How Australia’s deepest cave was discovered

Story by Lilit Marcus, video by Teodora Preda

During the week, Ciara Smart is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Tasmania.

On weekends, she is a member of a caving club that discovered Australia’s deepest cave on the weekend of July 31.

Smart and seven other members of the all-volunteer group Southern Tasmanian Caverneers (STC) have officially mapped and measured their country’s deepest known cave, which sits at 401 vertical meters (1,315 feet).

It is located in Mount Field National Park in Tasmania, northwest of the island state’s capital, Hobart.

In the small but tight-knit cave community, one of the most sacrosanct rules is that whoever discovers the cave must name it. For the Caverneers of southern Tasmania, there was only one apt name for a cave whose depths became apparent during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic in Australia – Delta Variant.

“With Covid, there are a lot of different words attached to it that are quite descriptive. So we were able to use the whole Covid naming theme for the whole cave,” says Smart.

The entrance to the cave, which is narrow and narrow, is the queue for the test station. Then there’s another claustrophobic section called Close Contact, a sprawling horizontal piece called Superspreader Event, and a large, beautiful part now called Freedom Day.

While the caves were discovered by pure chance, today there are many scientific tools cavers can use to locate their next site and glean information before they even descend into the earth.

The STC took a multi-pronged approach to investigating the cave that would become Delta Variant. Members used satellite data to map the area and then a 3D laser modeling tool to get a possible picture of what the cave system looked like.

Once they got close to a spot, they used dye to locate the cave’s water source – a waterfall deep inside.

After that, it was time to go underground.

Although events like the 2018 saga of the Thai soccer team being trapped in a cave and rescued after a harrowing three-week mission may have made caving dangerous, Smart warns people not to be intimidated.

With the right gear, experienced people, and in-depth knowledge of the cave you’re about to explore, you can have a blast and, as Smart and his cohort did, perhaps go down in history.

“In reality, the most dangerous part of the day when you’re caving is usually the drive to and from the cave,” she says.

For Smart, a major appeal of caving is the wide range of activities it covers.

“It’s kind of an addictive hobby because on the one hand it’s a lot of fun,” she says.

“You know, you’re rappelling, climbing, crawling, or just caving. But it’s also science because we put all these caves together, we connect them and understand how water flows and how caves form.

Entering such a deep cave – in total, the eight cavers spent around 14 hours underground – required special equipment.

Crew members wore super-bright headlights and carried extra backup lights just in case.

Due to the waterfall, Delta Variant is quite wet and the cavers got wet in some sections. To stay warm, they wore several layers of fleece and flannel, topped with a plastic coverall, rubber boots and waterproof gloves.

A few members added a special accessory to their outfits – pointy paper party hats to celebrate their achievement.

While Delta Variant set a new record in Australia, the majority of the world’s deepest underground worlds are found in Europe and Central Asia.

Four of the deepest caves in the world are in Georgia. The deepest of these is called Veryovkina and measures an astonishing 2,212 vertical meters (7,200 feet).

Other countries with deep caves are France, Slovenia, Croatia, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Switzerland.

Before that, the deepest cave in Australia was Niggly, which is next to Delta Variant. It is only four meters shallower than Delta Variant and is part of the same interconnected system.

As if the discovery and mapping of Australia’s largest cave weren’t enough, cavers have obtained special permission to collect samples of a small cave shrimp that may turn out to be a new species.

A dissertation and two potential historical discoveries? Smart is baffled by her two unusual passions.

“Yeah, it was a really busy week,” she smiles.

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