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June 7, 2004

FONTABELLE CAVE 2


Position: WGS84 - 18 23' 59.1" N, 77 39' 10.5" W

Field notes: R. S. STEWART

Cavers: R. S. Stewart, M. Taylor, I. C. Conolley, M. Bellinger, D. K. Roggy, R. Stirling

Time in: 14:00 EST, Time out: 17:00 EST

THREAT VULNERABILITY: High

From left to right: Martel Taylor, Rona Stirling, Ivor Conolley, Dietrich Roggy, Mark Bellinger This was the second day of the June expedition and the first day of real caving. I still hadn't caught up on lost-sleep accumulated since my arrival in Ja on the evening of Jun 5, and so our decision to have a look at a new pit, reported by Martel to be near/at Fontabelle Cave, was fine with me. There would be no great drive or hike to reach it.

For reasons unknown, the previous approach to the cave, driving up a rural lane from Fontabelle, past Bottom Pond, was now not possible because it had been blocked by felled trees. Speculation on why this had been done quickly leads one to an obvious explanation, but because our interest is only in caves in Jamaica, and because Martel had info on an alternate route, it did not interfere with our approach to the cave. By taking the alternate route, we also did not inadvertantly trod through a field that it was best we not see.

The route involved driving north on a rural lane from the Fontabelle-Friendship road, to find an intersecting lane that would lead east towards the Coffee Hall district. Our crew were in two cars, mine and Ivor's. We missed the intersecting lane on our first try, but an old, crude GPS position that I still had for Fontabelle Cave enabled us to find it on the second try. The road was very rough and bushed-up, but Dietrich took the initiative, and walked ahead, scouting for rocks, and clearing dead logs, while I crawled along in the Corolla, with Ivor following me. Both vehicles had the minimum number of people onboard, i.e. the drivers, so we managed a km of rutted back-country lane with no lost mufflers or flattened tires. As I drove, I ran the GPS. When it showed us only several hundred metres north of my old position, and the closest that this road would get us, we came to an old section of cultivated land that Martel remembered as being the start of the hike to the entrance.

A bit of a jaunt up a hill, not terribly steep, soon brought us to the entrance to Fontabelle Cave. It had been many years since my last visit, but I found it all still somewhat familar. What was not familiar was the associated entrance to the south, sharing the same large shelter chamber as Fontabelle Cave proper; we'd missed this last time.

On the left, as one enters the saddle that gives access to the Fontabelle Caves from the north, a very large, highly eroded shelter cave is reached. By all appearances, this was at some time in the distant past a breakdown chamber cave that has now collapsed to become part of the current saddle. Whatever the morphology was, it now stretches some 40 m across with a depth of 10 m, under shelved overhangs, on the east side of saddle, and gives access to two separate caves. The map in JU is of the large, main cave, that has lightholes. On the south side of the shelter entrance, a smaller cave is found with an upper level extending down to the NE, towards the main cave, and a lower level reached by way of a 12 m drop found on the south side. This drop was Martel's new find.

It looked quite promising, so we anchored the 50 m rope to a tree, and fed it through an opening of 1.5 x 1.5 m that was a little above the main drop, but in a more direct line. In the course of the rigging, I had ended up somewhat lower, below a large breakdown boulder, and as scrambling over this boulder to get on ascent, (first again for a reason I can't quite figure out... the others seem to like to feed me down the hole first to see if there any monsters or such), I slipped on leaf-litter, slid back down the boulder, and rolled for about 10 m downslope. The others thought I was about to die. Myself, I felt only embarrasment, knowing in my flitting thoughts while en route that there was just a sandy slope below, down the chamber of the upper level. If it had been a nasty drop, I would have been much more careful. With only my dignity injured, I scrambled back up over the boulder, (being much more careful), got on rope, and rapped into our new pit.

