A First Exploration of the Flooded Mines of Thailand
Thailand-based, Finnish explorer Mikko Paasi reports on the first known exploration of the Sahakorn Nikon mine, which he and his team recently conducted in late 2022. Located in the Kanchanaburi province in northwest Thailand, the mine complex, which was abandoned and flooded some thirty years ago, is believed to be the largest in Asia. Working with local authorities, the team is planning to conduct a 3D photogrammetry survey of the complex, which lacks maps or blueprints. Paasi, who was recognized by the King of Thailand, and president of Finland for his efforts in the Thai cave rescue, believes the discovery heralds a new era of local exploration.
By Mikko Paasi. Header image: Bottomline Projects exploration team ”The Filthy Few” descending to the Song Toh mine in Kanchanaburi province to conduct the first ever mine dive in Thailand. Photo: Karn Romyasai
I’ve always been passionate about mine diving. Actually I started my professional dive career in Ojamo mine in 1998, which is where I went through a year long instructor training. During that year, we conducted nearly 300 dives in the mine. Back in the 90s there was no proper training available, so we poked our heads around the first chambers with our c- battery-loaded 100 lumen bulb lights.
Today, with all the developing technology in the diving industry, overhead environment diving has developed to a totally new level. DPV’s, rebreathers, and powerful handheld torches help us penetrate further than we could have even dreamed a few decades ago. Even if mine diving might be popular in Europe, in Thailand it is a totally new privilege, and according to my knowledge, no one had dived here before until a couple of years ago, when we decided to start scouting old, flooded and abandoned mine sites.
Like many exploration projects, this one started a long time ago over a pint of beer and a drawing board. After a long while scouting around, we finally began to locate serious mine options that were worth checking out. This is a story of the first two flooded mines that we discovered and dived in Thailand.
Into the Mines of Moria, err Thailand
Thailand has a rich mining culture. The main minerals have been lead, tin, zinc, gold, and other heavy metals. Our first exploration target, the Sahakorn Nikon mine, is located in Kanchanaburi province near the Mayanmar border in northwest region of Thailand. It is believed to be the largest mine complex in Asia. For three generations and about a hundred years the Bhol family extracted lead minerals from under the stone mountain the locals call the “Everest of Thailand” for the shape of it. The mining stopped here over 30 years ago and the underground section has been submersed ever since.
Our dive team is based on a small island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand, called Koh Tao, where I have been running my dive center for the past 25 years. Koh Tao Divers (KTD) is where we train our Bottomline Projects foundation team and other like-minded divers. I was the expedition leader and the rest of our dive team consisted of two full cave and KISS Sidewinder rebreather divers, Naomi Allen and Pasi Laihanen, a couple who both work as instructors at KTD.
To get to the mine area we first needed to load up all our gear into a high speed catamaran that took us to the mainland where a minivan took us on the second leg of the journey, a 800 kilometer drive up north. On the way, we picked up two dry cavers, David Templeman and Karn Romyasai, who had been in these mines before and knew the coordinates and the location of the possible diving spots inside the mines.
We arrived on the site around 04:00 AM in the heart of the night. This area is known for its herd of wild elephants that kill many members of the local community every year. Cutting away the jungle with our machetes in the dark, pushing our way toward the hidden entrance, we made ourselves very vulnerable to the wild life surrounding us.
Eventually, after a downhill journey of a half kilometer transporting our equipment through the slippery terrain, we found the entrance and started to descend down a spiraling drive way that led us to the water. Once we arrived at the water level, we realized that the mine was a monster, both in size and the hostile conditions such as quicksand that could suck you down to your hips, mud, and rusty, fragile structures to be navigated. We couldn’t help imagining how it would be under the surface..
Encouraged by the fact that we had come all the way here and that we were actually about to do the first mine dive in the Kingdom, we began our way toward the shaft that led down to what was unknown to us. My tool for the job was a mechanical ccr, KISS Sidewinder with two aluminum 40 cf bailouts side-mounted on both sides, my colleagues, Pasi and Naomi, were both on open circuit sidemount. While gearing up, I had torn my drysuit wrist seal completely off, and since I didn’t have a spare with me, I had zip-tied my right sleeve to minimize the leak. Luckily, the water was 20ºC/68ºF.
