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The ‘Roses’ in the Glass Factory section of Ralph’s Cave. Photo: Brian Kakuk

Eureka Moment as 50,000 Feet of Underwater Caves Officially Connected Beneath Abaco

The ‘Roses’ in the Glass Factory section of Ralph’s Cave. Photo: Brian Kakuk
The ‘Roses’ in the Glass Factory section of Ralph’s Cave. Photo: Brian Kakuk

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from local cave diver, Brian Kakuk, as he describes his, and others, efforts to prove that two well know blue holes in Abaco are connected underwater. On October 10, 2016 he did just that. The discovery, which took years of laying line and one final three hour dive, makes this cave system the longest underwater cave in The Bahamas and possibly one of the longest underwater island caves in the world. Enjoy the read as Kakuk describes the adventure.

 

By Brian Kakuk

Due to Hurricane Mathew, I now have a few days off for exploration on my own. Yesterday I went into Ralph’s Cave with my new KISS Sidekick CCR and placed bail out cylinders in a few different locations for a longer push today.

The dreaded "Clay Chute" where Steve Bogaerts squirmed his way past rock and clay to make the connection between Dan's Cave and Ralph's Cave. Over 70 minutes of diving into the cave, at this point divers have to squeeze through, blinded by silt. Photo: Brian Kakuk.
The dreaded “Clay Chute” where Steve Bogaerts squirmed his way past rock and clay to make the connection between Dan’s Cave and Ralph’s Cave. Over 70 minutes of diving into the cave, at this point divers have to squeeze through, blinded by silt. Photo: Brian Kakuk.

This morning, I decided to head back to Erebor, a stunningly beautiful room that I found in the summer of 2015 and that Steve Bogaerts and I had been trying to find a way out of since that time.

Over the last year, I’ve gone back a couple of times and found two other ways into/out of Erebor and one of these seemed to be heading in the right direction for our work on a connection with Dan’s Cave.

A little background; Steve and I have been working on this connection for 12 years. It has eluded us even though the entrances to these two magnificent caves are only 2000 feet apart.

This is mostly because this system is 3 tiered. Miles of cave at a depth of 75 feet, miles of cave at a depth of 100 feet, and miles of cave at depths of 150 to 160 feet. All of these different levels run over or under each other and are occasionally connected through pits, collapses, holes in the ceiling or what we call “drain traps”, deep, clay filled tunnels or dips usually in the 150 to 160 foot depth range. This is why exploring in these labyrinthine passages is so difficult.

On September 18th of 2015, Steve had come out to do more exploration with a continued goal of a connection of the two systems. I had recently torn my rotator cuff and cracked two floater ribs in my back, so I was in no shape to push the lengthy “bottles off” restrictions that I felt were definitely the ones we need to push in order to close the distance between known passage in Dan’s and Ralph’s.

I asked Steve if he’s be interested in pushing the most promising lead as I was in no condition to do so. He didn’t decline.

So off he went, triple stages, heading out toward the north west section of Dan’s Cave, wriggling and squeezing through extremely low, clay filled bedding planes to get to the end of my line. From there on, it only got worse. At one point he even had an episode where he had to rotate his head within the bedding plane, only to shove clay into both second stages requiring him to slowly sip air past all the clay in the regulator.

He had made it through the descending clay squeeze and popped out into one of the drain traps around 140 feet deep. He moved into a larger tunnel that eventually ascended into a very decorated room that he said reminded him of Fangorn Forest in the opposite side of the cave.

Eventually he found a way out of this highly decorated room into yet another drain trap, but this one stayed larger. He eventually ascended once again through a breakdown boulder pile right onto one of my older lines, but could not find any markers. He swam a considerable distance in either direction but was not able to find any markers at all and he didn’t recognize any of the features of the cave in this area. He tied in, left his own marker and headed back through the dreaded clay squeezes to his stages and the long swim back to Dan’s Cave.

