Astrolabe

Ancient Discoveries in the Caicos Caves

Sometimes it takes a new pair of eyes . . . nearly 100 years later!
By Mark Parrish, BSc Ocean Sciences

I have been exploring caves and sinkholes in the Turks & Caicos Islands for almost 15 years. It was not something I was particularly interested in before moving to these islands, but I’ve always had a penchant for exploring; a certain curiosity for what’s around that next corner and investigating places that are new to me. It’s pretty rare to explore somewhere entirely new these days, unless you’re perhaps underwater, in a cave system, or, ideally, both!

This East Caicos cave has a ficus root entering a cavern through a natural skylight.

Over the years, I, some enthusiastic colleagues and a few cursing friends have traipsed through miles of Turks & Caicos bush wielding machetes and lugging dive gear in search of the elusive cave entrance or watery hole. We have been fortunate enough to find and explore a number of the cave systems that exist in this archipelago, both above and below the water, and have made some intriguing discoveries along the way. Most are likely re-discoveries, but there are a handful of times when our team has definitely “gone where no man has gone before” and it is a very humbling experience.
For most, exploring underwater has severe limitations. As humans, we’re not designed to go that deep; the pressure is simply too great. Unless we have access to deep diving submersibles, we’re pretty much restricted to exploring the top fraction of our planet’s oceans and waterways. Our limitations are further bound by our breathing apparatus and the delicate art of mixed gas diving. But when you’re already a comfortable diver and a self-professed explorer living in the Turks & Caicos, it’s hard not to pick up a book about diving in the Bahamian “Blue Holes” without becoming enthralled. I was further motivated by the fact that as co-founder of Big Blue Unlimited, I had access to a dive blending system, and that my friend John Garvin was a technical diving instructor who was equally as passionate as I to learn and put into practice the techniques of underwater cave diving.

This aerial view highlights the blue hole in a North Caicos cave system.

