Caves are underground chambers, usually situated in mountains, hills, or cliffs. They are special ecosystems that need our protection, particularly from unscrupulous miners who would break apart tons of rock for a handful of precious stones.
Our team slowly activates helmet-mounted headlamps, illuminating an eerie landscape. It’s a mustard-hued mosaic of shapes: spikes, pillars, every shape and figure you can imagine. Down here where darkness rules, your mind does a lot of imagining.
Strange land. Professional cave guide Alvin Rafales, UNDP-BIOFIN’s Angie Ogena, and author Gregg Yan in front of a three-meter tall calcite pillar, a structure that has been continuously growing for millions of years.
Our headlamps barely pierce the darkness, so a powerful superlight is unleashed to gauge just how high the cave is. I estimate it to be at least a hundred feet tall. “There’s an even bigger chamber up ahead, large as a football field,” says cave guide Alvin Rafales.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
We saddle up and continue wending through a warren of chambers, careful to minimize what we touch to avoid smearing dirt, oil and acids on the ancient structures. Suddenly Alvin points to something coiled around a pillar. A menacing, meter-long rat snake. “It hunts birds, not people. It won’t harm us if we leave it alone.”
Unique But Threatened Biodiversity
Samar Island, overshadowed by more popular places like Palawan and Boracay, isn’t usually considered a top tourist destination, owing to its long history as a hotbed for insurgencies and a punching bag for typhoons.
“Samar is unique because it is a karst landscape made primarily of limestone. Millions of years of weathering has created numerous caves and sinkholes on the island,” explains Anson Tagtag, head of the Caves, Wetlands and Other Ecosystems Division of the DENR. “Caves are special ecosystems which harbor highly-evolved fauna, most of which have adapted to darkness.”
Though the Philippines’ third largest island exudes rugged beauty, its real value as an ecotourism destination lies beneath the earth.
Subterranean spectacle. The Langun-Gobingob Cave features 12 immense chambers over its seven-kilometer span. Some chambers are so huge they can double as hangars for mid-sized airplanes. The stalactites at the top are as large as cars.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Birds, bats, spiders, snakes, crickets and even blind cave fish thrive inside the Langun-Gobingob Cave. The lack of light confines plants to entrances, but mushrooms and other types of fungi cling to life as discreet denizens of the dark.
“The speleothems or rocks in caves are in a very real sense ‘alive’ – they just grow and move at timescales difficult for people to comprehend,” explains Dr. Allan Gil Fernando, a professor at the National Institute of Geological Sciences in UP Diliman. “The constant dripping of water for instance leaves minute traces of minerals like calcite. Over time these traces pile up to form hanging stalactites and their inverted kin, stalagmites. It takes about a century for a stalactite or stalagmite to grow one inch.”
It is because of their surreal beauty that many caves are sundered.
“People used to enter the Langun-Gobingob Cave to break apart and mine stalagmites and white calcite rocks for collectors,” says Samar Island Natural Park (SINP) Assistant Superintendent Eires Mate. Our guide Alvin confirms this. “Locals used to mine the cave for Taiwanese businessmen, who paid a paltry PHP7 for a kilogram of rock. Balinsasayao or swiftlet nests were plucked out too, to be shipped to Chinese markets.”
Coralline creation. Many speleothems or formations inside the cave look eerily like corals. This calcite formation looks like the skeleton of an elegance coral (Catalaphyllia jardinei). A cave system’s rocks are in a very real sense, ‘alive’ and constantly growing. Nature is the world’s greatest sculptor.