The Gulf Coast Academy seventh-graders trudged along a sandy path through the Withlacoochee State Forest in Citrus County for about half a mile last week, excited about their first chance to get down in the dirt and crawl into caves.
The students were visiting the Dames Caves with science teacher Melissa Raulerson, field activity program coordinator James Kaufmann, and academy director of curriculum and instruction Joseph Gatti as part of their unit on geology. Gatti is a member of the Tampa Bay Area Grotto, part of the National Speleological Society.
The students carried backpacks and fold-up chairs. They had heavy gloves and cave helmets with lights. When they arrived at the first of four caves, the students set up their chairs for their spelunking briefing.
They pulled out worksheets and Gatti walked them through cave terms: stalactite, stalagmite and soda straws (young, hollow, just-beginning-to-form stalactites).
The students were divided into four groups to explore the area's four caves, Dr. Dame, Girl Scout, Danger and Peace. The students were escorted by the adults, eighth-graders who visited the caves last year and one high school assistant.
Besides exploring, the students were invited (but not required) to take a couple of tests to determine if they were capable of more advanced caving. One trial was a climb up a narrow, flexible ladder and a drop down an opened cave's wall attached to a rope, held by Kaufmann on the ground.
The other test was to crawl several feet through a small opening. It was a tight squeeze, Gatti said, to see if the students can handle tight spots.
Gatti told the students that caves are natural drainage systems carved out of limestone over tens of thousands of years. Pieces of exposed limestone indicate there are more below.
Joy Anatala, 12, saw some soda straws. "I think the stalactites and stalagmites are quite interesting," she said. Joy made it up the ladder and down the wall and really likes small spaces. "They're fun to go through," she said.
Noah Baldwin, 12, said he learned that entering caves can either be feet first or head first, "whichever is easier to you. Sometimes you go feet first, so if it gets too narrow you climb out with your hands."
Like Joy, Noah is comfortable crawling into tunnels. His favorite part of the cave visit, he said, was "getting dirty and going into small places."
Joy Jackson, 12, learned some new terms from the outing. "I didn't really know what the stalactites and stalagmites really look like," she said. "I saw soda straws."
Her favorite part of caving? "I've got to say, tight spaces. I'm not claustrophobic at all. It's my first time caving, so I'm excited."