Answers to Questions That Cave Guides Joke About
Cave tours sensitize visitors to the unique values of the cave environment, and the majority of visitors to caves are urban residents whose only experience underground is going into a basement.
On many commercial cave tours, guides challenge tourists to see specific shapes such as "frying eggs" or "young couple getting married at the altar" in the rock formations, and may omit explanations about the geological processes by which caves and speleothems form.
Public parks with cave tours usually invest more in training cave guides, about the genesis and protection of caves. In all public caves, guides prepare for four inevitable questions:
- "Is it dark in here, naturally?"
- Answer: There is no natural light inside a cave, away from the entrance. Many commercial cave tours turn off the lights for at least a brief moment while deep in the cave. It's so dark, you literally can not see your hands in front of your face.
- "How many caves have not been discovered yet?"
- Answer: We don't know. Cavers are still finding new caves in karst regions by digging into sinkholes to expose an old underground water channel with no natural opening to the surface, or finding a patch of rocks where they feel a slight breeze emerging from the ground. (When a storm front is moving through and the outside air pressure drops, a cave will "exhale" until air pressure inside is at equilibrium with the air pressure outside.) Actually, we can estimate the number of undiscovered caves in each state by graphing the number of caves with five natural entrances, four natural entrances, three, two, one... and then extend the curve to estimate the number of caves with zero natural entrances.
- "How many miles of this cave have not been explored yet?"
- Answer: If cavers have not explored every passage, then the exact length of the cave has not been determined yet. Detailed cave mapping is a specialized kill, and takes lots of time - GPS signals do not penetrate into the cave. Cavers use their experience to speculate where new passages might be found and where they may go, especially how new passages might be discovered to connect two separate caves to make them part of one larger cave system. A cave may be located in a particular rock formation, so a geological map of that formation may provide a strong clue for finding new passages. However, until the passages are found and explored, the mileage of the cave is just speculation...
- "Is there a bathroom down here"
- Answer: The cave is not a closed environment. Air and water do escape, and some animals do go in and out of natural entrances. However, a cave is not able to absorb and detoxify human wastes quickly. Biological activity levels are much-reduced inside a cave, away from sunlight and away from the bacteria that inhabit the top few inches of the soil. Unless humans have built a bathroom, there is no place to go until the cave tour is over and you're back outside. Cavers pack it in... and come prepared to pack everything out in plastic baggies.
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