Since these mines do not have maps or blueprints that would have given us some idea of what was waiting for us down there. By the time I got my reel line attached to the super structure, the visibility at the shaft had dropped from five meters to zero. We started our dive by dropping down and feeling our way in until we reached the first tunnel at just 10 m/33 ft depth. Everything was covered with a thick layer of fine dust, and we were lucky to manage a few tie offs on the way until we popped into another vertical shaft with massive amounts of plumbing and rusty ladders going in multiple directions. We had just traversed to another vent shaft that led straight away to the ground surface and had exited the mine about 50 m/164 ft above us. Unfortunately, when calculating the risk versus the reward, this experience was not worth risking any more exploring with the given equipment and gasses we had with us. Yet again, we think the shafts will keep going and, given the amount of structure there was, it must go for quite some way.
At sunrise we surfaced back to the ground level and out from the darkness of this monster of a mine. The next site was approximately a two-hour drive away. We had time for some breakfast and to focus on the next dive in another abandoned, flooded mine.
At 11:00 am we arrived, and the approach was a bit easier since we had the daylight with us. Once we found the entrance, we started walking in, following David, who was leading us to the spot where the tunnel submerged. Our hopes were realistic, because we had just dived a massive and fairly potential mine a couple of hours before. We knew that the main tunnel where we were now walking on the ground level was over two kilometers long, and we couldn’t help thinking about what could lie underneath our feet.
At the water’s edge we started to get excited. The color of the water and the surroundings reminded us of the Mexican cenotes, except these tunnels were man-made ”rusty caves” with all sorts of machinery in them.
We slid in, tied off to a pipe that led down, and off we went. The walls were bright and everything was covered with fine white silt that settled down shortly. Visibility exceeded our expectations, being between 10-20 m/33-66 ft from time to time. This tunnel was shallow, just barely under water, and after a few junctions and turns, we popped up in a big chamber with daylight shining in. We’d just discovered an alternative entry/exit to the mine and accidentally traversed into it. We ended our first reel there and tied it on permanently to a plumbing pipe.
We took a quick look around the chamber and noticed that opposite to where the day light was coming there was a massive driveway with multiple pipes leading deeper down toward the heart of the mountain. The visibility was crystal clear, and the main tunnel had constant junctions and dead ends to the left and the right. We knew we had struck gold and would be back again soon with a bit more gear and a clearer idea of what we were up against.
Our Second Push
Back on our little island, we had time to get prepared for the second push into the mines but with out-dated information. At least we had a family contact when we needed to get permission for further exploration. We had also decided to concentrate on only the second mine since we felt it was well worth the risk. From the first trip, we had many questions:, will the tunnel extend, or will it pop back to the surface? Are there other, deeper levels under the first one? Is the water quality safe to dive in? How big is the complex down there?
The second push dive team consisted of two of my friends, Cedric and Fan, who were both full mine CCR divers and top-notch blokes with which to hang around.
This time we arrived at 03:30 AM after a boat ride and a night in the van. We immediately went scouting and carried the first load of equipment to the starting point. During the three hours of scouting around the dry mine tunnels we found two new entry points which then made four different entries to the underworld. Would they all be connected?
With the sunrise on our backs, we entered the mine and began to prepare for the first push dive. This time, we had brought with us a kilometer of cave line and we were vigorously spooling it into our reels while keeping an eye out for the scorpions, snakes, and other critters that might be crawling into our Sidewinders mouth pieces. The first question was, would the main tunnel, the one that we found the last time, surface or would it go deeper. Tying off to the piping on the sides was easy, and we soon figured that we would have work to do for years in this place. There were constant crossroads, and the driveway kept going on, deeper and straight into the mountain.
We emptied our reels and turned the dive. The scenery, while diving back, and watching Cedric and Fan gliding in the distance, was breathtaking and I could tell what they were feeling at that moment, knowing that when you’ve just discovered something enormous, your mind races with so many possibilities.