The caves in the Turks & Caicos are certainly no strangers to people. Fascinating studies have been conducted and written by, among others, Dr. Bill Keegan and Dr. Betsy Carlson, both experts on the history of the Taino and Lucayan people who inhabited the Turks & Caicos for about 800 years from AD 700 to 1500. Their numerous articles are regularly published in Times of the Islands and their fascinating book Talking Taino is available from the University of Alabama Press. Their narrative on Taino history, beliefs and archaeology indicates that the Taino had deep spiritual association with caves. H.E. Sadler’s history book Turks Islands Landfall also has numerous references to the caves in the Turks & Caicos Islands: who used them for shelter, when they were excavated for guano and what was found in them. Dr. Donald Keith and Dr. Joanna Ostapkowicz have also written articles about the Taino people in Times of the Islands; these can all be found in the magazine’s on-line archives at www.timespub.tc.
In 1999, we read a casual reference to a deep pond on North Caicos and it provided all the excuse we needed to explore our first underwater cave. It is called Cottage Pond and it turned out to be a genuine blue hole (meaning it is linked tidally to the ocean), shaped liked an hour glass and extremely deep. Several small stalactites and stalagmites were discovered at a depth of 80 ft. and a large stalactite at around 120 ft. Because stalactites and stalagmites can form only in dry caves, their presence confirms that sea level had once been significantly lower than the present day, leaving the entire Caicos Bank high and dry. This Ice Age fact is assumed in the formation of Bahamian blue holes, but it always gratifying to see the evidence first hand. Purely by chance an experienced cave diver from Florida was also snooping around the hole that same week. He pitched up at our dive facility in Leeward to borrow a scuba valve adaptor and the ensuing discussions and friendship resulted in the birth of the Caicos Caves Project. Our mission became to explore, document and understand as many caves and holes as we could in the Turks & Caicos Islands. We managed that on and off over the next ten years and had some of the most extraordinary adventures together.
By no means were we the first to start exploring the underwater reaches of the caves either. Slowly, research, conversations and first hand observation revealed that others had dragged their tanks into a number of caves across the Islands. It seemed that, virtually at the infancy of underwater cave diving in the mid 1970s and early 1980s, some exploration had resulted in a few interesting discoveries in the subterranean world of the Turks & Caicos, and these divers became equally excited about the prospect of finding new holes to dive and species to discover. Since that era, crucial developments and access to breathing technology afforded our team the advantage of using blends of oxygen, nitrogen and helium (known as tri-mix) to reduce the dangerous effects of narcosis at depth. In addition, adding oxygen tanks for accelerated decompression allowed us to explore deeper and longer than ever before. By the 1990s, a new frontier had opened up and we were able to safely access some of the deeper holes found in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
Most of the local residents we asked across the Islands claimed knowledge of deep holes and other cave systems but only a few actually knew where they were. Almost all rolled their eyes at our intentions, regarding us as crazy, and the holes as dark, mysterious, and undoubtedly home to dangerous monsters or luring mermaids. This folklore, we came to realize, was probably fabricated to keep children away from the edges of these dangerous environments rather than rooted in any serious beliefs.
Certainly access into many of the caves and sinkholes is difficult with thick layers of fine silt surrounding the deeper water. They are generally harder to get out of than into. Another fact we came to learn was that most of the caves and holes are located in the interior of the Islands and generally some distance from any roads, paths, or waterways. If you’ve ever tried to walk or navigate your way through the Turks & Caicos undergrowth you will know that a good portion of it is thick, low lying and extremely frustrating to penetrate. We certainly had our work cut out for us and a good portion of our time went into finding and reaching the holes that we had spotted previously from the air or located on a map.
Early on in our project we were fortunate to be able to do a lot of research from a plane. It revealed an extraordinary number of potential blue holes that exist across the Caicos Islands and parts of the Caicos Banks. Some are large and obvious; many are small, unclear and partially hidden by mangroves or sunken into inland lakes. The latter variety generally takes the form of small circular holes that descend deeper than the floor of the lake itself and then spread sideways and downwards. They are essentially portals into the layers and labyrinths beneath the surface layers of rock that somehow and somewhere link out into the sea.
One cave system on North Caicos we dubbed the “plug hole” has two horizontal layers of tight passages, one 20 ft. below the other, hidden underneath an inland lake and accessed through a single shaft. Despite being over a mile from the coast, this lake was saline and home to a variety of marine organisms and algae. It became a dream to access a blue hole far inland and pop out in the ocean off the wall or in some other access point along the way. Our knowledge of the geology of islands and the history of changing sea levels does not make this an infeasible possibility, but despite numerous dives in Lake Catherine on West Caicos and into a deep and complicated system on Salt Cay, this dream still remains unfulfilled.
Two articles have been written in previous issues of Times of the Islands about our exploits into Cottage Pond. The first was about eventually reaching the bottom of the main chamber at 255 ft. using a tri-mix gas mixture; the second was about facilitating the discovery of a new marine species of remipede, Kaloketos pilosus or “Beautiful Sea Monster” and a new crustacean called Micropacter yageri or “Tiny Hunter” that was discovered in a cave on Providenciales. Both are very small, blind and albino, having evolved and adapted to life in dark marine caves. The research was led by Dr. Tom Iliffe of Texas A&M University, a very experienced cave diver and biologist whom we were honored to have join an expedition in 2003. He brought with him a wealth of knowledge that he was generous in sharing, some interesting archives from the early exploration of caves in the TCI, and some invaluable sampling equipment.
His approach to cave diving was casual but confident, his focus almost entirely on the sampling and science. In one short week we collected dozens of marine species across the Caicos Islands and in a number of the caves took water column profiles with Tom’s hydro-lab. This nifty piece of equipment was able to provide some fascinating data on salinity, temperature, pH, redox potential and dissolved oxygen. Probably the most revealing was the confirmation of stable haloclines in a couple of the caves, and the boundary that this created between two distinct water masses. It is this that isolates the deeper saltwater masses from surface gaseous exchange and light, thereby allowing conditions for the evolution of the specialized marine cave organisms that we encountered.
Other discoveries had far less to do with geology, deep diving or even sea monsters, but were no less exciting. They relate to the Taino Indians who had a fascination with caves and used them as sanctuaries for ritual purposes [Keegan and Carlson, 2008]. Blue holes and sinkholes were used for human burial throughout the Bahamas and our team observed a few suspected human bones in a sinkhole on Providenciales. It is understood that this site was discovered during the 1970s, but unfortunately the description of “numerous human skulls and skeletons” does not correlate with present day observations. It is not known whether the reports were exaggerated, or if the remains were properly removed for genuine scientific research or pillaged by memento seekers.
There are a number of excellent and revealing open-air archaeological sites dating to the Taino period of the Islands’ history. At these and in a number of subterranean sites in both the Turks & Caicos and Dominican Republic, many interesting artifacts have been recovered including duhos (ceremonial stools), a paddle, stone tools, war clubs, baskets and various kinds of pottery. I naturally continue to keep a keen eye out for as yet undiscovered historical relics hidden in the dark recesses of the Caicos caves.

In 2008, explorer Kim Mortimer rediscovered de Booy’s petroglyphs.

