Celebrating Wes Skiles
This month we explore and celebrate the extraordinary life and work of cave diving pioneer, explorer, conservationist, and underwater cinematographer/ photographer Wesley C. Skiles.
Text by Michael Menduno, graphic design by Amanda White. Header image from the cover of National Geographic August, 2010 by Wes Skiles: The Cascade Room leads divers deeper into Dan’s Cave on Abaco Island (see details below).
🎶🎶 Predive Clicklist: Black Water by the Doobie Brothers
“I was adding it up recently, and I have surpassed 500 miles of virgin exploration in my career. I’ve been in, and laid line—the first line ever—in 500 miles of virgin cave. That’s a lot of going places no human has been before. In a world where almost everything on the planet has been explored, it’s like discovering a state the size of Florida and being the first person on Earth to walk its entire length from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys. I’ve done this underground, under water.”—Wes Skiles, Currents, May 2010
This month we explore and celebrate the extraordinary life and work of cave diving pioneer, explorer, conservationist, and underwater cinematographer/ photographer Wesley Cofer Skiles, who was born March 6, 1958, in Jacksonville, Florida. He died July 21, 2010 at age 52, in a rebreather diving accident in 18m/60 ft of water near Boynton Beach, Florida, while on assignment for National Geographic filming scientists feeding Goliath Groupers. His tragic death resulted from what could be described as a perfect storm of human factors.
Skiles not only had a seminal impact on the development of cave diving but was also instrumental in helping scientists and policy makers see and understand the importance and role of underwater springs in the workings of the Florida aquifer, as well as to shed light on public awareness of the underwater world.
Working through his company, Karst Productions, the prolific documentarian produced over 100 films and TV shows including Nullarbor Dreaming (1989), which documented the harrowing escape of 15 entombed cave divers from a flooded Australian cave—the film inspired James Cameron’s film Sanctum; Journey into Amazing Caves (1990) with award winning documentary filmmaker Howard Hall, and Ocean Spirit (1995), which chronicles Skiles’ 3,500 mile ocean trek aboard a 110-ft sailboat with Grateful Dead drummer cum scuba diver Bill Kreutzmann. There’s also his Emmy-winning, four-part PBS documentary series, Water’s Journey (2003-2006) about the Florida springs and Everglades, and four conservation stories for National Geographic (NatGeo) beginning in 1999. These led to his first and final NatGeo cover story, “Bahamas Blue Holes” that was published August, 2010, days after Skiles death. He never saw the printed copy.
Hooked on Cave Diving
You could say that Skiles’ life work and passion was set in motion in 1971, when the then-13-year old surfer and newly-certified YMCA scuba diver conducted his first cave penetration dive and simultaneously took his first underwater photograph at Ginnie Springs in High Springs, Florida. He used a Nikon camera that an onsite photographer handed him to try while his older brother Jim piloted a prototype underwater scooter built by his science teacher. “Everyone told me, “Don’t go in the cave,” Skiles recalled. “But I went in the cave. I got this shot of my brother scootering past the entrance and the shot came out really good. I was hooked from that point on.”
In less than a decade, Skiles, who first completed his open water instructorship, became a cave diving instructor with the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) and took a job managing Gene Broome’s Branford Dive Center. There he met Lamar Hires in 1979 and saved his life by gifting him a copy of Sheck Exley’s Blueprint for Survival after Hires barely survived running out of air making a cave penetration with a single cylinder. Skiles took him under his wing and taught him cave diving.
Skiles, and soon after Hires were engaged in building their own diving equipment such as dive lights—there were no cave diving manufacturers at the time. Later, they both worked with Woody Jasper, Tom Morris and others to develop sidemount diving equipment. Hires, of course, continued to invent and build gear, and went on to launch Dive Rite in 1984. Skiles left Branford to become manager at Ginnie Springs in 1983, and the following year also became the training director for the Cave Diving Section (CDS) at the tender age of 26, a position he held for five years. He launched his production company, Karst Productions in 1985.
