Exploring Bluewater cave

By: Paul Fairman
Cast: Paul Fairman, Oliver Legg, Henry and Hannah Bennett, Rob Bruce and Ben Barnett from the BEC.
Having seen a link on Facebook for Caving in the Philippines I thought Wow that looks cool and shared the link, an old CSS friend of mine from the 80’s Henry Bennett saw it and said he had loads of contacts from previous trips, so when we met up in November for a beer he said he was thinking about running a BEC expedition there in 2014 I said I’d like to join them. So 5 months later, after four flights taking around 20hrs in total we head out of Tuguegarao to Cagayan the caving capital of the Philippines.
We’ve just spent the night drinking and making new friends with our fellow expedition teammates made up of Filipino Cavers from numerous clubs, SMOC – Sierra Madre and the GEC – Gaia Exploration Club. A 2hr minibus ride and we reach Baggao. It’s here we have to visit the Mayor to ask his permission to explore the local caves, he agrees and there’s one last bumpy 2hr ride in the back of a 20 ton Truck, that he has arranged for us. We arrive at our final destination a small village, well we’re dropped at the top of a steep hill because the Truck thinks it’s too dodgy to get down to the village. We co-opt most of the villagers to help transport all our gear down before we can set up camp. Hammocks up we finish the evening drinking Rum by the river bank knowing we can finally relax after eight days of being Gypsies.
16th April Blue Water Cave – Day 1
A shot across the 50m olympic swimming pool chamber… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Paul standing outside the Blue Water Cave Entrance, with Philippino tourists enjoying the swimming… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…After a hard walk (mainly because of the heat) along a well-trodden path we arrive at the wonderful entrance of Blue Water Cave, set back across a small lake, with water emerging and then pouring down a 8ft waterfall. It’s everything we had hoped to see. A brief cooling off in the water before we start the adventure.
We headed in via the small fossil passage which leads to a 25m wide passage with large gour pools, these are a case of swimming across 5m and climbing out between the small walking sections. We then enter a massive round chamber, named The Olympic Swimming Pool mainly because it’s 50m across, here we swim towards a 8ft high waterfall, well I say swim as much as I’m trying I don’t seem to get any closer, due to the current, eventually I reach the edge and thank the fact we were advised to take buoyancy aids with us. My first climb is up the waterfall and with a boost I’m up, the surface of the limestone is like sharp coral so I soon realise a shorty wetsuit over shorts and t-shirt is gonna be painful.
Olly and Nelson in a newly found fossil passage… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Olly up high near the roof in the newly found Fossil Passage… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…We now have a few more swims to the bottom of another 15ft cascade which is easily climbed up around the edges, a small section of traversing the water and another waterfall before we reach a chamber with a few ways on. One leads to a long lake which is beyond the beams of our Petzl Duo’s and a passage which has the stream coming out of, as I swim along hundreds of Bats are leaving because of the light disturbing them. I’m ok in the water but the 2 Filipino guides are getting the brunt so have their arms up to stop being hit in the face, this ends in a sump and I explore beneath the surface with my legs in case it’s short no that’ll be for divers only. It’s taken an hour to get here and after 10 minutes everyone else catches up with me. From here Henry and Rob start surveying the passages out. Back at the chamber Boy-Ross, one of Henry’s Filipino friends from 2005 tells us the GEC had previously surveyed Blue Water in 2004.
This was a bit of a downer but Henry decided to carry on with the Disto survey as we could do with the practice anyway. Across the other side I explore a side passage that starts with a crawl and soon opens out to a 8ft climb down above a pool, I follow it round, it’s a massively high passage which leads back round to a lower section of the main streamway. Going back across the pool leads to the top of one of the cascade waterfalls where I take a few photos. I can now hear my name being shouted out so I return to see everyone looking up a sheer calcite climb to Olly who’s now on a previously unexplored fossil passage. We decide to leave the rope in-situ and return tomorrow to explore more. We finish the day drinking brandy by the river under the light of the full moon.
