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Is cave diving viable on Northern Vancouver Island

2013 Expedition participants Chris Fenton, Greg Nuttall, Shawn Buttle, Dave Williams, Jim Dixon

We set out on our journey hoping to answer the question “is there a significant series of wet caves in the Northern part of Vancouver Island which will make it worth coming and spending time exploring our caves?”

To give you a little background as to what lead to our journey we need to look back several years to when two of first GUE divers in this area Kim and her partner Chris decided to take what they had learned in Mexico and Florida and see if there were caves in the northern part of Vancouver Island for them to utilize their skills. Kim and Chris spent quite a lot of time researching the location/s of possible wet caves and find several leads which they followed up on and managed to dive Re-appearing River and although it was a lot of work it never dampened their enthusiasm. Move forward several years to Spring of 2013 when a group of six GUE trained divers from the Vancouver/Vancouver Island area decided to go to Mexico and receive cave training through GUE. Armed with the new training as well universally finding cave diving in Mexico one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of all our diving undertaken to date we began to talk about where we would next dive caves and the topic of Vancouver Island caves came up with some skepticism about it being worth the effort. Once home from Mexico we decided to plan a trip up Vancouver Island to start putting in the leg work to answer if there is a significant series of wet caves in the Northern part of Vancouver Island.

We quickly realized that diving the limited number of caves previous explored on Northern Vancouver Island would be limited by water flow as these caves can only be dived during the dry season which is a short period of time in the late summer early fall when the water levels are at their lowest. If all the caves up island are only safe to dive during a small window then we realized this would limit their viability as an ongoing destination. But undeterred we planned a weekend of exploration for the third weekend in September 2013. Once we began our planning Chris gracious agreed to take the lead on this expedition and share what he had learned to date (Kim and Chris have found another rewarding challenge in the birth of their son Gavin so only one could attend).

As the date quickly approached and with the weather cooperating after having a decent August and great first couple of weeks of September, our excitement built. As we approached our departure date of September 20th the weather changed and the forecast was for the rain to arrive and stay starting on or around September 16th, of course the weather forecast was correct. As we met to begin our journey up Island on September 20th it was raining hard and had been for several days. Somewhat discouraged we continued to the location of where we thought Wet Dream cave was just to make sure that this cave was weather dependant.

With Chris leading our caravan towards where we thought Wet Dream cave is the rains continued. We made a quick side trip West Hudson dry cave system to explore. Wow was that side trip worth it. After enjoying the dry cave we continued onto where we thought Wet Dream cave was. We had GPS coordinates from the group who are actively exploring the cave, found it without any difficulties, thanks to the gentlemen that are actively exploring this cave system. Once there we headed down the bank towards the river while hoping the information we had received about the sensitivity of this spot to the rains where exaggerated. Once we reached the specified area we realized very quickly that no diving would take place here as there was a full on river where a week ago there would have been a dry creek bed with the mouth of Wet Dream Cave being the main source of water and now there was no way of telling where Wet Dream cave was.

We quickly went to plan B and decided to head further North and explore Re-appearing River Cave and see if the rains impacted it to the same extent they had impacted Wet Dream. Getting into Re-appearing River is somewhat sketchy so we decided to set up base camp at Devil’s Bath Basin, which is another possible place to cave dive. We managed to gather at Devil’s Bath and set up camp and were pleasantly surprised as the rain slowed and then stop and we enjoyed quite a nice evening sitting around the camp fire talking late into the night. Again the question came up and speculation began as to whether or not this area would yield caves worth exploring on an ongoing basis.

Saturday morning we reconfirmed that the plan was to go and check Re-appearing River to see if it was worth the effort to pack our gear in and dive. Let me say that getting into the Re-appearing River site is an adventure on its own. The road has been decommissioned many years ago and where they pulled out the culverts, 15 or 16 all together, the water has made the road almost impassable in several locations. Once we arrived at the trail head we decided that we would hike in without our gear and check out the conditions. It took about 30 minutes to hike into the cave entrance but once there we quickly decided that it was worth packing all our gear in and attempt our dive/s. I am not sure if we realized how much gear we actually take into the water with us but I can assure you after packing it into a location like this we have a good sense of the volume and weight of our equipment. Our 16 liter cylinders twinned with a back plate weigh around 55 kilograms (120 pounds) with the rest of your gear weighing an additional 100 to 110 lbs for a total weight of over 100 kilograms (220 lbs). We carried this in on the rustic trail in two trips. We stuck with our plan of breaking into two Teams with Team 1 laying the line and Team 2 following in after several minutes extending the line if practicable.  Team 1 went in and Team 2 which I was part of followed shortly. We found team one 15 minutes into the dive in the area referred to as the squeeze but as visibility was poor we were not able to locate the tunnel that continued on so the dive was thumbed allowing us to regroup. Dive two was conducted after discussing the information we had, from Chris’s previous dives at this location and other reports we had read, thinking we now knew where the cave continued from. We headed back into the location that we had left off and spent 6 minutes looking for the passage that would let us continue on and after trying a few possibilities and seeing the level of silt that was dislodged, after each attempt, we thumbed the dive.

 

So now armed with the fact that Re-appearing River does not suffer from dramatic increase in flow from the rain but that the rain affects the visibility quite substantially we determined that this cave may very well be dived outside of the short dry season. But it is a Cave 2 dive outside of the dry season. (Oh good, more reason to take another GUE course.) As you can imagine by the time we packed our gear out to the vehicles and got the vehicle through the decommissioned road it was late so we went back to camp exhilarated but physically spent; a good day all in all. As we sat around the fire the rain began again in earnest and we retreated to under our cover to continue our planning for exploring Devil’s Bath the next morning.

Sunday morning we woke to heavy rain but as the morning wore on the rain eased off to intermittent showers. We decided to head down into the Devil’s Bath with our wet suits, masks, fins and lights to check the area out before committing to bringing our cylinders and equipment down. The only way we found was down a steep bank through the bush. It would take quite a lot of logistical planning to get the equipment down safely as brute force would not suffice. This sink hole is amazing and although we decided not to dive it this trip we are quite encouraged that it is ready to be dived and has several potential caves to dive. We found the dry entrance to the main siphon leaving the sink hole which although hard to access once in leads to a large fully flooded cave and passage.

Once our camp was packed up and the trucks loaded we decided to take a short side trip to another set of caves called the Eternal Spring where discovered an endless number on sink holes that dry cavers have spent time exploring. We need to talk to the dry cavers (spelunkers) about where they have encountered caves that were made impassible by water.

It became clear to us as we moved from area to area to explore the different known caves that this is, quite potentially,  just the tip of the iceberg  as every were we went the geology of the area supported caves and we had just scratched the surface of hundreds of square kilometers of cave rich area. We also realized it will take time, research, community building and a lot of physical effort to answer our original question “is there enough wet caves in the Northern part of Vancouver Island that some day we will actually be spot for cave divers to find it worth effort it will take to come and spend time exploring our cave?”

We do not have an answer yet but we are encouraged so the journey continues and we invite others to join us next year just a little earlier.