In the 21st century, there are very few unexplored or unmapped parts of the world. The two notable exceptions are the ocean and caves. Countless miles of untrammeled caverns and undiscovered tunnels exist underground, and they contain a multitude of unique features and lifeforms, including blind and pigment-free animals, unique crystal formations, and huge, untouched pools of water. If you’re tired of above-ground adventures and are looking for a new way to explore the natural world, caving may be just the sport for you.
Caves have played a role in human history for thousands of years. There’s evidence that caves were used as shelter by early humans. More recently, caves have been used for storage, for religious shrines, and even as secret bunkers during war. Today, cave exploration is common for scientific research and recreation. In the non-caving community, the activity is often referred to as “spelunking,” but the preferred moniker among experienced explorers is “caving.” Caving can be a secretive sport: in many caving communities, the locations of cave entrances are kept secret to prevent inexperienced people from accidentally (or intentionally) destroying the area. Caves, and the creatures that live within them, are incredibly sensitive and can be easily damaged or destroyed by human contact.
Keeping cave locations secret is also done to help keep inexperienced cavers from getting hurt or lost in caves. Some caves are private, meaning their entrances exist on private land and the owner must be asked for permission before the entrance is accessed. Maintaining a positive relationship between landowners and cavers is a serious issue within the caving community, which also contributes to the secrecy of cave locations.
Worldwide, there are many beautiful, well-known caves that are managed by conservation or government agencies. These caves are generally open to the public through self-guided tours or guided tours with an experienced caver. Many of these are walk-in caves, which require little to no technical skill to enter and explore. Public caves are a great way for beginners and families to travel underground for the first time. Just because they’re public, doesn’t mean they aren’t spectacular. Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, for example, is home to some of the world’s most stunning stalagmites and stalactites.
A large percentage of the world’s caves are solutional caves, which are created by moving water slowly dissolving rock. Limestone and gypsum are the most common rock types of solutional caves. As water eats away at the rock, it creates underground tunnels that grow larger and larger over time. Eventually, caves can grow to be several hundred feet tall from ceiling to floor and extend for miles. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, for instance, contains 400 miles of underground tunnels.
Other types of caves include lava tubes, which are common in Iceland and Hawaii; ice caves, which exist within glaciers; and sea caves, which are created by ocean waves eroding the land.
This Retro WON first appeared July 21, 2017.