This time we were all on Sidewinder CCRs, so moving across the dry sections was much easier, and we were able to do longer dives. We traversed to the other side of the mine and carried our equipment to one of the new entries we had found in the morning. This entry was teeming with bats, but we were in adrenalin-fueled exploration mode with the first glimpse under the surface. Checks and primary tie offs, and we were once again on our way to the unknown. This time the tunnel was spiraling down, and at the 15 m/50 ft level we’d done a full 360 degrees,meaning we were right under where we had started. Up right there was a familiar-looking tight passage that we recognized as the other entry we had found earlier. Down right there was a tight restriction that dropped down to the next deeper level. On the left we could see a massive iron gate that was just barely open and that led to a ventilation shaft. We decided to follow the main tunnel that kept going deeper and curving in again.
Tying off in this section was almost impossible, since the tunnel was cut smooth with nothing to grip, and at the bottom there was no machinery nor even stones to tie onto.
Eventually, we ran out of line and turned back, and this time we ascended through the small passage to mark it and then back in and down again to take some images and water examples for later studies.
We had now laid about half a kilometer/1640 ft of new line in, and everywhere we turned there seemed to be an endless complex of tunnels going in all directions. We were starting to realize what a 100 years of mining might look like.
The Future of Thai Mine Diving
Discovering something this big and beautiful being hidden and forgotten for decades is the sole reason why we train so hard everyday. The fact that there might not be any blueprints for this mine just makes the adventure so much more appealing, and it becomes true exploration. Not knowing what lies around the next corner or when you might be at the end of the last corridor, and being the first one to visit the century-long history of the three generations of the Bhol mining family’s underground enterprise is well worth the elevated risk that comes with exploratory mine diving.
With such world-class diving possibilities, the surrounding natural caves, rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, this place needs to be taken seriously. Were the caves to be carefully surveyed, the local community could welcome more adventurous visitors to the region–explorers who would enjoy Thailand’s longest underground tunnels as well as the warm and crystal clear flooded sections of this beautiful monster of a mine.
We have decided to keep the exact coordinates amongst just a few of us to hopefully avoid less-experienced adventure seekers from rushing in without proper training. Meanwhile, we will try to negotiate the terms of the use, and survey the site properly using the 3D photogrammetry method as our main tool to understand the magnitude of this complex.
Until today, we have managed to take various water and dust samples from different locations, and so far we haven’t found any elevated traces of lead or any other toxins. The local community has given us exclusive permission to keep exploring deeper into the mines, and the next big push is scheduled at the end of April 2023. This time, we will have to start mixing helium in the blend because it is now obvious that the mine goes way past air diluent depths. Another tool I will add to my artillery next time is the helmet. We had a friendly reminder from a dive we did with our Thai team Por Parasu Komaradat and Norrased Palasing where we experienced a couple of small collapses in the side passages and that put the whole team on alert. I plan to also consider if parts of the mine are too fragile to dive, especially on open circuit. As safety is our number one goal, these mines obviously will only be open for divers with proper (mine diver) training and site introduction.
So far, all the interviews with the old miners haven’t brought us any credible data, as they all recall things slightly differently. We have located a fourth mine in the same region, but no permission for exploration has been granted yet because the locals are too worried about us getting hurt by the wild elephants living in the area. We believe that there will be real exploration and new projects around these mines for years to come and would like to encourage CCR exploration-minded teams or individuals to reach out and get involved in the upcoming series of expeditions.
All and all, a new era of overhead environment diving in Thailand has begun, and we are extremely excited to seewhere this all will lead and how many more diveable mines there will be once the word is out.
This series of expeditions is supported by XDEEP Exploration Support Program, SEAL dry suits and Big Blue Dive Lights.
InDEPTH: Out of the Depths: The Story of British Mine Diving by Jon Glanfield
InDEPTH:They Discovered an 11,000-year-old Submerged Ochre Mine by John Kendall
InDEPTH: I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas Mine by Andrea Murdock Alpini
inDEPTH: Mine Over Monitor: Iconic dive sites with a shared history by Edd Stockdale
Mikko Paasi is a passionate explorer, ccr cave/mine Instructor Trainer and an underwater camera operator. His soon 30 year long professional diving career started at Ojamo mine, Finland, in the 90’s. Today he runs his dive center, Koh Tao Divers, in Thailand and conducts constantly new diving related projects and expeditions through his foundation called Bottomline Projects. Mikko has been involved in multiple documentaries and movies both, behind and in front of the camera, latest being a film called Ghost Ships which is now premiering in the Berlin Film Festival. He played a key role in the Thai Cave Rescue 2018 from where the King of Thailand awarded him with a 1st class Knight Grand Cross.
