumpy, and we were driving right through pasture. The trees stopped our progress by vehicle, so we got out and walked over to a cliff that dropped almost vertical to an oval lake, approximately 190'x80'. The rock path that led us down was running at a 40-degree angle with vertical rock walls. There is a rope running down also to hold onto for the descent, and remember, we weren't even carrying any gear or doubles with us. At this time, we appreciated having the sherpas. I would have paid just about anything not to carry tanks to this site, and I wasn't even thinking about the hike back up. They now have a block and tackle to help assist with getting the gear up and down. This is also the same gear that their Army uses to train with. Our gear was waiting for us at the bottom on a floating dock when we arrived. We would enter the water from the dock, and float over the beautiful blue water to our entry point about 100' away. You could see two different entrances to the cave that starts at about 50'. Also visible was a dry cave, and to our amazement, it has yet to be explored. The logistics of getting gear to it would be almost impossible. We started our dive and dropped our oxygen cylinders on a tree that sits around 40', and the visibility was very good, around 50'+. The sinkhole is basically vertical, and descending down it seemed to have no end. At 170' we passed a T in the line, which pointed up to another exit. This was the other entryway that we saw when we swam across the sink. We kept descending to a depth of approximately 330'. The shaft was very large, and there was fine silt covering the rock walls. You still could not see any sign of bottom, and at this time my primary light failed so we called the dive. The top of the debris cone is 600', sloping into unexplored areas. We hit our decompression stops and exited without incident. Since the nearest recompression is over 800 miles away in Sao Paulo, we were extra conservative with our dive planning throughout the trip. After getting our gear off after the dive, the sherpas hauled our doubles up the steep hill, and all our dive bags and decompression cylinders were pulled up by the block and tackle. After resting for at least an hour after the dive, it took us at least hour to climb back up the rock path without toting any gear. This beautiful site is a great place to do some deep diving, but if you don't have help with carrying the gear, I would not consider diving here.

From here on out, we were thinking about a way to return to Brazil. On our long ride back, Afonso and I decided that we would get together and see if we could promote cave diving in Brazil. We assessed that Air Liquide would deliver the helium and oxygen, and that we had over ten sets of doubles and two stages each per person. There would be enough for all of us, and enough for 6 extra guests. Afonso secured a brand-new efficiency apartment complex, centered in the middle of Bonito, a ten-minute walk from town. It has air conditioning, satellite t.v., and a full kitchen. We would have breakfast and dinner prepared for the team each day. There is also a hospital within two blocks of the apartments. With this in mind, we planned a trip for May 2000, in hopes of bringing back six divers with us. With this number, Afonso and I could each take three with us on guided dive tours, since the caves are extreme in their characteristics.

As Brazil opens its arms to cave diving in the twenty-first century, the government has strong concerns about the environmental impact that cave diving may have on this country. When I returned with the Brazil Expedition 2000 group, we encountered governmental concern for the cave environment, and we were escorted by a government official throughout our stay so we could better inform them of our mutual concerns on cave conservation and preservation. We were able to receive special permits from the government to access the caves, that are to date closed. We were able to give our group a rare opportunity to lay line in new cave passages. Needless to say, they were very pleased with the trip. This was the first organized group expedition to cave dive in Brazil, and I was very proud to help organize and be a part of it.