BURIED TREASURE: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES


The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

BURIED TREASURE: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES

Over the years I have posted a number of times about the extraordinary and beautiful underground caves of Abaco that lie beneath the thousands of acres of pine forest that cover much of South Abaco.

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

I have previously featured sets of wonderful photos taken Abaco’s renowned cave-diving expert Brian Kakuk; and also some by his diving colleague Hitoshi Miho (in conjunction with the Bahamas Caves Research Foundation). Here are a few more from Brian and Hitoshi to wonder at.

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho) The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

The existence of the caves is not exactly secret but for obvious reasons they are not freely accessible except with permission, with expert guidance and with extreme care. Exploration of the complex systems is definitely not to be approached like a snorkelling dip.

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

The dives are challenging, and require specialist skills and equipment to avoid risking damage to the delicate centuries-old structures. And there’s undoubtedly a personal safety aspect to be considered as well.

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

The main caving area on Abaco is about 1/2 hour’s drove south of Marsh Harbour. Within a now-protected area lie the 2 main cave systems (Ralph’s and Dan’s); Nancy’s; and the well-known SAWMILL SINK, where it is possible to swim.

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

There are other cave systems on Abaco, not least at Hole-in-the-Wall where the descriptively-named ‘8-Mile Cave’ presents further challenges that include the drive down 15 miles of rough track (and of course back again). For an old account of this epic journey, see HERE.

Map of 8-Mile Cave, Abaco Bahamas (A. Walker OS)

Next time your are driving along the Ernest A. Dean Highway with the pine forest stretching out on either side of the road, give a thought to the caves that lie just off your route – or even (for all you know) deep down right under your wheels.

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

Credits: Hitoshi Miho, Brian Kakuk, Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, with many thanks as ever for use permission; A. Walker (8-Mile Cave map_

The underground Cave Systems of Abaco Bahamas (Brian Kakuk, Hitoshi Miho)

ABACO’S MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, MARSH HARBOUR


Prehistoric crocodile skull fossil, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

ABACO’S MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, MARSH HARBOUR

The Abaco Field Office of the AMMC is located at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour. Primarily geared toward the study and research of the natural history and prehistory of The Bahamas, the expanding collection makes a huge contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the environment from both before and after the arrival of people to the archipelago.

Turtle shells & Prehistoric crocodile skull fossils, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

The cases shown below hold carefully labelled exhibits, against a background showing the structure of the cave systems and blue holes of the island. Prehistoric fossils and turtle shells, early lucayan human skulls, a HUTIA (extirpated from Abaco in times past), a deceased parrot, bats, butterflies, and a whole lot more are on display.

Exhibit cases in the Museum of Natural History, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

There is even a small reminder of Abaco’s once-thriving logging industry, in the shape of two circular blades from the area around the Sawmill Sink blue hole. For more of the ‘industrial archeology’ at the site (with photos,) check out what was revealed by a still-smouldering forest fire HERECircular saw blades from Sawmill Sink, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)The activities conducted through the office include site surveys, excavation and documentation, collection, the conservation and curation of artifacts and fossil material, and public outreach. .  Fossil / ancient turtle shells, natural history museum Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

Specialised scientific activities include researching the blue holes and cave systems of Abaco. The explorations have discovered the prehistoric remains of now-extinct vertebrate species; geologic anomalies; evidence of prehistoric storm and fluctuating sea levels; and valuable data about the biodiversity of cave-adapted fauna and vegetation.

Cased butterflies, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

Dry caves and blue holes also provide evidence the arrival of the first humans that migrated to the Bahamas, beginning with the early Lucayan Amerindians, as well as the plant and animal communities during their initial occupation more than 1000 years ago. One skull (r) demonstrates graphically the effect of the Lucayan practice of (deliberate) cranial deformation.

Human Skulls, Lucayan - Cased butterflies, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

The Field Office’s collaborative research involves a number of scientific organisations; and the educative outreach includes schools, universities, scientific conferences and public forums. As importantly, the valuable community resource of a first-rate small museum that contains many fascinating exhibits it right there in Marsh Harbour. And it is free to all.

Crocodile skull, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)   Hutia, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

Display cases, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

Some of the cave bats of Abaco. In Ralph’s Cave, to this day there’s a fossilised bat entombed forever on the floor of the cave.

