Connect with us


The Taming of the Slough: Crypt Edition

Rumors of a deep connection between the Crypt, a collapsed tunnel in Peacock Springs discovered by Sheck Exley in 1975, and lower Orange Groove, both located in Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, Florida, only served to entice explorer Steve Lambert, who was determined to find the truth, after his team’s success extending Peacock III. Here is his story featuring a well-known cast of underground characters including Woody Jasper, Frank McNamara, Andrew Johnson, Thai Paul and greybeard Paul Heinerth who were involved in the find. Scoop that booty!



Text and images by Steve Lambert.

Jeff Dobbertien helping divers out of the water at Orange Grove

My name is Steve, and for the past four years I have had a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Peacock Springs. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that there was an alleged connection between the Crypt and Lower Orange Grove through a “deep section.” That rumor included the tale of a near-death experience—dive buddies frantically trying to get someone in the cavern to help, even though they had three hours of decompression to complete the dive. There were even furious police officers involved in the tale. Naturally, I had to go investigate. Over about half of a year in 2022, I was able to track down all of the pieces of this outlandish puzzle and put the story together as well as see the connection for myself. Nearly six months after that, I was able to begin an article on the subject of my desires.


The deep section of the Crypt was originally explored in the mid-80s by Woody Jasper. In a time before most people had access to trimix or trimix dive planning tools, divers had to be resourceful to reach the far recesses of caves. When I asked Woody about diving the Crypt in the early days he told me “ I used a travel mix of half oxygen and half air [60% O2] so I didn’t start my bottom timer until I went on air in the upper Crypt, then I would stop my bottom deco time when I went back on the hot mix. Saved a shit load of needless deco. Max depth on the hot mix was 52 feet, so pushing O2 a bit on the return trip, but Nitrox hadn’t been invented then so we still thought two atmospheres (PO2=2.0) was safe.” 

Using this method, Woody was able to shave off large amounts of decompression time from his dives. Keep in mind that this was at a time when “nitrox” hadn’t been invented and divers thought a PO2 of two atmospheres was within “safe” limits. It was also a time when you could count the number of sidemount divers on one hand, and only on a few fingers for the number of sidemount divers making deep dives.

Missed Connections

Frank McNamara started looking at Lower Orange Grove after Ted McCoy told him that he thought it connected to Lower Hendley’s in PIII (ironically, it was that same connection I was looking for when I began pushing PIII). Ted told Frank about some no-mount exploration he had worked on down in the “Little Sister” jump in the past, and he wanted to have a look.

Frank tied into the jump and headed off into a low flow, silty area. After accidentally making a wrong turn at a T, he ended up at a rock-on-clay restriction which appeared to be a dead end. “I went through it, he said, “and placed a silt stake and, after a turn, it popped out in a large room at about 46m/150 ft of water. This room had several breakdowns on the floor off to the left. After about 90m/300 ft, it got much bigger and dropped down to about 56m/185 ft deep and turned into a very wide and low tunnel covered in goethite with a decent amount of clear water flow.”

Overlay of Lambert’s survey and an area map. The loop closure was less than 24m/80ft.

Frank continues: “I continued down this tunnel for a bit and came upon a breakdown with two different possible paths up (both nasty restrictions). I took the one that looked slightly bigger and went bottle off to get through. It popped into a big room going up a hill and after ascending a little bit, I found what appeared to be a very old line. I tied in and left my reel (my favorite one at that), assuming I’d be back to survey (vis was completely cooked from passing the restriction). I then turned to head out. At this point, I tried to go through the restriction without taking a bottle off and got properly stuck (it required exhaling fully to get enough slack to release my bottle).”

After the dive, Frank realized he hadn’t laid enough line to connect to Lower Hendley’s and assumed he had connected back into another line in Lower Orange Grove. About six months later, he went back to repossess his reel, but on this dive he went in on the line he thought he had tied into on his last dive. To his surprise, his line was nowhere to be seen. He left defeated, and it was over a year before he went back to recover his reel. He retraced his old line but, once again, bad visibility from passing through restrictions prevented him from getting the survey data and he still had no idea where his line had tied into.

Deep Upstream section of the large room in the Crypt.

“Years later, I heard about Andrew’s near miss down there, so Luke and I went back to follow the line that I had tied into back up. When we saw the little skeleton in the Crypt we knew I had actually connected Lower Orange Grove to the Crypt in 2016,” McNamara said.

  • Subscribe for free
  • Halcyon Sidemount
  • Fourth Element

Thai Paul

In 2020, Piyajit Pratipasen or “Thai Paul”—as he is known by many cave divers—was staying in Luraville for a few weeks and took up an interest in the Crypt. At this time, nobody knew that Frank had connected the two sides of the cave, not even Frank. Generally, when people say something “doesn’t go”, most people take it as gospel and never bother trying. Particularly if it requires a bunch of extra work and expensive gas to go see, and even more so if you have to swim any notable distance. These challenges didn’t bother Paul, and he spent the summer of 2020 making many dives down into the Crypt.

