My breath fills the air with thick clouds of steam, my heart is pounding out of my chest, sending echoes far into the vastness of the abyss. Tiny water drops splashing onto the rugged floor break the burdensome silence, precise like a clock measuring time at a much slower pace. Chills run down my spine. I can’t tell whether it’s because of the dampness in the air or the thought of having come this far into the unknown. Out of curiosity, I turn off my headlamp. It is as if the world suddenly ended. Not even a speck of light to guide me. But I know that when I turn it back on again, I will see hope ahead.
To cave or not to cave?
That is the question. There’s almost just as much to be seen underground as there is on the surface, a hidden parallel world that grows in different directions from what we are used to. Stalactites hanging from the ceiling like oddly shaped chandeliers, stalagmites growing from the floor like candles waiting to be lit, bizarre albino insects and fish fighting to survive in the absence of light, make for a strange, wet and shadowy paradise that is simply irresistible to some.
Okay, just about anyone can wander through a cave as long as there are paved walkways and handrails, lights and someone to show you the way. At the opposite end of the scale, we have caving, where adventure and exploration blend into one.
Do you picture yourself climbing, crawling, squeezing through mouse holes, diving, swimming, getting wet and dirty, spending hours, days even in the dim light of your headlamp? Then you might stand a chance.
Caving is also referred to as spelunking, but that’s a term used by non-cavers. From here on out, let’s just call it caving, shall we? Moving forward, we will turn our heads towards some off-the-beaten-path caves that have only seen a handful of people venture into their seemingly bottomless abyss.
This one’s a no-brainer, but I’m going to say it anyway: you need a good headlamp. You should also carry at least one additional light source and bring extra batteries. Needless to say a dry change of clothes is mandatory, and the same goes for a pair of reliable, waterproof boots.
Caving is a team activity. Never attempt to explore a cave by yourself! Between four to six people should be sufficient. An immense responsibility falls on your shoulders and on your teammates’, as you all want to be able to rely on each other in case something goes wrong. You’ll also want to let someone on the surface know your whereabouts.
From here on then, all additional equipment depends on your intentions. If the cave has vertical passages, you need rope, harness, descender, ascender, carabiners and extra gear for setting up belay points and anchors where there are none. If you plan to spend the night inside, you need to set up camp just as you would anywhere else. Last but not least, you should have enough provisions to last a few extra days.
Ready to shine a light into the unknown? Here are a few destinations to add to your caving bucket list, from the deepest and biggest to those where you’ll have to dive your way through.
Sinking into luminescent depths far beneath the surface of the Earth, cave diving is a branch of scuba diving that requires specific equipment and training. Proper courses are imperative. And even then, anything can go wrong if you ignore advice and take it all for granted. When successful, it is an experience to tell your grandchildren.
The Great Blue Hole needs no introduction. At first glance, this huge sinkhole in Belize’s Lighthouse Reef seems bottomless, not to mention impossible to explore. But don’t be fooled by appearances. Sure, there’s the 120-meter (400-foot) vertical drop from the almost perfectly circular, 305-meter (1,000-foot) wide mouth of the sinkhole that can easily send shivers down anyone’s spine, but the caves and caverns below, submerged in warm and clear water, adorned with stalactites and stalagmites, make an underwater paradise yearning to be explored.
Let’s not leave the Bahamas just yet, there are plenty other blue holes to explore here. And if your cave diving portfolio is brighter than the sun, you can head to Stargate Blue Hole on Andros Island, an off-the-beaten-path inland underwater cave that rarely sees divers due to its treacherous shafts and corridors, as well as depths that can reach 100 meters (330 feet) in some areas.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is an underwater cave system hotspot. The Yucatan Cenotes, natural sinkholes once used by the Mayan civilization for sacrificial offerings, are among the world’s deadliest diving destinations. Only a third of the estimated 6,000 flooded caves on the peninsula have been mapped so far, and many have lost their lives while exploring their depths.
Sistema Ox Bel Ha in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is recognized as the world’s longest underwater cave system, with 216.44 kilometers (134.49 miles) of mapped corridors.
Sistema Sac Actun, near the city of Tulum, is only 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) shorter. Over 130 cenotes make up the system, the main entrance being the Gran Cenote, the most popular and accessible among all Yucatan cenotes.
Devil’s Eye cave system in Florida offers more than 9,145 meters (30,000 feet) of passageways for cavers to explore, with even more waiting to be mapped. It is the cave diving capital of the US, with two main entrances, Devil’s Eye and Devil’s Ear, joined together by a large passageway 18 meters (60 feet) below the surface leading to countless smaller tunnels and chambers.
