Saturday, March 23, 2013

Heading home

The 2013 Galapagos expedition is a wrap.  Thanks to everyone that participated, and job well done.  We were able to document over 10km of lava tubes on the islands.  New friendships were made, old friendships continued.  The teams were productive while still producing high quality data.  All of the sketching was done to scale with rectangular protractors.

Cueva Soyla field notes

The expedition by the numbers:

9 cavers 3 sketchers
12 days of survey
19 caves
238 pages of survey notes
10,039m of cave survey

The last day we decided to go to a remote beach for some much deserved down time.  El Garrapatero beach is about a 30min. drive from town, so we made our usual early start.  We were rewarded by being the first arrivals at the beach for the day and securing the largest shaded area on the beach. 

Garrapatero Beach

You can get very close to the wildlife at some Galapagos beaches, leading to photos that are usually very difficult to get otherwise.

Marine iguana

Brown pelican

Of course, no blog on the topic of Galapagos would be complete without at least a couple photos of giant tortoises.  So, with that I will close this blog.  Thank you to everyone that encouraged me to write it and those that read the posts.  Maybe we can do it again sometime.  -Aaron

Friday, March 22, 2013

La Llegada - Part II

Thursday was the last day of caving for the expedition.  We returned to La Llegada to continue working on leads in the this large segmented tube system.  The teams improved the hike time out to the cave, making the distance in 40min.  This was largely possible because the trail had been beat in two days before and also because the overcast skies reduced the temperature by 5C. 

Bob, Rick T., and Eli headed back up flow to continue pushing their leads.  They surveyed several hundred meters before running out of time.  They also left several vertical leads that will require rope and vertical gear.  No one wants to contemplate carrying such things out to the cave....

Aaron, Rick H. and Scott headed down flow to continue surveying a lead that we had left just two days prior.  The passage was large and going, but a review of the survey data on Google Earth suggested that the cave would come to an end soon.  Indeed it “ended” after just three additional survey stations, but it wasn’t the end.  Scott managed to climb a very sketchy wall to a ledge and then make his way along an upper passage to a point 10m beyond our survey.  Here he found a vertical drop requiring the aforementioned rope and vertical gear.  We now have 4 leads that will require gear in La Llegada.  Sooner or later a team will need to carry the additional weight of ropes and climbing gear to check these leads (all of which are very promising).  The team cut over 750m of new trail in to the jungle.

10m deep jungle covered lava trench leading to one of the La Llegada entrances

Rick H. (foreground) and Scott make their way out of La Llegada and to daylight

Both teams continued surveying until we reached our exit times to make the 4:30 rendezvous. For the hike out of the jungle.  We all made good time on the exit and were met by the first taxi truck driver at 5:30.  The drive back to town was uneventful, with a nice sunset to end the caving for the expedition.

Once back in town, we discovered that Geoff and Batgirl had returned from Isabela and their adventures there.  They surveyed three caves while on the island, including one cave that is biologically significant.  The cave required almost 400m (round-trip) of crawling on a’a lava. 

Tomorrow we will do the final data entry, but all signs point to over 10km of cave surveyed and an excellent effort by the entire team for the expedition

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cleaning up loose ends

Thursday was spent cleaning up several cave leads in the area that was flooded out earlier in the expedition.  Theo, Rick H. and Aaron returned to the cave that had so much water cascading in to it that we suspended the survey.  This time the cave was dry!  As luck would have it, the cave only went for three additional survey stations before becoming blocked by breakdown.  After finishing up, we returned to the surface and hiked down flow to find the next cave.

A short 200m walk among giant tortoises led to the next cave entrance.  It was just starting to rain again when we descended in to the tube.  We were hopeful that the downpours would not also return.  The scramble down to the cave went directly through a red ant stronghold, and no one escaped without several bites.  The ant bites are usually not lasting, but they do produce a sting and minor irritation when you are bitten.  Of course there are tens of thousands of ants in the vicinity, so it is best to watch your step and not linger.