Display of bats, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

Fossilised bat, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

The museum is located at the Abaco offices of the AMMC and Friends of the Environment. It is open for viewing during 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. There is no admission fee, but donations for exhibit development are gratefully accepted. School groups should call in advance to arrange a tour. LOCATION: just drive up the hill past Maxwell’s, to the junction at the top and turn left. If you want to know about Abaco’s past in the broadest sense, this should be your first stop. You can even ‘get the t-shirt’ to complete the experience and support the institution…

Display cases, Natural History Museum Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Abaco Field Office AMMC)

This strange, ill-clad male is either (a) trying to give an authentic traditional Lucayan greeting or (b) trying to high-five Nancy Albury (who is ignoring it) or (c) just behaving bizarrely. I go for (c).

Rolling Harbour Abaco...

Credits: first and foremost, curator Nancy Albury and her team; Friends of the Environment; AMMC. All photos are mine (with plenty of excuses for poor indoor colour, display glass reflections etc), except the tragically entombed cave-bat in the bat-cave from well-known diving and cave-system exploration expert Brian Kakuk / Bahamas Cave Research Foundation; and the wonderful photo below of a Barn Owl flying out of a dry cave on Abaco, by kind permission of Nan Woodbury.

Barn Owl flying out of a cave on Abaco (Nan Woodbury / Rolling Harbour)

HUTIAS: ABACO’S EXTINCT RODENTS LIVE ON… ELSEWHERE


Bahamian Hutia (Cole Fiechter)

HUTIAS: ABACO’S EXTINCT RODENTS LIVE ON… ELSEWHERE  

The Bahama hutia (Geocapromys ingrahami) has the distinction of being the only indigenous land mammal in the Bahamas. Historically found on a number of islands, the species is now confined to very limited locations. Abaco is, sadly, no longer one of them; they are officially shown as extirpated here from about 1600. Hutias had been recorded on Great Abaco by early explorers from Europe, but their survival was already threatened by hunting and land clearance as the human population expanded.

Bahamian Hutia (Cole Fiechter)

Further evidence of their long-term existence on Abaco – prehistoric, even – comes from research carried out by divers in the land-based Blues Holes. SAWMILL SINK has been a particularly rich source of the remnants of early creatures, including well-preserved skeletons, carapaces or other remains of crocodiles, turtles, birds, bats – and hutias. These date from the Pleistocene epoch of the Quartenary period, spanning roughly 2.5m years and ending some 12,000 years ago. You can see some of these treasures in the wonderful Natural History Museum at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour.

A c20 hutia from the Exumas on display in the museumBahama Hutia Museum Exhibit (FOTE, Abaco)

Exhibits in the museum – there’s even a dead parrot for Monty Python fansMuseum of Natural History, Abaco Bahamas

The population of the extant Bahama hutia species Geocapromys ingrahami became so depleted that by the 1960s they were considered to be extinct. Then in 1966 a colony was discovered on East Plana Cay. Some have since been relocated (see below) and the overall population is now confined to a handful of locations, for which reason the Bahama hutia is IUCN listed as vulnerable. All the usual man-caused threats to their survival apply, as well as predation by dogs and feral cats. One place to find them is in the Exumas, but because they are mainly nocturnal creatures and there are few of them, a sighting is a rare event, let alone getting a decent photo op. 

A ‘Demarest’s Hutia’ – not the Bahamian species, but very similarDemarest's Hutia (Yomangani, wiki)

The terrific header image and the second image were taken by teenager Cole Fiechter while on a sailing trip with his parents and brother in the excellently named ‘Truansea’. On the beach of the Exumas Land and Sea Park at Warderick Wells, they encountered “a guinea pig with a rat’s tail”: a hutia. Cole’s photograph will hopefully grace the forthcoming Field Guide to the Natural History of the Bahamas, now in the late stages of production, and with which I am peripherally involved.

MARK CATESBY‘s take on the hutia in the c18, where he describes it as a rabbitHutia by Mark Catesby (c18)

The BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST notes that “Bahama hutias occur naturally only on East Plana Cay (located between Acklins and Mayaguana). Historically however, they were found on ten Bahamian islands. In a move to protect the species, a small Bahama hutia population was transplanted to two locations – Little Wax Cay and Warderick Wells (Exumas). These three locations now host the only known populations of this particular species in the whole world”

It looks as though Warderick Wells might be your best bet to see a Bahama hutia if you are visiting the Bahamas. Don’t be too confident of coming across one – but if you do see one, you will have had the pleasure of seeing a very rare creature.

