I’ve always been a bit of an adventure junkie. Whether it’s jumping from a plane at 16,000 feet, or a simple hike with a dear friend. I cherish it all for the thrill it provides, and the memories it forms.
So, when Martin, an old friend of mine, came to me with a unique proposal I made sure to listen. Martin is an anthropologist. For the better part of the last 25 years his explorations have focused primarily on blue holes. Deep flooded networks of underground passages in some of the most remote places on earth. He asked me if I would join him on his next venture in place of his assistant who wouldn’t be able to make the trip.
I was skeptical, as I had little experience with scuba, and zero in a cave environment. I was up for the challenge, but also a bit nervous about being dozens of meters underwater in tunnels about the size of sewer pipes. I was assured by Martin, that it would not be that way however. He said the dive was an open cavern, and there were no plans to do anything too crazy.
I accepted after a bit of deliberation, but found it wouldn’t be as simple as hopping into some scuba gear and going for a swim. Apparently, cave diving is the most dangerous form of scuba diving there is. Or maybe that was just Martin trying to sound like more of a badass. I was required to take six months of an advanced diving course specifically catered towards safety and mobility in underwater caverns. I normally would’ve turned it down, but Martin offered to cover the costs.
After completing the course, I found myself on a plane bound for the Bahamas and a new check mark on my bucket list. Our destination was towards the western coast on the island of Andros. I met up with Martin and the rest of the team at the San Andros airport, and together we entered the clunky box van and drove towards our spot.
The island paradise came alive before my eyes as palm trees and a cavalcade of white sandy beaches sprouted from the serene teal seas. Overhead beamed down a harsh but comforting sun as we rumbled our way through the asphalt trails. Exotic birds decorated with spectacular colors sang their songs as we passed. The air itself seemed somehow more natural, free from the big city smog and bustling traffic.
Soon enough we arrived at our spot, or at least the parking lot and path several kilometers away from our spot. After unloading our equipment, we journeyed further into the exotic paradise. Lugging some fifty pounds of gear through the scorching sun and dusty overgrown path was not easy, but after an hour of hiking the oasis finally came into view.
It was nothing special upon first sight. Cool, but little more than a 30 meter diameter hole filled with water. Hard to believe that the small pond plunged to a depth of more than 60 meters, and held a system of branching paths that extended for hundreds more. The water level was about 7 meters below the lip of the cave, and was orchestrated in a manner not entirely dissimilar to that of a toilet bowl. An oblong circular ledge made of limestone leading to a 7-meter drop into the water below. There was no form of ladder to enter the pool, and the shear walls made climbing out near impossible without assistance. The only way in was to jump.
I slipped into my dry suit and checked my wristmount to ensure it was fully functional. My harness was equipped side mount style to allow for maximum mobility in the cave. After a last-second powwow, we ventured to the cave’s edge. Martin went first, plunging into the dark blue below. He was followed by the other’s one at a time, until I was left alone. I gave a last second silent prayer and jumped.
I hit the water with a ferocious splash, sending me down a few meters into the cold dark water. My bod remained dry, but still I felt the chilly water envelope me and nibble at my exposed face. I resurfaced and took a moment to orientate myself. Martin gave some basic instructions, and we began the descent.
There were six of us that entered the pool. In addition to Martin and myself was Javier, his right-hand man and close friend. Tank, a local guy who was an expert in the area. And the camera crew consisting of Rory and his wife Dawn.
The alpha pool where we entered is over 60 meters deep, but from the surface it might as well be endless. Despite the transparent cerulean waters, darkness obfuscated most of the terrain below. Our primary headlamps illuminated only patches of the abyss. Crystalized stalagmites jutted from the walls and ceiling like spikes in an iron maiden. The sides of the cave were dotted with narrow corridors and slim cracks in the wall. Some plant and algae specimens existed, but not many. As we descended, the traversable vicinity gradually grew slimmer as we were gradually funneled inward.
We took our time on the way down, pausing and glancing around the area. Rory and Dawn filmed over the rock walls slowly, taking long wide passes to capture each nook and cranny. Javier laid the guideline; a coil of reinforced twine designed to mark our path and lead us back to the entrance if the need arose.
