On Account of Beauty – Remembering Bil Phillips

Cave explorer, master cartographer, highly respected instructor and influencer, Bil Phillips passed away after a brief illness in late November 2017.

Bil Phillips IMG_1288lIn 1995, I was a co-leading the Ejido Jacinto Pat Expedition in Quintana Roo, Mexico when I first met Bil Phillips. A fellow Canadian, we hit it off right away. We were both focusing on a remote corner of the Dos Ojos Cave System called Macco’s Marvels or M1. In the dampness of a breakdown room, we eagerly filled reels day after day from a gigantic roll of nearly 40,000 feet of line. Bil was focused with laser sharp precision on exploring and accurately surveying the far extents of one of the most beautiful underwater caves I had ever seen. Glorious crystalline stalactites were so densely packed in these opaline galleries that at times, it could be difficult to see the passage through the forest of formations. Without fail, every day, Bil would return with an empty reel after dropping precisely 1000 feet of new line into the unknown. With a satisfied grin, he would methodically refill his reel and prepare for the next day, dropping off his survey slate to our expedition cartographer. His neat and accurate notes would be added to the expanding map which soon became the longest mapped underwater cave in the world. The final line of data on each slate would offer his ideas on where to go next. “Lead to the left at 870 feet,” or “strong flow and rippled sand,” would reveal his new plans. On one occasion, I noticed Bil had returned from his dive with line remaining on his reel. Did he run out of cave? I stopped to check out his survey slate and noticed the final written note. He had only laid half of his line yet returned at the same predictable time. And then I saw his reference, “Called dive on account of beauty.” With a hint of tears in his eyes, he described a room too beautiful to swim through dispassionately. He had to enjoy the wonder of it all.

Bil Phillips was born and raised in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Before becoming known as one of the most prolific cave diving explorers in history, he was an accomplished professional drummer and meticulous craftsman. Bil stayed in close contact with his family and many friends in Vancouver but ultimately set up his business, Speleotech, in Tulum, Mexico.

Fellow explorer Sam Meacham remembers, “Bil and I shared more than 20 years of continued exploration of what became one of the largest cave systems wet or dry on the planet. Bil’s impact on cave diving exploration, conservation, cartography, and training will always be felt here. Quite simply he is one of the most prolific explorers to have ever existed, and he will be sorely missed.”

Bil’s exploration and cartography work resulted in his induction as a Fellow into the Explorers Club of New York. Never one to seek attention for his work, Bill has accepted many honors with characteristic humility and grace. His dive log was boundless, covering nearly 5000 cave dives and he explored and mapped no less than 50 km of previously unexplored water-filled passages in over 35 different systems.

Former dive shop colleague and fellow explorer Christophe Le Maillot with G.E.O (Grupo de Exploracion Ox Bel Ha), remembers fantastic moments shared at basecamps and countless hours innovating new gear and techniques. He adds, “Bil was a tremendous explorer, passionate about all aspects of cave diving. He was very talented in the water, and will always be remembered as the most prolific cave explorer in Q.Roo, Mexico.”

There was no end to Bil’s curiosity and desire to be involved in projects that benefited scientific research. Over the course of his career, he worked with hydrologists, biologists, chemists and geologists and often partnered with archaeologists with the Instidudo Nacional Anthroplologia e Historia (INAH- Mexico’s Department of Archeology). As a safety diver, he worked on television projects, Hollywood movies, National Geographic documentaries and was featured in the History Channel program, Magellan’s Lost Fleet, filmed in Patagonia, Argentina.

Bil stepped up to a role as an educator, influencing standards in dive training and safety. He has written numerous articles on technical diving and taken leadership roles in several diving agencies and associations. He was a founding member and Director of the APSA (Cenotes Committee of the Riviera Maya Association of Dive and Water Sport Operators). He volunteered on the National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) Instructor Training Committee for Mexico, and the Board of Advisors for the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD Central America), as well as serving as Director for the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey.

Bil’s passion for exploration and conservation of the Yucatan caves is matched only by his enthusiasm for working with new cave divers and visitors to Mexico. The hundreds of students Bill has mentored remember him for his tireless pursuit of detail and safety while keeping the learning experience enjoyable.

Bil was predeceased by his Mom, Catherine Eleanor Wheatley. He is survived by his partner in life Sabine Schnittger, father Harry Phillips Sr., step-mother Lenora, brother Harry, sister-in-law Gina Lauria, step-siblings Ron, Dave, Rick, Liz and Jeff Blore and their families, many cousins, nieces and nephews.

Bil was actively teaching and contributing to the community up until his life was cut short by a brief illness. He will be honored around the world and remembered by many of us as a life called too soon, on account of beauty.

