Jamaican Caving Notes
March 30, 2005
MOUTH MAZE CAVE
Main Entrance: WGS84 - 18 18' 29.1" N, 77 34' 27.0" W, +/- 5m
Lighthole Entrance: WGS84 - 18 18' 31.6" N, 77 34' 31.8" W, +/- 10m
Field notes: R. S. STEWART
Cavers: R. S. Stewart, I. C. Conolley, D. K. Roggy, E. Slack
Time in: 15:00 EST, Time out: 18:30 EST
THREAT VULNERABILITY: Medium
Mouth Maze is located at the sink of the Mouth River, in Rock Spring, Trelawny. The JCO visit to it was made as a part of the Parks in Peril Project, under contract to The Nature Conservancy.
We were fortunate in there having been very dry conditions for the two months prior to our exploration of this cave, because during rainy times it is potentially quite dangerous. At the time of our visit, dried mud could be seen stuck to the trunks of trees in the valley just upstream of the main entrance, over 10m high. This was probably left over from Hurricane Ivan, but according to local reports, even in a normal rainy-season the valley floods up much higher than the entrance to the cave. This is primarily due to the valley of the Mouth River suddenly ending at the entrance to the cave, (a blind-valley, as it were), so that water backs-up to a considerable height before it manages to drain entirely through Mouth Maze cave.
The cave is best described as a labyrinth, and it is large and impressive. The outer chambers, close inside the main entrance, are 10's of metres high and wide. This section takes almost all of the river flow, and has been eroded greatly as a result. Further on, the cave branches into a number of different passages, and they are generally smaller. It requires diligent flagging to avoid getting lost. Any who read these notes and contemplate a visit to Mouth Maze are advised to not take it lightly. There are none in the district who are familiar with the cave, and if you have problems, no one will find you, (even the JCO would have a hard time locating lost cavers in this great network of passages).
Our team had already visited several caves this day, and this was to be the last. The hike out would be easy, on a good trail, and we had no great worries if we had to make the trek back to Rock Spring in the dark. At about 3:00 PM, after the Harties caves, we were at the downstream end of the Mouth River and looking for a way through a giant pile of debris that had been heaped-up in front of the entrance, apparently by the floods of Hurricane Ivan. Bamboo, tree-trunks, and assorted garbage, lay in a great mound, tens of metres across, and at least 10m high, in front of where the main entrance to the cave should be. Stepping carefully over and around this, we finally found a way in. I am unsure of what the entrance looks like when it is clear, but on this day all that was visible was an opening a couple of metres high and wide. This was soon passed, and we were in the cave.
I must admit that it didn't take long for me to become somewhat concerned about what lay before us, and I passed the word to the others that we would be very, very careful in this one. Part of my reason for feeling this way was that the intitial chambers were large enough that we could not see side-passages well, but we knew that they were there in abundance. It seemed easy to lose track of flags in this, and miss turns on the way out. In addition, everything was coated in slimy mud, and footing was treacherous, especially over the massive slabs and boulders that served as the floor in much of this first part. Moving slowly, we carried on straight ahead to find the closest of the other known entrances. At the far end of what seemed to be the main part of the large entrance series, a scramble up a muddy slope led to a breakdown chamber with lightholes at the top. One of these was reached by me via a climb up boulders of about 13m, and I came out high on a hillside with, amazingly, dried mud in place on the trees that grew at the entrance. I could not tell whether the waters had sunk or risen here, but whichever it was, I was a good distance higher than the main entrance and the first large chambers found within. The amount of water that must have been involved in all of this was incredible.
After getting a GPS position at the lighthole entrance, I climbed carefully back down to rejoin the others, and then we retraced our route until we came to a large side-passage on the SW that had been passed on the way in. I believe this was the beginning of the so-called "Bloodbath Passage" shown on the KHE map. This was followed for about 50m, and then another side-passage was taken, to the NW. We moved through this section, (I believe we were in the "VW Passage"), and worked our way along, flagging often, until we finally entered what I believe to have been the "Sludge Thing", (this after a slither through the mud in a low passage, first pushed by Elizabeth). We now came into a long sinuous streamway that we followed for well over a hundred metres. Soon after we had entered this last passage, we had detected a slight flow of air, (this being a big part of why we had carried on), and there was no doubt that somewhere ahead was another entrance. Unfortunately, the great amount of silt deposited in the water, through which we splashed, was steadily supplying noxious gases as we churned things up making our way forward. I began to keep track of how I felt, so that I might be aware of the effects of high concentrations of CO2, or other gases. I will go into more detail on this further on, but it must be noted that this entire cave had experienced a massive flood during Hurricane Ivan, and it was heavily silted, and full of a great amount of organic debris, such as bamboo, logs, and branches - in short, there was a lot of actively rotting stuff in this cave, and conditions were substantially different than when the KHE team made their visit in 1965.