Some five meters below us a dense canopy of orange haze came into view. The water turned to an almost apricot color due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a nasty excrement of bacteria. Pretty much the only things that can survive in these nourishment-deprived caves are bacteria that feed on animals unfortunate enough to fall in and drown. Since the cavern has no connection to any form of running water, the thick apricot pools mount in dense clouds and linger perpetually. It is a poisonous substance that smells like rancid eggs. Makes your lips tingle, and prolonged exposure can damage the brain.
On the other side of the hydrogen sulfide cloud was what is known as the oxygen-free zone. This is one of the main draws for anthropologists like Martin. The bottommost regions are completely void of oxygen, meaning nothing can survive in the depths. This also means that natural decomposition does not occur, at least not nearly as quickly. Bones from animals and the occasional human can be preserved for much longer than they would be at the surface . The caverns serve as a sort of time capsule, and an anthropologists gold mine.
Martin began stewing around in the muck almost as soon as he touched down. Around him clumps of silt and biologic compost stirred into an underwater torrent that soon clouded the area. I swam down towards him as the cloud began to spiral upwards. I lost almost all visibility in seconds as I entered the mix. I pushed forward carefully, until something stopped me dead in my tracks. From the dust emerged a bleached, narrow and vaguely reptilian snout pierced. It’s eyes were empty sockets, and it’s maw held an array of sharp teeth.
I lurched backwards with a gasp, causing a plume of bubbles to obscure my vision. The head drifted towards me slowly, it’s alabaster boney face leering. From the dust behind it came Martin, hand clasped firmly around the beast’s skull. I shook my head, unimpressed by the joke. Martin nodded back and clutched his prized skull close while giving an “OK” hand gesture. I mirrored his gesture and he turned back to continue his trifling.
Martin and his assistants ended up finding several well-preserved specimen’s including the skulls and various remains of a rock iguana, a leatherback turtle, a wild hog, several types of small birds and fish, an albatross and a Bukhara deer. The aforementioned skull which Martin had so lovingly used to make me soil my dry suit turned out to be that of a Caiman, a rather large Caiman. The discovery of fish remains also meant that at some point the cave was connected to another waterway. Perhaps it still was.
By far the most interesting discovery however, was one that was not immediately recognized. A large almost basket-like boney plate with bumpy ridges along the outer shell. It was thought to be a turtle shell, but the curvature of it’s shape made that unlikely.
Unfortunately it was entirely too large to dredge back to the surface. Later on, Martin revealed that he theorized the shell belonged to an extinct mammalian creature known as Glyptodon. Think giant ice-age armadillo with the head of a wombat. If Martin’s suspicion was correct, it would be the first remnant of Glyptodon to ever be discovered in the Caribbean. The beast went extinct some ten thousand years ago, but the finding seemed to bring that analysis back into question. Maybe Glyptodon stayed around a little longer than previously believed.
We performed another several dives over the next few days, going deeper and deeper each time. We explored several side passages as well that branched away from the alpha pool. At one point we were travelling down a tunnel, when we came to an extremely narrow fork in the road. The path to the left appeared to widen and branch out, while the one to the right appeared to narrow even further and continue downward.
Much to my chagrin, Martin chose the right-hand path. The opening could not have been more than a half meter in diameter. Martin went through, followed by three others, and then it was my turn. I chickened out. Tank swam up behind me, and I just shook my head gesturing for him to proceed. He made the “Ok” signal and ventured on through while I stayed back.
I meandered about in that area, twiddling my thumbs as I waited for the group to return. At one point, my headlamp caught something that sparkled on the cave wall. I moved towards it for a better look. I soon discovered it to be a small chain necklace with a small pendent attached. I took it and admired it in my hand, thinking maybe another member of the crew had lost it. It had no visible markings, and the style was one I was not familiar with.
While I stared, enamored with my discovery, something shifted from the corner of my eye. I turned to see an indistinct shadow slither out of sight, like a snake made from obsidian. It was impossible though. We were below the oxygen threshold. No creature could survive down there. I rationalized that it must’ve just stemmed from my overactive imagination left alone in the dark. That’s what I chose to believe anyway. The group returned several minutes later, and we made our way back to the entrance.
We exited the pool and climbed one by one back up to our camp. I was starving and luckily the other members had begun dinner. Something was different though. The other members of the team had grown quiet, unusually so after a successful dive. Even Javier, the most vocal of the team was now stoic.