The most recent re-discovery was made in 2008 on an expedition to explore trails and caves on East Caicos. The caves themselves, all but forgotten for almost a century, had been rediscovered in 2006 by a team of scientists working in conjunction with the Turks & Caicos National Trust. The scientists returned from the interior with reports of a cathedral-type cave containing an underground lake and sinkholes with half flooded passages leading off in different directions. The cave-diving passion within was reignited and another joint expedition to East Caicos was launched the following year (see Times of the Islands, Winter 2007). Some considerable effort was made to haul in our cave diving equipment, but despite probing every body of water we could find and following a few short tunnels, no significant passages were discovered. It seems the secrets of these caves were not to be revealed underwater.
What makes the caves on East Caicos so rewarding is in part due to the adventure of reaching them. They are a fair distance from habitation and a decent trek inland through thick vegetation, waterlogged swamps and choking swarms of mosquitoes. Amazingly, the wild donkeys appear well adapted for such conditions and seem to thrive quite content save our small invasion. Another exciting aspect of the caves on East Caicos is the labyrinth of rooms that they contain and the bats and owls that call them home. Many of the larger chambers also have picturesque skylights and some have tangles of hanging ficus roots coming through the ceiling. These cave systems are still to be adequately mapped, so it is fascinating to wander and crawl around, seemingly in circles, down ever more confusing passages and tight tunnels. Forefront in one’s mind is the historical reference to the Taino Indians who used these caverns and the unique petroglyphs (rock art) and stone altar that were noted a century ago by anthropologist Theodoor de Booy and published in the American Anthropologist. It seems that no one in living memory had seen them since, although copies of these drawings and a description of the “altar” have been printed in these pages before and can also be found in Sadler’s book. Rediscovering the real thing was far more exciting, although far be it for me to claim credit.

Is this the “stone altar” that Theodoor De Booy mentions in his 1912 report?

On the expedition in August 2008, I was exploring with two others down some of the aforementioned passages and well out of ear-shot of my wife, Kim Mortimer, who was photographing near the entrance to the caves. We had exceeded our 30 minute rendezvous time and as she waited patiently, she explored the various chambers nearby. While resting on a rock, pondering the lives of the Taino people, she allowed her fashlight to dance over the walls of the cave. All of a sudden, she perceived a faint image appearing in the rock face. She quickly realized she was looking at one of these ancient petroglyphs. What a discovery, and out of nowhere, there were more! She found that after she initially “tuned in” her eyes, the faint petroglyphs were actually quite obvious. Despite the fact that I and several other people had repeatedly walked through this same room, not one of us had noticed them before. Any apprehension she had felt from being left alone in a cave full of bats and cockroaches whilst we went off exploring had evaporated. Here was a national treasure surely never to be misplaced again. Click, click went her camera; boom, boom went her heart.

The majority of Mark’s cave exploration and technical diving has been done with his dear friend, colleague and Caicos Caves Project co-founder John Garvin. The late James Hurley of Orlando, Florida made up the other member of the team and his passion, skills and singing voice are sorely missed. He is also responsible for much of the cartography and videography of the underwater caves that have been documented in the TCI. Many thanks to all that assisted and joined the cave and diving expeditions over the years and also to Big Blue Unlimited, one of the project’s main sponsors.
Visit www.amphibiousadventures.org for more information on the geology and access to the caves of the Turks & Caicos Islands, along with reports on the continued exploits and discoveries of the Caicos Caves Project.



Leave a Reply

Comment

What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

Photographer Marta Morton took a much-anticipated trip to Salt Cay in early April, where, among some 5,000 pictures, she captured this intriguing shot of the island’s iconic donkeys. You will find more of Marta’s beautiful photography throughout this issue and atPhotographer Agile LeVin captured this magnificent shot of freediver Samantha Kildegaard, of Free Dive With Me, at Malcolm’s Road Beach on Providenciales. Agile, who grew up and currently resides in Turks & Caicos, has been turning his camera to the country’s beauty for most of his life. He, along with his brother Daniel, produce Visit TCI , a website filled with comprehensive and current information about the Islands.

Our Sponsors

  • Beaches
  • Palms/Shore
  • Sothebys
  • Fortis
  • Is Bargains
  • Turks & Caicos Property
Savory & Co.jsjohnson
KR LogisticsCays Construction
Turks Head BreweryAvis
Turks & Caicos Banking Co.Point Grace
Dempsey and CompanyBox It 2 Me
Twa Marcela WolfT&C Reservations
Luxury ResortChaise Bay
Hugh ONeillWalkin Marine
John Redmond A Team
Pyrate RadioDempsey
TCI FerryCaicos Express Air

Login

Lost your password?