From Sam Meacham

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Bil and I shared many treasured moments exploring in the mid to late 90’s particularly in the Ox Bel Ha cave system.  The most memorable of those dives was our first one in cenote Esmeralda on February 3, 1996.  What we encountered that day set in motion more than 20 years of continued exploration of what became one of the largest cave systems wet or dry on the planet.  Bils impact on cave diving exploration, conservation, cartography and training will always be felt here. Quite simply he is one of the most prolific explorers to have ever existed and he will be sorely missed.

From Christophe le Maillot

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It has been a shock indeed about Bil. He will be greatly missed, and my thought goes out to Bil’s family, Sabine of course, and all of his friends.

A lot of good memories of diving and exploring together in Ox Bel Ha in the early years for G.E.O (Grupo de Exploracion Ox Bel Ha), and so many fantastic moments shared at base camp especially in the evenings discussing the day of exploration, or all the excitement about the next, and where we would realistically really end up going.

For a few years, we worked together, and among other friends in a local Diveshop in Akumal where we spent countless hours fixing gear, developing sidemount harnesses and techniques, and always talking about the next exploration.

Bil was a tremendous explorer, passionate about all aspects of cave diving, and very talented in the water, and will always be remembered as the most prolific cave explorer in Q.Roo Mexico.


From Julie Ralph

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While Bil was my cave instructor, he also became a dear friend. I struggled to find a story that would do justice to Bil as a dive professional and explorer, because I kept thinking of the stories that meant the most to me… and most of those involved our personal chats above water.

However, I thought you might appreciate my insights as a female student, on Bill the cave diving instructor.

Before I started my cave course with Bil, I was a PADI open water instructor and I had taken some technical diving courses. When friends would tell me about their cave training experiences, I would hear the debates and arguments comparing Mexico and Florida instructors. A number of my friends had trained with Bil over the years, they all talked about how strict he was and that it was the hardest course they had ever taken.

However, I was concerned because I had heard stories that Bil was tougher on female students. It took women longer to complete their cave certification with Bil and there were others who started with Bil, but went on to complete it with a different instructor. One friend also didn’t appreciate his general hygiene, peeing in his suit regularly and spitting/horking in the water (I found out later he did that to feed the fish, which I found very endearing).

But one of my male friends that I respected, told me to go with Bil, that I would be fine.

When we started, I wanted Bil to know that I had no expectations that I would pass quickly. I told him that I have two weeks, let’s see how far I can get. From those comments, I think he was expecting me to be a mess in the water or have claustrophobia.  But after our first open water session he said to me, “I think we can do this.” I didn’t realize what he meant at first, but I later realized he meant that I would be able to finish the entire cave course. I was a little shocked because of his reputation of being so tough on women, so I kept thinking that there must be some sort of catch.

Bil’s cave course was the most difficult and challenging diving course I have ever taken, both physically and mentally. I believe that most cave courses are, with good instructors.

I think most people would agree that Bil could be very opinionated and very blunt. When I made mistakes during the course and started beating myself up, he wasn’t coddling me or telling me that I needed to give it time. Bil would just matter of factly tell me what I was doing wrong and tell me that I needed to fix it, or that I should not be cave diving. While there were many times during my course that I would be beating myself up and having mental breaks causing me to make the same mistakes over and over again, Bil remained calm and very direct with his feedback. He never shouted or insulted me, he was just honest. I appreciated that. Despite my initial concerns about being a female, I finished the cave course in one trip.

To top it all off, Bil had a ritual for “special students”. When we finished my graduation dive, Bil snuck behind some stalactites in the opening of Gran Cenote and came out wearing some sort of warrior costume with no fins on… and then he did a little dance and made me kneel down as he knighted me with a staff. I don’t know if I have ever laughed that hard underwater before. When we got out of the water, we were still laughing and he asked me “What is the female name for a knight? A lady?” I told him “I ain’t no lady! I am a dame.” There was a time for seriousness, but there was always a time for silliness with Bil.

Bil taught me to appreciate the caves. Cave diving was not just about going the furthest or deepest you could into a cave, it was about getting to know the cave. We would often stop to check out something unusual, whether it was a unique rock formation, a baby turtle in the cenote, of the name of a famous explorer on a cave arrow. Often Bil and I would giggle like “school girls” underwater when we would find something special.

While at first Bil seemed overly protective (which might come across as critical), I never took it personally and I always tried to make him proud. As my experience and training grew, he started to encourage me to be more than a recreational cave diver. When he invited me to explore caves with him, I knew I had earned his respect. I just hope that I can continue to honour his memory.

So while Bil may not have been the most “sophisticated” man I ever met, he was certainly one of the most genuine and honest people I ever met in my life. I don’t believe it mattered to Bil that a diver was male or female. You always knew where you stood with Bil.

I only wish I had more time with him, but I am grateful that he was in my life as a mentor and friend.

From Migue Per from Cuba

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I want to share tiny but great moments me and Patry have from him out of our trip to Cuba. I have to give you those tiny moments for not stating the obvious. Saw him not only dive but drawing the actual cave like he were on a drawing table on the most comfortable conditions was amazing. I have reviewed the videos numerous times and what he does. Tiny manners and movements are amazing.