17th April Blue Water Cave – Day 2
Hannah, Henry, Nelson and Manuel in the gour pools leading back to the entrance… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Henry, Hannah and Nelson on one the cascades after the olympic swimming pool… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Getting everyone else up is a serious undertaking, mind you they don’t have a fucking cockerel screaming next to their earhole at 4am so our average time getting to the cave is between 10.30 – 12.00 only trouble it’s around 35 degrees by then.
Today we’ve brought a ladder in with us to explore the fossil passage along with Nelson SMOC, we send our Grease Monkey Olly up as Henry calls him. I’m next up the ladder followed by Nelson and Manuel one of the local guides. While Olly lifelines the rest up I have a little explore this is defiantly untouched virgin passage with pure white formations and calcite overload. Manuel and Olly shin up a climb so I follow it’s easy enough and a squeeze through all the calcite into a chamber totally covered in dried out gour pools it’s about 20ft wide and is amazing I wait for Rob, Henry and Hanna to arrive before I explore more, time to take some photos.
At the top of the calcite slope it drops away down 20ft out into a larger chamber and to the top of a 60ft drop looking straight down onto a lake. I try to talk Olly into traversing around the top edge to see if it continues but he’s a bit concerned that the 4ft ledge is unstable. The calcite is degrading and crumbling away so I head up for a look, it’s a case of climb around the stalagmites and everything’s covered in bat guano which might be what’s degrading the calcite. I carry on to the top I’m now about 100ft above the lake. I use the stalactites hanging from the ceiling to give me the confidence as the ledge reduces to 2ft and finally disappears, I can see the passage sort of continues out of reach of my Duo. Once back with the others, Olly has now found another way down bypassing the ladder so we head down to see if the lake is one from the previous day. We’re going to use the others as a point of reference while they continue to survey the upper passages, we’re soon swimming in the lake, it’s still and stinks of guano, it’s a long swim of 100m with crabs and scorpions hanging onto the vertical walls and sure enough we’re soon able to see their lights high above us.
Around the corner there’s a calcite flow which I climb up out of the water and into a small chamber. From here an exposed climb back out above the lake that I don’t fancy so I spot Olly up the first bit. He disappears on up and explains the top is a bit exposed so he’s unsure if he’d be able to get back down without being spotted. At around 60ft he’s level with the fossil passage we’d been in on the other side. Olly says he can hear water up In the distance so we aim to return. Before going back through the lake “we name The Guano Lake” we check out another side passage leading to a few more lakes and a series of ducks, which wouldn’t be too bad if the buoyancy aid wasn’t pushing me up too high, but as we couldn’t see the bottom at any point I didn’t fancy taking it off.
Olly in the magnificent Big Chamber at the top of the 60ft climb… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Looking back in the Big Chamber towards the 60ft pitch… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Once back through the guano lake we meet up with the others and de-rig the ladder. Olly, Ben and Rob head out while we survey a few more side passages. Henry wants everyone to help survey by using either the Disto, PDA or just spotting the leg even Nelson.
A few photos on the way out and it’s now dark so I thought I’d swim across the lake outside, rather than walk round the edge, as I jump in I realise it’s a big mistake, mainly because all the midge’s are now attracted to my light so I’m unable to keep my mouth open without the chance of swallowing them all!
For the next couple of days we visited a couple of smaller caves and swam a 2km gorge about 150ft deep with calcite formations on the walls, very cool.
20th April Blue Water Cave -Day 3
Looking back at Boy-Ross on the gour pool plateau with the massive column on the right… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Boy-Ross shows an old formation which has continued to grow after an earthquake toppled it over… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…After a couple of days off we’re heading back in, this time Me and Olly with plans to climb the 60ft and hopefully explore beyond, while Hanna, Henry and Rob survey back out to the entrance from the Olympic Pool. They would then join us if we find anything. Today’s the day I’ve changed what I’m wearing now its long trousers and long sleeve top under the shorty wetsuit, as I’m battered. The sharp limestone and calcite is ripping my skin to bits and the shorty welly’s have worn grooves in my legs. While Swimming through the guano lake I decide to climb out half way to take look behind a large calcite flow and it’s another side passage, this one is about 8ft high but we’re unable to walk stood up as bats are bombing us, so the best way is to look at the Floor bent over and let to Olly go first, this leads to a low duck which the bats are flying out of and into another chamber. There’s a few Avens which I let Olly check out but other than lots of bats and Scorpion’s they soon close down. Now we’re at the bottom of the 60ft climb and Olly is soon up it and rigging a fixed line for me to join him, I spot him up the last bit and he rigs off some Stal so that I can join him at the top.