Not surprising, with legendary cave diver Sheck Exley as his mentor, Skiles was passionate about cave exploration and produced a series of maps and of his explorations of Little River, Rock Bluff, Jug, Bonnet, Cow Springs, and more, which were made available through the CDS. As hydrologist and fellow cave diver Todd Kincaid recalled with a chuckle, “Wes’s philosophy was to try and not leave anything for the next generation to explore.”
Skiles published a prescient article, “The Scientific Future of Cave Diving,” in the Vol 14, #3 May, 1987 of Underwater Speleology (UWS). The article outlined the potential role of citizen scientist cave divers in data collection and detailed numerous methods i.e., field surveys, dye tracing, water chemistry, biological and geological collection. The article goes on to outline the basic arguments for nitrox and mixed gas diving, and the use of decompression bells, all of which would be needed, argued Skiles, if cave divers are to go deeper and stay longer.
His insights were not lost on caver and fellow Exley protégé Bill Stone, who launched his ground-breaking Wakulla Springs Project—arguably the equivalent of a technical diving moon-shot—that Fall. Skiles was both a member of and worked with Stone’s US Deep Caving Team and documented the Wakulla Project expedition, Stone’s 1994 San Agustin expedition to Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, México—an exploration project that continues to this day under Stone’s leadership—and his return expedition to Wakulla, dubbed Wakulla 2, in 1998, with then fledgling explorer-in-the-making, Jill Heinerth. Skiles was also involved in the filming of Mike Madden’s Nohoch Nah Chich project, and the race between competing cave groups to connect Nohoch to Dos Ojos in the mid-90s.
Where Does The Water Come From?
Skiles was the first to show geologists, hydrologists, and policy makers what underwater springs actually looked like and presented data regarding water movement. At the time, scientists thought that the role of the springs in the aquifer was insignificant; in fact, initially some believed Skiles’ underwater video was faked. Nevertheless, Skiles was enlisted and served as a member of the state’s Florida Springs Task Force where he spent years lobbying for spring conservation. The year after his death, the state of Florida renamed Peacock Springs State Park the Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park.
NatGeo published 15 of Wes’s images in its story, “Unlocking the Labyrinth of North Florida Springs,” in March 1999, which brought attention to the plight of the Florida’s springs. This led Skiles, while working with protégé Jill Heinerth, to create the Water’s Journey documentary series for PBS (2003-2006) several years later.
Skiles went on to contribute images for NatGeo’s December 2001 story, “Islands of Ice,” with help from NatGeo’s legendary deep sea photographer Emory Kristof, who had met Skiles through Stone’s Wakulla Springs project. He worked with Jill and Paul Heinerth and Bill Kurtis, and was the first human to stand on the B-15 iceberg, which was the largest known iceberg at the time. Jill Heinerth wrote about the expedition in Ice Island, published in Advanced Diver magazine, and later Skiles, Kurtis, Heinerth, and Kristof produced the Ice Island documentary.
In 2003, Skiles supplied 17 images for NatGeo’s Oct 2003 story, “Watery Graves of the Maya.” He later worked on the magazine’s Blue Holes cover story with environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad, Heinerth, and explorer Brian Kakuk. In his Editor’s note, editor-in-chief Chris Johns said of Skiles, ”He set a standard for underwater photography, cinematography and exploration that is unsurpassed. It was an honor to work with him, and he will be deeply missed.” In 2011, NatGeo named both Skiles and Broad, “Explorer of the Year.”
I met Wes in the early 1990s, after starting my magazine aquaCORPS Journal. He penned a piece, “Deep D(r)iving Motivations: A Personal View,” on deep air diving for our Winter 1991 issue #3 DEEP (Feeling lucky?) and was always generous with his time and photos. His images graced the cover of aquaCORPS #11 Underground Xplorers (OCT/NOV 1995) issue. I was also fortunate to attend one of Wes’s legendary backyard bonfires. That night he pulled out his harmonica and played, while someone accompanied him on acoustic guitar.