Earlier this summer Jake Bulman and the Protec Team launched their 2023 expedition to Madagascar’s formidable Malazamanga cave known for massive tunnels, formations the size of buildings, and its unbelievable cobalt blue water. They then journeyed to Anjanamba, which despite enormous passageways, consistently turned into tight, restrictive spaces before opening up again. Having appeased the cave spirits and returned safely, Bulman offered up this account.
by Jake Bulman. Photos by Phillip Lehman. Lead image: (L2R) Jake Bulman, Patrick Widmann and Ryan Dart motoring through the first mega-room after Ryan’s Chamber, Malazamanga.
Deals made. Plans Laid
As I sat in the Paris airport working on my computer, Patrick Widman gestured to me to remove my headphones. He and Phillip Lehmann sat across from me and asked if I wanted to make a deal. Assuming I was walking into some kind of joke, I replied with a hesitant “Sure.” “Next summer you come with us to Madagascar, if you…“ “Yes! Deal, ” I answered before he finished explaining my end of the deal. It didn’t matter, the answer was yes. Patrick finished laying out his already agreed deal, headphones went back in and everybody went back to what they were doing, except for my thoughts, which went to “Holy Shit! I’m going exploring in Madagascar!”
Now nearly a year later in June 2023, we were back in Paris, this time packing all of the bags for the flight to Antananarivo (“Tana”), Madagascar’s capital city. When we got there we met up with Tsoa, who is the local contact, translator, organizer, and overall critical part of the team. Our bags headed to Toliara with the drivers while we spent the day doing some errands.
The next day was important to me, not because i turned 30, but it marked the end of a bet Patrick and I made in 2020, for which I had now won $100. The victory was short lived, however, as I spent that day stuck in my hotel room violently sick. Welcome to Madagascar!
After a short flight, overnight in Toliara, then an hour long boat ride along the coast, we reached Anakao Ocean Lodge. This place is a bit of a shock to the senses after traveling through the poverty stricken cities. Luxury in the middle of nowhere; it would be our basecamp for the trip. As Patrick and I posted a photo of the place, Phillip sarcastically mourned the loss of any “hardcore expedition” image people would imagine.
The next day we planned to meet up with the National Parks’ representatives, organize porters, transport all the equipment to the site, then get in the water and place all of the deco tanks and scooters we would need, and finally be out by dark to avoid being stranded overnight. This may seem overly ambitious, and it was, but is a good example of the overall approach of the project. Always go all in, no shortcuts or laziness, and if it was not possible in the end, no worries at all. The goal is to have fun with the group and do awesome stuff, which we always did.
”This is the most epic cave ever”Phillip Lehmann on Malazamanga
Musing on Malazamanga
Malazamanga, a cave of indescribably massive tunnels, formations the size of buildings, and amazing blue water dominated the first part of the trip. We set up a little basecamp in the mouth of the cave, each of us with our own spaces to change, hang up our suits to dry, and change sorb each day. The entrance swim is a tediously frustrating one for rebreather divers: 20 minutes of low ceilings, bouncing from 20 m to 5 m/66 ft to 16 ft and back several times, never allowing space to sit “in trim”, and no flow to remove any of the inevitable silt that came from passing with multiple scooters, stages and divers.
However, once you reach Ryan’s Chamber, the first big room, you find a staging spot for leaving scooters and tanks for the following day, and a small tunnel leading to the real, intimidatingly massive, Malazamanga.
Patrick and I went to the deep section right away (45-50 m/138 to 164 ft) and spent three days trying to find the way on, while Phillip and Ryan Dart looked around the shallower parts of the cave (20-30 m/66-100 ft) for any leads that had not been checked. Patrick laid line while I surveyed behind him through a wide but low space that became swirling silt and clay by the third tie off. We reached a vertical shaft, Patrick asked me to hold and ran a line into a smaller tunnel below us that led to a restriction. In spaces like this where zero visibility is guaranteed, diver two will be pushing through restrictions blind, having no idea the shape or size of the space around them, which is a recipe for disaster, so I waited on the line for Patrick to return and started a timer.