I joined Paul on one of his first dives into the area. Having heard many stories of collapse and instability in that area, I was intrigued and a bit nervous. Diving our CHO2ptimas, we swam in from PI along the Nicholson Tunnel and into the room at 70 feet. I followed Paul, who had been down through the breakdown before, into a small spiraling maze of breakdown. Eventually, around 120 feet deep, we hit a rock-on-rock restriction that I didn’t quite fit through. Paul popped off his CHO2ptima like it was nothing and slipped through the crack, but it had been several months since I had been on a rebreather due to my construction hobby, and I decided that low vis, depth, and a rebreather-off restriction took me to my limits for that dive.

Over the next few weeks, Paul continued diving the Crypt with anybody he could hoodwink into going with him. Seeing as how there was no available data for the area, Paul decided to turn it into a survey project. As he mapped, he noticed it trending toward Lower Orange Grove. Eventually, his survey data showed the two locations trending towards each other, with minimal distance between them. He continued working on his survey for several weeks, until a dive incident stopped him in his tracks.

Justin decompressing at Peacock 1

“The Dive”

Rumors about this dive were the hot topic of cave country for months. Sensationalized versions included broken equipment, breathing bailout down to the last PSI and tears of relief and near death were shared among divers, who were very surprised to hear that the Crypt went anywhere other than into a dead-end breakdown pile. When I finally got the chance to talk to Andrew over dinner at High Springs premier Mexican restaurant, I learned that the story was neither as dramatic nor as ridiculous as it had been propagated to be. I was both relieved and slightly disappointed that the chaotic ending to the dive had much more rational and controlled roots.

On Paul’s last dive into the Crypt, he went with Andrew Johnston. Paul was on a CHO2ptima and Andrew on a KISS Sidewinder. They snaked down the vertical breakdown through restriction after restriction and ended up in a gorgeous room deep in the Crypt. Paul was giving Andrew a tour and showing him all of the different lines in the area. He pointed him to the path suspected of connecting the two areas (which happens to be a restriction and the smallest, deepest place in the whole cave) and motioned for Andrew to have a look. Andrew wiggled into the small rock-on-rock restriction, visibility became worse and worse. After some struggle, he popped through into the bedding plane beyond.

Paul had taken Andrew into that section of Lower Orange Grove on a previous dive, and Andrew recognized where he was. Now in very low visibility, through a bottle-off restriction, Andrew was in a tight spot. All puns aside, he was quickly racking up deco sitting at 56m/184 ft, unable to communicate with Paul through the silt-out. He had to quickly decide whether to take the risk of trying to feel his way back through a restriction that he wasn’t comfortable with, or going to a known exit while leaving his buddy behind.

The entrance to the bedding plane connecting Lower Orange Grove to the Crypt.

Paul was in the Crypt frantically waiting for the silt to clear. Worried that Andrew had gotten stuck, or confused by arrows from two different lines contradicting the exit, he waited at depth as long as he could before deciding he needed to get help. Paul swam briskly back to the entrance they had come from at PI, but had over three hours of decompression to do before he could safely ascend and ask for help. He was able to give a wet note explaining the situation to another diver in the cavern and had them take it to the surface while he finished the most stressful decompression of his life; he didn’t know whether his buddy was dead or alive.

Paul Heinerth was at Peacock Springs teaching that day and heard news of the situation. The IUCRR was alerted and a search began. Divers went to the Crypt to search, but Paul was still underwater and nobody else really knew their way around the Crypt. A local family swimming at Orange Grove spotted a diver in the water and alerted Kate Swanson. She jumped in where she met Andrew decompressing. Everyone involved was extremely relieved to hear that he was okay and he was able to exit the water without any major issues. By this point in the day, cave divers were all talking about the incident, shocked to find that the Crypt was connected to Lower Orange Grove, and even more shocked to hear the story of its accidental confirmation.

The team watched Nat Geo’s documentary of Bill Stone and Sistema Huautla during their decompression.

Getting the Data

In the summer of 2022, I was having trouble recruiting people who hated themselves enough to suffer through long PIII dives, so it was time to work on the next project on my list until PIII was back on the menu. By then I had heard so many unreal versions of the story about the Crypt connection, I decided to go see the real thing for myself. I recruited my coworker and fellow CHO2ptima diver Justin Judd to go check it out with me. I figured if we were going to put the time into diving it, we might as well come out with something useful, so we decided to make it a project to get the data confirming the connection, as Thai Paul had misplaced his and there were no copies. Aside from that, we were testing prototypes for the Nomad Ray and this project would be the perfect proving ground.

