By Jeff Bozanic
I hang, suspended, weightless. Moving my feet slowly, I glide through crystalline waters. Deeper, ever deeper I sink, slowly floating towards the floor. Finally, I stop. Hovering motionless above the floor, I examine the flakes of rust red rock that are strewn across the bottom like a dump truck load of petrified cornflakes emptied many millennia ago. As I hang examining the rocky floor, I ponder the realism and surrealism of conducting research underwater in caves.
Ahead of me, the passage beckons
Seeing nothing, but seeing much to hold my interest, I slowly coast on into the cave. Kicking a little harder, I move slowly into the gaping opening of another tunnel, gateway to another world. I am moving through the mouth of some giant beast, down into his throat. Stalactites reach for me from above, stalagmites stretch from below, striving to grasp my body. How short this life would be were this the craw of some primitive dinosaur…. I move slowly past the jaws, leaving the crystalline teeth behind me.
As I swim, I think about these rock icicles which hang above me. How many times has this passage been drowned, only to have the oceans recede, allowing them to breath the warm air of life again? The cave lives only when it is dry. The fantastic features which hang about me in such amazing profusion were born and grew only when sea level was lower than it is today. Now, however, they are being slowly etched away. Slowly, molecule by molecule, they disappear as the corrosive waters sluggishly dissolve them.
My life is but a brief instant of time to them
So such are all things devoured by time, yet these pillars, these crystalline waterfalls live longer than most. I come and go, my passing unnoticed. I return next week, next year, next decade; but the amount of change in these beautiful formations cannot be detected. A thousand, or ten thousand years might perhaps see some natural evolution take place…but who among us has this time to spend? What thoughts occupy these crystals? What do they see in their lifetime? What stories could they tell, could they but speak to us of their experiences? I pass beyond, leaving the diamond-like sparkles of my light reflecting from the rocks fading behind me, fading like the brief flashes of thoughts in my mind.
The character of the cave changes. Off to my left, off to my right, I see more passages. This main passage splits, and splits again. Like the roots of a tree, they wander to the depths of the earth, going where no person has ever ventured. I stop again, confused by the choices, wondering which way to swim. I select a passageway, and move once more.
Descending slightly deeper into the crack, my light reaches out to push back the darkness. The black encountered here is the darkness of interstellar space, unbroken by any stars or galaxies. Light is ephemeral, and mostly non-existent in this realm. My light beam probes ahead, but beyond that yet lies blackness. The fear of the dark continually nibbles at the edges of my psyche. The fear of the dark, the fear of falling as I hang weightless in the water, the hissing of unseen snakes caused by the air moving through my regulator as I breath; all sound tiny alarms in the back of my mind.
I think about air
I think about how little there is, only that which I carry with me in tanks on my back. How long will this air last me? A few minutes? An hour? Maybe two? Hopefully until I reach the entrance, where air is free and rarely thought about by people walking upon the surface.
My reliance upon my equipment is absolute. A breach of integrity in one of my diving cylinders, with the concomitant loss of my air supply; malfunction of my regulator which carries that air from the tank to me; failure of my lights which allow me to see and thread my way through these submerged tunnels; any of these occurrences could be fatal. Like the astronauts, my life support equipment allows me to explore this realm for which man is not otherwise suited. As insurance, I carry redundant systems, providing some measure of safety should the finger of fate point in my direction.
Hundreds of people have died exploring these dominions. Many drowned because they were not aware of the special hazards caves offer. Others failed to take proper precautions against potential complications. A few trained and prepared individuals have perished as a result of their overconfidence. What were their last thoughts, as they gasped the last wisp of air from their cylinders and strangled in the cold darkness?
A bleak environment, ever dark, still, submerged, barren…what animals could possibly live here? Life is adaptive and manages to retain beachheads of existence in nearly every corner of the globe. It is no different here.
My light beam illuminates motes of dust drifting in the water
These shimmering, moving flecks dance in the water column. Their bright whiteness contrasts with the inky blackness behind them. These tiny specks of light comprise most of the animal life found in these voids in the earth. Smaller than ants, the size of small gnats, these lilliputian crustaceans are amphipods, isopods, and copepods; and are close relatives of the shrimps and lobsters.
