Text by Lindsey Pickel
Photography by Curt Bowen
From the windows of our plane, the view of blue Caribbean waters gave way to the lush green karst plain and the beautiful mountains of the Dominican Republic.  Curt Bowen, Brett Hemphill, and Walter and Lindsey Pickel were beginning a week of cave exploration in the Dominican Republic jungle surrounding the fishing village of Bayahibe.   

We were invited to the Dominican Republic by Gri Gri Divers to assist in the discovery and exploration of their local caves.  Gri Gri Divers, located in Bayahibe, manages all the dive programs for the local resorts. 
Most of the week’s exploration was in the Eastern National Park (Parque Nacional de Este), just minutes from the dive shop. 

We were met at the airport by Uwe Rath and Mark Boers of Gri Gri Divers.  After accomplishing the impossible by cramming three carloads of gear into one Explorer, we were finally ready to begin the three-hour drive from Santo Domingo to Bayahibe.  Once we reached the fishing village, we settled into our villas at one of
the local all-inclusive resorts, Dominicus Beach, and immediately headed to the beach bar for a Cuba Libre, the national drink.   

Having no idea what Dominican caves had in store, we brought vertical gear, dry caving, and cave diving gear, all of which immediately proved very useful.  Our exploration began with a cave we later learned was the “Voodoo Cave.”  Walter dropped in through a wasp’s nest, followed a large banyan vine, but still no water; instead, he happened upon an elaborate voodoo altar, a room full of robes and recent sacrifices.  Needless to say, we had never seen someone climb a rope with such enthusiasm; personally, I think he actually jumped out of the cave.   

After hiking to a few more caves with no going cave passage apparent, we decided to try pushing the existing line in two caves well known to the locals.  Since we were all diving side-mount, we felt that there might be some more line to be laid.
What we found would soon change all of our expectations of the Dominican Republic as a diving locale, and our role there as cave explorers.  These caves have now become important scientific resources that need long-term protection, which is why we’ve been asked by the authorities not to reveal their names or locations for the time being.   

Driving up to the first one, we quickly determined the cave entrance was once one of the water sources for the town of Bayahibe.  We climbed down the crude concrete steps, over the set of large-bore water pipes, and into the cave.  To our immediate satisfaction, we were greeted by pristine white ragged limestone and what looked to be going downstream passage.  Unfortunately, each passage pinched off into a wall of impassable rubble.  As Walter and I swam up a breakdown pile, we discovered a small brown skull lying amidst the crumbled limestone at the top of yet another impassable mound.  We both admired it and guessed that this creature had existed long before man had stepped foot on Hispaniola.  Upon surfacing, we agreed that Curt
needed to come back with his camera to photograph not only the skull, but also the myriad of other strange bones we had found scattered throughout the cave system.   

Exploration of the Chico and Padre Nuestro caves, which are sometimes used as training grounds for local cave divers, presented big beautifully decorated cave passage and clear blue water.  Curt seized the opportunity and created some amazing photographs.  However, these caves abruptly ended in terminal breakdown – something that we soon realized was all too common.  As Walter and I were ending our dive in Chico, Brett emerged from the jungle grinning from ear to ear.  He had found virgin cave beyond a sump, and what looked to be going passage in the terminal room of the dry cave.  We all decided that the next day we would spend the entire day exploring this newly found cave. 

The day started like every other with gear pick up at Gri Gri Divers, the daily search for the local “park ranger” who helped us get around in the National Park, and then the quick drive from Bayahibe.  The rocky terrain and dense jungle meant we had to carry all gear the half mile to Brett’s newly named cave, Chico II.  A newly
discovered cave meant no one was willing to wait topside, but it also meant carrying a tremendous amount of gear through the jungle as well as the quarter-mile long dry passage leading to the suspected going underwater passage.  To help lighten our load, we decided Brett would do the diving exploration and the rest of us would take enough gas to swim the sump, a distance of approximately 500 feet, and then climb the cave’s dry section. 

Once at the cave entrance, we passed gear down the mud-caked rubble slope to the small pool at the bottom. We “power snorkeled” the sump in teams of two in order to maximize visibility.  Like the other caves, we were met with bone-white limestone and perfect visibility, but that is where the similarities ended.  Once we reached the cave’s dry passage, we were amazed by the pristine dry formations that stretched as far as you could see. Thankfully, our lighter survived the sump swim in a dry bag, and now was indicating there was just enough oxygen to create a small but distinctly burning flame.  Although there were no signs of bats or surface tree root penetration into the cave ceiling, we knew there was enough oxygen to sustain life, so we pressed on.   

As we climbed and crawled our way through the dry section, we were continually amazed by the amount and size of the formations: bacon that stretched over forty feet in length,

soda straws nearly five feet long, and cave pearls the size of quarters.  This was a rare opportunity to see Mother Nature’s incredible work as it was intended and without any human impact.   

