Photo by Geary Schindel.
There has been a secretive underground organization lurking around in the bowels of the earth for almost 75 years. Members of the NationalSpeleological Society (NSS) are passionate about the exploration, study, and conservation of caves – our out of sight and out of mind subsurface resources. On any given weekend, hundreds of cavers can be found crawling in caves throughout the country - digging in sinkholes, rappelling into pits, and swimming into springs - and few of the 10,000 enthusiasts in the US get paid to do it.
It takes a special kind of person that would dedicate the time, energy, and expense to develop the skills to explore deep pits, swim in passages with low air space, and crawl around and over blocks of fallen rock. Many of the members of the NSS dedicate long hours to explore, map, and document cave resources. They have found miles of unknown cave passages, new species, and fragile formations. It can be a cold, wet, muddy, and exhausting activity. As you can image, it also creates a subculture of like-minded people that occupy the shadows of society.
|Valdina Farm Sinkhole, Texas. Photo by Geary Schindel.|
Caves are a unique and fragile world – one of perpetual darkness, constant temperature, and unique animals. They act as conduits for surface water to recharge our aquifers, sheltered early humans, and recorded and preserved our early history.
|Bats emerging from Bracken Bat Cave, Comal County, Texas.|
Photo by Geary Schindel.
Cavers have been at the forefront in protecting our subterranean resources. They have dedicated countless hours removing trash from sinkholes; scrubbing graffiti from cave walls; building gates to protect delicate formations, archeological sites, and cave critters; mapping and documenting cave resources; and managing caves. They have actively been involved in the fight against White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that is killing millions of bats across the eastern US - and is now spreading westward. They have raised tens of thousands of dollars in member donations to help fund research to fight the disease.
|Crawlway exploration. Photo by Geary Schindel.|
There is a love-hate relationship with publicizing information on wild caves which is why caving is a commonly under represented sport. Many caves contain fragile ecosystems or formations that can be damaged by thoughtless or untrained visitors. In addition, caves can be dangerous to the unprepared. Cavers guard their secrets well from non-cavers as many caves have been irreparably damaged by the casual visitor – called spelunkers by members of the NSS.
As a society, we don’t appreciate or protect what we don’t know about or understand. However, bringing attention to caves can bring unwanted and unprepared visitors that can do permanent damage to a cave and its inhabitants. How do you balance the message that caves and cave ecosystems are important and worth protecting without attracting large numbers of people that will damage the very resources you want to protect?
Many states have organizations that collect and disseminate cave resource information. Most of these organizations are operated by volunteer cavers. They are the experts that geologist and hydrologists turn to for cave information and help in documenting and managing caves.
|Wet cave exploration. Photo by Mike Harris.|
So, if you really want to say with confidence that you know your rear end from a hole in the ground; have a spirit for adventure and a strong conservation ethic; have a tolerance for eclectic personalities that just crawled out from under a rock; and don’t mind mud, water, or tight spaces; - maybe you would make a good caver. If so, seek out a chapter (grotto) of the National Speleological Society, attend a couple of meetings so folks know you’re serious and want to invest some time to train you, and enjoy one of the last unexplored areas on earth.
Geary Schindel, P.G.
Administrative Vice President
National Speleological Society
Chief Technical Officer
San Antonio, Texas