Caye Chapel Cave, Winter Wonderland - Chip Peterson and Marty O'Farrell
Cave diving ... Top photo Marty O"Farrell, second photo Chip Peterson, third photo Chip and Marty
Photographs by Tony Rath
Information on the underwater caves under Caye Caulker and Caye Chapel
Caye Caulker could possibly be sitting on top of the largest marine cave in the world. Underneath the island of Caye Caulker, is a very extensive cave system. The largest marine cave in Belize, perhaps even the entire world.
According to the Belize Cave Diving Society (BCDS), many neighborhoods on the north tip of the island lie directly atop the Caye Caulker Cave complex, although there is currently no signs that anyone on the surface is in danger.
Recent developments for the cave may prove monumental for the Caye – as it increases the island's visibility on the dive map, as experts and tourists alike will flock to see this unique natural beauty. Not forgetting the impact this will have on the earth science world (biologists, hydrologists, archaeologists etc) as this cave acts as a time capsule preserving life forms and conditions of a more ancient earth. And finally giving Caye Caulker global recognition for a truly magnificent natural marine creation as unparalleled as the Niagra Falls & Grand Canyon.
The entrance is just 50 yards from shore. Even teams of experienced divers have not yet finished exploring the entire Caye Caulker Cave complex, but it is estimated to be quite extensive. National Geographic is taking their time to explore the cave, along with some of the elite in the dive world, headed up by James Petersen (aka ‘Chip’), from Belize Dive Service and his team of researchers.
The story so far is this.................the cave was first explored back in 1981 when the first owners of Belize Dive Services Paul Heinerth (an international cave diver pioneer and author of many books on the subject), and Chuck Hattel dug into the cave.
Shortly after 1981, Frank Bountain took over Belize Dive Services (from Paul), and amounted over 500 dives in the cave itself – thus becoming the person who has dove the cave most to this date. Together these individuals, amassed significant initial information that included basic mapping of the cave.
In 1995, Frank left Belize Dive Services and from then there was no active diving undertaken in the cave until November 2012 when Chip Petersen and Bill Oestreich, both recognized Cave Dive Instructors entered the cave once more.
In 2009, Chip & Dani Petersen bought Belize Dive Services and have contributed to the longevity of our marine environment by funding the Belize Shark Project. Chip’s real dream in purchasing BDS was to follow the footsteps of his predecessors (Paul Heinerth & Frank Bountain) to allow Belize to realize the potentials of this natural beauty. So when Chip's mentor Bert turned up on Caye Caulker, he seized the opportunity.
So to date, Chip and Marty O’Farell from San Pedro (heavily experienced cave divers) have been re-tracing Paul & Frank's steps. Chip has been given approvals (permits) by the Department of Archeology and the Environment to survey, map and research the Giant Marine Cave. Together they have been making accurate surveys through computer technology and thus far verifying and giving greater accuracy to the original data.
It is believed, that in the years to come, the cave will attract elite divers from all over the world. From a commercial perspective, Chip together with the former mayor (Alberto Villenueva), have pushed for the area to be designated as a mini reserve, managed by Caye Caulker Village Council and the Dept of Archaeology. Their aim is to get a significant proportion of the profits back into the hands of the Caye Caulker community.
Chip is anxious that Belizeans get involved in the cave, but stresses the dangers for those diving the cave. All divers must go through a 15 day course to learn the specifics and skills of Cave Diving before accessing the cave. Safety concerns are essential for those without the capacity to use the specialized equipment and techniques. Experienced divers are the most frequent divers to lose their life in cave diving.
For this reason the Belize Cave Diving Society has been established to promote safe and responsible cave diving in Belize. Rules for guiding will be based on established methods used worldwide and a Cave Management Protocol created for all cave divers.
The second cave connected to the Caye Caulker complex is known officially as the Caye Chapel but has been nicknamed by divers as "Winter Wonderland". Because so much white sand has accumulated inside the cave over the years, the inside looks a bit like a snow globe, giving the cave a wintry feel. The waters are absolutely transparent and clear, revealing the silent beauty of the gorgeous "snow" encrusted stalactites and stalagmites inside the large cave. The BCDS has released a video of the "Winter Wonderland" cave, allowing even landlubbers to enjoy the unparalleled natural beauty lying beneath their feet.
Anyone curious about exploring the Caye Caulker Cave System should resist the temptation and leave the mapping of the system to professional divers. Conditions inside the Caye Caulker Cave complex are not fully known, and amateur divers or unaccompanied divers should never attempt to enter the cave system and explore. A number of dangerous elements exist inside the Caye Caulker Cave complex and only professional cave divers with years of certification and training should attempt entering the complex. Currently, there are no plans yet for guided tours or other public access to the enormous cave complex.
What starts out as an almost unnoticeable opening near the shore on the lagoon side of the island quickly reveals itself to be the opening of the giant cave complex, equivalent to a building several stories tall.
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