Sunken Cities, Sacred Cenotes, and Golden Sharks: Travels of a Water-Bound Adventurer

By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Sunken Cities, Sacred Cenotes, and Golden Sharks: Travels of a Water-Bound Adventurer


Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


Sunken Cities, Sacred Cenotes, and Golden Sharks: Travels of a Water-Bound Adventurer by Bill Belleville University of Georgia Press, 2004; $29.95

Just about the time that you, dear reader, are pulling out of your driveway, heading for your daily aggression-filled hour on the expressway or inbound commuter train, Bill Belleville is probably tumbling backward off the gunwale of a diving boat into a crystal-blue ocean. An environmental journalist and filmmaker, Belleville has managed to make a decent living, as far as one can figure from these enjoyable essays, out of visiting ecologically engaging underwater sites in the West Indies and in Central and South America, and then writing about it for the folks at home. Nice work if you can get it.

It's not all dog-paddling in a heated pool, though. Belleville is an expert diver whose wanderlust takes him to places few sane people would venture. In one early scene in the book he is dangling in a harness fifty feet above the water level of an overgrown limestone cenote, or sinkhole, deep in the jungle of the Dominican Republic. From that precarious position, a winch will lower him down to an inflatable raft floating on the shadowed waters far below. With a team of scuba-clad archaeologists, he will dive more than a hundred feet farther down into the cenote, to a pinnacle of rock that rises from the pit's bottom (some 250 feet under water). From there, he and the rest of the team will get their bearings as they search for artifacts tossed into the sinkhole by pre-Columbian tribes as a sacrifice to their gods.

It's cold, dark, and claustrophobic down there, with practically no margin for carelessness. But the journey, which leads to the discovery of shards of ancient pottery and the bones of extinct sloths, makes for a story of great suspense.

Equally chilling is Belleville's account of a nocturnal dive off the coast of Cuba in search of the rarely seen, bioluniinescent flashlight fish (Kryptophanaron alfredi). To spot its soft radiance, Belleville and a companion turn off their lamps before descending into near total darkness, aiming for an underwater cliff top. They can see neither their depth gauges, the research vessel above them, nor even one another. Except for the increasing crush of water pressure, the luminous flashes of the passing marine life, and the glow of their own ascending air bubbles (which roil the abundant plankton in the water), the effect is one of almost total sensory deprivation.

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