New Discoveries in the Dominican Republic
By Dave Weimer & Lukas Eddy
We have a big problem.
It was a text from Lukas Eddy in the Dominican Republic. He and his wife, Suhei, had scoured the country for over a month looking for some mythical ‘lost cave’ and apparently–they’d found it. We’d been invited to help with the mapping.
I texted back: Problem??
HUNDREDS OF WASP NESTS BLOCKING THE ENTRANCE.
We needed a solution fast. I suggested chemical warfare:
A couple cans of Raid should solve the problem, right?
No. That would just make them angry. But, I have an idea…
So there we were, wearing full-body bee suits while hacking through jungle in the sweltering heat of the West Indies. The humidity was stifling and the suit was like wearing a sweater in a sauna. Worse still, the screen on the hood was difficult to see through and we kept getting caught on vines and thorns, only able to free ourselves by beating the foliage with a dull machete. Lukas, who is notoriously frugal, had a slightly easier time because he had only purchased the hood part of the suit and didn’t have to deal with the ungainliness of walking like a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
“Be careful,” he whispered. Then he gazed up into the canopy, “They’re everywhere.”
Whether these were the infamous Africanized Killer Bees, or Murder Hornets; or perhaps some undocumented species of vespid–like a ‘Screaming-Torture Wasp’ or a ‘Holocaust Hornet’–he never said.
I looked to Suhei, who has a more level, demure nature. But she agreed with Lukas,
“The wasps are extremely aggressive.”
I began to wonder if this was some kind of elaborate practical joke. But then I saw them. Blending in with the surrounding foliage were fist-sized nests covered in finger-sized wasps. They were larger than typical wasps, and yes, they looked like the type that could murder. Later, Suhei showed us one of the spots where she’d been stung. On her leg was a shockingly large, purple welt. It looked like she’d been beaned with a softball.
“From just one sting,” she said. “And one landed on Lukas’s eye!”
We tiptoed through the minefield of nests and down into a sinkhole. There in front of us appeared a massive, yawning cave entrance––120-feet wide by 100-feet tall.
“At first we thought this was the Frenchman’s ‘Lost Cave’,” Lukas said. “But it’s only about 600-feet long.”
Finding an unmapped cave of this size is a monumental discovery in itself. But Lukas and Suhei wanted to find something even more extraordinary—perhaps the longest cave in the country, if not the entire Caribbean.
Entering the mouth of the cavern, I craned my neck to the high ceiling. There were stalactites as thick as tree trunks and several feet long.
“How the hell did you find this?” I asked.
* * *
Their journey began at Phillip Lehman’s stately home on the island’s breezy north coast. Phillip is one of the few cave divers living in the DR full time and is a founding member of the Dominican Republic Speleological Society (DRSS). Lehman––who in the 1980’s was a renowned graffiti artist and later formed and headed several acclaimed record labels––had been cave diving here for over 15 years.
The Eddys had a question they believed only an expert like Philip could answer. If most of the Caribbean islands are comprised of limestone, and Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba––even relatively small and flat islands, like the Bahamas, Turks, and Caymans––all have well documented systems; why are there so few known caves in the Dominican Republic? How could such a large country with plenty of karst, not be riddled with caves?
Phillip explained over dinner. Indeed, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of caves. But these were of the underwater variety: extensive, flooded networks found all along the coastline. These systems generally start with a very short, dry passage, then quickly terminate in a sump. In all his years of searching, Phillip has rarely found caves that deviate from this model. He emphasized, however, that the DRSS focuses entirely on cave diving and there are virtually no active ‘dry’ cavers in the whole region.
There have been a few notable exceptions. In 1988, an Italian team descended 1200-feet into a cave in the central mountains that ended abruptly at an underground river. In 2005, another international team re-explored this same cave but like the Italians, were also repelled by the frothing, subterranean rapids. In 2017, a French team explored a 300-foot-deep sinkhole near Pedernales, unfortunately, they found no continuing passage at the bottom. Their efforts were only acknowledged by a swarm of wasps that attacked and stung one member of the team 18 times! This did not bode well for the Eddys .
The trio sat outside in the tropical heat, well past sunset. Phillip suddenly recalled a story. It was just a rumor, and whether it was true or not—he couldn’t say.
“Two decades ago,” he began, “An old Frenchman moved to a small town in the southeast region and started looking for caves. After several years, he confided to a friend that he’d found a 10-kilometer system.” The old man suddenly died, and the location of the cave went with him to the grave.
