We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”
Why explore? The answers lie deep and largely unknown. Bad genes? Bad baby formula? As a boy I was given to long walks, summoned by the siren call of the unknown. Climbing trees led to climbing rocks which led to climbing mountains, which was more religion than sport. The beauty, purity, and simplicity of the mountains bestow a joy and peace difficult to match amidst the machinations of civilization.
When I left the mountains for graduate school in Florida, I cast about for that clean, quiet peace and found it in cave diving. Diving into water-filled caves is very dangerous, but meditative like mountaineering. In underwater caves you are alone, especially if the cave is in a remote area. You will run out of air and drown long before help arrives. Cave diving seems almost too dangerous to justify, but there are some elements that make it irresistible in my mind. Namely, the beauty of the caves, the joy of being able to fly like a helicopter, the lure of the next turn. Caves are alien worlds where features can form without disturbance over thousands of years. Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, crystals, and cave pearls form a geologic bestiary beyond one’s wildest dream. All this as part of a flying dream that lasts for hours. Imagine floating through your home, hovering inches from your toaster, then slowly turning and drifting over the countertops, up over the top of the refrigerator, back down to the floor, under the table, up to the ceiling, rolling onto your back as you glide inches beneath the ceiling fan, then through the front door, up over the porch, along the slope of the roof, slowly levitating up to the chimney, regarding each brick at leisure, then up higher and higher, rising like smoke into the blue sky. Now imagine doing this in a house that no one has ever seen before. A house full of strange formations, brilliant crystals that sparkle like a trove of diamonds in your light beam. Imagine an artist’s palette of colors, from blood red hematite to pearl white, cerulean and sapphire. Sprinkle this with fossils, ancient shells frozen for aeons, emerging from the rocky matrix. Imagine rooms so enormous your dive light doesn’t even reach the far wall, a black abyss falling away before your eyes into unknown depths. What awaits discovery at the bottom? Mammoth bones? Human remains? Petroglyphs on the walls? Stone tools? Or nothing but the elixir of discovery, of being the first human to lay eyes on the passageway. Like Prometheus, you bear the first photons of light ever to strike those walls, existing until now in complete, utter darkness for millennia. Quixotic. Irresistible.
Diving has been popular for only about 50 years. With all the world’s oceans and lakes to explore, caves were largely an afterthought. Plenty of shallow ocean reefs and inland lakes await the first diver. Only a small fraction of the world’s caves have been explored. Smaller yet the fraction of underwater caves that have been explored. Caves sometimes serve as repositories of artifacts and remains from extinct animals to human remains to stone tools, even ancient manuscripts, petroglyphs, and paintings. Caves also provide unique ecological niches. Organisms develop very specific adaptations to cave environments, and sometimes even to a single cave. Biologists and ecologists continue to discover new species and new patterns of energy use within cave systems.
What am I looking for? I seek many things, some tangible, some not. For starters, the pleasure of discovery, the beauty of the caves, the potential to contribute to human knowledge, the meditation of the dive.
After a rash of deaths in the 60s and 70s, training standards improved to the point that today, trained cave divers have a safety record as good or better than open water divers. Nevertheless, cave diving is extremely dangerous and must not be done unless you are trained and certified. Even open water instructors have died in caves; cave training has no analogue. If you wish to dive in caves, you must be trained and certified first.