Thursday, November 5, 2009

Astonishing Mystical and Bewitched Caves

Caves — a mysterious world of the underground for which no 2 are alike with vast chambers and complex labyrinths of stalagmites and geological formations carved into earth and sea beds over centuries. Throughout history primitive peoples have used caves for shelter, burial, and religious sites — several are even told to bear curses. Here are 5 of some of the most astonishing, mystical and bewitched caves of breathtaking wonderment.

Carlsbad Caverns
Located in the Guadalupe Mountains approximately 18 miles (29 kilometers) southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico lies the celebrated underworld of Carlsbad Caverns, an incomparable realm of gigantic subterranean chambers and incredible, whimsical cave formations 750 feet below ground.

Flowstone is a form of speleothem that forms where calcium-carbonate-rich water trickles down the walls of a cavern. Over time travertine accumulates in unusual drapery and ripple-shaped patterns, reflecting the constantly changing pattern of surface water flow and mineral accumulation.

Said to be the largest natural cave system in the world by certain terms with 81 known caves, the Big Room is 4,000 feet (1219 meters) long, 625 feet (190.5 meters) wide, and 255 feet (78 meters) high at its highest point.

You can hike into the interior rooms on your own via the natural entrance, or take an elevator directly down into the center of the public cave area.

The Sword of Damocles, the long stalactite on the right, was named by
park rangers in 1928

Unlike a large proportion of caves which are the product of carbonic acid dissolution, Carlsbad Caverns have developed as hydrogen sulphide gas from underlying oil and gas deposits seeped upwards and combined with fresh water to form sulphuric acid which has eroded the limestone.

Human occupation of the park area began with the arrival of Palaeo Indians around 12,000 B.C. followed by archaic hunters who settled in the region about 6000 B.C. and remained until 800 A.D. Pictographs left by the hunters are found in several park caves including the copiously decorated Painted Grotto, Upper Painted Grotto and Slaughter Canyon Cave

Painted Grotto.

An unusual method of exploration was invented in 1985. In a dome area 255 ft (77.7 meters) above the Big Room floor not far from the Bottomless Pit, a stalagmite leaned out. Using helium filled balloons attached to a balsa wood loop, the explorers — after several tries over several years — floated a light weight cord that snagged the target stalagmite.

Once the cord was in position up, over, and back to the ground, a climbing rope was pulled into position, and the explorers ascended into what they named The Spirit World. A similar, smaller room was found in the main entrance corridor, and was named Balloon Ballroom in honor of this technique.

In 1993, a series of small passages totaling nearly a mile in combined length was found in the ceiling of the New Mexico Room which was named Chocolate High. It was the largest discovery in the cave since the Guadalupe Room was found in 1966.

Rock of Ages in the Big Room

Hall of Giants

he Bottomless Pit was originally said to have no bottom — stones were tossed into it, but no sound of the stones striking the bottom was heard. Later exploration revealed that the bottom was about 140 feet (40meters) deep and covered with soft dirt. The stones made no sound when they struck the bottom because they were lodged in the soft soil.

Jim White explored many of the rooms and gave them their names, including the Big Room, New Mexico Room, King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room, and Green Lake Room. He also named many of the cave’s more prominent formations, such as the Totem Pole, Witch’s Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Iceberg Rock, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages.

A large, unadorned rocky passage connected to the main entrance corridor was mined for bat guano in the early 20th century where the majority of the cave’s bat population lives.

Carlsbad Cavern Amphitheater

Beginning of 1-mile descending hike to Carlsbad’s Big Room

Hundreds of thousands of bats fly out at sundown, exiting in a rapid spiral and flying their separate ways in search of food.

16 species of bats live in the park, including a large number of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. It’s estimated that the population of Mexican Free-tailed Bats once numbered in the millions but has declined drastically in modern times, with a current population peak of several hundred thousand when the young pups are flying in the fall.

The cause of this decline is unknown but the pesticide DDT is often listed as a primary cause. Populations appear to be on the increase in recent years but are nowhere near the levels that were once there.

