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   > technique > cave diving appeared in DIVER May 2004


Andrew Mello leads the way into Mrs Tucker's Cave
From bottles to bones, you never know what you'll find in Bermuda's water-filled caves. Most of them run beneath private property and can be dived only by invitation. Stephen Weir got lucky

MRS TUCKER WON'T STAND FOR SWEARING ON HER PROPERTY. Ditto for drinking, smoking and bare asses. And don't expect to go cave-diving in her backyard on the Sabbath.
     As scuba-diving rules go, Mrs Tucker's commandments aren't onerous. And, given the opportunity to explore underwater caves that only four people in history have penetrated before, most divers would agree to dive in tux and tails if that's what it took.
     Mrs Tucker lives in a well-kept blue bungalow near Bermuda International Airport. Her property is so extensive that her daughter and son-in-law have built their own home in the grounds. And this extended family, like almost 150 other property-owners living in the British colony, has its own caves.
     "Look over there, mate, at the back of her garden. You see the path through those two bushes?" asks Andrew Mello, head of the four-man Bermuda Cave Diving Association (BCDA). "We'll suit up and head over there. Those bushes are hiding the opening to our cave!"
     We plan to spend 40 minutes exploring the mile of twisting, pitch-black passageways under Mrs Tucker's backyard. Any equipment failure would be catastrophic, so each of us is equipped with two regulators, two computers, three powerful lights and a reel.
     There has never been a cave-diving accident in Bermuda, islands famous for their wreck-diving but boasting one of the world's best scuba safety records.
     "Almost all the caves are on private land," says Mello, "so we arrange with people like Mrs Tucker to let us dive.
     "We promise to respect their property, not damage or remove anything and that only certified cave-divers will be allowed inside the caves. We've never had a problem, so the government and the land-owners let us go on diving."
    
     Suited up, we clomp as quietly as possible from the car, through a group of children playing soccer, past Mrs Tucker's aviary and over a well-groomed lawn. The bushes conceal a truck-sized pond at the base of a limestone hillock.
     "I expect we'll find more than a few champagne bottles in here," says Mello, wading into the cool, brackish waters at the mouth of the cave. "In the old days we'd mark the end of a school year or a soccer win by sharing a bottle or two and hiding the evidence from our parents in one of these caves!" He was right.
     For 400 years Bermudans have known about the system of caves that honeycomb the limestone islands. Shakespeare's Tempest was inspired by the shipwreck of Sir George Somers here in 1609, and takes place in and around an island cave.
     Until recently the deep, blue, water-filled holes were regarded as little more than a convenient place to hide bottles and cans, but now the BCDA and Bermudan government have embarked on an ambitious plan to explore them and detail their findings.
     One man's refuse is another man's treasure. To reach the unexplored labyrinth beneath Mrs Tucker's home, we swim down a mound of champagne bottles, 18th century pottery, hand-blown medicine bottles and work tools from Bermuda's long-gone naval ship-repairing past.
     Nearing the bottom at around 18m, the clear water turns from fresh to saline. Our halogen dive lights shine 30m or more without hitting an obstruction.
     We head into a dark rock tunnel into the deep unknown.
    
     Back in the light, Deron Long, a Canadian who manages the Scuba Look dive shop near the Grotto Bay Hotel, plays out a line from a reel attached to his belt.
     The four members of the BCDA have already laid line throughout the main passageways, but Long's line allows scuba tourists to branch off and enter previously unexplored passages.
     Experts estimate that the caves began to form about a million years ago, when Bermuda was 90m above water and about 20 times bigger than it is today. Long before anyone set foot on the islands, the water levels rose and the holes filled with water, halting the cave-building process.
     We swim through corridors decorated with a forest of man-sized stalagmites and stalactites. Perfectly intact, they rise from the floor and drip from the ceiling.
     At points along our route, the passageways open into large ballrooms in which these structures are of gargantuan proportions. In the roof of some of the chambers are large pockets of prehistoric air, trapped when the sea rose and filled the limestone tunnels.
     The dive reel is tied to one of two massive stalagmites which the divers have dubbed Mammary Rock. Rising from a sea of dust and dirt, the cone-shaped structures make a perfect rendezvous point for visitors.
     "It might look safe, but mind your hands, your bubbles and your fins - there's 5000 years of dust in the caves," Mello had warned us earlier. "One wrong kick and we could have a total black-out. If you get too close to the ceiling your bubbles will shake out an amazing amount of dust and it's going to be hard to see!
     "We don't want to damage the stags either. They look solid, but they're very soft and break easily."
     After the dive, Mello tells me that his association is constantly hearing about new caves to be explored.
     "Only last week we were making arrangements to explore a hole behind a garage!" he says.
    
