How Black Water Rafting Works

The water isn't black and there aren't rafts, but black water rafting, or cave tubing, is still an exciting adventure.
Amazing Caves Image Gallery The water isn't black and there aren't rafts, but black water rafting, or cave tubing, is still an exciting adventure. See more pictures of amazing caves.

In the Waitomo Glowworm Caves of New Zealand, thousands of tiny, phosphorescent creatures light the underground ceiling like constellations. The effect is a silent night sky, all the more silent for cave explorers without footsteps.

It's one of the ways to experience the Waitomo cave system: on the water. A river runs through the below-ground caverns, and back in the 1980s, some caving Kiwis came up with the experience known as black water rafting. It was intended as a new take on caving for those extreme-sports enthusiasts bored of simply trekking through dark spaces by foot. It soon became a big tourist draw, though. It's now one of the most popular shore excursions for cruise line passengers disembarking in Belize, another location where black water rafting has taken off.


In reality, black water rafting happens neither on black water nor on a raft. It's regular old clear water, but it's dark because it's flowing along the floor of a cave, and "rafters" are floating on inner tubes. The experience varies by location, and at each black-watering cave there are a variety of trips available. Some are for novices, slow and calm and without too much scrambling through narrow passages. Others are for more advanced adventurers, with rapids, waterfall drops and rappelling down through 3-foot (91-centimeter) openings to reach the underground river.

Whatever the adventure level of the excursion, black water rafting is a unique experience. And a pretty rare one: Caves in New Zealand and Belize are about the only places it's regularly offered as a guided-tour option. In this article, we'll find out what those underground tours are like, and we'll find out how to safely make the most of a black-water rafting experience.

Black water rafting first became popular in Waitomo, New Zealand, so we'll start there -- with a watery tour through the famous Glowworm Caves.



Black Water Rafting Adventures

Three connected tubers drift along the Waitomo River, where the term "black water rafting" was coined.
Three connected tubers drift along the Waitomo River, where the term "black water rafting" was coined.

Beneath a canopy of glowworms (actually, they're not worms; they're the larvae of the Arachnocampa luminosainsect, or New Zealand fungus gnat), a line of inner tubers floats slowly along a river. They're about 150 feet (46 meters) below the surface, winding their way through a cave in Waitomo, New Zealand [source: Carlson].

A black water rafting journey through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves is one for the travel journals. Waitomo is home to the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co., which coined the term for the adventure and runs two trips out of Waitomo: the Black Abyss and the Black Labyrinth. Both involve inner tubing along the frigid Waitomo River in the dark, but the trips require different levels of physical fitness.


The Black Labyrinth is for beginners and requires only a base level of fitness and health. It's a three-hour cave tour both on foot and inner tube, and it has one short waterfall drop. The Black Abyss is a more advanced black water experience that includes a 110-foot (34-meter) rappel down to the cave floor and includes waterfall jumps, climbing, a 50-foot (15-meter) rush on a zip line, and squeezing through narrow cave formations over a five-hour adventure [source: Carlson]. The Abyss is really only for people who are in pretty good shape.

Black water rafting began in Waitomo, but it has spread a bit since it first came on the scene in the '80s. In Belize, it has become a very popular tourist attraction in such places as Footprint Cave near Belmopan, where cave-explorers float along the placid Caves Branch River, in total darkness save the faint glow from headlamps, and occasionally climb up onto the river's banks to check out Mayan artifacts.

It was on Caves Branch River that a passenger from a Carnival Cruise ship drowned in 2008, highlighting one of the most important things to remember about black water rafting, whether the trip is beginner or expert level: Cave tubing, while essentially a safe activity, does pose some risks.


Black Water Rafting Tips and Safety

A tuber floating near the entrance at Waitomo. It's best to find out what the entire tour entails before you sign up.
A tuber floating near the entrance at Waitomo. It's best to find out what the entire tour entails before you sign up.

Like tubing in general, cave tubing is best undertaken with some precautions in mind. Luckily, most of the requirements for a safe and enjoyable black water rafting experience are provided by the guide company.

Which brings us to the first tip: Go with a guide.


It may seem like a simple thing, floating along a quiet river; but a cave river, like most rivers, can have some rough spots. This, along with the unique environment of a cave-tubing trip, means it's best to go with an expert. A black-water-rafting company is also equipped to provide its patrons with everything they'll need during the tour, including wet suits, headlamps, inner tubes, rappelling equipment, and often a snack to keep energy levels up for that final climb up a waterfall to reach the surface.

It's also a good idea to wear waterproof shoes and bring a waterproof disposable camera, or else a waterproof case for your regular camera if you want to risk it -- you probably won't be able to fish it out of the darkness if you drop it in the water.

Camera mishaps are rough, but they're nothing compared to finding yourself staring at a necessary 50-foot (15-meter) zip-line ride across a cave gorge that you're not physically prepared to cross. Be honest about your fitness level, both to the guide company and to yourself.

Perhaps even more traumatic is staring at a 50-foot zip-line ride you're not psychologically prepared to cross. Because of the unique environment of a cave, certain mental states don't go well with black water rafting. Fear of heights, or acrophobia, is one of them. If heights are a problem for you, it's a good idea to ask whether a tour includes climbing or zip lines or rappelling before signing up.

And if claustrophobia, the fear of small, enclosed spaces, is a problem for you, it's best to avoid black water rafting entirely. A cave is about as small and enclosed as it gets. Whitewater rafting, however, could be right up your alley.

For more information on black water rafting, caves and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Adams, Lisa J. "Floating into the depths of Belize's underworld." AP. June 2001.
  • Black Water Rafting in New Zealand. AsiaRooms.
  • Black water rafting: You don't get this at Alton Towers. The Daily Mail. Oct. 31, 2008.
  • Carlson, Scott. "Black Water Rafting." The Washington Post. Oct. 11, 1998.
  • Carnival passenger drowns on Belize cave tubing tour. USAToday.
  • Cave Tubing. Live Work Explore.
  • What is Blackwater Rafting? WiseGeek.