For enthusiasts, caving carries the lure of the unknown and the thrill of discovery. In a small group -- and usually with a trained guide -- you'll enter a labyrinthine world of narrow pathways and tight crevices, lit only by the yellow glow of your headlamp. Depending on the cave, you may have to wade through waist-high water or scale up rocky walls. If you're lucky, you'll emerge in a large underground chamber filled with dangling stalactites and adorned with colorful, intricate calcite deposits. Half the fun is getting back out.
But not all cavers are in it just for kicks. Speleologists are scientists who study caves and their unique ecosystems. Some scientists research the rare and yet undiscovered creatures that make their homes in the furthest reaches of caves. An example is the emerging field of extremeophiles, microbes that thrive in conditions that would be lethal to humans. It's believed that these creatures could help us understand the earliest life forms on Earth [source: National Speleological Society].
Cave archeology can be another exciting reason to go caving. Because caves have served as sacred ritual and ceremonial sites for many world cultures, and because they're relatively protected from the elements, they often contain well-preserved examples of ceremonial vessels, clothing and burial objects. Some of the most famous archeological caving finds have been the remarkable prehistoric cave paintings in places like Lascaux, France.
Some dedicated cavers work hard at cave preservation and conservation. They realize that caves are homes to fragile ecosystems and delicate calcite structures that can easily be destroyed by careless "spelunkers" or deliberate vandals. Cave conservationists might block off entrances to particularly vulnerable passages or help educate beginning cavers about proper caving etiquette.
Now let's look at some of the best ways to get started on your caving adventure.