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Caving in Jamaica can be a magnificent experience or it can be a complete nightmare. On these pages we hope to pass along advice that will make the first outcome more likely. The challenges faced are sometimes of a physical nature, sometimes cultural, often logistical, and very often it can be a challenge just finding the desired cave in the first place.

This page will deal with what to expect, and how to survive, in a Jamaican cave.



Ivor at the first drop of Windsor Cave In the Cave

What to expect and how to not die

Jamaican caves are formed by the percolation, or flow, of the slightly acidic rainfall that twice a year pummels the soluble limestone in which the systems are found. The resultant terrain is called Karst topography. In the central part of the Cockpit Country, all rivers flow underground. In other areas, rivers will appear and disappear along their course as they take the easiest route to the sea. This is what makes the island such a wonderful place for cavers.

Because of the great amount of precipitation received during the two rainy seasons, May-June, and September-November, the caves of Jamaica grow much more quickly than those found in more northern parts of the world. Formations can be spectacular as a result, but this bounty of water introduces two important elements to caving on the island: mud, and flood risk. The mud, if you're good on your feet, is merely an annoyance. The flood risk is real and dangerous.

In many caves, the mud will make walking and scrambling treacherous. It is a rare person who doesn't occasionally find themselves doing a little dance of slipping and sliding as they try to stay upright. Always wear a helmet for this reason if no other. If you take a fall it might be on to boulders far down a nasty slope, or on to sharp rocks right under your feet. You don't want to bounce your head off of any of these. This mud also makes photography difficult without having fine grains of material lodged in all moving parts of the camera forever. If you bring a camera, work out a way of keeping it clean. It has been found that keeping it in a ziplock bag and only exposing the lens when shots are taken, while holding the camera with your hands on the outside of the bag, can work. There are probably other methods but give this some consideration before you go in.

The risk of rapid flooding in hydrologically active caves, during the rainy season, is real, dangerous, and must never be forgotten. We have seen water levels rise at a rate that would not be believed unless you'd witnessed it yourself. This rise can be on the order of metres per hour. If you repeatedly take chances at the wrong time of year in such systems, you will eventually die in a cave. It cannot be over-stressed that you must not enter a river cave that has long stretches of low passages or crawls during the rainy season. If you do, there is a very good chance that you will end your days in a watery grave; there will be little chance of your body ever being recovered.

Assuming that you have taken precautions to avoid drowning or knocking yourself unconscious in a fall, there are still further considerations: Self-rescue, not getting lost, and etiquette.

Be aware that if you run into trouble, by getting lost or having a serious injury, no one will come to rescue you. When you're in a serious cave in Jamaica, in most cases you're on your own. No one will come to help because no one will be able to. The people of the district will not have adequate lights, gear, or expertise. They will also not be too inclined to enter a dark hole where people who supposedly know what they're doing have already come to mishap. Calls might be made to the police, once it's been noticed that you've disappeared, (assuming that you've notified someone of your plans before you go in the cave), but when they arrive, if they've found the cave entrance, they too will have neither the gear nor expertise to do anything. They will call the army who will probably take one look at what you've done and write you off as goners.
You must have a minimum number of three people in the caving party so that two can assist a third injured member out of the cave. Two people alone is not good enough. The one will stand no chance of getting the other out. Do your best to avoid problems and remember, you're on your own. This is part of the attraction for some; it is refreshing to have your fate entirely in your own hands, but if caving without a vast support system on the outside to come to your rescue is not your cup of tea, forget about Jamaica.

Don't get lost. If you do, you're on your own for all the same reasons stated above. The easiest method to keep from getting lost is to flag. Take rolls of flagging tape, a different colour for each person, and use it. Flag more than you think is necessary. No matter how well you try to remember the route that you've taken in, it will all look different on the way out. In complex caves every flag must be visible from the adjacent flag. Come up with a system to indicate line of travel outward when T-junctions are encountered so that you avoid going in circles if you loop around to your previously marked route. Keep looking back in complex systems of small passages. You might pass a spot where a passage joins from above, not notice it, and because of inadequate flagging take the wrong passage on your return. One's natural inclination is to go up, and the upper passage will be followed by mistake. No flags will be found and confusion will ensue. Do your best to ensure that the route out is never lost. You might get lucky and recover it or you might not.

Etiquette demands that we leave the cave as we found it. This means that every effort must be made to recover the flags on the way out. Caves that you intend to visit again in the near future may be left flagged in difficult or confusing sections, but eventually every flag must go. Etiquette also requires us to take every precaution to avoid damaging formations or stirring up bats unnecessarily by shining lights on the ceilings of chambers where they roost. The cavers should also attempt to stay to one path, rather than spreading out. Compaction of material underfoot, especially in outer sections of caves where there will be more biological activity, is damaging to the troglobytic species that live there.

Remember at all times that you are just a visitor to the cave and that many others call it home. Caves in Jamaica are biological islands, with rich and diverse communities of living creatures dwelling in the dark. Take time to look closely and carefully at these. Consider how you might do less damage to their habitat. Show some respect.

We now move on to cultural considerations involved in Jamaican caving.     NEXT >>

(It must always be remembered that caving is inherently dangerous. Proper precautions can greatly reduce the likelihood of injury or death, but there is a definite risk involved and this cannot be forgotten.)

(Look before you leap.)


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