Cave Diving In Madagascar – Stories Worth Telling

Similarly to many awesome stories, this one begins with a simple phone call from my life-long friend Adalrik. “Eis, I met a girl [Hannah] who has had over 20 successful dives in the caves of Madagascar, she’s planning her next trip in two weeks and I already told her that you were going with me.” I usually like to have more notice, especially for a long distance trip – not to mention all that goes in to preparing for a cave dive. But I’m not one to turn an opportunity like this down, so I agreed. The next two weeks consisted of us gathering as much intel as we could on the caves, while we bought tickets, made travel and hotel arrangements, and mentally prepared for this experience of a lifetime.

Adalrik had close contacts with a Hungarian geologist that had been employed in Madagascar for many years – a valuable friend indeed! He was able to make copies of a number of his own personal geological maps, which also included survey data of caves and their dimensions.

Fast forward two weeks and a day and we arrived at Ivatao International Airport. Keep in mind, this is not an American airport. I was expecting some nice air conditioned building where we would calmly wait in line until it was our time to speak with customs officials and have our passports stamped. Boy was I wrong.

The plane lands. We walk directly onto the field and must have walked at least a quarter mile to the location for arrivals. There were no lines in the arrival hall. There were two employees working at the center of the building that were responsible for taking the Ivatao International Airportpassport and stamping it. Unfortunately, stamping a passport is a long, drawn out procedure in Madagascar. I had to stand around in the chaos for nearly 25 minutes before I heard someone scream out some sounds that resembled my name. Ah finally – now I just have to fight my way back through the crowd to retrieve my stamped passport and I was on my way. An African airport – such pandemonium!

Our hotel was located in a city that seemed almost third-world. Dirt roads – if you can call them that – lacked any streetlights or signs. Quite a culture shock. The inside of the hotel was surprisingly very nice. Almost felt like I was in the twilight zone once I entered as it felt out of place from the street it was located on.

The next morning me and Adalrik decided to try a dive on our own without Hannah, as we were there a day earlier than she was. Using only the geological maps, Google Earth, and a small tidbit of information we were able to gather online on the days leading up to our expedition, we told our driver where to go. This particular cave was in the middle of the desert. Cactus all around us, and aside from this hidden water source, there was no other water in site. Once we arrived we were both pretty psyched to jump right in. We checked the tanks – Carbon Monoxide levels were good. We geared up and gently eased our way into the water.

Within a few minutes we realized that there wasn’t any opening wide enough to fit through that would lead us to a cave system. After nearly twenty minutes we found a small hole that was just barely big enough for one person to slide through. This small tunnel continued until it pretty much closed off with debris. We each took turns trying to remove rocks from the opening to clear a path, but this didn’t seem to get us anywhere. After a while we decided to cut our losses and get back out of the water.

We continued on to the second potential site about one kilometer to the east. Walking down the steep depression was quite a task with all the gear still on. The anticipation was killing us so we didn’t want to waste any more time than we already had. Finally I could see the pool of water. The water was crystal clear with a slight blue tinge. It was unreal. From the surface it looked as if it was about 10 meters deep, but this was only an illusion due to the clarity of the water, it was actually close to 50 meters.

Towards the back of the submerged cavern was a huge underwater tunnel that dropped down moderately fast – probably close to a 40° angle. Swimming around the edges of the tunnel, we could marvel the intricate patterns made over thousands of years, and just couldn’t be replicated – this was simply one of a kind. On the floor we could see huge cayman skulls, which Adalrik quickly captured with his underwater camera. Unfortunately, he is not an experienced underwater photographer so the picture wasn’t the best. This was alarming for a few moments as we were unsure whether we were swimming around in a cayman skulls in underwater cavecrocodile’s den but that fear soon passed out of excitement for our new find. We later found out that these were most likely fossilized. After reaching nearly 200ft of registered depth as measured by our line, we decided to start heading back. Along the way we spotted a number of other tunnels branching into multiple directions, which gave us hope that we could have a much more successful dive the next day with Hannah, as our Carbon Monoxide (CO) levels were approaching 40 ppm and we had already both gone through our spare tank at this point. Upon reaching the surface, we were both enthralled at what we just got to experience. It was quite possible that we were the only two people that have ever actually been at this site, as cave diving in Madagascar is not popular at all. We hypothesized that this would be the perfect starting point for the days ahead, as there were a handful of unexplored tunnels, at least one had to connect with the underwater cave system. Swimming through the tunnels for the duration of our trip confirmed these expectations.

Over the next few days I will continue to document the most memorable experiences of this trip. If I had the chance, would I go back to Madagascar to cave dive? Absolutely. Each underwater cave system is unique. This uniqueness and all the characteristics and small details that you learn to take note of is largely dependent on the location of the cave. A cave dive in Florida compared to in Mexico compared to in Madagascar is a completely different experience. Not only does underwater visibility vary from dive to dive, but the color of the rock, the soot, and the intricacies of each tunnel and underwater cavern vary tremendously down to the smallest details.