Divers probe Mayan ruins submerged in Guatemala Lake

By Mica Rosenberg and Jackie Frank - ABC News

Scuba divers are exploring the depths of a volcanic lake in Guatemala to find clues about an ancient sacred island where Mayan pilgrims flocked to worship before it was submerged by rising waters.

Samabaj, the first underwater archaeological ruins excavated in Guatemala, were discovered accidentally 12 years ago by a diver exploring picturesque Lake Atitlan, ringed by Mayan villages and popular with foreign tourists.

"No one believed me, even when I told them all about it. They just said 'he's mad'," said Roberto Samayoa, a businessman and recreational diver who grew up near the lake where his grandmother told him legends of a sunken church.

Samayoa dived for years at the lake, often stumbling across pieces of pottery from the Mayan pre-classic period. In 1996, he found the site, with parts of buildings and huge ceremonial stones, known as stelae, clearly visible.

He named it Samabaj, after himself, but only in the past year have professional archeologists taken an interest, mapping the 4,300-square-foot (400-square-meter) area with sonar technology and excavating structures on a raised part of the lake bed.

Researchers believe this area, 50 feet below the lake's surface, was once an island until a catastrophic event, like a volcanic eruption or landslide, raised water levels.

submerged Mayan ruins Lake Atitlan Samabaj Guatemala Lake Roberto Samayoa archeologists