As fifteen minutes showed on the timer, it started to feel like a long time. How long do I wait before doing something? Five more minutes rolled by, and my mind started to run… What if he has a problem? Does he need help? Memories of having to get somebody out of a similar space once before came to mind. But this time it was Patrick though, if he truly needed help it would be a serious situation. I decided to give him until 30 minutes from when he left, and then I would go in (slowly). With four minutes remaining, a glow appeared before Patrick explained that “it’s tight, but it goes.” It was a long wait that meant a bunch more deco, but this could be the way on.
The next day I was tasked with pushing the End Of Line (EOL) while he and Phillip looked elsewhere. After twisting, turning, removing tanks, and wondering if this was a good idea more than a few times, I pushed through a few ups and downs, but the cave unfortunately ended in a basement section at 52 m/170 ft. No going leads. Time to head home.
Breakthrough and Packing Techniques
Our daily routine started at 06:30 with a breakfast of bread, fruit, eggs, tea and espresso. We’d leave the garage at 07:00, meet the porters at the bottom of the hill in the national park and send the equipment with them. Phil would then educate us on the risks of breakthrough, importance of proper packing techniques, and the impact of dwell time. All of which are critical to making espresso.
After making espresso, the handpresso is put away, we hike the 30 minutes up the hill, get dressed, dive four to six hours, then head home. Back at the garage by 08:00 pm, fill tanks for an hour, eat dinner at 09:00 pm, and then sleep. All the while making jokes, sharing stories, talking about life, trying to blind each other with lights, and being shown the same photo of Rosie, Phillip’s pit bull, with a “look at this awesome photo” preceding the photo display by a few seconds.
All in all, going diving required some effort, not to mention the week of traveling with piles of luggage to get there, the week to get home, and all of the time spent organizing beforehand. In terms of “cost (time/money/effort) per hour underwater” it is some of the most expensive time I’ve ever spent underwater.
One day, after a significant amount of problem solving in the hot, muddy entrance tunnel of the cave, we finally got everything sorted and started doing checks. Halfway through, Phillip said, “I’m not into this. You guys go. Nobody is paying me to do this,” and started to remove his tanks. Considering the “cost per hour underwater,” I think many of us would go whether we wanted to or not, giving in to a sunk cost fallacy-like sense of commitment.
We reformed a plan for the two of us, a few angry birds levels were completed on the surface, and everybody went home excited to see the survey data. There is a lesson to be had here for many of us, about what is actually important and ignoring those perceived, often self-induced pressures to carry on even if it doesn’t actually make sense.
We scoured every corner of the section we were in, until a hole underneath a formation showed a large room on the other side. I tied in at ~40 m/~130 ft, headed down the slope to where floor met wall, removed my tank, locked the reel, threw it through the hole, and headed in. Once my torso passed the squeeze, still inverted in the water, I put my tank back on, grabbed the reel, and swam the direction that I remembered it went. I passed the cloud and made a tie off. Turn, tie off, into a bedding plane, tie off, big room, tie off, and stop.
The floor suddenly featured huge, wavy marks that everybody recognizes as signs of flow. A lot of it. Massive clay bricks fit together like tiles in the riverbed resembling floor. A promising development, I tied off and ducked my head under the lip of the ceiling. Instantly the ceiling met the clay bed and the cave ended. Water unfortunately doesn’t consider human size in its choice of direction. Back to the drawing board.
“Fuck it, let’s just see what happens”Patrick Widmann
To Breathe or Not To Breathe
At the time, the furthest reaches of Malazamanga was an enormous collapse with no way beyond it except a few air domes. We were aware the air domes may not be breathable, but lacked a proper analyzer for that. After some thought, Patrick decided that we would just give it a go one at a time. We surfaced and knelt close together as Patrick closed his DSV and took a short breath of the gas. Wearing an expression resembling somebody tasting less-than-appetizing looking food he took a second breath.