The largest underwater sea cave in the Mediterranean, Nereo Cave is part of the Alghero Cave system near Porto Conte Bay on the Italian island of Sardinia, a network of around 300 caves. Known for its stunning stalactite and stalagmite formations and walls covered in red coral, it is so big it takes at least three dives to explore the entire cave and wander through its tunnels and archways.
Italy’s Pozzo del Merro, or simply Merro Sinkhole, a few kilometers east of Rome, currently holds the title of the world’s second deepest underwater cave. From the mouth of the sinkhole, a 70-meter (230-foot) drop takes cavers to the surface of a seemingly small circular lake, only 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter, which goes an additional 310 meters (1,016 feet) into the abyss. From here, thrill-seekers can take on shallow dives. Deeper ones require a submersible machine.
Simply called pits, these natural shafts seem to go on forever. As far as experience and technique are concerned, vertical caves are the most demanding and require specialized equipment, training, practice and serious physical and mental endurance. The deeper you go, the harder it is to get out. Descents bellow 3,000 feet imply spending at least 15 days underground in small groups and surviving with limited resources.
The Western Caucasus in Georgia is home to the world’s deepest caves. Krubera-Voronja in the Arabika Massif is the indisputable winner. So far, 16,057 meters (52,683 feet) have been mapped in length and 2,197 meters (7,208 feet) in depth. The tallest shaft is a whopping 152-meter (499-foot) drop, and it takes about 27 days to reach the bottom. Curiously enough, life does exist in these stunning depths, tiny albino insects who will never know what sunlight looks of feels like.
Nearby, Sarma is a 1,830-meter (6,004-foot) deep cave, and it’s believed to continue much further than that. It is currently the second deepest in the world. What makes the cave even more interesting is that it is not just a series of shafts, but a very complex cave with varied chambers and formations.
Many caves have skylights as entrances, but none as impressive as the Cave of the Swallows in Mexico. A 372-meter (1,220-foot) drop takes visitors down into the pit. There are two ways to do this — rappel or base jump. It is the 11th deepest in the world and the largest known cave shaft in the world .It could easily fit the Eiffel Tower and still have enough room to spare. A hot air balloon was once navigated inside the sinkhole! From the plateau beneath the skylight a series of pits continue for an additional few dozen meters.
Many of the world’s longest, largest caves offer guided tours through designated areas. But it is beyond those limits that the true adventure begins, both horizontally and vertically, for days in a row.
An excellent destination for both beginners and experienced cavers, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is a sight to behold. The longest known cave system in the world, 628 kilometers (390 miles) long and counting, only around 16 kilometers (10 miles) of Mammoth Cave are open to tourists. The other areas require permits, but they are certainly worth the trouble. Even more impressive than its sheer size are the karst formations, underground rivers and wildlife, the richest in any known caves.
With over 300 kilometers (186 miles) explored and mapped so far, and even more waiting to be discovered, the Gunung Mulu cave system under Borneo’s jungle in Malaysia is one of the biggest in the world. Its natural splendor and biodiversity place it alongside some of the most beautiful caves on Earth, while its chambers and corridors continue to break records.
Inside, Sarawak Chamber is currently the world’s largest known cave chamber. Over 70 meters (230 feet) tall, 700 meters (2,300 feet) long and almost 400 meters (1,300 feet) wide, it is said to be able to fit 40 Boeing 747’s without overlapping the wings. Trekking to this room is the most strenuous among all treks through the cave system. Deer Cave is the world’s longest cave passage, while Clearwater Cave is Asia’s longest. The cave system is home to a huge colony of Wrinkle-lipped bats that put on quite a show when leaving their den at sunset.
Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the World wasn’t just a work of fiction, it was a vision into the future, one we are getting pretty close to seeing in real life. Hang Son Doong Cave in Vietnam, meaning the “cave of the mountain river,” is complete with forests, rivers, wildlife and birds. The entrance was discovered by accident in 1991, and was fully explored in 2009. About 8.8 kilometers (5.5 miles) long and 150 meters (500 feet) tall, it might be the world’s largest cave.
Tour operators offer guided tours of Hang Soon Doong, but be prepared to drop some serious bucks and overcome a few obstacles. An 80-meter (260-foot) vertical drop, some of the largest stalagmites and stalactites in the world, an underground river, rare cave formations and fossils are only a few of the highlights. The centerpiece however is the lost forest. Small windows in the ceiling allow rays of light to fall over 30-meter (100-foot) tall tress, insects and birds, reptiles and butterflies, as well as a good number of newly discovered species, all booming 183 meters (600 feet) beneath the surface in an isolated ecosystem that is just too beautiful to describe in words.
There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who find all of the above too terrifying to even take into consideration, too cold, wet, dark and sickening. Simply put, it’s not for them. And then there are those who’ve read the lines above and thought “Man, that sounds like so much fun!” So, which one are you?