For the next week or so, Steve and I both pushed Ralph’s Cave in an attempt to find where he connected into one of my older lines. He just knew he had connected into the Ralph’s side, but due to the lack of survey data for this part of the cave (my fault), we weren’t able to figure out which side of the system he had connected.

A few weeks ago I was poking around in Erebor again and realized that one of my older lines actually came up into the back part of this highly decorated room. Today I took the KISS Sidekick CCR from the entrance to Ralph’s through a newly discovered back entrance to Erebor. After a very long 70 minute swim at depths between 110 and 160 feet, and getting quite stuck in one of the crystal drain traps for about 3 minutes, I finally ascended up into Erebor and high tailed it to the line in the back of the room.

Once again I was descending rapidly, heading right back down into the deeper section of the cave. It was then that I realized I had not placed any line arrows anywhere along this route. Checking my compass I knew this line was heading in the right direction and between what I was seeing and what Steve had described, I began getting pretty excited. The passage descended back down to 155 to 160 feet and stayed there, with low rock ceiling and cracked clay floor.

Approximately 500 feet later, just before another dip to 160, I found a T in the line, with an arrow pointing the other direction. This had to be it! I checked the arrow and sure enough. SMB 9/15 and a word written on it that started with an A. I didn’t memorize the word, as I had the gopro rolling and was sure I could view it later for the name on the arrow (big mistake as it’s completely washed out in the video as you will see).

I set my own marker pointing back the way I had come along with a cookie on my outbound side, just so I wouldn’t get turned around somehow if there were a silt-out. I continued in the direction of Steve’s outbound side finding many similar arrows along the way. I eventually ascended all the way back up into a very beautifully decorated room, that did in fact resemble Fangorn Forest. I knew this had to be the place.

Once again I descended out of the room, heading in the direction of Steve’s outbound side and eventually ended up in a 140 foot deep tunnel where, at the very end, the line simply went up at a 45 degree angle into a ridiculously small restriction covered in clay. I could see where Steve had his “incident” in the clay just a few feet from the entrance of this tiny restriction. I can only say that from what I have seen in this clay chute, Steve was entirely committed to getting through. The deep marks in the clay and bangs on the ceiling show the entire episode as it unraveled. Kudos to you Steve. Quite an effort.

I took a quick video of the clay chute and then headed back out. I stopped quickly to video the opposing arrows at the connection, gave a quick “Shaka Brah” and yelled “Great Job Steve”, before heading back out to Erebore and the 70 minute swim/crawl to the entrance of Ralph’s Cave where an additional 70 minutes of decompression awaited me.

So there it is. Officially, Dan’s and Ralph’s Caves are connected, though Steve knew this in his heart back on September 18th, 2015. I just needed the time to find it and verify it.

For me, today is bittersweet. We have finally (officially) completed a twelve year goal of creating the longest underwater cave in The Bahamas (looking at more than 50,000 feet), and possibly one of the longest underwater island caves in the world. This work was done by Steve Bogaerts, Fred Davis and myself.

Explorers live for question marks on the map. We never want the cave to be finished. We are always looking for that next new discovery. When I am asked, “what is the most amazing place you have ever discovered”, my reply is, “The next place”.

This one has been ticked off the list and I will miss not having it to look forward to in the future. Now it’s off to other goals.

The new sections of cave found in the efforts to make the connection have already yielded new leads (dumped another 300 feet in there on my way out today). So there is no lack of question marks on the map at this point.

Tomorrow Nancy Albury and I will start putting pingers out toward the connection point to verify where this area is up on the surface. We have a lot of work to do!

Thanks to Fred and Steve for all of their monumental efforts in the project. Thanks to Michael Albury and Nancy Albury for supporting my cave diving habit over the last 12 years. Thanks to my wife Michelle Brooks for not making me get a grown up job so I can explore. Thanks to Mike Young at KISS Rebreathers for making such a kick ass piece of exploration gear! Thanks to all of my sponsors including KISSRebreathers, Shearwaterresearch,  XDEEP,  GoSidemount, Lightmonkey, and DiveRite

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