We were able to set fifteen survey stations before coming to a breakdown choke with a small skylight.  Of particular note in this cave was the largest cave "lake" that we have surveyed thus far in Galapagos.

Pooled water in lava tube

We surveyed the cave to 227m and photographed the cave (and some tortoise bones).

Rick Haley and Theo (far ahead).

Tortuga Crossing Cave

The second team of Bob, Scott, Eli and Rick T. headed up the flow to survey a couple of caves that we located a week earlier.  The first was a small pit that Batgirl had checked out and discovered a horizontal entrance.  They were able to survey this small cave to about 60m before reaching a point where the cave no longer continued.

Cueva Mora was their second objective.  This cave had a promising walk-in entrance.  The cave turned out to live up to that promise, as they surveyed over 200m with ceiling heights reaching almost 20m in places.  They eventually reached a collapse area leading to the surface, but discovered a body sized tube continuing blowing cool air that continued on in to the darkness.  Next time....

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

La Llegada

We made our epic return trip to a cave named "La Llegada" yesterday.  This is a huge lava tube system that we first visited in 2011 with two brothers that work for the Galapagos National Park.  They have grown up on the islands and have a lifelong intrest in caves.

La Llegada would be like any other cave, except for the hike that is required to get there.  The length is only 1.2km, but it is over extremely rugged terrain (lava flows) that are then covered over by some of the most angry plants known.  One person compared the hike to "walking on bowling balls you cannot see".  The other aspect to the hike is the heat.  Everyone carried at least 3.5 liters of water, and most ended the hike with none left.  Going in to the cave took 1.5hrs, coming out we made it in 1hr.

water break near La Llegada

We made it to the cave with several goals in mind.  The first was to fix a survey error caused by a GPS location.  Typically we GPS entrances to the lava tube segments and then connect our cave survey to those "fixed" points.  Occasionally this results in errors that are introduced by poor GPS locations.  One  method of correcting this problem is to survey over land (or in the lava trench) to connect the two surveys.  This task was accomplished by Bob, Scott, Ei and Rick T.  It is decidedly unexciting work, but pays the reward in better data.

The second team of Aaron, Rick H, Theo and 2 park interns headed in to the down flow segment of the cave that they surveyed in 2011 to take some photos.  During the last expedition, all available time was spent on the survey and no photos existed of that tube segment.  There are some unusual secondary formations in this area, so we wanted to photograph those as well.

Theo observing yellow deposits in the cave

Sunlight enters via skylight in La Llegada

Once the teams had completed their tasks from the previous expedition, we agreed that Bob's team would hike up flow looking for more entrances, while Aaron's team would continue down flow searching for entrances.

Bob and crew located another entrance just 200m up flow and started surveying again.  Scott found and measured (with a disto) a 7m pit, but no one had rope or vertical gear to descend.  He reported that air could be felt coming up out of the pit.  We are hoping to make one more trip out to the cave this week, so it is possible we could investigate the pit at that time.

The down flow team flowed a large lava trench for 250m before reaching an enormous entrance.  We began our survey and were able to set 11 stations for about 200m of survey before needing to turn around and head out.  Everyone had agreed to meet at 4pm to start the hike out so that we would not be in the jungle after dark.  It is always difficult to do, but we left a 9m tall continuing cave passage where we turned around.

Newly discovered entrance 

We hastily finished our survey notes, and retreated to the agreed upon meeting place.  The hike out was uneventful, and we shaved 30min. off the total hike time.  This is largely due to being able to follow the trail that we made hiking in to the cave.  Overall we added 250m to the cave in just 1hr of survey, brining the expedition total to 9.1km.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Slower day - new caver?

Not every day is a major survey day on expeditions.  Sometimes leads do not pan out, other times there are landowner relations to tend to, and of course the occasional wild chase to track down that cave rumor that won't fade away.  Today we set out to survey a 2km long tube up flow from the Gallardo caves we surveyed early in the expedition.