We finally made it back to what seemed to be a small pool of water, until you put your mask on and looked under the ledge.  This small pool of water then exploded into a cobalt blue power cave that continued well past our lights.  We knew we had found our big cave and going passage.  Brett hurriedly suited up; and, before we could wish him good luck, he was under the ledge and on his way with his reel spooling out line as he swam.  The rest of us sat back to enjoy the cave decorations and gorgeous water as we waited for Brett’s return.  A mere three minutes had passed before we saw Brett’s light, each of us thinking there is no way he has walled it out already.  Brett surfaced and sheepishly disclosed the reason for his early return – in his haste to get in the cave, he had forgotten to put on his fins.  Now with all gear accounted for, Brett swam back into the blue water. 

After waiting for what felt like an eternity, we finally saw a glimpse of Brett’s light. Upon surfacing, he described the cave: big trunk passage, gorgeous decoration, gin-clear water…ending in a massive breakdown pile stretching from floor to ceiling.  Yet again, we are stopped in our tracks by the elusive, unknown

breakdown. It wasn’t until we returned to the United States that Walter happened upon a potential, but still unknown, cause of these rubble mounds – the eastern Dominican Republic is known for its almost continual seismic activity. 

The next day, we decided we would split up.  Walter and Brett would head into the jungle to look for more cave; Curt and I would head to an offshore wreck in search of great pictures and warm Caribbean waters.  We parted ways at Gri Gri Divers: Walter and Brett off to the jungle, and Curt and I jumping on a boat.  Gri Gri has their own boats and captains, which makes access to offshore sites a breeze.  We suited up, hit the water, and were escorted to the wreck by a school of blue runners.  The wreck provided great photo opportunities and a wonderful day of diving.   

The next couple of days did not turn up any new caves to dive, but plenty that should not be dived.  Beating the bush, the team had their fair share of scrapes, cuts, and bruises as well as some friendly encounters with tarantulas larger than we knew existed. 

The karst plain of eastern Hispaniola is impressive, reminiscent of south central Florida.  We are convinced that the proverbial cave diving surface has not even been scratched, and look forward to many trips back to the warm sun and great climate of the Dominican Republic.  At the end of our week-long Dominican cave exploration, we had been the first humans to explore arguably the most impressively decorated cave in the country, discovered many fossils, which would later turn out to be the biggest success of the trip, and had an excellent time diving with Uwe and Mark of Gri Gri Divers.   

Upon our return to the United States we learned the significance of the bones we found in our unnamed cave.  Based on Curt’s pictures, Professor Alfred Rosenberger, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York (“CUNY”), determined this was an extremely rare find of an extinct mammal.  Walter and Curt immediately began working with Alfie and CUNY to acquire the requisite permits necessary to return to the caves for continued research.   

Alfie Rosenberger, Siobhán Cooke, Walter, and Curt returned to the Dominican Republic in October on a research grant to collect and study the specimens. Working along with the Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Museum of the Dominican Man) under a government issued research permit, they were able to collect a large cache of bones representing several types of mammals, fish, and snakes. The most abundant animals seem to be sloths, but of kinds that are now extinct.  All of the fossils have been deposited in the museum in Santo Domingo, and they are now under study with the help of our Dominican Republic collaborators. When the research is completed, we can tell you more about it.  Some of the fossils have been brought back to the United States on a temporary loan, to allow Alfie and his Ph.D. student Siobhán to analyze and date them. 
Now fully fledged members of a new paleontology research group, Walter and Curt also mapped the location of the fossil remains so we can try to understand how they came to be deposited there. One of the questions Alfie and Siobhán are trying to answer is whether or not these animals, now extinct in all of the Caribbean islands, existed during the times of the indigenous Taino people, or even during the time following the discovery of Hispaniola by Christopher Columbus in 1492. A lot of work will go into investigating what caused their extinction and when it happened. 

The Museum of the Dominican Man was very impressed with the team’s work and has agreed to allow us to return and focus on paleontological exploration.  Fossil vertebrates are rare on the island, even though there has been a lot of archaeological work done emphasizing the prehistory of the Dominican Republic.  With few fossils, it is hard for biologists to piece together how the island evolved as a natural habitat, which is what makes it such a beautiful place today. The team recovered skulls and skeletal parts of more than eight individual sloths, and there is more to be found.  Walter and Curt may have taken part in opening up a completely new window into the past with the discovery that these important scientific specimens can be recovered in underwater caves.  Excavating them from topside locations is not the only way to go!  

The ADM Exploration Foundation plans to continue working with CUNY to assist the government of the Dominican Republic in finding new clues to what our new scientist friends call the island’s paleobiology — old species.

Gri Gri Divers

Museum of Dominican Man

ADM Exploration Foundation