Thanks to sponsorship from Dive Rite, Justin and I were able to spend six dives and nearly thirty hours on our CHO2ptimas completing a tape survey from the dock at Orange Grove to the surface at Cisteen. We worked our way in from both ends, slowly working through to the connection point in the middle. Surveying from surface to surface gave us the advantage of being able to determine our own loop closure without needing to rely on the accuracy of any previous survey of the system.

Having said that, it was Michael Poucher—the leader of the original Peacock Springs survey himself—who helped us plot our data, so I can hardly imagine he would have any trouble tying our data into the existing survey.I had expected the two areas to connect as described by Paul and Andrew, but what I had not expected was how incredibly beautiful the deep section of the Crypt was. The clean white limestone ceiling polka-dotted with goethite formations in one of the bigger rooms was absolutely stunning. We were intrigued to find a deep water source at the far end of the Crypt, and water flows out of this Northern source up into the PI side, and siphons off into Lower Orange Grove.

It was also very cool to see twisted, knotted line in the deeper section (with Woody Jasper’s signature three-knot ending) still in perfect shape after nearly fifty years. Another unexpected bonus of slowing down and looking at the cave in detail as we surveyed was finding more passage; we were able to lay around 152m/500 ft of line and found a more stable route to get to the deep section.

Frank’s arrow tying his new line into Woody Jaspers old line. 

Making the Traverse, On Purpose!

After completing our survey work and having seen both sides of the connection and studying the “crux” of the traverse several times in great detail, Justin and I were ready to make the first dive by intentionally entering Lower Orange Grove and leaving from a different exit. We decided to enter from Lower Orange Grove, so we would be swimming into the flow as we progressed, making the deep silty restrictions easier to pass. With our intended route from Lower to Upper Orange Grove, no matter where we had to bail out, we would end up in the same place. We left two 80s of oxygen and a 50% bottle in the Orange Grove basin as we descended, carrying cave-filled sidemount LP85s of 18/45 as our bailout. On our last survey dive, we had staged two bottles of 50% at 70 feet in the Crypt in case we needed to bail out in the shallow section after passing through the restrictions.

The difference between exploration and adventure is data!

This made the traverse a much more pleasant dive than we had expected. All of our other dives had been spent tediously pulling a tape measure and trying to read a compass wedged in awkward places in bad vis. This was the first dive where we could really take our time to enjoy the incredible cave passage. Because we didn’t need to spend as much time at depth, it was the shortest out of all of our dives on the project. Everything went well, and both of us thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing dive from Lower Orange Grove to Upper Orange Grove.

A video of the author coming out after pulling the tape through the crux of the traverse

After completing the dive as planned, Justin, Grace Winfree, and I celebrated with a Luraville classic, the chili-slaw dog. While choking down the delightful eccentricities of rural North Florida, we engaged in a philosophical debate on whether the journey we had just undertaken was a traverse or a circuit. It did not fit any of the traditional definitions, and none of us had heard of anything similar in other caves. As the dogs were downed and the warm slaw dripped, it was decided upon that this novel course was most befitting of being titled a traverse. We all agreed that the new path would be known as the American Airlines Traverse; a title with a deeply personal meaning.

You will be hearing from this guy again!!
  • Subscribe for free
  • Halcyon Sidemount
  • Fourth Element

In Conclusion

The connection between the Crypt and Lower Orange is quite a significant one. Aside from being an enjoyable technical challenge and stunningly beautiful, it shows us that water is moving under the park in ways that we did not realize, and on more than one level. We now know there is more than one water source for Peacock Springs, and that Lower Orange Grove is taking water from both the Crypt and Upper Orange Grove. I highly suspect this water makes its way to PIII, but for now that remains to be seen …

Thank you to Woody Jasper, Frank McNamara, Thai Paul, and Andrew Johnston for sharing their pieces of this story with me, and to Dive Rite for sponsoring the survey project.


InDEPTH: The Taming of the Slough: P3 Edition by Steve Lambert

InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren

Steve Lambert lives in North Florida where he works at Dive Rite and is actively involved in the exploration and survey of underwater caves with Karst Underwater Research. He frequently joins expeditions with Beyond the Sump and Hole Patrol. His hobbies include quitting when things get too hard, residential construction, and compiling Kpop playlists.


Madagascar Madness

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
The view from Ryan’s Chamber, entering the first mega-room.

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.

A smaller part of Malazamanga

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.

Patrick filling tanks in Anakao Lodge.

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 entrance of Malazamanga, featuring our basecamp. Patrick seen in the distance.

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. 

  • Fourth Element

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.

The crew in Malazamanga.

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. 

Exiting towards “The Megatron” formation in Malazamanga.

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. 

Jake eating sand in Anjanamba ritual. Phil filming.

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. 

Laguna blu view.

Reel Bashing

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. 

  • Halcyon Sidemount

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. 

Jake at the surface of a local bathing site. Only tie offs to be found in there were Zebu (Malagassi Cow) horns. Hydrogon Sulfide from top to bottom.

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.

Subscribe for free
Continue Reading