The cave is located on a working dairy farm, and is unfortunately located just behind one of their cattle barns.  They have used the cave for many years as a dump, so much so that they have sealed off the entrance to this long lava tube.  The owners are aware that this is not a good situation and have developed a plan to clean up the cave entrance and sinkhole.  It is a sobering reminder that land use practices around the world have lasting impacts on caves.

Even though our primary objective was a bust for the day, we decided to ask if there were any other caves on the ranch (hopefully unpolluted!).  They indicated that there were more caves at higher elevations on the ranch and that their 14yr old son would guide us to them.  Everyone waited in available shade until he was ready to go. 

When on the equator, you wait in the shade

We walked for 800m or so up through the hand cleared fields and eventually in to a small woods.  Here he showed us a nice skylight entrance to large walking passage below.  Everyone was cautiously optimistic that the tube would go, but our hopes were soon dampened by the realization that the tube was blocked by collapse after only a short distance in both the up flow and down flow directions.  Bob, Eli and Rick T. were able to survey about 60m before calling it quits.

We followed the tube line to higher slopes finding a nice 80m tube segment that Rick H., Scott and I surveyed.  The passages were quite large, but unfortunately this tube was also blocked by collapse in both directions.  Our guide and new friend was very excited about finding this new cave and indicated that he was planning to bring his dad up to see the cave the “very next day!”.   It’s just that easy to be bitten by the caving bug.

Rick Haley and Scott Linn investigate the short lava tube segment
We finished our time on the ranch with an impromptu lunch in the corner of  the field under some trees.  Everyone then began the 1km hike back to the ranch, where we said our goodbyes and headed on down another 1km to the main road where we flagged down a taxi truck and made our way back to town.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day from Galapagos


A St. Patrick's Day in Galapagos would not be complete without a bunch of green bananas.  We snapped this photo yesterday while speaking with a local ranch owner regarding access to his caves.  Bananas are of course not native to Galapagos, but they are widely grown here.

bunches of bananas

Today we wrapped up the survey of a cave that Bob, Theo and Aaron started yesterday while the rest of the team took a much deserved day off.  The cave was located on the property of the highest end (read most expensive) resort on Santa Cruz.  It was a very nice cave, complete with a tourist section (including trail and lights) and even a bridge crossing the deep lava trench in the upper section of the cave.

Bridge over 6m deep lava trench

My team was cleaning up a lead in the lower trench today that we had skipped the day before when surveying the tourist trail.  The passage started off nice, but quickly reached a breakdown pile where we had to squeeze around the right side of the passage.  We continued the survey for several more stations before reaching a pit that we down-climbed to water in the lowest of five tubes stacked on each other at this location in the cave.  Afterwards, we cleaned up some survey in the topmost tube that has windows connecting the main tour route through the cave.  In places, the floor in the upper tube is only 8-10cm thick, with occasionally windows to the passage below.  Extreme care was taken on each and every step taken in this part of the cave.

window to upper level from tourist trail (note caver for scale)

The other team (Bob, Scott, Eli and Rick T.0 finished off the down flow lead in the cave, adding another 180m to the survey.  The cave eventually ended in a lava seal.  The team had a bit of excitement when they discovered old dynamite wrapping paper and blasting wire.  Concerned that there could be some leftover dynamite sweating, the team was extremely cautious until they assessed the situation and determined that there was no cause for alarm.  Apparently the landowner had tried (and was wildly unsuccessful) to blast the lava seal in order to continue the cave.

The Cueva Royal Palm now stands at just over 1km of survey.

If you can believe it, we did all of that after lunch!  Our original goal for the day was to go check out the longest known lava tube in South America.  Situated on the south facing slopes of Santa Cruz, there is rumored to be a very long tube that has not been visited in several years, or perhaps decades.  We hired two truck taxis that Said they knew where the cave was located, but it quickly became apparent that they did not.  We spent most of an hour talking with locals trying to find the cave, any cave to survey.  Eventually we did find the cave, but it was a segment higher in the flow and not the 3km cave. We sent two teams in to the cave and had it completed in less than 2 hours.  The total surveyed length for Cueva Cascajo is about 450m.

