Journey To The Center Of The Earth 

When you were a kid, did you ever dig for buried treasure in the backyard? If you did, can you remember that expectant, nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach as the shovelfuls of dirt piled up beside you? Who could imagine what wonders or riches might lay hidden just beneath the grass?

Now that you’re all grown up, you probably realize that the real chances of digging up a chest of gold or a bag of diamonds is pretty slim. But you don’t have to lose your innocent childhood expectancy, because nature has “dug” a few holes of her own and she’s inviting you to come exploring for her hidden treasures.

“There are a ton of caves in Florida,” says Jeremy Atyeo, Ocala resident and vice president of the Florida Speleological Society (FSS). “When caving, you never know what you might come across, especially in a cave that hasn’t been explored much. And, aside from the mystery, the beauty of the rock formations is absolutely amazing.”

But for Atyeo and his fellow cavers, exploring caves is more than the excitement of discovery or the dazzling splendor of nature’s artistic creations.

“There are two aspects to caving,” he says. “The most obvious is the enjoyment of the beauty nature has provided us, but the second may be the most important, and that is the protection and preservation of the caves we explore. In one respect, caving groups and organizations are very open, in that, with open arms we welcome anyone who has a genuine interest in caving, but we are also very, very secretive about, and protective of, the caves themselves. This is because vandalism to caves has become widespread, and once a cave has been vandalized, many times it cannot be restored to its natural state.”

Atyeo says there are unique rock formations in caves called speleothems that are formed by secondary mineral deposits. The most easily recognizable examples of speleothems are stalactites and stalagmites. Both are formed by water-laden solutions of minerals (usually calcium carbonate) that drip from the ceiling of a cave. Stalactites hang down from cave ceilings, and stalagmites are the corresponding formations that form beneath them on the cave floor. When the two grow to meet one another, they then form what is called a column.

Such speleothems, along with rimstone pools, flowstones and draperies can take tens of thousands of years to form, but they can be destroyed in just one second merely by the touch of a human hand.

“Caves are absolutely amazing,” says Atyeo. “Some are beautiful beyond description, but you cannot imagine what we have found in them. Garbage, marijuana pipes, needles, graffiti… you name it, we’ve found it in caves here in Central Florida. The aerosol from the spray paint cans destroys the environment inside the cave, and the painted-on graffiti that defaces the caves can’t be removed. For this reason, we never, ever disclose to the public the location of the caves we visit.”

Atyeo says his favorite caves are in southern Marion County and that the entire area is rich in caves.

“Almost all of the caves are on private property, and we contract with the landowners to allow us to explore them. With the approval of the landowner, we build a locking iron gate for each cave and then appoint one of our volunteer members as a cave ‘steward.’ The steward contacts the landowner each time a group wants to go caving, gets landowner approval and then provides the key to the lock to a group member so they can enter the cave. Everyone who enters the cave must sign a legal liability release form. When the group leaves, the gate is relocked to protect the cave. This helps stop vandalism and also protects the landowner from trespassers who might have heard about the cave and who could possibly get injured or die while exploring the cave without permission.”

The FSS is centered in Central Florida, with its mailing address in Williston. There are presently 63 members, and the group can be found and contacted online at floridacaving.com. Atyeo says it is vitally important that anyone interested in caving on any level join a caving group.

“Caving is beautiful and amazing, but, at the same time, it is very dangerous. By joining a group, you can benefit from others’ experience,” he says. “There are safety rules that simply can’t be broken, and no one should ever go caving alone. Also, groups such as the FSS know where caves are located, and we keep that information within the group. When you join the group, they can then take you to some of the great caves under their stewardship.”

Florida Caverns State Park

If you want to go caving with your family and are looking for a somewhat “tamer” form of exploration, try Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. Marianna is located an hour’s drive northwest of Tallahassee about 10 miles from both the Alabama and Georgia state lines.

Florida Caverns provides cave tours of one of the most accessible and beautiful caving systems in the state—and one of the safest. The cavern is well lit and provides visitors the chance to view a cave in its natural state.

“Florida Caverns offers the only cave tour in the state,” says Kelly Banta, park specialist. “This is a family-friendly tour, and all ages are welcome. Each tour has a guide who provides interesting facts about the caverns, and the tour takes between 45 minutes and an hour. There are 32 steps leading down into the cave, and visitors should be aware that the tour is moderately strenuous. You need to have the ability to duck down to at least 4 feet from the ground because there are some low ceilings in the cave. It is a wonderful experience; the lighting in the cave highlights the array and beauty of the various rock formations.”

According to Banta, the cavern is highly decorated with many unique speleothems, including stalactites, stalagmites, rimstone pools, flowstones and draperies.

“This is a great family attraction. We have grandparents who bring their grandchildren here because they came here when they were a kid and want to share that experience with them,” she says. “You can visit here year-round, because the temperature in the cave doesn’t change. It’s 68 degrees every day of the year, so it’s very comfortable.”

Because caves are insulated from outside weather changes by the surrounding rock and dirt, they maintain a constant temperature. This makes a cave seem cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Banta says the cave tours are very popular and that tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. The park opens at 9am, and she suggests visitors arrive as early as possible. It costs $5 per car to enter the park with a limit of eight people per vehicle. Cave tours are limited to 25 people at a time, and tickets cost $8 for people older than 13, $5 for children 3 to 12 and children under 3 get in free. For groups of 20 or more who schedule ahead, the cost is $3.75 plus tax per person. The last tour takes place around 3:30pm. The park is open seven days a week year-round, only closing on Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

“There are an array of caves in the area,” says Banta. “Ocala Limestone extends up into southern Georgia and southern Alabama, and this is a source of a lot of caverns and smaller caves throughout this region. There are another 30 caves here in the park, but none of them are for exploring by the general public. Some are home to the endangered gray bat, and these are nursery caves. The bats can easily be disturbed by voices or lights, and the caves have special legal protection.”

Other caves outside the park are available for exploration, but, as Atyeo stated, landowner permission is a must, and it’s always best to join a caving group that can get approval and provide the guidance needed to cave safely.

Atyeo says that the Marion County Parks and Recreation Department offers a monthly guided tour of White Cliff Cave at the Brick City Adventure Park off SE 22nd Road in Ocala for those ages 8 and up. Tour registration costs $40 and includes caving gear. Participants can register online at marioncountyfl.org/parks or in person at the Parks and Recreation office.

The hidden treasures nature has provided us under the ground, in reality, are much more valuable than the gold or diamonds we feverishly dug for in our backyards as children.

“Most people don’t realize what a vital resource caves are,” says Atyeo. Yes, they are beautiful and they are fun to explore, but caves also provide a home for endangered wildlife and are a direct link to the Floridan aquifer. If we destroy the natural environment in a cave, we could possibly destroy an entire species of animal—forever. And any garbage left in a cave could possibly introduce contaminants into the water we drink. Protecting caves goes beyond maintaining their natural beauty; it goes to protecting our environment, and ultimately our lives.”

Caving Safety Rules

  • Join a group! Join a group! Join a group!
  • Get landowner permission if exploring a cave on private land.
  • Never go caving alone. Go with at least one other person.
  • Tell someone else where you are going and when you should be expected to return.
  • Always take a secondary light source.
  • Wear a helmet.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.

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