Bahamian Hutia Drawing (Princeton UP)

A HUTIA’S TAIL (very different from a rat…)

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Credits: Cole Fiechter (1, 2); Keith Salvesen / FOTE (3, 4); ‘Yomangani’ wiki (5); OS (6); Princeton UP (7). Research credits PNAS, BNT, FOTE

CRYSTAL CAVES OF ABACO: CHANDELIERS


CRYSTAL CAVES OF ABACO: CHANDELIERS

It’s been a while since I posted about the incredible cave systems that lie beneath the vast acres of pine forest on Abaco. Under the direction of Brian Kakuk, these networks of narrow passages and  huge caverns are being gradually explored and mapped. In the process, Brian and the other divers exploring the caves have created an amazing archive of photographs. Here are some taken by diver Hitoshi Miho. This sequence concentrates on the astonishing, crystal chandeliers hanging from the roofs of the large caverns.

The two main systems are in Dan’s Cave and Ralph’s Cave – which may even be linked

All photos: Hitoshi Miho, with thanks to him for use permission and as ever to Brian Kakuk

EXPLORING ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES


Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)

EXPLORING ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES

This post is another in a series showcasing the strange and wonderful world that lies beneath the many thousands of acres of pine forest that cover the majority of South Abaco. Many thanks to expert cave diver and photographer Brian Kakuk and the Bahamas Caves Research Foundation for use permission to bring you some more unique glimpses of Abaco’s crystal visions. You’ll find some additional links at the end. As Brian says, Abaco is an underwater cave photographer’s dream come true.

Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk) copy Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1 Ralph's Cave, Abaco Blue Hole 4.16 (Brian Kakuk) 1Crystal Visions: Ralph's Cave, South Abaco (Brian Kakuk)-1

All photos were taken in Ralph’s Cave and Dan’s Cave – two extensive but separate systems

IMG_0340

These caves lie within one of the recently created protected areas

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To get the ‘live’ experience of exploring these underground geological wonders, here is a 6 minute video of a dive in Ralph’s Cave made in June 2014 by Ramon Llaneza of Ramon Llaneza Technical Diving

RELATED POSTS

ABACO’S ASTOUNDING CAVES (1)

ABACO’S ASTOUNDING CAVES (2)

CRYSTAL CLEAR (3)

DIVERS VIEWS (4) 

PAN’S LABYRINTH (5)

CRYSTAL CATHEDRALS (6)

‘RALPH’S OLD BAT’

SAWMILL SINK Industrial Archaeology / Post-apolcalyptic Landscape

Credits: Brian Kakuk, Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, Ramon Llaneza, Hitoshi Miho

“HAPPY EARTH DAY TO YOU”: DO SOMETHING GREEN!


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Delphi, Abaco (Craig Nash)

“HAPPY EARTH DAY TO YOU”: DO SOMETHING GREEN!

Today is the 46th Earth Day, a global event to encourage ecology and conservation, and to discourage the spoiling of the planet by mankind. What becomes lost now may never be retrieved. Plant a tree. Grow some bee- or butterfly-friendly flowers. Clear a patch of beach of plastic trash. Recycle stuff. That sort of thing. 

Atala Hairstreak Eumaeus atala – DelphiAtala Hairstreak Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Gulf Fritillary Agraulis vanillae – Neem FarmGulf Fritillary, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I’d lined up some horror-images of plastic-filled birds, entangled turtles, damaged reefs and so forth, of which I have a depressingly large archive. Then, in a spirit of *vogue word alert* positivity I scrapped that miserable idea and decided instead to celebrate some of the natural wonders that can be found on Abaco. 

BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT – one of Abaco’s 5 ENDEMIC BIRDSBahamas-Great Abaco_Bahama Yellowthroat_Gerlinde Taurer

CUBAN EMERALD HUMMINGBIRD (f) preening – Gilpin PointCuban Emerald Hummingbird preening, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Some signal species serve as a continuing tribute to those who work to conserve them. The gorgeous ABACO PARROTS, now saved from the brink of extinction – and currently establishing a new colony on New Providence. The rare PIPING PLOVERS that find a safe home to spend their winters on Abaco’s beaches. The 5 ENDEMIC BIRD species. The WHALES & DOLPHINS that populate the waters. The west-indian MANATEES, until very recently almost unknown for Abaco yet now providing a curious addition to the scene as they visit their favourite haunts.

