Richard Harris and Curt Bowen descend into the depths of the Daxing cave. Explored to 100 meters and still descending into the darkness. Photo by Martyn Farr
Editorial by Curt Bowen
Photography by Richard Harris, Martyn Farr, Sebastien Lissarrague, and Curt Bowen
My powerful cave diving light seems to get sucked into the darkness as I spool the line off my reel into a newly discovered subterranean chamber. Every so often, I get a quick glimpse of the jagged limestone wall protruding from the darkness as we drop deeper into the ground. Cupping my light head with my hand, my eyes faintly see the glowing light of Australian cave diver Richard Harris descending behind me into the darkness.
The midday sun attempts to peek through the white misty clouds as they majestically slide over the surrounding mountains. Sculpted from millions of years of erosion, these limestone behemoths rise sharply from the colorful rice paddy fields and river valleys, creating a never ending and breathtaking landscape like no other on earth. Secluded from much of the outside world, local villagers tend to their crops as they have for thousands of years, unaware of the massive underwater caves stretching for miles below their fields.
The city of Du An is located within the surrounding mountains a couple hour drive from the sprawling capital city of Nanning and along the famous Red River Valley. The organizers chose a specially selected team of expert cave divers to conduct the first ever international cave diving expedition in China, while also celebrating the opening of the Du An technical diving center.
Australian cave explorer Richard Harris (Harry) descends into the darkness of a massive China cave system. Photo by Martyn Farr
The cave explorers included Martin Farr from the UK, Richard Harris from Australia, Pe Deseigne, Sebastien Lissarrague, and world record deep diver Pascal Bernabe, from France, Mia Pietikainen from Finland, and Curt Bowen representing the United States. Also attending was documentary film producer Nathalie Lasselin and her camera assistant Nathalie Lemonde, there to film our week’s discoveries.
The team’s goals were to explore and document our discoveries so that we can inform the rest of the world about the amazing caves China offers. The newly completed Du An technical diving center offers all the supplies and logistical requirements any major cave diving expedition or recreational tour could need, including cylinders, air, helium, oxygen, compressor, transportation, and professional training class room settings.
The elderly farmer finds himself in awe as he witnesses the unfamiliar divers leisurely walking through his village. Intrigued by the sight, his curiosity finally gets the best of him and he wonders over to see what these strange people are doing in his cave. Photo by Curt Bowen
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Above: At over 150 meters deep into a massive underground passage, this beautiful blue resurgence feeds and entire valley with its water. Photo by Curt Bowen (click to rotate image)
Sebastian and Pe first visited this area in 2010 to rediscover a labyrinth of some of the largest and deepest caves systems on the planet. Hundreds of meters thick, this ancient limestone plateau has been eroded by China’s southern subtropical climate for millions of years. Surrounded by the porous mountains, hydrostatic pressure has formed possibly one of the largest and deepest subterranean river, moving millions of gallons of water over a hundred meters deep southward towards the Red River Valley.
Massive cave entrances, some a hundred meters wide, dot the landscape from the upper mountain gorges to the flat plain valley along Red River. Mountain cave resurgences supply millions of gallons of water during the summer rainy season, feeding the rice paddy fields. Because of the remoteness and sheer number of caves, the possibility of significant discoveries is immense. Decades of cave exploration will barely touch the possibilities the Du An area offers.
Our expedition began several months ago when the selected team members received a special invitation from the Du An Chinese government welcoming us as international experts in the field of cave exploration for an eight-day expedition.
Mr. Huang, director of Du An tourism board stands on the cliff’s edge of this massive karst collapse. Unexplored to date, no one knows if it leads to a cave system or just a large pool of water. Photo by Curt Bowen
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Above: This shallow pool of water is the headspring of a major river running through a small valley. During the rainy season, this river will swell with rushing water 30 feet deep and 150 feet wide. (click to rotate image)
Unique creatures known as “peach blossom jellyfish” were discovered within the now named Jellyfish cave. Jellyfish cave has been plumb lined to over 180 meters deep. Photo by Sebastien Lissarrague
Ma Rongman (Mandy) from the Communications of Du An Tourism Bureau quickly introduced us when we arrived in Nanning, China. After loading the vehicles, Ma Rongman (Mandy) from the Communications of Du An Tourism Bureau whisked us away to the new Du An technical dive center. Once we arrived, Mr. Huang Jinghe, Director of Du An Tourism Board, provided a tour of the state-of-the-art dive facility, including all the cylinders, breathing gas, and supplies needed to conduct several 100-meter plus deep cave dives.
With dozens of cave systems available, we divided into separate groups, allowing the team to explore more in the short eight day time period. Pascal Bernabe and Mia Pietikainen, both experienced deep divers, would focus on exploring the Jellyfish 1 system, which has been recorded to depths exceeding 180 meters. The rest of the group would alternate between different systems on most days.
Unlike other cave locations in the world that I have explored, the limestone (karst) layer in this section of China appears to be one of the most massive layers in the world. The eroded limestone mountains stretch over 250-meters (800 feet) above the valley and many of the caves descend well beyond the 180-meter (600 feet) depth range. The discovery of dry flowstone formations at depths around 40 meters (130 feet) shows many of these now submerged caves were at once partially dry.
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Above: Jellyfish Cave is the only place in China where the freshwater Jellyfish can be found. This cave plummets quickly beyond 155 meter. (click to rotate image)
Du An is at a latitude of 23°55’51.66"N and a longitude of 108° 5’57.90"E and has a semitropical climate with a heavy rainy season. With an average of over 52 inches (1320mm) of rain, the porous limestone bedrock soaks up tremendous amounts of precipitation like a giant sponge. Once this giant limestone sponge fills up, hundreds of caves act as over pressurization valves, flooding the rivers and streams with billions of gallons of water until the dry season returns. With large amounts of rainfall, water visibility is normally decreased down to a few meters. The dry season brings less runoff and visibility can increase, depending on the cave system, up to 10 to 15 meters. Depending on the cave system, water levels in the caves and local rivers can vary by up to 10 meters between the seasons.
This massive karst plateau has hundreds, if not thousands, of unexplored wet and dry caves. The potential for discovery of new cave adapted biological and botanical species in the Du An area is staggering. Our team managed to only partially explore eight systems during our brief stay, adding hundreds of yards of additional cave line. Pascal Bernabe and Mia Pietikainen set the newest Chinese deep cave diving record to 130 meters–426 feet. Du An offers decades of exploration and scientific work to even understand the labyrinth of passages stretching below this ancient land of the abyss.
The opening of the new Du An technical diving center has now unlocked this old land for new exploration and diver training.
For more information, contact Pe Deseigne at firstname.lastname@example.org
Aqua Incognita by Nathalie Lasselin
Above: Cave explorers representing their countries: Martin Farr from the United Kingdom, Richard Harris from Australia, and Curt Bowen from the United States
Below: The international team of cave explorers pose with the Chinese officials.