Once up we head off towards the sound of the water, a calcite slope leads down into a beautiful chamber that’s nearly as big as the Olympic swimming pool one, the water we could hear is covering most of the chamber and then disappearing down a large hole on the left by skirting around the right hand side and using a few calcite islands we circumnavigate the chamber to a sandy beach just in front of a suspended calcite wall this is so white I’m thinking we’ll need an alternative route up it so from here it’s a swim around the edge. I call Olly back as it’s time to let the others see our discovery, a few photos with my massive torch before we’re back at the top of the 60ft pitch. We put in a spit bolt to make sure we’ve got back-up on the pitch then head down to find the others, we eventually catch up with Henry at the Olympic Pool. He decides to come back with us while the others head back to the village as they’ve had enough with all the surveying.
Standing on the gour pool plateau looking from the top of the suspended calcite wall towards the pitch… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Olly shown surveying with the red laser dot on the wall to the right of the massive column… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Once we’re back at the suspended calcite wall we start to swim around the bottom of it and an easy climb up brings us onto a plateau of semi dry gour pools around 50m by 50m across. We soon realise that there’s a 50ft wide limestone column to go round set in the middle of the chamber. On the other side of this we’re now climbing down 25ft into the streamway and heading into more virgin passage. Mostly swimming in pure black water as we can never see the bottom gawd knows how deep it is. It’s only the occasional cascade that breaks up the swimming and looking up we can barely see the ceiling, this place is huge. Eventually we reach a 20ft high double waterfall which we climb in under the flow of the first so we make a plan to get over the second final lip, I boost Henry up and then with the help of Olly pushing and Henry pulling I’m up over the lip and if it wasn’t for the poxy buoyancy aid I would’ve made it easily. Olly just reaches up and said “oh there’s a massive hand-hold” as he gets up in one bloody move! Another swim and we’re in another massive chamber which has a roof covered in white calcite and when looking up it shows all the bats flying beneath it.
I’m now getting knackered and getting left behind over the next few swims so by the time I catch up Olly has already started climbing a 30ft waterfall above a large lake. I shout out that it’s time to head back as we’d given ourselves a turnaround time at the first big chamber so we agreed to call it a day.
Olly gives some scale to the formations after the Big Chamber… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Beyond the Big Chamber the formations are amazing between the swims… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Although I’m elated it’s adrenaline that’s helping me on the long swims back and the formations are amazing which also help the journey go quicker.
At the double waterfall we’re thankful Olly finds an easier way down as both Henry and me were thinking it was gonna be difficult. A few photos along the way before we’re back at the 60ft pitch and from here on its auto pilot as it’s my forth swim in the guano lake today.
That night we hold a slide show for the villagers then endure an extra-long celebratory drinking session before the usual cock a fucking doodle doo at 4am.
21st April Blue Water Cave – Day 4
Olly and Henry stop surveying the White capped Chamber for a photo… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Calcite Islands on stalks in a newly found side passage… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Today Henry and Olly are surveying in though the guano lake, up the pitch and the whole big chamber, while I show Boy-Ross the new stuff and take the opportunity for some photos in and around the massive first new Chamber as we cross it Boy-Ross asks if we’re the first to enter this chamber and I explain the three sets of footprints in the sand are Mine, Henry and Ollie’s from the previous day. Up on the plateau of semi dry gour pools we head to the right of the massive Column as there’s a passage that leads away from the streamway so we go to have a look, we stop at a false floor it’s about a 1cm thick across a pool so we scale the side wall over to avoid damaging it and this leads to a window above the streamway.