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALE (m) approaching the BMMRO research vesselBlainville's Beaked Whale, Sandy Point, Abaco 14 (Keith Salvesen

BOTTLENOSE DOLHIN, Sandy Point (about to dive under the boat)Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 7

Habitat protection has been provided over substantial areas on both land and sea by the creation of natural parks and preserves. These have very recently been extended by the establishment of 4 large PROTECTED AREAS for East Abaco Creeks, Cross Harbour, the Marls and the South Abaco Blue Holes, a wonderful reward for a great deal of hard lobbying by conservation organisations and by many concerned individuals. 

QUEEN ANGELFISHQueen Angelfish ©Melinda Stevens Riger / G B Scuba

BANDED CORAL SHRIMPBanded Coral Shrimp ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy 2

Scientific research and conservation work is continuously carried out in Abaco waters. The CORAL REEFS that form the 3rd largest barrier reef in the world; the BLUE HOLES that lead to wonderful caves and cathedral caverns of crystal; the vast area of the MARLS and the species that rely on the mangrove swamps; the MANGROVES themselves: all these are watched over and monitored for ways to protect them best for future generations. 

PIPING PLOVER pair, Delphi (taken last month)Piping Plover pair, Delphi Beach, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

PIPING PLOVER on AbacoPiping Plover, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

I’ve mentioned trees and plants. There are a variety of well-known sources for both on Abaco – on the mainland, anyway, and maybe some cays. Any will advise on bee and butterfly attractants. Thinking of which, bird seed feeders and hummer sugar water feeders are cheap and guarantee the interest of garden and coppice birds, and during the winter months some brightly coloured migrants such as buntings and grosbeaks. 

HIBISCUS – DelphiHibiscus, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

 BOUGAINVILLEA  – DelphiBougainvillea, Delphi, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Bird of Paradise flower STRELITZIA – Marsh Harbour (seemingly on a steep slope!)Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitzia) Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

HAPPY EARTH DAY TO YOU!

RALPH’S CAVE South AbacoRalph's Cave, Abaco (Brian Kakuk)

Credits: all images RH except: Abaco parrot, Craig Nash; Bahama yellowthroat, Gerlinde Taurer; Angelfish & Shrimp, Melinda Riger; single piping plover, Bruce Hallett; Ralph’s Cave, Brian Kakuk

CRYSTAL CATHEDRALS: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES (6)


Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

CRYSTAL CATHEDRALS: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES (6)

The photos you see in this post were all taken by Hitoshi Miho during an amazing 3 days of diving with Brian Kakuk deep in the pine forests of South Abaco. It’s not the first time they have explored together the wonders that lie beneath those hundreds of acres of pines and scrub; I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

The most spectacular cave systems are the adjacent Ralph’s and Dan’s Caves. These systems are believed to be linked, and I know Brian has been trying to find where they meet – a difficult and dangerous task carried out underwater many metres below the forest floor, and requiring sophisticated diving equipment and great expertise. 

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

The latest 3-day exploration involved 12 dives and nearly 30 hours underwater in Ralph’s Cave. Narrow passages open out into massive caverns filled with wonderful and complex crystal stalagtites and stalagmites formed over eons. I hope you enjoy examples from the ‘Rooms’ and passages, many with exotic names (Glass Factory, Ninja Passage, Erabor); some more prosaic (Fred’s Room). Then try to imagine that you are actually swimming there.

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

I shall be posting some more photos in due course showing some of the details of the cave formations – intricate patterns, delicate tracery, irridescent colouring, pencil-thin rods, ‘rock’ folds that look like the finest linen. As always I am immensely grateful to both intrepid divers for use permission. I won’t pretend that these thrilling caves are easily accessible – this is emphatically not an adventure to try unguided with a snorkel and flippers. But as you drive along the highway past miles of forest, it’s worth reflecting that far below you are some of the most magnificent cave systems anywhere in the world – right there, on your very own island… 

Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk) Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk) Abaco's Underground Caves (Hitoshi Miho, with Brian Kakuk)

As it happens, the Delphi Club is very close to these caves, which lie within the boundaries of the newly created ‘South Abaco Blue Holes Conservation Area (see map). This is one of several such conservation areas on Abaco and in the wider Bahamas that are designed to protect the natural resources of the islands from development and exploitation. The second map shows how tantalisingly close Dan’s and Ralph’s caves are… and suggests that further exploration may lead to the missing link.

abaco-caves-map-jpgAbaco Caves Ralph & Dan jpg

Finally, here is a 4-minute video of one small part of the exploration, which gives a very good idea of what is entailed in investigating the narrow passages and huge cathedral-like caverns. Welcome to the Fangon Forest…

Hitoshi Miho, Ralph's Cave, Abaco