Witch’s Finger

Top of the Cross

Cave Pearls in Lower Rookery Cave

King’s Palace.

Guardian of the Domes.

Cave entrance

Lechuguilla Cave
Lechuguilla Cave is as of 2006, the 5th longest cave known to exist in the world at 120 miles (193 kilometers), the 3rd longest known limestone cave in the U.S., and the deepest in the continental United States at 1,604 feet (489 meters), located in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. It’s most famous for its unusual geology, rare formations, and pristine condition, bearing the largest collection of hydromagnesite balloon-like formations and subaqueous helictite formations.

Boulder Falls — the long passage the cavers discovered in 1986 ended at an overhanging abyss. Using ropes, the cavers rappelled 150 feet down through this hole, which they named in honor of the loose stones it shed as they rappelled down.

The entrance is located in an old mining pit called Misery Hole in an obscure corner of Guadalupe Mountains, New Mexico. Restricted to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, it’s not accessible to the general public, and the exact location of Misery Hole — a 90 feet (27 meter) entrance pit — is kept relatively hidden in an attempt to preserve the cave in its most undisturbed state.

These cave pearls found in Boulder Falls were just a taste of what was to come deeper in the cave

Glacier Bay — got its name for the towering blocks of gypsum that lean from a 34-foot-thick mass of the snow-white mineral, like icebergs about to calve from a glacier. Dripping water and a steady flow of air through this portion of the cave combined to carve out this shaft within Glacier Bay.

Lake Chandalar — just under 7 feet deep, Lake Chandalar is slowly losing surface area to an ever-growing margin of shelfstone, on which the 2 cavers in this image crouch. Lake Chandalar offers access to the Lebarge Borehole, an impressive tubular corridor lined with pure white gypsum.

Lechuguilla’s entrance was a rectangular hole 70 feet deep and wide enough to swallow a truck. Small amounts of bat guano were mined from the entrance passages for a year under a mining claim filed in 1914.

It was visited infrequently after mining activities ceased. But in the 1950’s cavers heard wind roaring up from the rubble-choked floor of the cave. Although there was no obvious route, different people concluded that cave passages lay below the rubble.

Hoodoo Hall — though resembling stalagmites, the hoodoos that crowd a 100-foot-long wall of this gallery are actually raft cones. Atop many of the cones lie aragonite bushes with their lush crystal foliage. Hoodoo Hall’s decorated raft cones form the most concentrated grouping of such speleothems found anywhere.

Chandelier Ballroom — reaching down from the ceiling like giant talons, the “chandeliers” of the Chandelier Ballroom are stalactites of selenite up to 20 feet long. These fragile crystals grow when water bearing dissolved gypsum drips through cave ceilings and evaporates. Lechuguilla’s gypsum chandeliers are thought to be the world’s largest.

The cave was only known as a small, insignificant historic site in the park’s backcountry until Memorial Day, 1986, when a group of cavers broke through a naturally collapsed rubble pile which had blocked Lechuguilla for thousands of years into a long, downward-sloping passage which proved to be the entrance shaft to one of the largest, deepest, and most fantastically decorated caves in the Americas.

Misery Hole led to 400 feet (122 meters) of dry dead-end passages, and the breakthrough into large walking passages occurred on May 26, 1986. The miles of passage beyond had revealed no trace of humanity, let alone bats or other traditional cave life.

Underground Atlanta — resembling half-melted ice cream cones, the unusually tapered stalagmites of Underground Atlanta tower over a person. Beyond these formations is Lechuguilla’s deepest pit, which drops 278 feet straight down to a gallery known as the Chicken Little Room.

Lake Louise — the “mammillaries” that bulge from the ceiling here formed as calcite in a pool that once filled this chamber. The calcite settled uniformly over original bedrock walls. Today Lake Louise has water only in side basins. Most of the floor bears plate-sized orange rafts of calcite

Chandelier Graveyard — this frostwork-covered portion of Chandelier Graveyard dwarfs a caver. The gallery gets its name from an extensive maze of gypsum stalagmites found elsewhere in the room, some of which have leaned or toppled, like the tombstones in some ancient cemetery.

