Exploring a world never meant to be seen
An old, white van clambers down a dusty logging road in the Bahamas, the squeaking sounds of its suspension system echoing off a dense pine forest. The van, heavily laden with diving tanks, cameras and assorted cave-diving equipment, makes the trip nearly every day and it occurs to me that it has made this journey so many times that it could probably make the trip on its own without a driver.
As the road ends, we drive into a hidden clearing where the thick Bahamian scrub of bracken fern, thatch palms and poisonwood trees gives way to a manicured, park-like area complete with picnic tables, wetsuit and equipment racks and a small set of wooden stairs that lead down a short, damp trail. Little prepares you for the spectacle ahead.
Visiting cave divers, or those seeking to become cave divers, from all over the world have walked to the end of this trail where a 5m-high limestone cliff plunges into a blue crescent of crystal-clear water. The tranquil pool is surrounded by dark green leather ferns and fig tree roots on all sides. The most common reaction visitors have at first sight is simply, ‘Wow!’
The pool is the entrance to Dan’s Cave on Abaco Island, in the northern Bahamas. While standing in the forest above, no one would ever suspect that beneath their feet lies nearly 14km of the most beautifully formed and scientifically important underwater caves on earth.
Dan’s Cave is part of lengthy Bahamian cave system now known as the Crystal Caves of Abaco. The system also includes Ralph’s Cave and Nancy’s Cave, though a physical connection between any of these three has eluded explorers since they were first dived in 1991.
Beginning in the early 1990s, a long list of international explorers has visited these sites, each one coming away with his or her head shaking in disbelief. A fortuitous combination of extremely pure limestone, that makes up the Great Bahama Bank, and a dynamic shift in sea levels over the last ice age has set the stage for cave genesis unlike any other.
The systems are three tiered, with kilometres of passages at depths of 24m, 30m and 47m. The individual levels run over or under each other with occasional holes or pits leading down to the lower portions of the labyrinth. The site is nature’s most beautiful jigsaw puzzle.
Due to fluctuating sea levels over the last 350,000 years, millions of crystalline dripstone formations, collectively known as speleothems (stalagmites, stalactites and the like), were created as water seeped through the porous limestone and into the caves below. These stunning structures can be seen filling just about every room in the cave. Massive 10m-tall crystal pillars touch both floor and ceiling. Dense ‘bushes’ of curly helictites adorn both ceilings and floors of some areas, while others precariously
hang like butterfly wings from thin soda straw stalactites.
Large, but thin, translucent draperies hang from many of the curved walls. Some of these are made of calcite crystal so clear that a diver’s hand Continued from page 104 can easily be seen through
them. Crystalline pools are found where low spots in the floor of the cave have accumulated dripping water, super-saturated with calcite. Over time the pools were to become the birthplace of massive dogtooth spar crystals where stalactites grew down from the ceiling to the surface of the pool. Amazing flower and arrow-shaped crystals formed at the tips.
One thing that is common for many who have dived these sites is that they find themselves burdened with visual overload. Before a diver can fully register the magnificence of one formation, his or her attention is pulled to the next amazing thing only inches away.
I often find myself having the same issue. After more than ten years of diving the Crystal Caves of Abaco on a full-time basis, I still find it hard to comprehend many of the natural wonders and am perplexed by a world that was never really meant to be seen. It was created in total darkness and has survived hundreds of thousands of years in that state. It is only through the technology created within the last 60 years that we have had the privilege of witnessing these rare, natural treasures.
Descriptive, somewhat fanciful, names have been given to some of the more spectacular areas. The Glass Factory, The Cascade Room, The Crystal Palace, Fangorn Forest, Wrigley Field, The Sanity Room and Pan’s Labyrinth are just a few of the regular dives in Dan’s and Ralph’s Caves.
It is the intense and sometimes overwhelming
sights in these caves that have created a buzz with film-makers and documentary production companies from the US, UK, Brazil, France, Japan and Canada. The
caves have been filmed in high-definition, 3D and it is hoped that they will soon be filmed in IMAX.
These particular sites have also been declared by some researchers, including Dr David Steadman of the University of Florida, as ‘the most scientifically significant underwater caves in the world.’ Scientists from all over the globe are currently studying these sites in fields such as cave biology, paleontology, archaeology, sedimentology and even astro-microbiology.
These underwater cave systems are time capsules of Bahamian history and evolution and, for the privileged people who dive them, a sight at which to marvel.
Behind the mask: Brian Kakuk
After spending seven years working as a civilian contract diver for the US Navy’s Atlantic Underwater Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), in 1988 Brian Kakuk moved to the Exuma Cays to take the position of Diving Safety Officer for the Caribbean Marine Research Center on Lee Stocking Island. The caves and deep wall dives in the Exuma Cays proved to be challenging, and a perfect environment to learn the scientific significance of the underwater world in the Bahamas. Brian started cave diving in 1990 on Andros Island and is credited with some of the deepest and longest cave dives in the Bahamas.
‘In 2005,’ says Brian. ‘I created a small cave and technical diving company called Bahamas Underground, with local entrepreneur Michael Albury. We provide guided diving and all levels of training for cave divers, while also supplying cylinder rentals, gas fills including nitrox, trimix and oxygen. Local cooperation keeps the Crystal Caves protected and access is limited to only two visiting divers per dive while accompanied by an approved guide. For more than ten years this policy has kept these amazing sites in pristine condition.
‘Most of the diving conducted at these sites is done in side-mount cave-diving configuration. Often there are small boulder breakdown areas, where a diver must use a side-mount configuration to gain access to much larger rooms and passages on the other side. Although there are three or four days of diving available for back-mount or rebreather configurations, there are areas that are either too small or too fragile and side-mounting is the only viable option.
‘The dive sites are accessible year round as local rainfall or even hurricanes have no affect on access or diving conditions, though during the latter you may have to avoid flying pine trees topside!
‘My obsession with the caves here in the Bahamas started out with needing a new aspect of underwater photography. This turned into an obsession with real exploration as many of these sites had never been dived before. Then I wanted to learn everything I could about them, so that I could help protect them. Now my underwater cave photography is used to help the Bahamian government and the rest of the world understand just how amazing and special these places are, and the need to preserve them for future generations. As of 31 August 2015 my efforts, and those of my conservation partners, have paid off greatly with the declaration that 34,000 acres is being set aside for the Crystal Caves as a national park.
‘My main goal in life right now is cave conservation and exploration and I am now working on a proposal for protection of blue holes and underwater caves on a national level.’
As well as spending much of his time protecting the caves for future generations, Ralph is keen to cave dive in Abaco and further afield, and to open up more sections of the Crystal Caves.
‘I am currently working on connecting Ralph’s Cave and Dan’s Cave. Myself and Steve Bogaerts have been working on this project for nearly ten years and we are very, very close – at this point we are metres away! The dives require extreme side-mount/no-mount diving techniques with some depths reaching 50m. And there are still many other cave systems that we are exploring throughout the country, whenever I can get some time away from guiding cave diving here on Abaco. It’s a case of too many caves, not enough time!’
• For more information on diving the Crystal Caves of Abaco, see www.bahamasunderground.com