After a very nice little descent of about 12 m, I touched down in a medium sized breakdown chamber. Even before I hit bottom, I could see that the morphology was fascinating [1]. An arch stretched thinly, metres across and high, from the wall of the chamber to meet the floor on an anciently cemented mound of breakdown boulders. The entire look of the chamber was different than others we've known. In addition to this, and more importantly, I could see at least two ways on.

I gave a shout of off-rope, and headed south to the larger of the openings that I could see. While the others came down, I wandered around to see what could be found. It was quite rewarding.

To the south of the drop-point, another chamber is found that is about 12 x 15 m. It is an active, undisturbed, healthy bat-roost with all that one would expect to find associated. Thick fluffy guano deposits cover the floor; Neoditomyia farri hang their threads under the ledges; cave crickets perch on the walls; amblypygids lurk about in search of prey; several species of spiders, (in particular one reddish type with a distinct body/leg shape that we know from other healthy caves), make their small webs in opportune spots; there were no introduced cockroaches. In short, this is a fine example of a bat cave that has had no human interference. The vertical keeps the guano miners out.

When the next person, Dietrich, was coming down, I moved back past the rope to check the other opening that I'd seen. A circular opening about 1 m in dia, with a flow of air, led into another breakdown chamber. A quick trip in and out got me back to the drop-chamber as D hit bottom. Once he was off-rope, I took him for a little excursion into the roosting chamber. I must note that on my first foray I had stepped carefully to avoid disturbing the guano deposits; on this second entry, both Dietrich and I did the same. We were the only ones into this chamber, and we were probably the first, so the guano deposits for paleontological or paleoclimatic research should be intact.

Martel, Ivor, and Mark soon joined us, and we then concentrated our efforts in finding a way on through the opening that had an air-flow. The flow was inwards and suggested a continuation to the main cave. After much exploring, we could not find a connecting passage. In fact, we found little other than this NE chamber. We turned out the headlamps to look for fissures above but saw nothing. Nevertheless, I suspect that the air-flow is exiting through unseen fissures to the surface, which is at no great distance above.

One curious note is that in the NE chamber we found a skeleton of a goat that had apparently died where we found it. The arrangement of the bones suggested against rafting. The location was through a constriction, in a chamber linked to the drop-chamber. Where the skeleton is located, it is sure that the goat was not thrown in by a farmer, (something we've seen the result of many times). At a guess, it looks like it fell in, survived long enough to stumble around in the cave, and then dropped dead where we found it. I note this primarily out of respect for this poor lost goat and his final story, unknown until now.

We now began our ascent to the surface. Martel, while exploring the drop-chamber, found a dicey scramble up and out, and Ivor chose to give this a try as well. Mark, Dietrich and I decided to use the rope and vertigear. Although we all made it up fine, at the end of it, the preferred route seemed to definitely be the rope.

Once we were all up, we hauled rope and then headed into Fontabelle Cave proper, the main cave. Primarily, I wanted to have a look at the biology in the main cave to see how it compared with our new section. A good long look around showed several things: there are less bats than our new section, probably because most of the main cave is in the twilight zone; there are accordingly no real guano deposits although people of the district scrape the dirt in places to fertilize their herb; the morphology, and lower humidity due to the airflow through the skylights, results in no N. farri etc. The most biologically valuable section of the cave system is what we are designating Fontabelle Cave 2, i.e. our new section.

A GPS position was taken with some difficulty due to the position in a saddle and poor satellite orientation, we loaded up gear, and hiked back to the cars to return to Coxheath and Windsor.

[1] The rock that the Fontabelle caves are located in is quite interesting. In particular, at the opening to the shaft of Cave 2, rather than a solid limestone, the rock is a concretion of rounded stones and boulders, 5 - 30 cm, cemented together in a matrix. It looks like cretaceous (?) stones, eroded in stream-beds, cemented by tertiary clays. These deposits are surrounded by regular amorphous limestone and one can actually see where the older rocks have gathered in depressions, when they were above the waves, prior to their resubmergence and cementing.

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