Martin pulled me aside soon after, and I was informed why.
“We found something…” He spoke the words without an ounce of his usual enthusiasm. Martin swallowed hard and glanced back to the rest of the crew. He went on to tell me how he had continued on in that narrow corridor and after several minutes came to a dead end. It was there he found it. In a pile of silt and muck, a vibrant strand of yellow polyester stood out. A pile of bones wrapped with a black and yellow tattered garment lay discombobulated on the chamber ground. These bones were different though. One look at the skull and equipment and he knew, they were human.
Martin moved in, and his worst suspicion was confirmed. It was a fellow diver. Accidents like that are a grim reality of the profession. A lot of good lives people have been lost to the depths of blue holes. It seems that this man; whoever he was, met the same fate. His equipment was shredded, almost beyond recognition, but fragments of his dive suit and mask remained. He must have been down there for quite a long time.
We talked over the discovery of the lost diver and took a moment to pay our silent respects. I told them about the necklace and displayed it around as well. Martin remained silent, not eating his dinner and distant from the group. I questioned him on it, and he spoke after a momentary hesitation.
“No one’s ever been down that far before… at least, not that I knew of.” He looked me dead in the eye when he said it, a worried grimace on his grizzled cheeks. Here I had been under the impression that the entire system had already been thoroughly explored and mapped out, but obviously that wasn’t the case. I guess I should’ve asked more questions.
I had no intention of returning into that god forsaken hole after the discovery of the deceased diver. I told them as much, but Martin wasn’t ready to call it quits. After all there was one more passage that needed investigation. Martin promised it to be the most grandiose of them all. A realm of submerged majesty, unscathed by human hands. One which, upon our return, would be named for us.
I don’t know how or why his words managed to convince me, but I soon found myself suited up once again, floating at the surface of the alpha pool. We performed the usual routine and one by one my colleagues sank below. One more dive.
We made our way back to the same tunnel as the previous escapade. This time at the fork, we took the left-hand path. Martin took the lead and stepped into the corridor. Each methodic kick he took stirred a flurry of silt into the water. In no time visibility in the tunnel became nil as our group stumbled blindly onward.
Crumbling debris rained down from the roof as we pressed on, and I lost all sight of the rest of our crew. My heartrate began to climb yet again as the dense canopy spiraled around me. I clutched the guideline for dear life with my left hand, while my right moved along the tunnel wall.
For several minutes I stumbled along blind in the fog with only my sense of touch guiding the way. The porous rock then suddenly turned into a smooth almost squishy appendage. I retracted my hand out of instinct, but curiosity drove me back. I felt along the wall, until the squishy sensation returned. My hand began to clench, when suddenly the thing jerked. I felt it wriggle away, causing my heart to sink like an anchor.
I hustled forward, now with a new sense of urgency. There was something down there, I knew it now. I bumped my head several times as I moved, but finally, the dense fog dispersed and I emerged from the cloud. Only to be met with an empty chasm of endless black that stretched beyond sight in every direction. I looked back to see the murky tunnel from which I had come. Martin, Javier, Rory and Dawn were all drifting a couple meters out, surrounded by nothing but the void. We regrouped and Martin removed a glowstick from his pack. He cracked it, and stared for a moment before releasing his grip. The neon green candle drifted downward further and further. We must’ve watched it for at least half a minute before it finally appeared to come to a rest at the bottom. By that point it was only a single green pixel on a 4K display. It must’ve been hundreds of meters deep.
The light then vanished entirely. Likely snuffed out from the immense pressure below. We lingered for a moment, waiting for Martin to indicate our plan. Suddenly a muffled squeal escaped Dawn’s lips with a flurry of bubbles. We turned to Dawn, to see her franticly tapping Rory and pointing downward.
We looked down and stared in disbelief as the glowstick appeared to begin to rise upward from the bottom. I began to back away towards the tunnel, now with my heart clamoring and mind screaming for me to leave. The light continued to ascend, seeming to pick up speed as it went. It also looked as though it had changed color from neon green to more of a blue tint. The light also seemed to be changing shape rapidly, as if bending from side to side.
Dawn began to move towards me, but the rest of the team stared down, transfixed by the glowing spectacle. Others began to back away one by one as the light drew nearer. Eventually Martin was the only one who remained. The light then reached him, and our headlamps revealed it for what it was. An eel or lamprey of some sort, maybe two feet in length and solid black. The blue light we had seen was imprinted along it’s belly as some kind of bioluminescent display.
