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St Clair Cave
June 3, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, J Pauel, A Haiduk
Notes: Andreas Haiduk

Report on Visit to St. Clair Cave. Prepared by: Andreas Haiduk, Chief Hydrologist, Water Resources Authority

On June 3, 2006, Jan, Stefan, and myself set out from Marieís humble abode in Pollyground, St. Catherine to conquer St. Clair Cave. The objective of this visit was to revisit the Acheron and to take air samples. At Stefanís last visit the air quality was very poor and air quality sampling was contemplated. Knowing very well about the dangers of toxic fumes be it H2S or CH4, or simply the presence of low oxygen levels, we equipped ourselves with a small air tank connected to a scuba gear as is used by divers. These items were provided courtesy of Jan. We decided, or should I say I offered myself, to carry the air tank plus scuba gear in a large trekking backpack. Once secured safely on the back, at least so I thought, it should be a breeze to carry it. We set out at about 08:50 hours. At that time, Jamaica was already 3 goals back against England in a friendly. We walked for about 20 min and upon reaching the normally dry river bed of the Black River (the head of the Rio Cobre) we were greeted by a fast flowing stream having a distinctly sweet smell. An odour one can associate with the effluent from a sugar mill. There being no footpath along the riverbed we had to resort to walking in the river. This was quite challenging as the riverbed is strewn with large boulders and with the heavy backpack now and then submerged in water, the walk started to become difficult. [Video - St Clair Approach: WMV 3 MB; QT 10 MB; AVI 22 MB]. In fact I lost my footing twice and started to float downstream. The heavy backpack didnít help in these situations at all. After having crossed the river, we had to stop twice to use the GPS for getting our bearings. Good thing Stefan carried the GPS; it really brought us on the right track.

After a slippery ascent, we reached the cave entrance, which is a vertical shaft, and entered the shaft bottom via climbing down on tree roots. Stefan warned us explicitly to not sit on the dirt ground as apparently one expedition participant contracted a worm (?) which has been linked to cat faeces. The cave is occupied by a number of wild cats. To pacify the cave duppy, Stefan emptied a white rum flask (no he did not drink it) by pouring the contents on the ground and chanting like a shaman. We entered the main cave and walked for about 15 min until we reached a section with a stagnant water body. The surrounding sounds were eerie. It sounded like water rushing towards us. But it later turned out to be the sound from bats moving their wings and creating an echo which from a distance sounded like rushing water. Continuing the walk, we stayed in the water body, and further into the cave the water turned out to be a mixture of anything that comes out of bats and possible groundwater. Although the smell was like guano, the thought of walking knee deep and sometimes deeper through bat excrements was somewhat disturbing.

By now, Jan had taken over the heavy backpack with the air supply. We kept walking for quite some time until we came to a section which appeared to be collapsed. Based on Stefanís recollection, that must have been the section with the entrance to Inferno-Plus, the location of the Acheron River.

Stefan and Jan felt somehow tired and exhausted, had difficulties breathing and started sweating. I felt still fine. We then decided to use the air supply as apparently too much CO2 was in the air or in other words the ambient oxygen levels were low. Stefan did some exploration to figure out how to enter Inferno Plus while Jan was recuperating. When Stefan came back (well he never went out of our sight) he was extremely disappointed as the section he thought one could have entered Inferno Plus was submerged under water. He did not venture further as he felt short breathed again. Realizing that there was no way we could enter the Inferno Plus, he managed at least to take two air samples. I gave it then a shot to look around for the entrance and had to step down to a slightly lower level. When I resurfaced I felt very weak. The fact that my feeling of weakness set in later might be attributed to my non-smoker status. However, by now I yearned for some fresh air. And luckily we had two air supply masks which we could share. That reminded me somewhat about my younger days when we circulated the chillum (oops!).

The decision was then made to not venture further into the cave as the air quality might not improve and the tank had only a limited supply of air. We didnít want to get caught in a sticky situation and some morbid jokes made already the round. So the longer we kept talking, the more nervous I got and pushed the other two to make our way back. I really wanted some fresh air. Not that I am claustrophobic, but with limited air and a long way to go I wanted to get going.

With each step back, the air quality improved and surprisingly the number of bats flying around us increased. Bats could well be used as air quality indicators similar to the canary in coal mines.

I was walking in the front when I saw something lying on the water. It was a bat and I thought it was dead. It lay there for about 10 seconds, and then when I tried to pass it, it simply lifted itself from the water and flew away. While I am aware that bats can grab floating insects from the water surface, I did not know that they can actually sit on the water albeit not for extended periods. But that sight was amazing.

While we approached our last section, we were greeted by thousands of bats entering the cave. A sight to behold reminded me of ďBatman BeginsĒ. But hardly a bat touched us. Amazing.

We luckily did leave the cave alive, and upon our exit the rum odour was still lingering in the air. After we climbed out of the vertical shaft a big black cat rushed past us towards the cave and disappeared in the foliage. Was that the duppy? Who knows.

The return trip was as exciting and wet as the trip to the cave. By now, I had taken over the heavy back pack again. The backpack became soaked and added a few more kilos to that already heavy weight. [Video - St Clair Retreat: WMV 3 MB; QT 9.5 MB; AVI 19 MB.] Anyhow, we made it back, and Jan as our saviour miraculously produced three ice cold Red Stripes from his van. Cheers Jan.

The trip ended in a lot of discussion, and with more Red Stripe, Stefan in his outreach programme used Janís laptop as a displaying device showing a Video about the last Cave Organisations trip in March and showing a number of digital shots which Jan took during the St. Clair Cave trip. The crowd was very appreciative.

Map of St Clair Cave
Jamaican Cave Notes - Main PageJune 2006 Caving Notes - Main Page