Wednesday, 18 January 2012

5 jaw-dropping caves - superman's fortress, santa's grotto & the chandelier ballroom

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Here's my top 5 caves as seen on the BBC.

1. Superman's Fortress - The Giant Crystal Cave of Naica  

Appeared in: BBC How Earth Made Us (2010)

Probably the most incredible photograph of the cave ever taken. Photograph by Carsten Peter/Speleoresearch & Films. Published in National Geographic.

Where: Beneath the town of Naica in the Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico

Geological Features: The cave is also known as Cueva de los Cristales. It contains the largest natural crystals ever found, which are composed of selenite. The largest is 11 m (36 ft) in length, 4 m (13 ft) in diameter and 55 tons in weight.

How it was formed: Naica lies on an ancient fault and there is an underground magma chamber below the cave. The magma heated the ground water and it became saturated with minerals. The hollow space of the cave was filled with this mineral rich hot water and remained stable for about 500,000 years allowing crystals to form and grow to immense sizes. 

I visited these caves in 2009, this is what I wrote at the time:
"Cueva de los Cristales is the incarnation of our most awesome science fiction imaginations - Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Superman's Fortress of Solitude. At about the same time as humans first ventured out of Africa, these crystals began to slowly grow. For half a million years they remained protected and nurtured by a womb of hot hydrothermal fluids rich with minerals.

When mining began here over a hundred years ago, the water table was lowered and the cave drained. The crystals seemingly interminable development was frozen forever leaving them as aborted relics of the deep earth. It wasn't until 2001 that miners, searching for lead, eventually penetrated the cave wall and brought it to light. The very act of discovering and witnessing them has triggered their slow decay and now no one knows what their fate will be. To me they are a testament to the hidden forces of the planet, forces which operate on scales far beyond our own." More images from my blog entry of 2009

2. Santa's Grotto - The Frozen Ice Caves of Mount Erebus

Appeared in: BBC Frozen Planet (2011)

Where: Ross Island, Antartica, beneath Mount Erebus, the worlds southernmost active volcano

Name: Mount Erebus was discovered on January 27, 1841 by polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross who named it after his ships, Erebus and Terror. Erebus was a primordial Greek god of darkness, the son of Chaos. 

How it was formed: The volcano constantly releases hot gases which steam up through cracks and fractures in the volcanic rocks. As soon as this gas hits the frigid Antarctic air it freezes, and over time has created an intricate network of delicate ice caves and hollow towers, some as tall as 30 feet.

Mount Erebus, Ice Caves - George Steinmetz Source

3. The Chandelier Ballroom of Lechuguilla Caves 

Appeared in: BBC Planet Earth (2006)

Where: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA

Name: The cave is named for Agave lechuguilla, a plant found near its entrance.

Geological Features: Lechuguilla Cave is the sixth longest cave (130.24 miles / 210 km) known to exist in the world. It has a large variety of wonderfully named speleothems, including 20 feet (6.1m) gypsum chandeliers, 20 feet (6.1m) gypsum hairs and beards, 15 feet (4.6m) soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, U-loops and J-loops.  

It took the Planet Earth team 2 years to gain permission to film this fragile cave system. An 8-hour journey through narrow passages ending in an abseil of 60 metres in utter darkness made getting equipment in hard, especially the small jib arm vital to the filming. The crew spent 10 days underground to get these first ever high-definition images of the caves.

Crystals in the Chandelier Ballroom Image Source

4. Waitomo - The Glow Worm Cave

Appeared in: BBC Life in the Undergrowth (2005)

Where: Waitomo, southern Waikato region of the North Island of New Zealand

Name:  The word Waitomo comes from the Māori language wai meaning water and tomo meaning a doline or sinkhole; it can thus be translated as 'water passing through a hole'.

There are around 300 caves in Waitomo, but it's not the geological formations that make these into a subterranean wonderland, it's the larvae of their resident glow worm - Arachnocampa luminosa, a species unique to New Zealand. Like a starry sky thousands of these tiny creatures radiate their unmistakable luminescent light. This attracts midges, moths and mosquitos who soon find themselves tangled in sticky strands that dangle from the larvae like fishing lines. The larva hoists up its catch and feeds.

5. The Dongzhong Cave School

Appeared in: BBC Wild China (2008)

Where: Dongzhong cave school, Miao village, Ziyun county, China.

Name: Dongzhong means 'in cave'

The Dongzhong cave was formed by wind and water erosion over thousands of years. Now two hundred pupils, 18 families and their livestock live here.


  1. This earth is full of natural wonders indeed. The Giant Crystal Cave is one of the most amazing things that I have seen even in pictures. It must be great to see that place personally.

  2. very few people are allowed in either of the first 3 caves.

  3. - some good ones here