The creature began to circle Martin slowly, as if it were curious. Martin appeared almost enthralled by the thing. It was without a doubt nothing like any creature I had ever seen. Probably one which would be entirely new to science. The creature then drifted a few feet away from Martin and began moving in a strange motion. The best word I can use to describe it would be a sort of dance.
It would pause briefly and then wiggle quickly before pausing again. It repeated the motion over and over, staying true to it’s form. It was almost hypnotizing to behold. Despite the interesting find, I felt a dread begin to mount in my stomach.
A minute flash then drew my attention downward. There was another one, and it to was rising towards us. Another flashed to life a second later, followed quickly by another and another. Dozens of them began to emerge and follow suit with the others. The second soon joined the first beside Martin, and straight away began the same peculiar display in perfect synchronization with the first. A third joined in, then a fourth.
I looked down again, and my heart lurched into my throat. The entire area below us had begun to glow brightly as hundreds of the things became illuminated and rose like a flock of dazzling blue embers. In the middle of them though, a much larger light took form. It began to rise, sparkles of blue flashing upon it in a dazzling performance.
Martin had finally seen enough. He turned to join us, but it was too late. As soon as he moved, one of the eels lunged for him, coiling itself around his arm and digging into his flesh. Dozens joined the attack, and in moments it turned into an all out feeding frenzy. I heard Martin scream, but there was never any hope of saving him.
The rest of us fled immediately, back into the dingey silt-laden passage that had led us in. Javier went first, followed quickly by Dawn and then me. I moved as quickly as I could through the passage, blinded by the slurry but caring only about escape at all cost. Behind me I heard a torrential commotion as the voracious creatures gave chase. There was a sudden burst of energy from behind. It was like an underwater sonic boom followed quickly by the clanging of metal meeting rock repeatedly. The tunnel itself seemed to groan in protest as what I can only assume was a burst air tank began to clang around wildly.
I finally burst from the tunnel, and reentered the bottom of the alpha pool. I clawed my way franticly through the depths in a desperate bid to reach the surface. For a split second I peered back over my shoulder as a muffled scream gurgled through the cave. I saw Tank there, frantic as a mass of slippery black serpents began to tear into him. Parts of his face and body were stripped of flesh in seconds, leaving only skeletal remains in their wake. He ceased his struggle, and the mob enveloped him.
“I’m so sorry Tank.” The words echoed in my mind as I turned and made a mad dash upwards. I felt them closing in behind me as the smell of rotten eggs filled my nostrils. Several razor mouths gripped onto my leg as I swam, breaking into the red mist of the hydrogen sulfide. I thought I was done for, when the mouths released their grips. I turned as I cleared the putrid layer and saw hundreds of the vile glowing things staring back at up at me. They continued their same dancing motion, hundreds of them in perfect unison. A much larger shadow bulged from the cluster. This one was massive, at least ten times the size of it’s kin. It did not wiggle like the others. It drifted silently, bearing a mouth of razor teeth and ornate, rune-like splotches of neon blue on it’s skin. It’s mouth jutted from it’s head, as what can only be described as an umbrella of hooked teeth gleamed in the sparse cavern light.
I could sense it’s hunger, but also something else. The way it drifted was methodic, and the little ones cleared a path as it came through. It was almost like they were communicating. My saving grace was that it and it’s minions refused to cross the red barrier of the hydrogen sulfide. I kept an eye on her. The large one, the brood mother. I rose to the surface, and burst from the underworld and back into mine. The world I know, and never should’ve left.
Dawn, Javier and myself were the only ones to return from that dreadful place. The pain eats at me daily for those we lost, and I wish we had never entered that god forsaken place. It’s not safe. The cave itself has since been sealed off, with no one allowed to reenter it. The members we lost are still down there. Forever entombed in the murky depths.
I’ve told this story to several sources, but none of them ever take me seriously. I’m done worrying whether people will believe me. Some days I don’t even believe me. I just hope for all our sakes, that the cave is not connected to any other waterway. I can’t imagine what would happen if they ever got out. Needless to say though, I don’t think I’ll be planning another cave diving trip anytime soon.