From the entrance is a descent of a series of climbs, stoop walks, and free-hanging rappels, the longest of them from an undercut cliff 145 feet above the floor where you reach the stadium-sized chamber of Glacier Bay. Tricky crawls and rope traverses bring you to the Rift, a multilevel fissure 200 feet deep. From there you snake through to the Overpass and some say the cave doesn’t really begin until you’ve climbed, hiked, and slithered to the shore of Lake Lebarge, over 700 feet down.

Lebarge is a shallow, clear pond about 75 feet in diameter, the first of a series of huge passages of white gypsum glistening with countless forms of crystals, flakes, flowers, spikes, cones, and powder.

Some of the lakes following the Lebarge Boreholeare are lined with bulbous, milky mounds of calcite. Other areas have rows of human-sized forms called “hoodoos” built of a myriad of thin mineral flakes that had floated on the surface film of long-vanished pools, accumulating mass over decades until they became heavy enough to sink in the water, and another would in its place. When the water retreated, the hoodoos remained.

Much like the Carlsbad Caverns, Lechuguilla cave has built itself from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

Discovery and exploration of Lechuguilla had confirmed the massive gypsum deposits lining the limestone walls that its tunnels were carved not by runoff flowing from the surface — as was long considered the case with all limestone caves — but by strong chemical reactions between ancient groundwater and hydrogen sulfide rising from a deep subterranean source. Hydrogen sulfide associated with petroleum deposits in the Delaware Basin was believed to have been chemically converted to sulfuric acid, which could eat into limestone like gasoline poured into a styrofoam cup.

Oasis — one of the most remote galleries in Lechuguilla, Oasis bears calcite formations of great size, color, and variety. The velvety-looking, ocher-colored walls have nearly overgrown the gallery’s erstwhile lake, which survives only in this deepest corner of the room.

Outnumbered by white dripstone formations, some towering over his head, a caver makes his way through Nirvana, careful not to bump into profuse stalactites poking down from the ceiling. The cavern’s floor features red flowstone that has begun to engulf some of the dripstone columns like a muddy river in flood.

Great Beyond — this miniature tree of aragonite frostwork is an example of the branching patterns of intricate crystals that can develop under the right conditions. Such conditions are usually found in drier areas where evaporation has concentrated magnesium in seeping water.

Rare bacteria are believed to occur in the cave that feed on the sulfur, iron, and manganese minerals and may assist in enlarging the cave and determining the shapes of some unusual speleothems.

Recent biological research in Lechuguilla Cave has led to the discovery of unusual micro-organisms in pools and hydroaerosols in the cave air, suspected lithotrophic bacteria which may derive metabolic energy from sulphur, manganese, and iron and ecosystems dependent upon these autotrophic bacteria.

Ongoing research is looking into potential medical applications of these micro-organisms that are beneficial to humans. The discovery of the world’s largest and most diverse collection of bacterially assisted speleothems are found within this cave.

Glacier Way — globular coralloids, found here interspersed with frostwork, are also known as cave popcorn. Coralloids and frostwork often grow together, because both form in places where the principal cause of deposition is evaporation.

These shelfstone “tables” formed at an old water level in the chamber known as Atlantis

Stalagmites, stalactites, and draperies by a pool in Lechuguilla Cave

Lascaux Cave
Lascaux is the setting of a complex of ancient caves in southwestern France famous for its masterpieces of prehistoric art cave paintings, and may be the most beautiful Paleolithic painted cave in the world. The original caves are located near the village of Montignac-sur-Vézère, in the Dordogne département in the heart of Périgord Noir. Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1979.

The ‘unicorn’ cave painting

Dating back some 17,000 years, the cave was evidently a sanctuary for the performance of sacred rites and ceremonies containing some of the most well-known Upper Paleolithic art primarily of realistic images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at the time.

