In The Land Of The Heims

In The Land Of The Heims

One night I couldn't fall asleep. Instead of tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling, I got up, turned on my computer, and started looking for potential new caves. As I was sitting in the darkness, scrolling through the map, something caught my eye. The excitement grew (that didn't help me fall asleep), and I zoomed in on the area to look closer. It looked very promising. I wrote down the coordinates and went to bed.

The next day, Cristina and I went to check it out. We drove as close as possible and hiked the last 700 yards to the location. Thunderstorms and rain the previous days made it a swampy and muddy hike. We walked and searched through a wide area, as there were a few locations we wanted to verify. Once all the other leads proved unsuccessful, we started the search for the site I thought had the most potential. The Bahamian sun was high in the clear blue sky, and the all-you-can-eat buffet was open for the mosquitoes and horse flies. We had to carefully place every step as we made it over the jagged terrain to avoid a twisted ankle. Ahead, I could see a pool of water surrounded by mangroves. I could feel the excitement, but it quickly faded as we moved closer. It was a shallow depression with no signs of an opening. It was a beautiful place, but only suitable for mosquito breeding grounds.

I looked at the GPS and saw we were 60 yards from the last possible place. The excitement was mixed with my awareness of another potential disappointment. As I approached, I spotted a ledge of solid rock. My eyes opened wide, and a few steps further, I saw the pool of water. At that moment, the hike through the harsh terrain, mosquitoes, and heat became worth it. We stood at the ledge, staring into the black water filled with tannic acid and hydrogen sulfide.

Would we find a deep cave, or would the hole pinch like many others we had discovered?

Entrance of Niflheim. Photo courtesy of Kevin Lorenzen.

There was only one way to find out. I began to hear the voice in the back of my mind. What if something is living down there? No one has ever been here before. Perhaps some of the crocodiles that used to inhabit the island survived here. It's always eerie to jump into the black water with zero visibility below you. The brain starts to rationalize. I know there's nothing down there. The limited food availability couldn't sustain a big animal, and the crocs were long extinct from the island. I put my mask on and jumped in.

The cool water felt reviving. I looked down, and all I could see was black nothingness. The layer of hydrogen sulfide blocked any sun ray, trying to penetrate and illuminate what lies beneath the surface. I free-dove down a few feet but still couldn't see anything. With my hands and feet, I followed the ledge. I could feel the cavern ceiling going in, but the only way to know was to bring our gear.

We returned with full cave gear a few days later to confirm if we had a new cave or if the collapse blocked any access. Carrying all the gear 700 yards to the entrance is a strenuous affair and usually requires three trips for Cristina and me to carry everything we need for a dive. We decided to bring one set of gear instead of both in case we didn't find anything.

With the weight of tanks, rebreathers, cave diving gear, and dry suits, the long hike over the jagged terrain becomes even more treacherous.

Drenched in sweat, standing on the ledge with all the gear, I started to don my dry suit undergarment and dry suit before I could finally enter the refreshing water. At that moment, even if the Bahamian legends of Lusca (Half octopus, half shark) were true and she lived in the cave, there was no stopping me from jumping in to cool down.

I attached my sidemount tanks and tested my rebreather.

Cristina tied the exploration reel at the water's edge and passed it to me. As I slowly sank beneath the surface, I could see the cavern's ceiling disappear from my light's reach. The hydrogen sulfide in the water absorbed any light attempting to illuminate the cavern surrounding me. I might as well have been floating in outer space.

I descended further, passed through the layer of hydrogen sulfide, and to my surprise, the hole bottomed out at 10ft.

Red water in Niflheim. Photo courtesy of Cristina Zenato.

I tied the reel to a rock and entered the massive cavern. The water was utterly red from tannic acid, and the visibility was hazy. Following the ceiling as a reference, I went to the back of the cavern. I found a wall with enormous stalactites about 100 feet in. I looked to my left and noticed a small opening. I poked my head into the opening. I hopelessly squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of what I would meet going down through the opening. With the red water and the low visibility, no matter how much I squinted, it was impossible to see what lay ahead. I took a moment to analyze it, and I decided to investigate. I secured the line and slid down the crack. I dropped between the two layers of rocks to 57 feet, where the water cleared completely. I could not believe the big room I had found. There was a cave in front of me, which appeared to be a massive one. I swam down the tunnel, and it opened up even more.

A thick gray growth covered the walls and ceiling. Leaves and trees that had fallen into the hole through the years carpeted the tunnel's first hundred feet. Thankfully, I was using my rebreather, so I didn't produce bubbles and maintained good visibility.

The cave promised to expand. I couldn't wait to surface and tell Cristina what we found. I tied the reel to a stalagmite and turned around. When I arrived back at the small opening, and shined my light up. It was completely black. It would have been impossible to tell there was an opening if it hadn't been for my line. I started ascending and once again found myself in the red water. I made my way up the breakdown pile when my eye caught something. It was history staring at me. I couldn't believe it. I took a closer look to examine. Sure enough, the slanted forehead can't be mistaken. I was face to face with a Lucayan. The original inhabitants of the island.

Lucayan Skull in Niflheim. Photo courtesy of Cristina Zenato.

When I broke the surface, I shouted excitedly: We have a cave! But that's not all. I told Cristina about the skull, and I could see the excitement on her face.

I took my tanks off and exited the water. We left my gear at the ledge and started the hike back to the car to get the second set of equipment. The walk felt a lot easier with the adrenaline and excitement going through my body. We both geared up on jumped back into the hole.