My thoughts in this part of the cave were that we were headed for an entrance, the airflow should improve as we got close to it, and because we had taken time to study and collect inverts on the way to where we were now, (thereby having conducted the bioinventory part of the work), that we should make speed and find the way out, and fresh air, somewhere ahead of us. I had a walkie-talkie with me, and the others who were now some distance behind me had the other. It seemed to me that if I were out front and pushing on at a somewhat faster pace, that the rest of the crew would also move at a faster pace, copying my example. This did not turn out to be the case, and after a short time I recieved a call, via a signal bouncing up the passage to reach my walkie-talkie, informing me that the others wanted to consult on things and desired my participation. There was some concern on their part as to whether we should carry on or turn back, since they too were not happy with the state of the air in the passage. I returned towards them, and we linked as they came up towards me. A quick discussion decided things, and we agreed to turn back. Time was getting late, we were a long way into a complex cave, and the atmosphere was rank. I went with the majority decision, which was to pull the plug, and we headed back out the way we'd come. We successfully retraced our route, and were again at the main entrance not long before sunset.
If parts of this cave have been used by bats as a roost in the past, the flood event during Hurricane Ivan took care of that, and also washed away any evidence of it having happened. Considering the regular, "normal" seasonal floods that enter this cave, I doubt that it is ever used as anything but a temporary roost by fruit-bats.
There was a surprising degree of invert activity, apparently fueled by the enormous amount of detritus that has recently been rafted in. At least several of the species were troglobites, (identification underway), and others are suspected to be terrestrial, rafted in and continuing to survive on the accompanying detritus. The trog inverts apparently survived the floods by hiding-out in small cracks at the top of the passages and chambers. Most remarkable of the rafted terrestrials was a termite nest, complete with live termites, that was about 60cm across, sitting on a rock, perfectly rounded by its watery travel into the cave. The logs and bamboo that were present were continuing to enable the critters to survive. Of the over 100 caves I have visited in Jamaica, this was the first one I've ever seen with a termite colony, other than in the twilight zone close to the entrance. The location of the termite nest was hundreds of metres from the nearest entrance, and when the last of the logs are rotted away, one can safely assume that the termites will be history.
Many Sesarma spp. were present, but no shrimp were seen. This does not mean that they weren't present - we might have just not seen them - but if they are in Mouth Maze the numbers are not great.
I must note again the great amount of debris that is currently in the cave. This not only includes a great quantity of organic material, but also a vast collection of garbage that was washed in at the same time. It is interesting that there was little in the final passage, (Sludge Thing?), indicating that its source is relatively garbage-free. Much of the rest of the cave that we saw had been flooded by the waters of the Mouth River, and had collected a kilometres worth of external trash prior to feeding it into the entrance. The cave truly needs a good clean-up at some point before all the assorted buckets, bottles, and bags start to lodge and collect silt in smaller downstream passages. This process could very possibly interfere with the historical levels of drainage through Mouth Maze, (that allows the water to leave the entrance valley and come out at the downstream risings), and back things up even more in the future.
This day had been one of the most productive so far this expedition, and although somewhat physically tired, I felt quite pleased and didn't want the day to end yet. After having a bite to eat at Miss Buckle's, I made my way down the road to a friendly little bar that I knew of, and spent a couple of hours in the good company of some of the local residents, while being served cold Red Stripe by a quite attractive, very friendly woman. At 10:00 PM, with my sense of responsibility kicking-in, I wended my way back to Miss Buckle's, brushed my teeth, took out my contact lenses, and then had a very satisfying, well-deserved sleep.
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