The cenotes of the Maya Riviera in Mexico have been on my shooting bucket list almost as long as I have been interested in underwater photography. For years, I have poured over the work of fellow photographers and marveled at the lush, dramatic cascades
of cathedral lighting that gush through these extensive subterranean systems. But when I finally got a chance to plan a trip, instead of just scouting the cenotes with the magnificent lighting they are famous for, I found myself ferreting out the spookier, dark, and almost fairytale-like sinkholes in hopes of creating a sort of dreamlike sequence influenced by a youthful love of fables.

I did five days of immensely enjoyable scouting in order to get a sense of the range of landscape contained in the cenotes. But even in those five days, I didn’t even touch on what the Yucatán Peninsula has to offer. Being a large stretch of coastal land comprised of a limestone Swiss cheese system of sinkholes, caves, and cavern openings, this unique aquifer system of both salt and freshwater make the cenotes a seemingly endless playground for underwater photographers and cave divers.

As a result of five days of scouting and two of actual shooting, I produced a rather mixed batch of imagery. I grabbed a few conventional scuba diving shots while scouting as well as a series of photos to add to my ongoing surrealist freediver project. I solicited the help of a local freediver named Camila, as well as a veteran cave diver named Cristian to hold their breaths and pose for as long as they could stand it. With guidance and aid from a well-trained safety team, we set up shots portraying everyday life as well as fantastic woodland scenes. In a few shots, I placed silhouettes of forest creatures reminiscent of storybook illustrations in tree branches, and dressed the divers in regular clothing, telling them to just portray an enjoyment of their surroundings.

But through shooting and exploring, you often uncover inconvenient truths. After speaking with locals, I began learning more about the haphazard mega development that is ensuing. Concerns over the safety of the water quality, sewage management, and the well being of the interconnected underground system in general definitely became apparent. You cannot drive along the road that connects Cancun to Tulum without noticing the mammoth, ostentatious entrances to these multi-thousand room resorts. And while diving some cenotes, we actually ascended through filmy residues, and at times, our first breaths after surfacing were filled with highly unpleasant odors. Just like the deepest reaches of the ocean, the destruction generated by humans spans to many unseen and unknown stretches of this Earth. The hope is that when people see the beauty of the cenotes either firsthand or through imagery, they will also make choices that will help protect some of the most beautiful, natural phenomena of this planet.

Thanks to Prawno Apparel for the clothing used in this shoot.

Check out more beautiful photography on Lia’s website.