But I want to share really small details that me and Patry lived with him.

I was getting really for the first hard working dive of the project and of my life. Bil wanted me to estimate the LRUD and write down the numbers. I had not dived in a cave for 2 year. I had all the gear on me and I just soaking what I was about to do. I had this moment of weakness and started to put out excuses like I had never done it and I was a lefty (Bil was a lefty too is I remember well I harder to write with your left for sure you have to curve the hand and go over what you are writing) I just speaking to myself but Bil was in front of me and he told me, “That’s no excuse Migue,” but the way he said it, the way my name sounded makes me conscious, ” Of course is no excuse” and that was the first time I ever wrote in a cave thanks to Bil…..

The other memory impacted in Patry an I because it states part of the cave diver spirit. You have to be self sufficient on any situation. Bil was trying to pull up the zipper of the suit but it was really stuck. Patry offered to help him but he said ” I got it,” the threw the strand attached to the end of the zipper around an small tree and pulled upward releasing the zipper. But he did it in such easy way that only someone fully into something on the smallest detail could have done it like that. Like an old magician that knows all the tricks of the business…. That is what Bil was …..

From Ron Hink

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This past fall I was planning a dive trip to Cozumel and Tulum for some Cave Diving. Since I am a newbie to the cave diving, I asked and relied on my instructor/friend Brian K to make a recommendation which he kindly did by introducing me to Bil.

Our trip was cut short due to the hurricane and because of this, I had to cancel the second half of my trip (cave portion) and return to Fort Lauderdale to buckle down for the storm.

My point about Bil is….  We never met, yet he could not have been more accommodating in the many email/phone exchanges we had in the months leading up to our trip.  My wife so appreciated his efforts and completeness that she utilized him to essentially be our “go-to” person for nearly all of our travel needs while on the Yucatan. He willingly helped us with all of our arrangements except….. whale shark swim, an activity he didn’t believe in…

He was an ambassador for the sport.  He was enthusiastic to share with me the Tulum caves and to begin a relationship with yet another person new to this amazing world.  I regret never completing this trip but I am certain many share my sentiments.

From Panos

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1991. Naharon.  It was the days when stages [tanks] did not have DIN [fittings].  Doing a multi-stage dive and did not have as many adaptors as I needed.  A Canadian guy walks up and hands me one of his. It was Bil. I asked him when he wanted it back, he said, Oh, whenever.

From Virginia Nyutten

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I knew Bil mainly through my husband, Ross. They used to dive together before I came on the scene and before Bil went to Mexico full time. They did technical stuff together in the ’90’s – typical bunch of stupid deep dives, mostly because they could. I think they called Bil “Mr. O2 Goo” on those dives because of the fluids that came out of his nose like festoons…but I digress.  They spent considerable time together over decades, particularly at a mutual friend’s place at Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island. By the time I joined the picture, Bil was based in Mexico.  I really only knew him as the quirky guy who’d show up on our doorstep unannounced whenever he was in town, bundled up like a mummy because he was always cold. Bil was very open with Ross in my presence, so I got to know him that way… Ross used to say Bil looked gawky on land, like he wasn’t designed for it, but he was the epitome of grace underwater – he was in his element. I’d like to make sure everyone understands that he was always in harmony with water.

From Lee Newman

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In 2010, I finally made the trip to Mexico to take cave training with my long-time friend Bil Phillips. Almost from the moment I arrived, Bil bombarded me, in the best possible way, with questions about the fishes that lived in the cenotes. This dedicated, passionate cave diver and explorer was as excited and interested in the fishes as I was! At the end of almost every session in the caves during the course, he would take me on a little tour of the cenote pointing at fishes that I would have to identify for him once we surfaced. This interest in the biology of the cenotes would eventually lead to Bil asking for my assistance in removing the non-native Tilapia (a plant-eating cichlid fish) from the cenote at Carwash. Over the course of a year or two, they had eaten much of the plant life in the cenote which in turn caused a decrease in the abundance of native fishes. In a couple of years worth of trips, and a few interesting night dives, we managed to remove all but a handful of the Tilapia, restoring the Carwash cenote to its former glory. I’ll miss our little fishing trips.

From Roy Muldar

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Bil was a dive instructor at our local shop Capilano Divers in North Vancouver and was always in good cheer. I still remember talking to him one day when he was very enthusiastic about doing a cave diving training course in Florida. He ended up falling in love with cave diving and packed his bags for Mexico. I did run into him from time to time again and heard about his adventures as a cave diving instructor. Unfortunately the opportunity to join him never presented itself, yet I always looked to Bil as a person who followed a dream and through hard work became an accomplished cave diver and instructor. He was an inspiration to me and demonstrated that it is important to follow your dreams.


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