We’ve explored the surface of Mars, spent time in space, and stared out at the far reaches of the universe and into the past. And yet amazingly, we still keep finding stuff here on earth that we never knew was there. As recently as 2009 the largest cave in the world was discovered. We’re still not sure how big it is. Caves are amazing places, home to strange and fantastic creatures, formed through years of erosion and the earth’s terrible shifting processes. These often unexplored regions of the earth teach us about its history, and how it is changing. They are the great playgrounds for scientists, divers, and climbers alike. And while it’s probably safe to assume there’s more underground that we presently know nothing about, today we’ve pulled together the most amazing caves that we do know exist.
The Orda cave is the longest underwater cave in Russia and, so far as we know, the only underwater gypsum cave anywhere. Gypsum is a naturally occurring mineral used in construction. The Egyptians used it. At the water’s surface the temperature ranges between 27F and -4F. Fifty six feet below it gets down to -10F. Just wondering here, but shouldn’t that be ice? The cave is something over three miles, most of that underwater. Minerals act as a filter making the water incredibly clear, enabling divers to see ahead of them more than 50 yards.
At 400 miles long, Mammoth is the longest cave in the world. It’s a network of caves rather than a single cave, and is nowhere near being fully mapped yet. Some people believe it could be as long as 1000 miles. Records suggest that the first human to enter the cave did so some 4000 years ago, after which the caves were mined for minerals for two thousand years, though probably not by the same person. The caves were then pretty much left alone until the end of 18th century, becoming a tourist attraction shortly after. Now you can camp, bike, go horse riding, and keep an eye out for eyeless fish, which is something they can’t do.
But Mammoth is not the biggest. Son Doong, near the Laos-Vietnam border, is currently the biggest known cave in the world. It’s been known about since 1991 when a local farmer named Ho-Khanh stumbled across it. Seems like he heard its whistling winds and the river that runs through it first. Yet it wasn’t until 2009 when a team of British cavers went in and mapped the cave that anyone realized how big it was. Which is pretty incredible, since it’s apparently been there for about 2.5 million years. And we thought it took us a long time to find the car keys. Son Doong is 6 miles long (so far, at least), and you could fit a 40 storey building inside, assuming you’d thought to pack one on your Vietnamese jungle trek. Speaking of jungles, there’s one inside the cave, along with the river, the source of which so far hasn’t been found. To get to the cave visitors need climbing gear. And if you want to reach the floor, you’ll need to rappel 250 feet. So far, the cave has not seen many visitors.
Until Son Doong showed up, Deer Cave was considered the largest cave in the world. But since it’s been trumped by about three miles, you can understand if it’s looking a bit peeved lately. Still, unlike Son Doong, Deer Cave welcomes about 25,000 visitors every year. The cave is located in Gunung Mulu National Park. There’s a formation of stromatolites in the cave that, if you can believe it, when silhouetted and from a particular angle, look like Abraham Lincoln.
Imagine the deepest blue, and then imagine a deeper blue. Get a local fisherman to row you out around the island to the cave, and be sure to dip your head beneath the rock face as you enter. Let your hand trail in the water and watch as the moon breaks into silvers of sapphire on your fingers. For hundreds of years the blue caverns of Capri have been a place of quiet reflection for visitors. These days, it may be best to visit out of season.
Fingal’s is a sea cave on the uninhabited island of Staffa, which is part of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. If you think the Inner Hebrides are remote, try the Outer Hebrides. The cave is made up of interlocking hexagonal pillars of basalt, like The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. They form when solidified lava cools and cracks into these cool geometric shapes. As the cooling continues the cracks extend, eventually producing tall columns. It’s the same kind of effect you see when mud dries and cracks, except that’s caused by water loss, not lava getting cold.
Not that Georgia, the other one. The one with the Russian salad dressing. Krubera is the world’s deepest known cave, and is home to some strange creatures, like transparent fish. Given that there’s less to attract at these depths, you can’t just throw on something see-through and hope to be sexy. You have to be see-through. Explorers first descended the cave’s depths in 2001. One moment it was the second deepest cave on earth, a step later it was the deepest. In 2004 it went lower again, deeper still in 2007, and in 2012 it plummeted even further. It is still the only cave we know of that’s deeper than 2000 meters. Can we expect more from the mighty Krubera? Based on its track record, we think it’s highly likely.
At thirty miles in length, Eisriesenwelt (world of the ice giants) is the world’s largest ice cave. Spoiler alert! Only the first half mile or so is ice, and that’s the bit tourists can visit. The rest of it is boring limestone. Located at the rim of the largest plateau in the Alps, the Karst Plateau, the cave receives about 200,000 tourists each year. Before its official discovery in 1879, it had been unofficially discovered only by locals, which apparently doesn’t count as a discovery. The locals didn’t want anything to do with the cave, believing it to be the entrance to hell. Clearly this was an opportunity missed. Surely tickets to hell would surely have been a big tourist attraction. For sure we know some people we’d have bought tickets for. Once an hour and half’s climb to the cave’s entrance, now it’s just a three minute cable car ride to hell.