A diminutive fish, only four inches long, swims slowly into my vision. The fish, too, is completely colorless. What need has an animal here of color, where all is in perpetual darkness? I see them, yet they see me not. Eyes are another useless extravagance here in the stygian depths.
Undulating languidly amidst the stalactites, the fish senses an amphipod nearby. Its blindness hampers it not. Alas, the minuscule arthropod is swallowed by the fish in an endless struggle for survival. When the fish dies, it will in turn feed the bacteria upon which the amphipod once fed.
I swim beyond the fish, probing further into the unknown corridors beyond. Simultaneously I pay out a thin string. Like Tom Sawyer in Indian Joe’s cave or Hansel and Gretel in the Black Forest, I leave my trail of breadcrumbs behind to help me find my way out.
I turn a corner, and emerge into a large inundated room. I gaze down onto a serene lake, a lake within the water in which I travel. What is this sharp surface? My journey creates ripples and waves along the interface dividing these two dissimilar waters. Fresh water above, salt water below, the two do not mix but forever maintain their isolation from each other. Were this refusal to mingle less complete, many tropical islanders would have no water, for this is the root of their drinking supply.
What is the cause of this sharp partition?
What influence has it upon the biology and ecology of the caverns? Why are the rocks below so pitted and corroded, while those above the interface sharp, clean, and effervescent? How is it maintained? These are questions to which many scientists seek answers.
I fall through the lake’s surface and drop to the bottom below. Settling on the floor, I sink into the soft sediment. Clouds of silt billow and swirl about me, forming a dense curtain which absorbs my light. The beam is conquered trying to escape. I can see nothing. Like the fish that live here, I too am now blind.
I retreat, groping along the line which is now my only link to the surface. Like a sightless man in an unfamiliar room, I stumble through the darkness. Finally the fog thins, and clear water once again envelops me.
My tenuous bridge to the surface leads me back the way I came. As I swim, I survey the line. A compass divulges the twists and turns I have made. I count knots every ten feet in the line to measure distances. A depth gauge reveals how far below the surface I am. This information is written on my slate underwater. When I surface, I will be able to draft an accurate map of the miles of hallways I have traversed.
How little we know of where these passageways lead.
These miles I have mapped are but a small fraction of the cavern system that exists. Huge rivers move below ground, listlessly winding their way into the concealed depths. What other secrets are hidden there?
As I swim towards the exit, I contemplate upon the insights I have gained, the new knowledge gleaned from my brief sojourn. I consider the new creatures I and others have found in this and similar caves. Hundreds of new species, new genera, new families, even a new class of animal have all been captured, studied, and classified.
I have collected clues which will shed some light upon the enigmas of the cave’s formation. The geology is complex, yet the thread of chaos is slowly being woven into a tapestry that tells a story of the Earth’s past.
The waters have told their own story.
While clear, they too hide information from curious eyes, only reluctantly divulging their secrets.
An animal, a crustacean, which has lived in these hidden crevices for millions of years, letting time pass them by. Unchanging, they have survived here 250 million years, hiding while the great reptiles rose, dominated the Earth, and long since fell into oblivion. The oxygen deficient waters protect them, asphyxiating any creatures that might feed upon them. These same waters form the fissures in which they hide. The margins where two water masses meet are especially corrosive, and quickly generate new living space. This is one such story which has slowly been related through much study of these great hidden systems.
At last, I reach the end of my line. Sunlight bathes me underwater, twinkling on the ripples caused by my bubbles striking the surface. As I leave the darkness behind me, the last of my fears fade away. I am safe.
My head breaks the surface. I breath sweet, pure air. Again, I am reborn.
Passing from the womb of rock, I have reached the sunlight, the air, the freedom of the earth upon which we live. As I strip my equipment from my body, I already long for the challenge, the excitement, and the intellectual stimulation of the caves I have left behind, and of the quest to decipher the mysteries and puzzles of Mother Nature.