2019: Puerto Rico Caving
Puerto Rico has as many as 6,000 limestone caves, many of which are spectacularly decorated. Our goal of this five-week trip was to relocate caves that had been lost, and to cut trails to caves which had become unusable from Hurricane Maria two years prior. The trip was assisted by SEPRI (Sociedad Espeleologica de Puerto Rico), to which we later submitted data and a report. To protect the caves, names may have been omitted or changed.
It seems incredible that there are so many caves so close to major roads in Puerto Rico that remain largely untouched. Cave #7, for example, is literally 50 feet from the road, yet has no obvious significant damage inside. As an outsider, I do not know the exact reasons behind this observation, but would guess it is because of 1) thick jungle full of dangerous plants and spiders, and 2) public ignorance of caves. The vast majority of Puerto Ricans that we talked to asked over and over again if we were going to Cavernas de Rio Camuy. When we would say things like ‘Did you know there are several thousand other caves on the island?’, people said ‘No’. Despite being extraordinarily densely populated, with roads and people in nearly every landscape, most people in Puerto Rico are completely unaware of the underground rivers and waterfalls beneath their homes, their farms, and their towns. This unawareness, I think, is because the jungle is thick enough to hide the generally small cave entrances from even experienced cavers, and definitely from the general public. Puerto Ricans in general seem to be somewhat fearful of the jungle, complaining it is full of insects, snakes, mud, and sharp plants, all of which is true. SEPRI already knows this and explained to me that some of their cave conservation efforts focus on reforestation and/or preventing deforestation. A win for both the underground and aboveground!
The main challenge to cave conservation is therefore, I would say, keeping the caves hidden and secret. However, there are other issues, including trash disposal. SEPRI has made huge efforts to run ambitious projects to extract trash from caves in recents years, and the efforts are commendable and should be inspiring to cave conservation groups elsewhere. Whereas in Arizona we find trash in caves that was left behind by hikers with flashlights and drunk teenagers, in Puerto Rico the trash comes almost entirely from illegal dumping. Illegal dumping brings higher quantities of larger items deep into caves, which can be difficult or impossible to extract. For instance, there are entire washing machines nearly a mile underground in Ponor 3. Fortunately, SEPRI knows this and has made efforts to prevent illegal dumping near cave entrances, such as by erecting a roadside fence above Cave #4. I was continually impressed with SEPRI’s efforts and successes in cave conservation.
As a whole, Suhei and I both love Puerto Rico. The caves and the cavers were especially incredible, but also the local landowners were consistently open and welcoming. Not one person, not a single one, was unfriendly when we knocked on their door in the early morning, unannounced, asking if we could park on and cross their property. The only problem, in fact, was the terrible drivers! If we could ever do this trip again, the only thing we would do differently would be to go in the dry season to reduce the flood risk inherent in so many caves in Puerto Rico. For our first independent caving trip, Puerto Rico set the bar pretty high, and we are grateful to all the people that helped get us underground, including Jeff Kruse, Ashlee Lee, Dave Weimer, Carlos ‘Bro’ Artiguez, Tom Miller, and many other folks at SEPRI. ¡Nos vemos!