4 teenagers — Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas — discovered the paintings and artifacts made by our early ancestors in 1940. The boys were out rabbitting on the hillside with their dog Robot, when it suddenly disappeared down a hole in the ground. When the boys followed they found Robot, and themselves in a cave which their torch revealed was lavishly painted with a diversity of animals.

The organic debris found in the Lascaux cave has been dated at around 15000 years BC, which ties in with other finds that have been attributed to the early Magdalenian period.

The cave was developed for tourism which opened to the public in 1948 and the boys who had discovered Lascaux acted as guides. About 2,000 visitors a day used to pass through Lascaux — between 1948 and 1963 there were a million visitors.

The construction of a large staircase into the cave destroyed the stability of the atmosphere that had preserved the paintings for over 17,000 years in a state of freshness. They became affected by the ‘green sickness’ of fungi and bacteria — as did white calcite — the ‘white sickness’ — which is a re-crystallization of the rock itself caused by fluctuating temperatures, the breathing of visitors, excessive carbon dioxide in the air, and by a second ailment caused by damp.

The cave was closed in 1963 to everyone but a trickle of visitors, mostly researchers — the sicknesses was cured and caves are now monitored on a daily basis.

To prevent any reoccurrence of the problems from trampling by tourists the original cave remains closed and the site which the public now see is a total replica so that even the contours of the walls match the original. It was taken over by the “Conseil General” in 1978 and the first tourist entered Lascaux II on July the 18th 1983.

In 2001 the caves were hit by a severe invasion of fungus and bacteria that may have been due to an ill-conceived climate control system installed in 2001. The French have claimed to have gotten the problem under control, but some say there is evidence that they still haven’t.

The replica is situated on the same hillside as the original cave some 660 feet (200 meters) away and buried underground. It reproduces the Hall of Bulls and the Axial Gallery which represent 90% of the original Lascaux paintings. Two museographic antechambers retrace the history of the cave and explain the techniques used by the artists.

Reproductions of other Lascaux artwork can be seen at the Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot, France.

Lascaux II is a triumph of technology, unique in the world. Rigorous scientific and artistic methods were used to recreate the incomparable atmosphere of the original cave — a reinforced concrete shell was created using shipbuilding techniques, the relief of the cave was reconstituted down to the tiniest detail, and the polychromatic paintings were executed just as the originals were 17,000 years ago, using natural pigments.

This cave of medium size for the region extends for about 660 feet (200 meters) and is made up of alternating chambers which are more or less circular, and passages. The frescoes represent numerous animals — horses, bulls, deer, ibex, as well as members of the cat family, a bear, a rhinoceros and even an imaginary creature commonly known as the unicorn. These paintings are accompanied by enigmatic symbols.

The positioning of certain paintings on the rock face and the presence of holes 6.5 feet (2 meters) from the ground indicate that some form of scaffolding was used.

Lascaux Cave contains nearly 2,000 figures. Many are too faint to discern, while others have deteriorated. There are many geometric figures, and over 900 images can be identified as animals, 605 of which have been precisely identified. Of the animals, horses predominate, with 364 images. There are 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. Smatterings of other images include 7 felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human.

The figures cover the entire upper reaches of the walls as well as in the first third of the Gallery, the surface of the vault.

Great Hall of the Bulls

Among the most famous and dominant images are 4 huge, black bulls which appear to be in motion in the great Hall of the Bulls where there are bulls, horses, and stags. One of the bulls is 17 feet long — the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists

A painting referred to as “The Crossed Bison” and found in the chamber called the Nave is often held as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs show the ability to use perspective in a manner that wasn’t seen again until the 15th century.

Of the non-figurative images, one researcher has speculated that the painted dots are maps of the night sky, since the patterns correlate with various constellations.

The sky map was identified in 1941 in a region of the Lascaux caves known as the Shaft of the Dead Man. Painted on to the wall of the shaft is a bull, a strange bird-man and a mysterious bird on a stick.