Watching intently, I saw the expression quickly change from hesitant but ok, to uncomfortable to concerned as he put his DSV back in and opened it. I was ready for him to pass out as we sat there breathing, but nothing happened. We knew it was likely not breathable, but I wanted to see what it felt like! I removed my DSV and took a breath. A humid, thick, shockingly hot breath filled my lungs and I was not going to take a second one. No way that was safe, I thought, as the burning in my lungs slowly faded.
Patrick climbed out with just his rebreather (and flowing oxygen) and took a quick look around, but no luck. As he was getting dressed again, I popped my head into a few holes and found a passage that looked to slope downwards on the other side of a tight squeeze. I ran a line in with Patrick behind me, and tried to push through but couldn’t fit. After removing myself and the cloud of unavoidable silt surrounded us, I grabbed the rock that was in the way and flipped it over. If you have ever moved a big rock in a collapse, in a never-before-dived cave, you can imagine the visibility afterwards. We backed out, went to check a few other places, then returned hoping for slightly better visibility.
Patrick was the next one in, leaving a tank on the line with me this time, and he extended the line down the slope on the other side. I heard rocks falling, tanks banging on rock, grunting, laughing, bubbles moving along the ceiling, and then he returned with his hands shaking like crazy. Whatever was over there, was not for the faint of heart it seemed. After a bit of cooling down, he went back into the cloud, which was followed by loud yelling. Excited yelling. We exited, and planned our return for the next day. What lay beyond the 6 m/20 ft deep, vertical, awkward, tank-off restriction was an open space that continued downwards to what appeared to be 40 m+.
The next day, I was going through first. We rehearsed the shape of the restriction and the series of movements needed for passing it on the surface. It was weaving through the space where collapsed boulders met the sloping ceiling, and any extra force on the wiggling rocks meant possible collapse. The plan was for me to pass, tie into the EOL, and head off. Patrick would pass behind me with the MNemo and survey in. Adding tie off after tie off, I headed deeper, then flattened out, then up through an opening to my right. Now it was my turn to yell, the cave had returned to its previous enormous size!! This celebration lasted three tie offs, as we climbed yet another collapse that was quite clearly the end. Cut line, put reel away, look around knowing that nobody will ever be here again, and head home.
On to Anjanamba
Several options lay ahead of us, which Patrick and Phil weighed over dinner. Continue searching in Malazamanga, or get the filming done then head north to Anjanamba, or spend the next two weeks surfing. The last option was apparently way more valid than the joking suggestion I had taken it as. Fortunately, the second option was the choice. We spent a day scootering around with lights in hand and on the DPVs. Screen grabs of the video were used as photos for this article.
We also had two surfing days, where I (having never surfed before) mostly tried to not get annihilated by the waves. My second goal was “not to kill anybody” as Patrick and Phillip repetitively warned me not to do it with my oversized board (only a stand up paddle board was available). Fortunately I’m a very strong swimmer, as I spent large chunks of time crashing and burning, then being tossed around by the ocean.
”This is the most epic cave ever”Phillip Lehmann on Anjanamba
Heading up to Anjanamba featured a boat ride, a seven hour drive that resembled one of those truck commercials trying to show how tough its product is, and a journey through the Mikea National Park which had no paved road either. During lunch break everybody commented how much better it is now than it was several years ago, describing it as “pretty smooth” and “less violent” in the same sentence.
We visited the local village, where residents are the spiritual keepers of Anjanamba, to talk to the chief and say hi to a friend of Tsoa who had just had a baby. While there we got a tour of their newly built school, joked with the children a bit, took a photo and headed home. For a lifestyle that is so drastically different to our own, with so much less of everything tangible, the village seems a happy, lively place with kids running and playing. However it is easy to see the need for food, schooling, health products, and basic medical care to name a few.
Appeasing the Spirits of Anjanamba
Anjanamba is the location of the filming of the “Spirits of the Cave ” series (see DIVE DEEPER below). Described as a much more dendritic, Mexican-like cave with a blue color that puts the famous Mexican salt water tunnels to shame. The name of the series doesn’t come from nowhere; this cave is home to several spirits. In order to appease them, a few things need to be accomplished.
