Winter 2002 Forward to a Friend

Janot Lamberton descends into an ice cave in Greenland.
He is considered the master of deep ice caves and has been leading
caving expeditions to Greenland since 1985. Photo: MacGillivray Freeman Films

No matter how forbidding, how plainly dangerous the geography of a given place, there is something inherent in human nature that will push us to explore.

But for the true explorer – the carrier of that uniquely human gene that drives her or him to proclaim, I must be the first one there – the ever shrinking planet offers only one remaining option: look underground, where not even the satellites can reach.

The motivation to explore caves is different from perhaps that, say, to climb Mount Everest. It’s not an urge to conquer the cave because it’s there; it exists. Caving is driven by a curiosity and desire to know, precisely, what lies beyond each yawning entrance and forking passage. Caves have no “there” to them until they are explored. In that sense, even a flashlight-toting weekend spelunker shares the ancient human need to reveal new ground.

Millions of caves hide beneath the surface of the world, and over the past half century, thousands of expert cavers, armed with modern technology, have begun to map and explore a small percentage of them. Natural tunnels and chambers can be found in limestone and other sedimentary rocks, in volcanoes and lava tubes, in glaciers and polar ice. With ropes and highly specialized climbing gear, cavers routinely visit pits over a thousand feet deep and haul underground base camps through bone-hugging crawlways thousands of feet long. Cave divers, using technology so sophisticated that they might as well be spacewalkers, now swim through miles of flooded passages, pulled along by lamplit electric scooters through underground rooms born in darkness, which until that day had never been exposed to light. Unlike explorers of ages past who sought gold or conquest or new lands to exploit, modern cavers display a fervent respect for the places they discover. Caves and the life within them are often extraordinarily delicate, easily disturbed by human intrusion. Cavers thus take great pains to make the evidence of their passage all but invisible. And yet, like the European explorers of the 16th century, cavers have often traversed what they considered empty wilderness, unaware they were harming indigenous populations. Cave biologists have long studied and sought to protect bats, fish, insects, and other familiar cave life, but it is now known that there are far more extensive – and unfamiliar – populations of life that exist on and within the Earth that have yet to be identified.

A caver rappels into a lower-level passage of the
Blanchard Springs Cavern in Arkansas. Photo: MacGillivray Freeman Films

Over the past decade, scientists have been surprised to learn that in the deepest recesses of the Earth are repositories of exotic microbes – called extremophiles – far more varied in types of species and their individual strategies for survival than all the plants of an equatorial rain forest. Microbiologists estimate that fewer than one percent of the planet’s bacteria have been cataloged, and the extremophiles are among the most difficult of all microbes to observe – let alone collect in the wild. These deep-dwelling microorganisms are so alien that they are under study by NASA scientists seeking to understand how life might operate beneath the frozen surface of Mars or within the oceanic moons of Jupiter. These bugs – what scientists call unknown microbes – have evolved unique survival skills to endure extremes of cold, heat, acidity, pressure, and in some cases even high radioactivity. Able to live and reproduce while far from both sunlight and traditional food sources, these microorganisms may prove to be promising sources for new medicines for cancer treatment or novel antibiotics that can attack diseases impervious to more common drugs. Just as penicillin comes from a natural defense employed by a cheese mold, extremophiles carry unique chemical weapons that humans might find useful. As biologists begin to understand the extreme genetic diversity of these microscopic troglodytes, they are rethinking the history and nature of all life on Earth.

These translucent formations are made of white calcium carbonate
tinged red by iron and other minerals. The smaller ones are soda straws,
while the larger one is a stalactite. Photo: MacGillivray Freeman Films

Over the past decade, I have been lucky enough to accompany several such microbial pioneers deep underground, sharing the thrill in their discoveries of strange new life. As a journalist, and not a formally trained scientist, in 1997 and 1998 I was surprised to uncover a few cave bugs of my own. Once again I have had the opportunity to participate in a Star-Trek-like exploration of unknown worlds, this time following MacGillivray Freeman Films and their film crew as they documented Hazel Barton and Nancy Aulenbach descents into the ice caves of Greenland in 1998, into the world’s longest underwater caves beneath Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1999, and into limestone caves and canyons in the American wilderness in 2000.


The only safe way to try caving is to go with someone experienced. Luckily, there are many ways for the beginner to do this. Most national and state parks featuring caves offer guided “wild cave” tours and adventures, as do many privately owned tour caverns.

Another safe way to enter a wild cave is to sign up for a novice trip with a local cave club. Clubs affiliated with the National Speleological Society (NSS), called “grottos,” often schedule beginner trips and training events. Some will also arrange special trips for scout groups, schools, and similar organizations.

Follow the lead of your guide when hiking over private property, dealing with farm and cave gates, and visiting cave owners. Show respect for the cave and your fellow explorers, and you will be in for a memorable and perhaps life-changing experience. Many world-class caving careers have begun with a single grotto novice trip, as have many lifetime friendships.

To find the grotto nearest you, call the NSS national office in Huntsville, Alabama, at (256) 852-1300, or visit the NSS online at


Nancy Aulenbach (standing) maps the entrance to a cave near
the Little Colorado River in Arizona. Photo: MacGillivray Freeman Films

This deep chamber, known as The Pit, is in one of the world’s longest underwater cave systems, in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Photo: MacGillivray Freeman Films

Cavers like Hazel Barton and Nancy Aulenbach may have been first lured underground by the sheer physical thrill of exploration in an undiscovered country full of hidden dangers. But they dedicate themselves to international expeditions not so much for the new passage they will find as for the information they will bring back. Like a scientific Prometheus, cave scientists hope to uncover secret, profound knowledge; to be pioneers of fact.

From the book Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms by Michael Ray Taylor. ©2000 by MacGillivray Freeman Films. Text ©2000 by Michael Ray Taylor. Reprinted by arrangement with the National Geographic Society. To order this book, call (888) 647-6733 or visit


Cave Protection Laws In The U.S.

Every state in America has at least one cave and the National Speleological Society estimates there are more than 50,000 caves nationwide. Caves are protected on federal lands by the Federal Cave Protection Act and in 25 states by state cave laws. These laws make it illegal to damage caves or to remove anything found in a cave.