     More than 95% of Bermuda's 181 islands have been domesticated, but when you find any of the remaining woodlands, chances are you'll find a cave.
     "We have a bit of a trek into Big Blue," Deron Long tells me with grim understatement as we make our way to our next site, one of the largest underwater cave systems on Bermuda.
     "This is parkland, and the government wants it to return to the way it was in 1595 before the Europeans arrived."
     "Mind the vines, the rocks and the poison ivy, which is bloody awful here," chimes in Andrew Mello.
     We kit up and then have to follow a treacherous pathway through one of Bermuda's few wooded preserves, plagued by clouds of biting insects.
     In the canopy formed by olivewood, palm and Bermuda cedar trees, the cahow and longtail birds seem oblivious to our grunts and curses.
     Located near Harrington Sound, Big Blue has many passageways leading in a variety of directions. A diver can enter in the park and end up in open ocean, or take another route and surface inside Crystal Caves, which is a privately owned tourist attraction.
     "Scares the hell out of the tourists if you catch them by surprise!" says Long. An endangered species of cave moss lines the entrance, so we take care as we wade into the water.
     Big Blue doesn't get its name from the size of the opening but reflects the view from 18m down.
     Hovering at the bottom and looking back at the bright blue surface, the mouth of the cave is lined with enormous stalactites. It's like staring out through the teeth of a dragon.
     We follow a passageway that narrows to the point where we would have to remove our tanks and push them forward to make it to the next chamber.
     We turn back and begin to explore a different arm of the cave system, one that leads down to about 23m, below the level of the nearby Atlantic. The bottom is composed of black bauxite which seems to absorb the light of our lamps.
    
     A brief search reveals a hole little more than 1m wide which corkscrews up like the pipe under the kitchen sink. Through here and almost back at the surface is a wide sunlit chamber which reveals its secret - the huge white bones of what was probably once a horse.
     But the knife-like vents above are too small for a horse to have fallen through. In fact they are too narrow for divers to negotiate, and the group has to go back the way it came.
     "Until we found the horse bones we called that room the rat trap, because that tunnel is so claustrophobic. Now it's known as Horse Bones," says Mello afterwards. "It just shows how these caves can be. One wrong move and you could be trapped forever."
     These local cave-divers don't usually allow outsiders to tag along for a fortnight of what they call underwater "spelunking". Usually they advise tourists to check out the four large caves, both wet and dry, that are open to the public.
     Andrew Mello does sometimes guide tours of the dry parts of Admiral's Cave, first explored in 1820. where a tiny tunnel leads into what turns out to be a huge cavity. Using headlamps, repelling ropes and a good sense of direction, the half day in the cave includes visits to two underground lakes. With proper dive equipment these could be explored - but that will have to wait for another expedition.
    

  • Readers interested in cave-diving in Bermuda can contact Andrew Mello at Sparky1@northrock.bm or Bermuda Sub Aqua Club on 001441 293 9531

  • members of the Bermuda Cave Diving Association suit up in Mrs Tucker's driveway


    these protuberances are found at the convergence of three underground tunnels - it's easy to see why they were named Mammary Rock


    divers tread water and kit up in the mouth of the Big Blue cave


    A survey diver "threads the needle" between stalactites and stalagmites to return to the surface


    In places the caves open up into big underground ballrooms



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