I last interviewed Wes over the phone for a DIVER magazine story a month before his passing. The story was about the She-P and diver urination systems, and I asked Wes how he and fellow Wakulla drysuit divers peed during those long ten to twelve hour dives—this was before condom caths. There was a moment of silence. “Us manly men were too stupid and or embarrassed to slip on diapers,” he told me in his Floridian drawl. Instead, they held their bladders until they could pee out the habitat doorway just before changing depths, which would act as a flush. Note, Exley stuck with his wetsuit and chemical heaters.
In this issue of InDepth, we offer you a curated selection of stories both old and new about Wes Skiles, beginning with this 2002 long form interview by Fred Garth, Wes Skiles: Cave Dweller,” which was immortalized in Gilliam’s book, Diving Pioneers and Innovators. Next, we offer an excerpted chapter, Water Boy, from Julia Hauserman’s 2018 book, Drawn to the Deep, the Remarkable Underwater Explorations of Wes Skiles, which tells the story of Skiles’ first cave dive and underwater photo. Stoned: The Adventures of Wes Skiles and the US Deep Caving Team, features a selection of Skiles’ iconic images from Wakulla Project 1987, the 1994 San Agustin expedition, and Stone’s 1998 Wakulla 2 expedition, along with a tribute from Stone.
We also have stories from three colleagues who worked with Skiles; Wesley C. Skiles: Extreme Cool by Emory Kristof, To Wes: A Tenacious Advocate Committed To Protecting Florida’s Springs by Skiles’ contemporary, hydrologist and cave diver Todd Kincaid, who discusses the impact of Skiles’ work on Florida water conservation, and The Inimitable Wes Skiles, which presents a set of unique photos of Skiles and a sentiment from Jill Heinerth, that appeared in TEKDive USA’s Pushing the Envelope historical tech photo exhibit.
We have included a selection of key Skiles’ Films and Videos, for you to dive into; Nullarbor Dreaming, Ice Island, the Water’s Journey series and more, along with several In Memoriam videos and a recording of the memorial services held for Wes at Ginnie Springs 28JUL 2010. In addition, there are links to important Articles by Skiles and others, including a selection of NatGeo (subscriber content).
The NSS-CDS has also graciously provided the special issue of Underwater Speleology V 37 No. 4 OCT/NOV/DEC 2010, Remembering Wes Skiles (1958-2010) which includes a dozen tributes from his peers. There’s also information on how to participate in The Wes Skiles Legacy Project, organized by Wes’s daughter Tessa Skiles.
We want to offer special thanks to David Concannon, NatGeo’s Image Archivist and Rights Manager Rebecca Dupont, UWS editor Barbara Dwyer, Fred Garth, Bret Gilliam, Larry Green, Howard Hall, Julie Hauserman, Jill Heinerth, Lamar Hires, Todd Kincaid, Emory Kristof, Gareth Lock, Fan Ping, Brian and Marcia Skerry, Terri and Tessa Skiles, Bill Stone, and the NSS-CDS board for their help pulling together this remembrance.
We celebrate you, Wes Skiles!
Films and Video
NSS-CDS: Nullarbor Dreaming, the amazing story of a cave diving team in far west Australia trapped underground by a storm that caused a passage collapse. Produced by Andrew Wight, photography by Wes Skiles. 1989
Entertainment Tonight (1995): Ocean Spirit
New Explorers with Bill Curtis (1995): The Most Dangerous Science.
Wes Skiles and Jeffrery Haupt for the PBS series New Explorers featuring the Nohoch Cave Diving Team and their connection of the Nohoch cave system to the sea.
