In the novel Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James Tabor says, “caves are like living organisms, with bloodstreams and respiratory systems, infections and infestations. They take in organic matter and digest it, flushing it through their systems.” With their stalagmites and vaulting galleries, boulder-fields and sulfurous flowstone, waterfalls and sumps (flooded tunnels), caves represent the edge of the known world. Extreme cave explorers know that in order to find something new, something that hasn’t been mapped and nobody has ever seen, they need to push beyond the secluded coves and phosphorescent lagoons, deeper and deeper underground.
Exploring deep cave systems is often described as an Everest expedition turned upside down. Extreme cavers call caving “a game played in the dark on an invisible field.” But it’s a dangerous and life-threatening game. According to James Tabor, there are more than 50 ways for a person to die during a caving expedition. Drowning, narcosis, hypoxia, electrocution, and histoplasmosis (a fungal infection acquired from bat guano) are all perils of journeying through a cave. Even experienced cavers have been known to develop a sickness called “the rapture” -an extreme, primordial reaction to darkness and depth, which cavers describe as being like an anxiety attack on amphetamines. Put a simpler way: darkness, solitude, and the sudden fear of being trapped a mile underground causes the mind to break.
When it comes to caving, most depth records are provisional. A cave system is a jigsaw puzzle, and just beyond a dead-end wall or a sump there may be more tunnels. The earth goes on and on, and this is what drives the caver to keep exploring. As Jules Verne might say, a caver is on a journey to the center of the earth. At the same time, there’s more to caving than depth records. Subterranean explorations have unearthed everything from prehistoric cave paintings to chambers containing large selenite crystals (Cave of the Crystals, Mexico). Here’s a look at the most amazing caves in the world.
Lubang Nasib Bagus, otherwise known as Gua Nasib Bagus (Good Luck Cave), is found in Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage Site on the island of Borneo. The cave is famous for housing the largest underground chamber in the world. Discovered by three British cavers in 1981, the Sarawak Chamber measures 2,300 ft. long, 1,500 ft. wide, and 230 ft. high. Running water created all of the caverns in Lubang Nasib Bagus nearly 5 million years ago. In order to reach the Sarawak Chamber, cavers must trek through 1.5 km of active stream. Moreover, the entrance passage is prone to flooding, which makes access to the great chamber impossible during certain times of the year.
Located in the French Alps, Jean Bernard was considered the deepest known cave in the world for more than twenty years. The entrance to Jean Bernard was discovered in 1959; there are currently eight entrances, the highest being 2260 m above sea level. The search for the world’s deepest cave has always been something of an international competition, and by the 1980s deeper caves than Jean Bernard had been discovered. Today, it ranks as the 5th deepest cave in the world.
Before the discovery of the Krubera Cave in Georgia, this limestone karst river cave was the deepest known cave in the world (5,354 ft.). According to local legend the cave is named after Lamprecht, a knight who returned from the Crusades and is believed to have hidden his massive wealth in the cave. In fact, in 1701 the cave was walled up to prevent the interference of treasure hunters. Lamprechtsofen held the title as deepest cave in the world for three years, when, in 1998, a team led by a Polish caver discovered a tunnel connection between Lamprechtsofen and the Vogelshacht system, which added significant depth to the overall cave complex.
The Skocjan Caves are the creation of the Reka River. The Reka sinks into a rocky gorge and disappears underground for 21 miles before surfacing again near the Adriatic coast. The caves are named after the village of Skocjan, which lies atop the rocky slab where the river disappears. The Skocjan Caves rank among the most important caves in the world and were entered on UNESCO’s list of natural and cultural heritage sites in 1986. The system’s geological features include waterfalls, a massive stone canyon, and the highest cave hall in Europe, which is known as "Martel’s Chamber."
Systematic exploration of the Skocjan Caves began in 1884, and archeological research has found that the caves were home to humans as far back as the Neolithic Age. The Eastern European subterranean chamber is often called “The Underground Grand Canyon."
Norbert Casteret was a French caver, adventurer, and writer. He's often referred as the “father of speleology.” Casteret’s novel Ten Years Under the Earth, along with Pierre Chevalier’s Subterranean Climbers, helped transform the "sport" of caving into a heroic, Ernest Shackleton undertaking. In 1922, while Casteret was hiking in the French Pyrenees, he saw a stream flowing through a crack in the base of a mountain. He wedged himself into the crack and discovered that a tunnel followed the stream; eventually, the passage dipped below the waterline, and that’s when Norbert Casteret made one of the most famous free-dives in the history of caving. Casteret’s exploration of what is now called the Grotte de Montespan led to two hidden galleries, one of which was covered with paintings of mammoths, bison, and other prehistoric beasts.
The Stone Age paintings in the Grotte de Montespan, however, are not as well known as those found in Lascaux, a cave located in a complex system in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. Lascaux was accidentally discovered by a teenager in 1940. Estimated to be 20,000 years old, the cave paintings in Lascaux are famous for their exceptional size (some are nearly life-size), quality, and sophistication. The galleries in Lascaux include The Hall of the Bulls, the Passageway, the Shaft, the Nave, the Apse, and the Chamber of Felines. Lascaux was opened to the public from 1948 to 1963. However, carbon dioxide became an issue and the cave was closed in an attempt to protect and preserve the art.
Located in the Arabika Massif of the Gagrinsky Range of the Western Caucuses, Krubera Cave is the deepest known cave in the world. Many deep caves don’t call attention to themselves. They hide behind small entrances or muddy rifts that widen into shafts or vaults. Krubera’s entrance is notoriously small; it’s a hole covered with moss and crows’ nests. In fact, many speleologists call Krubera by its slang name, Voronya Cave, which means “Crow’s Cave” in Russian.
Cavers first explored Krubera in the 1960s. However, they descended less than 300 ft. before arriving at an impassable squeeze. It was until years later that a small side passage revealed the vast cave system beneath. Still, cavers knew from the beginning that Krubera was deep due the amount of air that passed through it. There’s a saying in caving: “If it blows, it goes.” In other words, it’s just a matter of figuring out which way the labyrinth of passages go, and how, if a dead end is reached, that dead end can be circumvented by another system. Krubera is known for its chimney-like shafts and tight crawlspaces. In 2012, a Ukrainian caver named Gennadiy Samokhin set the current depth record when he descended 7,208 ft. from the entrance of Krubera.
The Cheve Cave system is the deepest in Mexico and the Americas. Cheve is shaped like a giant “L,” and its tunnels lie along a fault line in the Sierra de Juarez Mountains. While only 4,869 feet have been formally explored, Cheve is potentially the longest cave in the world. Estimates suggest it has the vertical potential of 8,500 feet.
Western cavers discovered the entrance to Cheve in 1986, and along with the cave they also made another discovery: there were small bones underneath a rock slab by the entrance. It's believed the bones are the remains of child sacrifices made by the Cuicatec people hundreds of years ago. In fact, local villagers had long steered clear of Cheve. They told stories about an evil spirit that wandered Cheve’s tunnels. Bill Stone, an American caver, explorer, and engineer, has led several expeditions to Cheve. In 1990, Stone and his team dropped fluorescent red dye into the stream at the cave’s entrance. Eight days later, eleven miles away, the dye came out in the Santo Domingo River, some 8,500 feet below. According to Bill Stone, this proves the Cheve system is at least 1,000 feet deeper than Krubera.