And where could this hidden gem possibly be located?
“Head to the town of Boca de Yuma,” he said. “Look for a cross-eyed man named Cruzito. Maybe he can help you.”
Now this is what Lukas and Suhei had come for. A good old-fashioned Indiana-Jones-type adventure. Find the man with crossed eyes, locate the Frenchman’s lost cave, map and document the longest cave in the Dominican Republic. With supreme optimism and their sights set on Boca de Yuma, they rolled down the windows on their rental car, and pulled onto the highway.
* * *
“He’s full of it.” I told Ashlee as I looked up from my phone. “Lukas says they found the Lost Cave. And get this––he says it’s as decorated as the wild caves we saw in Carlsbad. Ha! They must really need help with the mapping.”
Lukas was referring to Carlsbad National Park, New Mexico, whose legendary caverns showcase some of the most beautiful, pristine formations in North America. Although I’d never known Lukas to be an exaggerator, a find of that significance seemed highly improbable. But still, the Eddys had found something and their powers of persuasion worked. With bee suits folded neatly in our luggage, we boarded the plane for Punta Cana. This wasn’t going to be your typical Caribbean holiday.
* * *
Boca de Yuma is a cliffside fishing village surrounded by coconut trees. It has no beaches and therefore, no resorts. Fresh fish is brought in from the sea daily and delivered to the open-air restaurants by the wheelbarrow full. Puerto Rico rests 70-miles away, just beyond the horizon, but felt a world apart. The Dominican Republic is far less developed than its island neighbor and possesses all the rawness and exoticism of Zanzibar.
Amazingly, the Eddys found the man with crossed eyes. Cruzito had spent his entire life in the jungle and pointed out the location of several caves.
One of these was a small pit and a former guano collection site. Rotten canvas bags and broken, rusted shovels littered the entrance skylight room. Its location near a common thoroughfare was additionally bad news: it meant that it had probably been vandalized. Imagine my disappointment when the Eddys led us to this exact hole-in-the-ground. This was the mythical “Lost Cave” filled with “Carlsbad” formations? It was more likely to be filled with garbage and graffiti. I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of going in, but we trudged on.
Climbing down into the pit, I scanned the walls for whip scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas. The upper section was three-tiered and mazey. Suhei was first, leading us farther away from sunlight and past the point of their original investigations. Apparently the bats didn’t like going deeper into the cave either as their guano piles receded behind us. Strangely, there weren’t any footprints. No one had come this far in recent memory; not the Eddys, not the guano miners, not even the mysterious Frenchman.
The passage opened into a gymnasium-sized chamber. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the large room. Thousands of ivory-colored stalactites oozed from the ceiling like melted wax.
There were delicate broomsticks, soda straws, and drapery. Eventually we would name this the Carlsgood Room. Proceeding down a web of subway-like tunnels, we found rimstone dams that harbored golf ball-sized cave pearls we called ‘cave marshmallows’; we ogled at teetering pillars of orange rock that resembled Dr. Seuss castles. Removing our shoes, we walked across flowstone as white and crystalline as sugar. There were gothic chambers fit for a dragon, and portholes peering into miniature worlds where an industrious gnome could find the perfect workshop. I found myself rushing forward, gripped by the intoxicating high of discovery.
We had heard that the island’s original inhabitants––the Taíno Indians––had once used the caves as tombs, and it was possible to find ancient artifacts and remains. I rounded each corner expecting to find a pile of fossilized skulls and bones. If ever there was a sacred cave on the island––it was surely this one. Beautiful and pristine, it was a truly remarkable find.
In a five-day siege, we mapped 4000+ feet of passage, stopping at a tight lead that would require breaking formations to pass. Ashlee and I were thrilled with what we had seen and accomplished; but for the Eddys, this was a far cry from the fabled 10-kilometer system they’d hoped for.
Lukas is reluctant to admit that the Frenchman’s story might have been just that—a story. But, he says, “What I do know is the DR is possibly the least-explored limestone region in North America, and the potential for numerous long, deep, decorated caves here remains high. The golden age of Dominican cave-exploration is just beginning. The future will surely bring countless entrances, passages, systems, and sumps.”
“And,” he continues with a smile, “Probably bees and wasps, too.”
Video of our trip can be found *HERE*