Home » Reading » Caveman's Babble » Sea Caves as I know them



Smart kayakers are scared to death of sea caves. However, most of us - full of abandon and void of common sense - find caverns filled with salt water irresistible. Personally, I've never seen a sea cave I didn't enter - and I've designed a kayak and traveled 10,000 miles to find them. When my Asian sea cave survey was successful, I never went back - even to idyllic Hawai'i.

I'm addicted to weird challenges, so I'm always looking for the longest, smallest, most beautiful and complex sea caves I can find. I don't know of anybody else who has studied or spent as much time exploring, logging, surveying, playing and kayaking in sea caves. "Caveman's" caving adventures were first brought to public light in the 1985 EMMY-Award winning documentary, "Moloka'i's Forgotten Frontier". However, until this year, there wasn't much print coverage on sea caving. I still haven't seen any "deep" (i. e., totally dark) cave stories, but the interest is growing enough that it is time for some safety pointers on how to enter sea caves in kayaks.

At Sea Canoe, sea cave kayaking is science. South-East Asia's tropical waters are filled with limestone islands, and limestone means caves. Unlike the simple surf-battered sea caves of North America and volcanic Polynesia, Asia's caves can extend for miles, with complex stalactite-filled off-branches, high ceilings and low overhangs that open and close with the tides.

If you paddle short, high, wide open caves in calm water, a decked hard-shell is OK. However, I've found that for serious sea cave explorations, an extra-tough inflatable is essential. In an inflatable, I can lean from side to side, or lie down flat on the inflatable's floor and inch under a low ceiling handhold by handhold. When surf fills one of those "simple" caves with crashing foam that bounces your kayak off the rocks and sucks you into a whirlpool, I'd just as soon have the inflatable's stability and positive buoyancy.

Unfortunately, there aren't any stock inflatables tough enough to trust with my life or my customers' welfare in dark, tight caverns filled with oysters and jagged rocks. A year into my international explorations, I realized that if I wanted a quality inflatable kayak that could do the crazy things I want to do, I had to design it myself. Several years ago, Greg Ramp and I teamed up to design the world's first self-bailing inflatable sea kayak. I needed a kayak that is fast, stable, easy to operate, tough enough to surf over reefs with expedition payload, low profile to minimize windage, etc.
Coincidentally, the same requirements work in caves.

Greg, now president of AIRE, Inc. is a true quality oriented craftsman, so I asked him to modify AIRE's Sea Tiger for exploration work. We beefed up the material and flattened the bottom to create Sea Canoe's signature model "Sea Explorer" kayaks. Since then, "Sea Explorers" have logged more time in sea caves than any other boat in the world.

Greg performed some electro-welding miracles, so the triple-layer Sea Explorer is the toughest inflatable around. I can explore the darkest holes, laying flat on my back inching my way into the unknown, in complete confidence that I won't puncture the boat and take a swim in totally dark unknown waters. (Some Fiberglass boys tried to follow us into an "easy" cave once, and actually cut up their boats!)

Asia's caves are so weird I didn't stand a chance of developing the art of "Tidal Sea Caving" without a decade of playing in Hawai'i's superb caves. (I spent the 50's swimming and SCUBA diving into California kelp-filled caves, which I now find so boring they don't even count.) Any open ocean cave has special dangers. In intrusive dikes (wave battered fault lines that eventually grow into sea caves) most dangers come from the element that created the cave in the first place - surf. If you don't already know sea caverns, never enter a cave if there's any wave surge, especially in a hard-shell. A sea cave is like a rock garden, except the visibility isn't so great. In even small swells, foam breaks against the cave walls, currents bounce into each other, and the place is generally a mess. In a small cave, confused waters automatically throw you into sharp rocks. If the cavern is big, the eerie sound effects often panic the inexperienced.

If you keep a cool head, rough rides in sea caves are survivable even if uncomfortable. Even with a strong dive light in an open cave, sound replaces sight as your primary sense. When entering a cave, always listen behind you. An unnoticeable swell on an open beach can create a six-foot crest deep down inside that long funnel.

