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#12933 - 06/07/00 12:35 PM Magnificent cave systems present tourism dilemma
Marty Online   happy
Once you get
beyond the initial thrill of exploring Belize's awesome natural
attractions, there are some tough decisions to be made on how to best
sustain them.

It's an image that seems to have jumped from the vivid imagination of
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his "Lost World". But the mysterious jungle
encrusted sinkholes of Belize are no works of fiction. Over a hundred of
these amazing geological formations punctuate virtually every part of
the country with probably scores more still hidden from view. And as
scientists unlock the secrets of these twilight environments and the
elaborate cave systems they contain, the tourists are not far behind.

It's the classical developmental dilemma. The world's tourists are
hungry for adventure and the one I'm about to embark on is about as real
as it gets. But how much traffic can a resource like this withstand
without being destroyed?

Janelle Chanona
"Getting to the mouth of this cave is no easy proposition. The journey
begins 300 hundred feet above the floor of this incredible sinkhole but
believe me, I'm not going to look down."

Marcus Cucul, Cave Guide
"Most people panic right over the edge, the edge is the hardest part.
Once you're on the rope, it goes smoothly."

Janelle Chanona
"I feel like I'm slipping."

The look of fear on my face is in no way feigned.

I'm definitely going to do it, just a matter of how I'm going to get to
the bottom."

Even after all that, to behold the grandeur of this cave for the first
time was definitely worth the trip.

(Shots of the cave outside)

The cave's magnificence didn't end at the door, its inner sanctum was
like a star lit sky on a clear night.

Janelle Chanona
"The cave is filled with numerous crystal formations. These here are
known as soda straws. They are thin and hollow and can grow up to seven
feet in length."

(shots of the cave inside)

Janelle Chanona
"Why does it glitter like this?"

Marcus Cucul
"Those are mineral crystals that reflect when you shine your light on
them. During the rainy season, there is a lot of water going over it, so
there's a thin layer and you cannot see it very clearly but during this
time of year, it's very sparkly."

Janelle Chanona
"Did the Mayans fear the cave? Did they have a lot of respect for the

Marcus Cucul
"Very much so. It would be only the priests, and the shaman and the
royal family that would move into the underworld that would do their
sacred ceremonies. Even up to now, there is a superstitious belief that
it is haunted. The locals don't go into the caves."

But the possibility of ghosts in the darkness hasn't kept the curious
from exploring the sinkhole itself.

Janelle Chanona
"Hundreds of thousands of years ago when this sinkhole was formed, it
created a unique environment. The plants and animals here have had to
adapt themselves to a set of specialized conditions."

With only limited light and shallow soils, the trees tend to be thinner
than their counterparts in the rainforest above. This terrarium like
ecosystem does have its advantages however, as there is plenty of water
and the steep walls provide ample protection from the devastating
hurricanes, which periodically ravage the outside world. With the
exception of an occasional human, most large animals tend to avoid this
place because of its inaccessibility and scarcity of food. On the other
hand, parasitic plants thrive here and the roots from the trees on the
rim plunge hundreds of feet through the humid air in search of the life
giving water below.

Recreational caving in Belize was mostly unheard of until a couple years
ago. However, with the recent launching of a media campaign to promote
Belize as an adventure destination, the interest in cave exploration has
grown significantly.

Ian Anderson, Proprietor Caves Branch Adventure Co.
"But those people who are becoming involved in caving have got very
little if any, cave etiquette training."

Ian Anderson, proprietor of the Caves Branch Adventure Company regularly
brings tourists to visit this majestic cave system, which includes over
15 miles of mapped passageways. Anderson admits the traffic inside a
cave can be destructive in more ways than one.

Janelle Chanona
"What kind of adverse effect are you talking about here? Touching
everything; going everywhere; picking up stuff?"

