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cave exploring // UNDERGROUND ADVENTURES

It's fun to read about the adventures other people have taken, but there's nothing like having one of your very own, so let's go spelunking.

Spe-what?

Spelunking is the formal word for cave exploration. Flat, foliage-filled Florida does have caves.

Granted, most of our state's caves are underwater, but some of them are what speleologists (professional cave explorers) call air-filled caves and are available for adventurous people who aren't afraid of tight and twisting spaces.

This cave adventure takes place in the Withlacoochee State Forest, which covers more than 130,000 acres in five counties. The caves are in a small portion of the forest in the southwest section of the Citrus tract. Caves formed there because the soil in that part of the forest is more conducive to limestone formations, said Jeff Montgomery, park manager of the Withlacoochee State Forest. The Citrus County caves are insignificant, more like little holes, the park manager says.

All of Florida's caves are made of limestone, a soft, chalk-like rock formed by the organic remains of shellfish and coral. Limestone is composed of calcium and magnesium carbonates.

When you count them all up, there are more than 300 mapped caves in Florida. Some caves haven't been discovered yet and are still waiting for curious adventurers to fall into a hole and find them.

Florida Cave Facts

Florida's caves were formed when limestone layers were pushed toward the Earth's surface. Water seeped into the limestone, eroding the layers and leaving passages that we call caves.

The average year-round temperature is 72 degrees for caves in central Florida and 68 degrees for caves in northern Florida.

The average Florida cave is only about half a mile long; most in Citrus County are smaller than that at 60 to 120 feet. By comparison, Kentucky has caves that are more than 5 miles long, and Tennessee has some more than 20 miles in length.

Most of the underwater caves in Florida are near springs.

Bats do live in some of Florida's caves. The Withlacoochee State Forest has a recognized bat cave, which is fenced off from the public. The location is kept private so the bats are not disturbed.

Cave Words:

Basin: An early form of sinkhole; a bowl-shaped depression in the surface of the land.

Breakdown: Rock that has fallen from cave walls and ceilings.

Detritus: Loose fragments of disintegrating rock.

Guano: Bat or bird dung that accumulates in caves.

Sinkhole: A depression resulting from geologic collapse.

Sump: A low, water-filled area in a cave, usually used to indicate the end of dry passageway.

Trogloxenes: Cave resident-visitors such as bats and birds. These visitors reside in the cave for safety but emerge for food, usually at night.

Safety Tips

Anyone who enters a cave should wear a helmet with a light, gloves and long pants. A light on your head is preferable to a flashlight so your hands are free for climbing and crawling.

No jumping. Make sure at least three parts of your body (both hands and one leg for example) are touching the ground when you are sliding or crawling.

Before you go, let someone know where you are. Never go caving alone.

Respect the wildlife and the formations in the cave. Take out only what you took in and leave nothing but footprints (it's an old saying, but it's still true).

Want To Know More?

Book: The First Book of Caves by Elizabeth Hamilton

Places: To visit caves in the Withlacoochee State Forest call (904) 754-6777 for information. The division of forestry requires organized groups to get a permit before caving.

Florida Caverns State Park is 3 miles north of Marianna, (904) 482-9598. At this 1,800-acre park visitors can tour the public caves from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily or take guided spelunking crawls through remoter caves. Park admission is $3.25 per vehicle, and cave tours are $4 for adults and $2 for children.

Sources: Mike Kettles, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Grotto, Florida Parks A Guide to Camping in Nature

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