A "big" swell in the back of a 100 meter cave can be very exciting. Every cave has its gurgling monster noises in the back, but a large block of water plummeting into a narrowing cave sounds like a freight train coming at you. It is a sound you never forget.

If you can still see sunlight in the mouth of the cave, watching doom approach can be beautiful. When the water rises, that reassuring ray of light becomes grotto torquoise. If it turns deep green, watch out - the wave is unusually thick. You are going for a rocking chair ride in the dark that may instantly throw you three meters straight up. Learn to "look up". I always look for a high ceiling. Its scary back there, but the hydrodynamics are similar paddling through surf. Of course, the wave still breaks in the back of the cave - hopefully on a gravel beach. If you can keep your kayak straight to the wave, you might not log roll. Stay away from the beach in the back where the wave crests and breaks in the dark and you won't wipe out. Find a spot with a high ceiling and you won't slam into the roof as the wave passes by.

Turn into the wave as it comes It isn't essential to face it, but take the wave straight on with either your bow or stern. Basically, you're riding over forming waves. It just dark and narrow. Practise this routine in open surf, inching your way slowly to the beach, feeling the waves form behind you as you rock over their crests. It's much easier paddling out from the beach with the waves before you - same inside the cave.

Unfortunately, Murphy's Law of Sea Cave surges says the blockbusters only come when you are entering a cave, i. e., they are at your back. Whatever you do, once you hear a wave coming, don't try to turn around to face it, especially in an unfamiliar cave. It's almost impossible to "180" a kayak rapidly inside a cave. The worst thing you can do is take the wave broadside and log roll. Side-surfing is almost impossible in the dark. You'll probably catch your bow or stern on a protruding rock anyway.

Surf kayakers knows the thrill of breaking through a cresting wave just as it breaks. There's the thrill of going almost vertical as you power up the face, the relief of punching through, and the report of going airborne and slamming down on the back of the wave. The same dynamics occur at the back of a sea cave, except you are in the dark and narrow. Combine the sound effects, close and unfamiliar quarters, extremely vertical wave faces and total darkness and you can feel free to insert "terror" for "thrill".

If I sound discouraging, I am. What is fun in open surf is life-threatening in a sea cave. There's one small, long irresistible cave in Ha'upu Bay, Moloka'i, a 100-metre narrow funnel just wide enough at the back to turn a kayak around. Mrs. Murphy always sends an untimely swell just when I'm at the back. Once, I was literally on the gravel beach, and foolishly tried to turn the kayak around. I was dumped sideways. A few times I've powered up a vertical face to punch through a cresting wave. These experiences were never fun. If you do dump, fate rules. If you avoid eternal darkness, lucky paddlers get spit onto a gravel beach without to any large rocks. You're still alive, but it's a real mess getting you and a swamped boat out of there before the next wave hits.

Some caves are really tunnels, open at both ends. Invariably, these guys are big, with more light and less turbulence since the water doesn't back pressure. Even so, I wouldn't want to be in the confused waters of Moloka'i's "Jaws of Death" in anything but my Sea Explorer. Even in summer, six-foot swells pile into its mouth, agitating the waters before you turn inside the tunnel. One-meter haystacks crest two meters apart. In an inflatable kayak, it's a fun ride, but I wouldn't want to go for a swim.

Surf creates lava and granite caves only as far as wave action penetrates. Facing directly into Hawai'i famous ten-meter surf, tunnels on the North Shores of Moloka'i and Na Pali are 150 meters at the most. In limestone, less dramatic but constant tidal action creeps hundred of meters, in some cases' kilometers, deep into the cliffs. Waves are still a problem at the smaller entrances. However, where the brute force of water power is the dominating factor in the Western Hemisphere, the subtle complexity of Asia's limestone has its own set of dangers.

Beyond the openings of limestone caves, the water is always flat. However, this flat water has its own set of dangers.