First, we must visit a big, double trunked baobab during the walk there. We remove our hats, gather near the meeting point of the trunks, place a pointer finger on one tree and pinky on the other (think bull horns hand shape), bow our heads and ask the spirits for two things. One, that they allow us to find an epic cave that goes. Two, that they grant us safe passage and everybody returns home safely. The ever-present, always watching lizard that lives there looked down in approval. The locals however, who had no idea what we were doing, waved us back to the path with a smile and laugh.
Once that is done, a ritual must happen with the Mikea people (in which the National Park is named after). Patrick and Phil have already been through it, so it’s just me. The chief started the ritual, as they each took a sip from a bottle of rum we had brought. Tsoa explained to me afterwards what they had been saying (asking the spirits to accept me, safe passage etc). Notably, it included nothing about finding mega cave, but we had already covered that during the lizard tree ceremony I guess.
The guys had warned me about the second part of the ritual, which had me eating a part of the cave – sand, dirt, rock, whatever. The chief continued speaking, and Tsoa told me it was time. I pinched some sand, put it in my mouth and swallowed. Phillip verified it was all gone. In the background I hear Patrick stifle a laugh, and my long-held suspicion was proven true, this was not actually part of it. The locals found it hilarious, and it wasn’t as if I was going to say no in any case. Diving time.
As usual, we were quite late and had made very ambitious plans which didn’t quite pan out. But we did as much as we could, then headed back to our new home at “Laguna Blu.” Like in Anakao, we had great food, friendly staff, beautiful views and comfortable sleeping.
Having laid less line than we had hoped in Malazamanga, we were keen to “bash some reels”. Anjanambas current EOL lay at more than 2287 meters/7500 feet with an average depth of 18m/60 ft or so. It featured enormous tunnels and decorated rooms, yet consistently turned into tight, never-quite-ending spaces before returning to vast rooms with pristine formations all over the place.
Patrick and I each carried a stage, and I carried the back up scooter. Passing through the 30 minutes of sideways swimming, weaving up and down, belly scraping, up and down cave with a negatively buoyant scooter in between my legs meant it was not always smooth sailing. Fortunately it usually got stuck when I was in the back so nobody saw. We reached the end of the line, Phillip tied in and headed off with Patrick recording and me surveying behind them.
From my POV, it looked likely to end every 10 tie offs only for the line to weave into a little corner of the room and continue, with nothing but a light dusting of silt at each tie off as signs of my team ahead of me. This repeated for another 457 meters/1500 ft of line until the reel was emptied, everybody cheered and fist bumped with excitement and then decided that we really needed to head home.
Our DPV charging plan didn’t pan out, so after each day Patrick and Phil drove over to a neighboring location and ate lunch while the scooters charged. I went back to Anjanamba and swam some of the closer lines checking for any going cave. After extending a few EOL’s, the sections had been checked without much luck. After a few days of exploring in Anjanamba, which mostly featured a repeating pattern of restrictions then big rooms, we finished our last diving day with nothing clearly going, but a few hopeful areas left.
End of the Line
As we reached the end of the trip, instead of feeling tired as we expected, we found ourselves ready for more. We had lots of sorb left, but had used every last liter of oxygen. Unfortunately, it was time to take a group photo with the locals, dry our equipment and start the journey home. Not only did we have flights to catch, but we had classes to teach less than 12 hours after landing in Mexico.
After five weeks of expedition, we had managed to get the most out of every day, be on time almost never, and explore some amazing cave. More impressively, I don’t recall a single argument or bad mood at all, which is rare when you spend 18 hours per day with the same people. Until next time, the villagers return to their normal lives, we go back to the Caribbean, and the spirits of Anjanamba can rest again.
We did have one last day before heading home, in which we would make a discovery. What will come of it is yet to be seen, but I’m sure it’s going to be a mega-epic either way. In fact, probably the most epic cave ever.
The Protec Team‘s past Madagascar Expeditions:
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave (2017)
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave 2 (2019)
YouTube: Spirits of the Cave 3 (2020)
Originally from Canada, Jake Bulman is a full-time cave diving and CCR instructor at Protec Dive Centers in Mexico. The last several years of teaching have been almost exclusively sidewinder focused, from try dives to CCR Cave classes, 4C to 24C, and in several countries around the world. Outside of work, he can be found on exploration projects in local caves of a wide range of depths, distances, and sizes.