Yes, that Georgia. Located in the Appalachian Plateaus, Ellison’s Cave is a pit cave famous – ok maybe famous isn’t quite the right word – for a fantastic pitch called, wait for it, Fantastic Pit. Fantastic Pit is notable because it’s the deepest, unobstructed, underground pitch in the US – the lower 48, anyway. Right, so what’s a pitch? A steep bit. You might call it a drop, a sheer drop sometimes. It’s a big hole in the cave which you could fall down if you’re not careful. Cavers love pitches because they get to rappel down them, often vertically. Opposite Fantastic Pit on the other side of the cave is another pitch, Incredible Pit. There’s a third one called Smokey, and even a fourth called Smokey II, but at 262 feet Smokey II’s less than half the pitch of Fantastic.
Part of the Waitomo cave system, there are no prizes for guessing what you’re likely to find in this cave. Glowworms are the larvae stage of a two-winged insect, and they glow in order to attract food and burn off waste. That’s right, this is the entomological equivalent of lighting farts. So what does this mean, that men are functioning at the level of an immature, wingless, often wormlike feeding form? Tell us something we don’t know. This particular glowworm is the Arachnocampa Luminosa, and it’s only found here in New Zealand. T They survive in damp dark places where their light can be seen, so the cave is perfect. You can take a boat ride under them.
Six thousand years of waves splashing against calcium carbonite sounds like an incredibly dull process. Yet time and persistence have produced not only a stunning visual effect on the marble walls of these caves, but also what looks to have been Munch’s inspiration for The Scream. But perhaps the best thing about the Marble Caves is that you can only get to them by boat. And to reach the boat you have to take a plane from Santiago, then drive two hundred miles across dirt. So there’s a good chance if you do go, you’ll be the only one there.
The Giant Crystal Cave in Mexico contains some of the largest natural gypsum crystals found anywhere, with the largest one we know of close to 40 feet long, and weighing 55 tons. That’s about 10 elephants. The cave, which is connected to a mine, was only discovered in 2000 when miners started drilling for a new tunnel. Because of the high humidity and heat, which is caused by magma below, the cave is largely unexplored. The temperature can get up to about 136 degrees farenheit. In 2006 scientists from Italy went in wearing specially made cooling suits that gave them about half hour of working time. We think a better idea would be to find some geologists who are into Bikram Yoga, then you could really get some work done.
If you want to make something smooth, it’s a very straightforward process. You simply get some sand and water, and then kind of throw it very hard at whatever it is you want smoothed. This is what was done at Antelope Canyon, and as we think you’ll agree, the effects are striking. Antelope is on Navajo land, and the Navajo name is Tse bighanilini, which means “the place where water runs through rocks.” Like really a lot of water that runs through rocks. If you are planning to try this smoothing technique, do yourself a favor and put some time aside to do it properly. It’s not exactly a weekend job.
It’s not everyone who gets to go to school in a cave, but if you attended elementary school in Miao village in China’s Guizhou Province, you might have done. The Mid-Cave Primary school was opened in 1984 by the local community and at one point employed 8 teachers instructing 186 students. The school has since been closed down over government concerns that it was not a suitable environment for children to learn. Some disagreed, citing the great acoustics of the cave for choir practice, and that students were able to witness science in action.
Legend says that locals once hid from Genghis Kahn in this cave. Today it’s more of a meditation area for monks, since a Buddhist temple has been built on a cliff at the entrance. The cave is open to tourists, but apparently few visit. So if you’re looking to find yourself in a place of transcendent meditation, this might be somewhere to get lost in first.
More than 180 million years old, inscriptions on the cave walls date back as far as 792 AD to the Tang Dynasty, which is the one right before the Sunny Delight Dynasty. This is a limestone cave that has since been fitted with multicolored lighting. It gets its name from the reeds that grow at the cave’s entrance, which for the musically inclined can be made into flutes. The cave is full of stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations in strange and beautiful shapes.
A glacier cave, as you might guess, is a cave formed inside the ice of a glacier. Most glacier caves are formed by water running through or under the glacier. But oddly enough some, such as the Vatnajokull Glacier Cave, are created by heat from volcanic activity or hotsprings. The Kverkfjoll mountain range lies at the edge of this glacier, and under it is an active, very hot magma chamber. So don’t go there, because it’s likely either to errupt, or collapse, neither of which is a good thing if you happen to be snapping tourist pictures when it happens.
A network of caves and temples just north of Kuala Lumpur, and one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. It was dedicated to Lord Murugan, who although he sounds like an English politician, is actually the Hindu god of war. The caves are around 400 million years old, and have been excavated for bat shit to help farm vegetables. Frankly, if Lord Murugan knew he was going to be covered in bat guano we’re not sure he’d be too happy.