Henry between the double waterfalls… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…A classic shot in the Big Chamber… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Henry and Olly have now arrived and help give me some scale as they survey the gour pool floor. They tell us about a beautiful side passage they found back near the 60ft climb so we go to look for it. It starts out very muddy and we weave beneath 6ft stalactites that look like they’ve been under water due to the strange twists in them, this leads to a pure white calcite floor where we agree to take off our boots to protect it.
At the top there’s a dried out gour pool with calcite islands left hanging on stalks and another full of cave pearls, Boy-Ross tries to slip one into his pocket but I make him put it back. A few more photos before we join the others back at the guano lake and head out.
22nd April Blue Water Cave – Day 5
Olly in front of the suspended calcite wall (this is seen in the distance in the first Big Chamber shot)… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Olly beside the suspended calcite wall… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…This time it’s just me and Olly as the others want a rest day swimming in the river out in the sunshine.
Today is the day we plan to climb the 30ft waterfall and I’m holding Olly back as he’s mad keen to get to the climb but I’m aware of running out of steam so take a few breaks along the way. I must admit all the swimming is wearing me out but we still get to the White capped Chamber in under 2hrs. Its here we put on our SRT kits beneath the buoyancy aid before the swim out beneath the waterfall. Olly climbs up it and just as he nears the top the flow washes him off luckily the waters very deep below. As I start to pull him back towards the edge Olly shouts “stop! Stop! The ropes around my neck!”
I explain maybe that’s not the best idea so he attaches it to his belt.
This time he starts further back as he heads up I hook my cows-tails over a rock while I’m waiting for him to rig it. I’m being buffeted about a bit and after what seems like an age he comes down saying the bolting tool handle has broken and he can’t get it out if the spit. He explains there might be a bit of rubbing but it has one good bolt in already, I send him back up and now it’s my turn to Prussic out of the water it’s been nearly 1,5hrs and just as I get 4ft up I start getting cramp in my right leg, bloody hell I’m not going back down and as it’s my Pantin leg I continue up to the top. The tool is jammed so a bit of re-rigging by-passes it. We decide it’s time to carry on we and swim past more amazing formations and climb over a 20ft wedged log washed in from an unknown sink in the jungle above us. After two more long swims we climb a wall to view a 60ft waterfall with the ceiling another 100ft above that. This is as far as we can go so we leave the 30ft waterfall rigged for tomorrows trip and take photos along the way.
23rd April Blue Water Cave – Day 6
Olly abs down beside the 30ft waterfall… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Olly beside a nice formation with a cascade in front… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Our Last day and we have a final chance to survey what we’ve found and get a few more photos. Surveying team of Me, Henry and Olly and joined by Boy-Ross and Nelson for part of the way mainly because they didn’t have wetsuits.
The survey reveals that the ceiling along the swims between the big chamber and white capped chamber averages 40- 60m high above the water level and the White Topped chamber is about 40m wide. Now all we have to do is de-rig. Henry’s first down the pitch as he wants a fag so we set up a pull-through on the 30ft waterfall I go first and decide to hook a knot over the Bolting tool thinking of using it as an optional hanger to eliminate some rubbing, this fails sending me sideways not really sure if Olly heard my manic laughing but I head on down then using my weight to counterbalance Olly. As we head out I get some photos of Olly standing on some large calcite which has obviously fallen from the ceiling during past earthquakes. We de-rig the 60ft pitch and head out happy. We leave with the determination to return next year to find the sink and have two teams trying to join them up because if trees that big can be washed in there’s hope for us.
Olly on a bit of calcite fallen from the ceiling after a previous earthquake… (c) Paul Fairman Apr-2014 Click for larger image…Our last night in the village we’re treated to a feast of local dog and fermented duck eggs washed down with rum. “Well Olly enjoyed them”
An amazing Adventure and as well as virgin cave passage we made lots of new friends, thanks to all.
3 days later we arrive back at Heathrow “Oh well work tomorrow” I wonder when reality will hit me?