Many caves are merely entrances to inland tidal lagoons. In tropical Asia, spring tides change as much as two feet an hour - an inch every two minutes. Large volumes of water funnel through the caves, "boiling" over submerged rocks and forming mid-stream whirlpools. The current moves as fast as a mountain stream, complete with sound effects echoing off the cave walls. I body surf Waimea Bay, but I could not swim in many of these caves.

Because the caves are so small, time inside the lagoons can be measured in minutes, and only at precise tidal levels. Until a paddler learns a cave, the kayak frequently bounces off submerged, irregular oyster encrusted rocks. A stock inflatable is ribbons, hard-shells roll and a swimmer is hamburger in these fast, dark rivers.

Limestone caves are noted for delicacy and complexity, and Asia's caves are no exception.

Some giant caverns have tiny "windows of opportunity", exact points on the tide chart when a kayak can pass. In many cases, the kayak barely squeezes through. We lean far to either side, or lay flat on our backs in the floor of the Sea Explorers.

Like a mechanic on a "creeper", the Sea Canoe Team inches our way through these windows, often with the roof mere inches over our noses.

We can see the rocks just above our eyes, but we feel our way into the unknown, squeezing our reinforced bows into every small hole we can squeeze into. This is no place to discuss the fine points of paddling rotation.

The body language is worth the effort. Beyond these small "windows", caverns can be three-dimensional, with fifty meters ceilings, formed by chimney-like "swallets", rainfall drainage tubes that run from the top of the island.

Frequently, a second "upstairs" cave parallels the sea cave. These "over-under" caves formed a few thousand years ago when the sea was 3-5 meters higher. Frequently, the roof between the caves collapses. Stalactites from one inch to thirty meters appear deep inside these sponge-like islands, forming columns of crystallized sparkle in your flashlight beam.

It's a mystical wonderland. Sea Canoe's longest traverse to date is a three kilometer cave that took 75 minutes each way. This Spring, we are going for some caves in the Philippines with unknown endings. One is known to be five miles long. In the Summer of '94, we explore more caves in Vietnam and New Caledonia.

Many of the longer limestone caves are entrances to cliff-lined inland tidal lagoons, called "Hongs" in Thailand, which means "room". The largest inland lagoons we know, in Vietnam, are up to two miles in diameter. These lagoons hold vast amounts of water that funnels in and out of the caves with the changing tides. Our Vietnamese guides tell us that fishermen swimming near the entrances on rising tides are sucked into these caves. It isn't a pleasant thought.

Some of Vietnam's lagoons are accessed by caves so large Vietnamese locals paddle small boats into the lagoons. Others, especially in Thailand, are served by smaller caves never entered before the Sea Explorer was invented. The Magic inside these cylindrical enclaves is from a time before humans walked the Earth. Discreet ecosystems develop, complete with natural "bonsai" trees and gigantic shellfish.

Even after five years of Thailand explorations, the Sea Canoe Team is still finding "hongs" (Thai for room). We are constantly working on new entries, and expect to find more hongs in Thailand for years to come - especially if the government every gets around to developing a permit system to protect these pristine locations.

It isn't easy finding undiscovered sites in the late 20th Century. Our survey techniques grow more sophisticated with experience, but we still spend hours paddling down dead-end mangrove channels, or discovering hongs with windows too small to access.

We often go swimming in the dark, feeling our way around the mud and oysters, kicking underwater rocks, wondering if an avenue exists through the rapid currents. My record was crawling down a gradually shrinking mud and water-filled cave for 300 meters. One of our Thai partners and I entered the cave walking upright. After 50 meters, we were on our hand and knees. Finally, I stopped where my shoulders wedged between the narrow walls, and I had to keep my face above water a foot deep. It wasn't easy slithering over sharp rocks in mud-reverse until I could coil into a ball and turn around.

No sane person does these things, but that's the only way to find virgin sites in today's world.

We aren't afraid to "pass" today, review our notes and return at another time. More than once, prudent patience has saved my life. I surveyed one giant cave in South Thailand that had to much water flowing at spring time for my liking. A channel a meter deep and fifteen meters wide was flowing into darkness so fast no person could swim against the current.