Ice Island Expedition (2004)
The Ice Island expedition gave our team the opportunity to test some remarkable new technology. Wes Skiles brought the beauty of High Definition cinematography to the film, using it in some of the most extreme environments one can imagine. I brought advanced closed-circuit rebreathers to the diving operations that allowed us to physically penetrate caves inside of massive, moving icebergs. It was some of the most challenging and dangerous diving ever conducted, and bringing home the images in the glory of HD detail was something that will not likely be repeated!—Jill Heinerth, Producer/Exploration Diver
Water’s Journey: Hidden Rivers of Florida (DEC 2003)
Over eight billion gallons of water a day bursts forth from Florida’s springs – the most unique concentration of springs on the planet. At one time, it was thought to be an endless supply, but now the demands of man are starting to exceed availability. We join a team on a daring journey into the Floridan Aquifer to find out what’s going wrong. As the team follows the connective path of water through the landscape, their discoveries lead viewers on a thrilling adventure about the miraculous course that water takes, and the places we don’t want to believe it goes. Buy a DVD here: Water’s Journey
Water’s Journey: The River Returns (OCT 2005)
Utilizing some unusual views high above and deep within the earth, a team of explorers completely immerses themselves in the mechanics of a river system on a quest to define the nature and source of its powerful flow. Their adventures reveal the stunning beauty of a wild and scenic land and the difficult issues facing the populace as they grapple with the reality of inevitable growth. The River Returns inspires hope that the great watersheds of our planet can be saved, and that environmental protection and sustainable growth can coexist in a new paradigm of cooperation. Buy a DVD here: Water’s Journey
Water’s Journey: Everglades: Restoring Hope (DEC 2006)
Twenty-two million people call it home. Millions more travel to Florida for recreation, beaches and theme parks. Few know Florida is home to one of the greatest ecosystems on earth – The Florida Everglades. But this masterpiece has reached its limit to absorb mankind’s ever-growing impacts. Although people may not always agree about how to restore balance to the Everglades, one thing is clear. Humanity needs wetlands. They are the foundation of a fragile ecosystem that extends from inland waterways to the ocean wilderness. Can we achieve the delicate balance that protects humanity and the environment? Will the largest restoration plan ever attempted… succeed? Join our team of scientists and explorers as they follow the flow of the great river of grass, and beyond.
Water’s Journey- Currents of Change (DEC 2006)
Karst Productions with Wes Skiles: Springs Heartland (April 2011) • Edited by Bob Dorough for Wes Skiles and Karst Productions
Wes Skiles Memorial Services: Here is a recording of the memorial held for Wes at Ginnie Springs on July 28, 2010. There were nearly 1000 in attendance.
Alachua County: Remembering Wes Skiles (OCT 2010)
Wes Skiles Tribute Video (DEC, 2010)
A Tribute to Wes Skiles SD (December 2017)
Ocala Star Banner: Wesley C. Skiles Obituary
Underwater Speleology V 14 (1987) : The Scientific Future of Cave Diving by Wes Skiles
aquaCORPS #3 DEEP (1991): “Deep D(r)iving Motvations” by Wes Skiles (1991). Skiles weighs in on deep air diving.
Advanced Diver (2003): Ice Island by Jill Heinerth
Underwater Speleology V37 #3 (JULY-SEP 2010): Through The Lens of Wes Skiles.
Alert Diver (August 2010): Shooter: Wes Skiles by Stephen Frink
Wikipedia: Wesley C. Skiles
NatGeo (subscriber content)
National Geographic: Spectacular Underwater Archaeology Photos by Wes Skiles
National Geographic: Deep Dark Secrets: The blue holes of the Bahamas yield a scientific trove that may even shed light on life beyond Earth. If only they weren’t so dangerous to explore.
National Geographic: Dive Freshwater Caves, Florida
In October, 2010, the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Division (NSS-CDS) published a special issue of Underwater Speleology V 37 No. 4 OCT/NOV/DEC 2010. The issue included tributes from: Terri Skiles, Woody Jasper, Jim Stevenson, Kenny Broad, Jill Heinerth, Brian Kakuk, Tom Morris, Bill Stone, Agnes Milowka, Paul Heinerth and David Uluoa. Download the issue here: Remembering WES SKILES 1958-2010
The Wes Skiles Legacy Project
Wes’s daughter Tessa Skiles is creating a legacy web site to carry on with his work of protecting and restoring Florida’s springs. She’s looking for stories, videos, and photos of Wes (especially from the ‘70s-‘90s). If you have any, Tessa would like to include them. Send them to her at: email@example.com. Please include the subject “Legacy Website Content—YOUR NAME, STORY/IMAGES.” Please include dates, locations, and names. Thank you.
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.