When Picasso was shown the paintings in 1941 he openly wept and said ‘We’ve invented nothing.

A dappled brown horse with dark mane painted on the wall of the prehistoric Lascaux caves in France 15,000 years ago might be part of the oldest lunar calendar

Wookey Hole Caves
Wookey Hole Caves is a show cave and tourist attraction formed by the action of the River Axe, on the limestone hills in the village of the same name on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills near Wells in Somerset, England.

Before emerging at Wookey Hole, the River Axe enters underground streams and passes through other caves such as Swildon’s Hole and St Cuthbert’s Swallet. After resurging, the waters of the River Axe are used in a handmade paper mill, the oldest extant in Britain, which began operations circa 1610, although a corn grinding mill operated there as early as 1086.

The cave is noted for the Witch of Wookey Hole — a roughly human shaped rock outcrop which is a stalagmite in the first chamber of the caves.

The Witch of Wookey Hole is the central character in an old English legend believed in the 18th century which has several different versions with the same basic tale for which she was turned to stone by a monk.

A man from Glastonbury was betrothed to a girl from Wookey. An ancient old witch living in Wookey Hole Caves who had been jilted herself curses the romance so that it fails. The man, now become a monk, sought revenge on this witch who frequently spoiled budding relationships. He stalked into the cave and catching her off guard, threw a bucket of blessed water over her head. The water immediately petrified the witch, and she remains in the cave to this day.

Cave 9 is a legend in history of cave diving. Diving and exploration of its 70 foot deep green waters have been going on since 1948.

The caves, at a constant temperature of 11 °C (52 °F), have been used by humans for around 50,000 years.

Wookey Hole is about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the city of Wells, and 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Bath.

White Scar Caves
Deep beneath Ingleborough Hill in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in the North of England lies the hidden world of White Scar Caves — the longest show cave in Britain — which has been sculpted by nature over thousands of years. Famous for its 200,000 year old Battlefield Cavern of fluorescing stalactites at more than 330 feet (100 meters) long and its roof soaring as high as 100 feet (30 meters) in areas, it’s also one of the largest known cave chambers in Britain.

The cave contains thousands of delicate stalactites hanging from the roof in massive clusters. Formations of every sort — helictites, gours, stalagmites and stalactites — are abundant throughout the cave, for which the curious formations have been given names such as the Buddha, the Devil’s Tongue, the Arum Lily, the remarkably lifelike Judge’s Head, the Elephant’s Head, and the Madonna and Child.

The White Scar Caves are also known for its unique feature of a cavern of prehistoric mud pools which have never been disturbed by man.

Battlefield Cavern


Discovered in 1923 by 2 amateur geologists, Christopher Long — a Cambridge undergraduate — and J.H. Churchill, the original entrance to this cave was a mere crack through which it was necessary to wriggle, forcing a path through the stream, and trying to get enough air space between the roof and water to continue.

But in today’s times a wide tunnel has been blasted for 600 feet (183 meters) to the point where Long first entered the cave at the first waterfall. Here, in the First Waterfall Chamber, are scores of stunning formations, and the dull roar of the subterranean river Greta can be heard in the distance.

The show section of the cave follows this watercourse for the most part with sightseers being conducted along duckboards over the river. The path winds its way past cascading waterfalls, between massive banks of flowstone and through galleries covered in cream and carrot colored stalactites and stalagmites. Beneath the steel grid walkways you can see the stream rushing and foaming along its way. It has all the excitement of surmounting underground waterfalls without the discomfort of getting wet.

The show section ends a half-mile from the entrance and 600 feet below the surface, where a barrier has been put across the passage. It is possible from the vantage point however to see the cave continuing into the distance where one can appreciate what the cave was like before the paths were put in, and the times the original explorers had as they made their way upstream using nothing but candles for light.

Britain’s longest show cave covers 1 mile and takes about 80 minutes.

Known as Witch’s Face


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