After a three day boat trip, the conditions just weren't right. I studied the cave and decided on a possible entry level. Eighteen months later, the water was flat for five hours at my predetermined level. We took that week long round trip, only to find the cave's outside entrance collapsed. We took an hour to portage over rock slides and through small access holes just to reach the channel. Finally, we paddled into the dead still waters only to come to a solid rock wall blocking the channel deep inside the cave, 20 meters wide at that point. The base of that solid rock wall is undercut at least a meter from water slamming into it during spring tides.

Knowing the water had to get through somewhere, we found a small one meter-wide oyster encrusted window. In the still water, we carefully picked our way around the oysters. Any tidal change is magnified in this dramatic funnel. It wouldn't be easy to gingerly inch our way past those oysters, not to mention the rocks. Luckily, we didn't see it, but a spring tide obviously sucks everything through that small hole with unmanageable speed and volume.

If I went for it that first time, I would not have been able to paddle, swim or even stand against the current. If I survived the washing machine at the base of that wall, I would have been sucked through those oysters - with the water level a half-meter higher than the window. If I survived all that, cut and hurt, I still had a two mile traverse of unknown darkness just to reach daylight. Of course, daylight turned out to be an endless chain of cliff-lined virgin hongs. I tried to access a Krabi province cave for months. Since it sits behind a sand bank, we can't get our escort boat in at low tide. Finally, I made the long paddle on my own, reaching the cave in the middle of the tidal curve with the fast tide rising. I got 25 meters further than anybody before me.

After months of surveys, my impatience got the best of me. I was breaking all the rules and knew it. I was by myself a mile deep in mangrove swamps, holding my paddle and the dive light in the same hand, the spring tide was rising visibly, and there were oysters on the ceiling. This isn't a good sign - overhead oysters mean the roof submerges at high tide. Before me, the window was small and getting smaller as I watched. I decided to exit.

Reversing in the dark is never easy. On the spring tide, the cave's configuration changed by the minute, and those overhead oysters were getting closer and closer. The cave was too small to turn around, and I took longer than expected reversing out. I finally reached the outside window so late I had to exit my kayak to get out of the cave.

I was lucky to get out, but I knew from my observations when that window opens. Working off our combined notes, Tom Sajan, an expedition lead guide, finally accessed "Naporn" cave and Hong. It was a great thrill for Tom and his guests, and I am alive to write about it.

Any reader of Mark Twain knows what happened to Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in a Missouri limestone cave. It isn't any different in Asia. Once on a deep cave exploration, I took the sweep, giving staff the chance to lead us through an especially long cave. Paddling mud-lined channels, we came to a Y-junction. Surrounded by hundreds of sparkling columns, I knew stalactite navigation was hopeless, so I settled on a strange shaped rock as my landmark.

On our way out, Murphy's law guaranteed our new lead guides took us down the wrong channel. Last in line, I watched as we passed my funny landmark rock. Since we were exploring, I decided not to say anything - who needs a navigational debate several kilometers inside a mountain. As expected, after a few minutes, we literally came to a stone wall. Thanks to my landmark rock, we weren't lost for days. After years of cave exploration, I know to look for overhead oysters. I can judge a cave's access level at a glance; know what to use for landmarks; and when to back off for another day. Sea caving, either in surf beaten North America or Asia's tidal limestone labyrinths, is a specialized and dangerous science. At Sea Canoe, we know what to look for, and we don't take any chances, We always know there is another day, even if we are thousands of miles from home. It might take a year and a half to return, but when we do come back, it is on one piece and with well-researched confidence. Fortunately, once we access a sea cave in Polynesia or Asia, it's all clockwork from then on.

However, unless you understand the subtle nuances of sea caving by kayak, it is better to be safe than sorry. Please, if you do enter caves, stay well within your limits. The surprises are rapid. The consequences can be very uncomfortable. However, if you enter sea caves with someone who knows them, you see a mystically different and rewarding world. Just don't take any chances.

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