Scott Linn and Rick Haley in Cueva Cascajo

Overall, we were able to put in a good day of cave survey, and the expedition total now stands at 8.2km.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Historic rain event - the caving goes on...


Back to El Rancho Chato today to clean up leads.  A couple of our team took a rest day to visit the beach and do a bit of snorkeling.  The rest of the team arrived at the ranch and split in to two teams.  Bob, Rick T., and Eli returned to Chato Uno and Chato Dos to finish the survey there.  Aaron, Theo and Rick H. returned to Tuneles de los Piratas to finish surveying the tourist section of the cave for the owners.
The view from El Rancho Chato (Isla Pinzon in the background)

The day started normal enough for both teams.  Bob's team finished up Chato Uno while Aaron's team finished up Piratas before noon.  Rick and Aaron spent about 45min taking photos in the cave, while Theo exited and arranged for us to visit other caves on the same ranch.  When the teams exited, the rains had returned.
Rick Haley in the non-tourist section of Piratas

Braided tube in the tourist section of Piratas

Bob's team hiked up slope to Chato Dos and picked up the survey from the day before.  They were able to add about 200m to the 216m Batgirl's team surveyed the day before.  This added to the 130m they surveyed in Chato Uno made for a full day;s work.  Both of these caves have some vertical areas, requiring additional time to navigate and survey.

After my team finished Piratas, we met with the son of the ranch owner and he drove us to some nearby tubes on the other side of his ranch.  The ride in his truck could warrant it's own blog post, or maybe even a feature length movie.  All that said, we did arrive safely and he pointed us in the direction of the caves.  We walked along a path with giant tortoises grazing and found the cave entrances with no difficulty.  The up flow cave was said to be only 20m long, so we started the survey there.  That's when the sky opened up.  I literally watched the water flow in to the entrance of this 4m tall lava tube increase 5x while I stood there and sketched.  The rain continued to pour.  We made a dash across the floor of the sinkhole to the second entrance only to find it was taking water as well.  Rick tried twice to get a GPS reading on the entrance, but it was raining so hard that he could not see the screen.

We continued the survey in to the down flow cave and the water increased another 3 fold by the time we reached the bottom of the entrance, I had a suspicion that something was not right.  I could tell that the water was starting to pool around the bottom, but I also knew that there was another entrance to the tube some 120m ahead.  I decided to go take a look....  I made it about 30m when I was stopped by a rapidly flooding passage.  Yes, lava tubes can flood. and it can happen quickly.  When I arrived, I began timing the rise with my watch and determined that the water was rising about 1cm/minute.  Add to that the fact that substandard electrical wiring was now submerged, and it was an easy call to end the survey.

Rapid flooding in 2m tall lava tube.  (Note electric lights becoming submerged)

We backtracked to find that the entrance we had come from was now contributing enough water to flood a short section of the passage between us and the entrance.  We were easily able to skirt this pool, but decided that we should call it a day and retreat to the building to dry off.  By this time everyone was soaked through.  Still it rained.  We hiked back in along trails that had become rivers of muddy water.  All of it pouring in to the cave in various places.

Rainwater entering lava tube.

Once we were back at the building, we began trying to dry off and wait for our ride, still 2hrs away.  We had made arrangements to be picked up at 4pm thinking we would finish the survey of these lava tubes.  Once the ranch owner arrived, he told us that part of the road had washed out and that he had never seen this much rain at once in his 40yrs of living on the ranch.  A historic rain event for Galapagos, and we got to be a part of it.  Lucky us!

1/2 meter of water covering the road heading out.

Overall the teams did finish the survey of three caves today, bringing the expedition total to just over 6.5km