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Feb 26 / Dave Schumaker

Karst Caves and the People Who Jump Into Them

While I was researching information for a short post for Laughing Squid on BASE jumping from the Burj Dubai, I came across some interesting videos of people BASE jumping into giant caverns.

Ridiculous! Ridiculously awesome that is.

The above video comes from Mexico, and it’s a karst cave named Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cellar of the Swallows) [Wikipedia Link]. It’s so named because thousands of birds (called swifts, not swallows) nest within the walls of the cave, and every morning they leave their nests for the day and fly out of the entrance of the cave.

From Wikipedia:

To free themselves from the cave, the birds fly in circles around the cave, gradually flying upwards until they are able to reach the surface and the sky. The birds do this each morning, and the exodus has become part of the tourist attraction.

In the evenings, a large group of swifts will circle the entrance to the cave. About once a minute, a group of perhaps fifty will break off and head straight for the entrance. Once they cross the edge, they pull in their wings and free-fall into the cave. They extend their wings and pull out of the dive once they reach the height of their nests.

This cave was discovered in 1966 and is located in central Mexico, about 150 miles (240 km) north of Mexico City. It is the largest cave in the world – the mouth of the cave is about 200 feet (60 m) in diameter and it is 1200 feet (365 m) to the bottom! You can even see the opening of the cave in Google Maps!

How do these types of caves form?

The simple answer is that slightly acidic water (water containing dissolved C02 – i.e., acid rain!) flowing over / through a limestone rock unit ultimately dissolves the rock and eventually forms a unique, interesting, and sometimes very large cave system. You can see this sort of thing in cave systems throughout the United States that include locations like Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, and even California. This sort of thing is also responsible for the development of sinkholes. More information on sinkhole development is available here as well. You can basically think of Sótano de las Golondrinas as one gigantic sinkhole.

Sótano de las Golondrinas isn’t the only cave of this type in the world. There is a similar type of cave in Croatia (which I visited this past summer – Croatia itself that is, not this particular cave). It is named Jama Mamet and is located in central Croatia and “only” 620 feet (190 m) deep.


Jama Mamet in central Croatia. Source: Red Bull Croatia

Jama Mamet (Mamet Cave) is located in the Velebit Mountains, an extraordinary cave location in Croatia. It is famous for its deep pit, among the deepest pits known on eart are located here. The reason is simple, the limestone is faulted by the Dinaric orogeny and is found from sea level to the highest mountain tops. The water enters the limestone and drains directly to the sea. This forms caves which are mostly vertical. Sometimes the roof of such pits collapses and forms deep daylight shafts. This impressive cave has been discovered by the Speleological Section Velebit (SOV), a part of the Velebit Mountaineering Club of Zagreb University, in 1968.

Jama Mamet is such a daylight shaft or pothole, a wide almost circular opening in the barren karst, 45m by 55m wide, which is more than 200m deep. The vertical shaft opens in a depth of about 70 metres, the diameter increases and it looks like the inside of a bell. The floor is pretty huge, 81m from north to south and 77m from east to west. The croatian term jama means pit, which is in contrary to the Slovenian term jama, which normally means a horizontal cave. Horizontal caves would be called Å pilja or pecina in Croatian.

Of course, this wouldn’t be considered an impressive karst cave unless there is a video of someone BASE jumping into it. Lucky for us, there is! Here is Felix Baumgartner jumping into Jama Mamet.

And here is a final video for you speleology and/or adventure fanatics. BASE jumping into the “second largest cave in the world” – called the Seating of the Spirits in Oman. This video also features Felix Baumgartner. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information floating around about this cave, other than it’s “the second biggest cave in the world.


Image: Composite sequence of Felix Baumgartner jumping into the Seating of the Spirits Cave in Oman. Source: Red Bull Middle East

The main challenge was not the jump itself but its execution method. The biggest apprehension was the precise moment to pull the ripcord of the specially designed parachute so that Felix can then change his direction as the cave is curved. “Seating of the Spirits” cave is situated on top of “Selma Plateau”; at an altitude of 1200m. Reaching the top of the plateau requires a 4WD car and a very careful driving on an extremely difficult and rugged road. However, the difficulties encountered on the way are not to compare with Baumgartner’s jump to the bottom of the “Seating of the Spirits” cave (around 120 m deep), a mission considered as absolutely impossible as the cave is filled with taboo stories and legendary karmas of haunted spirits.


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