Chandelier Cave, Palau
An excerpt from the recently published Manta Rays and Margaritas: Tropical Travels to Dive the Oceans by Karen Begelfer
Palau is chock full of one-of-a-kind diving experiences. In addition to the reef hooks and the Jellyfish Lake there is a special diving opportunity at Chandelier Cave, named in honor of the gaudy stalactites that hang from the ceiling. Most cave diving requires an advanced diving certification that includes more than 20 hours of classroom and open water education in an effort to prevent the diver from expiring underwater. Chandelier Cave was an exception to this requirement because of its small size, straightforward shape, and available air chambers.
The entrance to the cave at Ngarol Island was in a small harbor where old boats went to die. Several littered the area in various states of decay and drowning. Reflecting on my last tetanus shot, I hopped into the hazy water. The sea floor was not much better. Random boat debris was everywhere; bottles, hunks of metal, even a toilet seat. At least nothing pretty or remarkable was going to detract us from our goal.
We swam towards the semi-circle entrance 15 feet below the surface. The cave had four separate air chambers in a row. The plan was to surface in each of them to take a look at the rock formations. The fourth, if we made it, had a space big enough to get out of the water and walk around. We took flashlights so we could see as we got deeper in the cave.
We swam into the cave, then ascended to the first air chamber. It was about ten feet by eight feet in size with four feet in between the water’s surface and the roof. Long ago the cave was dry before the sea flooded it, so stalactites that once hung down from the roof into the air now touched, and sometimes even pierced, the water. The limestone rock island was permeable, which allowed fresh air into the cave. We were able to surface in the air chamber and talk, something a diver does not get to do too often in the middle of a dive.
“Long ago when the cave was dry, rainwater seeped in through the rocks,” our divemaster said. “It carried calcium carbonate that dripped and built up over time, causing the stalactites.” Some of the stalactites were large, indicating a very lengthy process of dripping and growth that impressed me. At home I can’t even wait for a red light to change.
We descended again and went further back into the cave to the next air chamber. This one was smaller and lined with yellow sulfite deposits on the rock that looked like a mustard jar had exploded. When we dove back into the main part of the cave I had some trouble with my gear. I went back towards the air chamber to fix the problem. Unfortunately, I was so busy looking down at my scuba vest that I did not see the stalactite above. It got lodged directly between my back and all of my hoses.
All of my gear was hooked in some way to this fang of a rock. I was just plain stuck and dangling mid-cave like an upside-down popsicle, which was a bit embarrassing. The dive master and my husband were disappearing deeper into the cave not knowing of my frozen-treat predicament. I started to panic, envisioning the sea monsters, kin of the ones that hide under the bed at home, that were waiting to capitalize on my lack of coordination.
I started switching my flashlight on and off like a mating lightening bug, hoping that one of the Good Humor men might swim back and give me a tug. Then I waited. As I composed myself I started to sink ever so slightly. I noticed that I was a little less entangled than before. This may seem logical now, but at the time physics was not playing a big role in my thought process. My body said “swim away, swim away” not “sink down, sink down.”
By the time the dive master and my husband reached me the popsicle had fallen off the stick. Feeling a bit self-conscious I made a “broken” hand signal underwater and pointed to my light. When in doubt, blame it on the equipment. I made it to one more air chamber before deciding my cave diving experience needed to come to a merciful end. A fellow diver had told me that the last air chamber was the most impressive. I’ll certainly never know. But I did have a strange craving for a popsicle that night for dessert.