I passed the exploration reel to Cristina, and we went back down together. I pulled out the Mnemo and started surveying the line. We arrived at the stalagmite from my first exploration, where Cristina tied the reel and swam further into the cave. I followed behind, surveying. After a 30 minute dive, we had an empty reel, 1075 ft of new cave, and it was still going. We arrived back at the breakdown pile an hour after descending and spent some time looking for more Lucayan remains. We found a waterfall of bones, from ribs to vertebras, sacrum, and coccyx. After completing our safety stop, we surfaced with wide grins and the smell of hydrogen sulfide deep in our nostrils. We called the cave Niflheim from Norse Mythology, the land of fog.

A few days later, we made it back for another push. We brought dry boxes to store our gear between dives, so we didn't have to lug our full gear the 700 yards every time.

That way, we only had to make one trip to go diving. It was an excellent idea until a colony of ants decided our box with gear was a great place to make their home.

Croc in Niflheim. Photo courtesy of Cristina Zenato.

On the second dive in Niflheim, Cristina continued pushing the end of the line from the first exploration. Meanwhile, I swam to the other side of the breakdown pile to see if more cave was going in the other direction. I swam into the cavern and over a bed of crocodile bones. Once again, I was face to face with the island's history. I found a small opening and dropped between the two layers of rocks to 57 feet, where the water cleared. I swam down a big tunnel before reaching a maze of decorations I carefully had to maneuver through before the cave again opened into a big tunnel. Everything was covered in a thick layer of microbial growth that floated around in giant blobs if you disturbed them. Every time a passage went above 57 feet, I found myself in red water to drop back down into the clear water below. Ahead I saw what looked like an incredible forest of stalactites. As I approached, I realized it wasn't stalactites at all. Instead, long, thin strings of microbial growth were hanging down from the ceiling. I swam past them and felt the tuck of the reel. It was empty. I tied the line to a nearby stalagmite and looked ahead into the still-going cave. I pulled out Mnemo and surveyed the line on my way out. Cristina and I met again on the surface, both with empty reels.

Niflheim covered in microbial growth. Photo courtesy of Cristina Zenato.

At the same time we explored Niflheim, I realized we had yet to search that area more for new caves. I started looking around and quickly found a good location. It seemed too obvious. I thought we would find a line if proved to be a cave there. Nevertheless, it was worth checking out. I wrote down the coordinates, packed the car, and drove to the closest point.

The walk to the entrance was much easier than Niflheim, which was welcomed after all the back-breaking hikes. The first 50 yards were over somewhat even terrain before we had to climb a fallen palm tree to enter a covered canopy. It felt like walking through a portal into Jurassic park. We walked by more ferns I had ever seen and mahogany trees. So far, the walk felt easy, but that was about to end. We arrived at a flooded area affected by the tides. It quickly turned into a swampy and muddy affair. A swarm of mosquitoes rapidly surrounded us. It seemed this side of the portal was the official mosquito breeding ground for the entire island. We would sink into the mud with every step, and the water got deeper as we approached the hole. We finally arrived at what looked like a small lake surrounded by mangroves. I jumped into the water with a mask to have a look around. I put my head underwater, and once again, all I could see was a black void below me.

We returned to the car to get the gear. After gearing up, I descended through the red tannic water and quickly passed through the layer of hydrogen sulfide. Below, the bottom appeared, covered in leaves and branches. I followed the edges to look for any possible crevice to go through. After swimming halfway around the hole, I saw a potential opening. I tied the reel to a big tree stump next to a mound of leaves and mangrove mud and began to descend. I passed under a tree that must have fallen during a hurricane. I made a sharp turn to the right and passed through the halocline.

small low area of Svartalfheim. Photo courtesy of Cristina Zenato.

As I entered the saltwater, the visibility was clear, and I was no longer swimming in the red swampy smelling water. Ahead was a big open cavern with scalloped walls carved by the flow. I saw the cave floor disappearing under a ledge to my left. I dipped down into the crevice and saw a side-mount restriction before me. A massive boulder of mangrove mud and twigs half-blocked it. It was a low tunnel, and the stalagmites on the bottom didn't give me more space to move. I moved slowly through the restriction to avoid getting caught in the decorations and risking getting stuck. The cave opened up in a big tunnel on the other side of the restriction. I turned a corner and swam through a fantastic landscape of decorations and clay banks on the floor. Now I was sure we had another cave. After tying the reel to a stalagmite, I turned around and returned to the entrance. When I broke the surface, as excited as I was when I surfaced from Niflheim the first time, I shouted: We have a cave!

Svartalfheim. Photo courtesy of Cristina Zenato.

We immediately continued the exploration. This time I went north, and Cristina found a tunnel leading south. We met again back at the surface with each of our empty reels. The next day we returned with two loaded reels each to push the end of our lines. Once again, we surfaced with empty reels and no sign of the cave slowing down. The north side of the system was wide and slow, with few decorations. In comparison, the south side was bigger and covered in incredible decorations. We decided to call the cave Svartalfheim, meaning the land of the dwarfs from Norse mythology.

The decorated side of Svartalfheim. Photo courtesy of Kewin Lorenzen.

We have been searching for caves since I first met Cristina. We have found many places, caverns, caves, and new passageways, but we have also found a lot of pinched walls, dead ends, dark swamps, and no access. We have scouted the island armed with machetes, and carved our way through the forest on foot, contended with mosquitoes, horse flies, and even wasps, sunk knee-deep in mud, and burned under the sun. It was 2020, and we had found a new, undiscovered, uncharted world on this island. The best view indeed comes after the hardest climb.