Ian Anderson
"Exactly that. Just exactly that, going everywhere with no concern on
the damage that you do to it. Certain caves, as you saw last night,
chambers have got spectacular crystalline formations that have taken 20,
30 million years in the formation in total darkness. Now, with the
invention of head lamps and the interest in caving, people who don't
know what they are doing or with guides who don't have proper cave
etiquette will allow people to walk all over those entire chambers
carrying heavy loads of dirt and mud on their boats over all that

"When I see uncontrolled, unlimited access into caves, which is what
some people are suggesting right now should be allowed, and I see the
damages being done to nature's most awesome creations, and then our
national heritage of the Mayan ceremonial sites being removed by
individuals, who are not guided by ethical guides or have no guides at
all. I find it disheartening that this kind of activity is taking place
within the caves of Belize."

"We have a lot of guides right now, and they are going out and working
as cave guides, that have actually no training in cave etiquette, cave
safety or caves rescue at all. Those are just accidents waiting to
happen, disaster waiting to happen."

With that in mind, every year for the past 5 years Anderson has invited
cave rescue instructor Bruce Hagen to Belize to teach guides here the
highly technical skills needed to evacuate an injured caver to safety.
To date, no one in Belize has reported being seriously hurt while inside
a cave but both Anderson and Hagen agree, it's only a matter of time.

Bruce Hagen, Cave Rescue International
"Belize has beautiful world class caves and they are just some of the
best most wonderful caves I've ever seen in my caving experience but
there are also some of the most dangerous caves."

"It's very easy to slip and fall inside of a cave, they are very
slippery unstable surfaces. Just a moment's inattention or inexperience
could cause the average person to fall and suffer serious injury."

"There are large river systems, unstable breakdown. Because there has
not been a wide exploration of caves, the best route through the caves
have to be selected, so the people who are traversing these caves, maybe
the first people in a thousand years to walk there. And if there are
unstable rock sections, rivers with unknown currents, they are not going
to know about it until they're walking there."

Marcus Cucul is a member of the Belize Cave and Rescue Team. Ironically,
before coming to Caves Branch a year ago, Cucul had never been inside a

Marcus Cucul
"It feels very special, very special to see where my ancestors were once
doing their very sacred ceremonies."

Today, Cucul sees the protection of his heritage as an integral part of
his profession.

Marcus Cucul
"Keeping the integrity of the cave is something that we explain to them,
how fragile the environment is. When they start actually seeing what's
in there, they get to appreciate it and we keep people in line."

As to keeping people out of trouble, Cucul says it's about focusing on
the task at hand.

Marcus Cucul
"We are trained to take care of the people. We are very careful with
them because we have done the training. We know what it's like. It's
very hard, it not a fun situation. We put out that extra effort out
there to take care of our people."

But it's the growing quantity of those people and their appetite for
adventure that has travel agents rubbing their hands and experienced
naturalists shaking in their boots. The once remote and mysterious
sinkholes increasingly find themselves perched on the edge of expanding
agricultural and resort development.

Janelle Chanona
"There are literally thousands of caves scattered all over Belize, many
of them still waiting to be discovered. But as more visitors begin to
explore this amazing underworld, our responsibility to care for Belize's
caves is even greater."

#12934 - 06/19/00 05:26 PM Re: Magnificent cave systems present tourism dilemma
Marvel Offline
Read about the caves in National Geographic. Is this the same Caves? (Packed the Magazine off to the gradkids,so I don't have it handy to look at again.) They looked very inviting to explore.

#12935 - 06/24/00 02:56 PM Re: Magnificent cave systems present tourism dilemma
mrdrewsmith Offline
I've been caving twice in Belize. Once with Ian Anderson and once out of Pook's Hill. If one compares those caves with a highly frequented one like Rio Frio the difference is staggering. I feel a twinge of guilt even saying how amazing the former are because I'm sure that every time people go in they are less so. I've seen them and burned them into my memory but knowing what I know now I feel bad having been there. I'm all for management of the caves. Tread lightly.


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