Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Sea Cave

I have written previously of a surf break not far from The City where Mr. T discovered a sea cave, whose blow-hole I later found with Miss C and Miss P. From the moment Mr. T described what he had seen of it, I was determined to get inside it. I knew sea conditions would have to be right, not to get in, but to get out again safely, my intention being to enter it from the seaward side and not by climbing down the shaft.

I should say at this point that, since my mid-teens, I have been very fond of body-boarding, snorkeling and free-diving. I do not mind tight spaces, or involuntary duckings, and can cope well with surf. So, although I enjoy exploring places like this cave, the reader should think carefully before doing any similar exploration - it really isn't very safe.

Why I would try to visit dangerous places? Because they are beautiful, and because if I spend too long at a desk away from my favourite "risk sports", I get itchy feet and start to daydream.

This week, the weather finally obliged with precisely the conditions I wanted for my adventure. Although I enjoy risk, I do try to keep my dosage within reasonable limits (my definition, not Miss C’s). Surf has been absent or negligible for a week or so, and even the wind, a constant presence on this coast, has finally deserted the sailors. Also – not essential, but very nice – we’ve had almost constant sunshine. So, with bright light and clear, untroubled water, I knew that conditions should be ideal for underwater photography.

Arriving at the The Beach, I could hardly believe my luck. Not only was the weather perfect at the site – a flatter sea that I have ever seen on this coast, with no visible swell or waves higher than two inches or so - but my arrival coincided with low tide – I could expect maximum headroom on the entry to the cave. At this point, having seen only the upper section of the shaft which enters the cave from above, I had no knowledge of the sea-ward entrance to the cave, and thought it might be flooded all the way to the roof.

Before entering the water, I walked the cliffs around the shaft – really too large for a proper blowhole, I think, at 10 meters or more across - trying to get a sense of the sea conditions around the cave entrance (which I could not see, but assumed to be directly to seaward of the huge shaft). What I saw explained immediately the existence of the cave. Although it was everywhere else the very picture of tranquility, something beneath the sea was focusing and magnifying an imperceptible swell. This grew from nothing into a series of distinct and very well-formed waves, funneled directly towards the cliffs at my feet, the wave front narrowing as it approached the rock, so that all the kinetic energy of the surf was concentrated on a short section of cliff somewhere under my feet. Deep below, hollow booming warned of the forces at work upon the stone.

Impressed and sobered by the power of the place, I backtracked till I found a way down from the cliffs onto a wave-cut platform high enough above the water to keep my gear safe from an advancing tide for several hours. Entering the water felt very odd – had it been so long since I swam without a surfboard beside me? Where I entered, the rock formed a narrow channel, focusing the swell in the same way as had the approach to the cliff above the cave. The push and suck of the water was rather welcome – a chance to re-acclimatize to an environment very alien to one’s everyday experience. The evening was incredibly beautiful – the sun was lower, shadows bringing the warm sandstone cliffs into sharp relief, and the light having a golden quality that is missing in the afternoon. With the blue of the sky perfectly reflected by silken ripples… sublime.

Swimming out into deep water, I stopped for an equipment check: watch – entered the water at 18:40– check. Dive torch (bought on special offer in a supermarket) – check. Underwater camera (bought the same day, on the same offer), check. Fins – secure. Mask – well sealed.

Making my way west along the cliffs, I was struck by the beauty of the land, above and below the water – sandstone cliffs and rock “fins”, above and below. Beneath, there was kelp, which promised fish and crab sightings. The sea itself was exceptionally beautiful in its stillness, and carried a thick surface layer heated by the sun far beyond normal sea temperatures in these waters.

Coming opposite the shaft, I was surprised to see a sheer sandstone wall descending unbroken into the sea. At first, I thought this must mean an underwater entrance, but checked my assumption by swimming a little further. Hallelujah! A concealed crack opened up, surprisingly narrow. Approaching the cave, the growth of the swell was very marked, even though the water was not very shallow – a warning sign which made me very wary. Close to the entrance, I hung back, peering into the gloom and watching the surge and ebb of the water. From there, I could see through to the pool at the bottom of the shaft, where waves were breaking.

Decision time: moving into the mouth, I switched on my torch. In the centre, I could easily raise my head to breath, but at the sides the roof hugged the water. Rock overhead now: I looked beneath me, and saw a deeper, narrower channel. Something about the geometry of it was rather suggestive of a huge throat – once which was swallowing me whole, taking me deeper into its gullet with every wave. The rock around the entrance is actually rather beautiful.

If the narrow entrance tunnel was suggestive of a throat, the pool at the end was a perfect sea-monster’s stomach – huge, round and smooth, with the deep and echoing slap of the waves a perfect counterfeit of giant belly-rumbling. Moving to the side of the chamber, I used a corner to “hide” from the surf, and found I could easily stand. Here, a torch was not necessary – I could see sky above me, and grass rimming the edges of the shaft. My choice in entering from the sea was vindicated – although its higher reaches looked manageable for a climber, the section within reach of the tide had been polished smooth, and appeared completely free of foot or handholds. Higher up, the stone is much rougher, with interesting ledges, cracks and various "relief" features. It struck me as more like a movie set than a real place - except that I can't imagine a sculptor or painter improving on its craggy features.

In particular, I noticed that the “throat” and “belly” were almost completely void of marine life. Some sea anemones clung to wall high above the floor, but that was it. I believe that if any significant swell is running, the amplified waves gushing into the central chamber must wield the stone debris on the floor like a thousand hammers, beating the cave a little smoother and deeper with every tide. Not a very friendly place!

Swimming once again (not because walking was impossible, but to avoid the risk of having the surf trip me in shallow water with a very uneven stone bottom), I kept my head down and used my torch and arms to avoid hazards as I moved into the gloom which lay in the innermost shaft. I found a shingle beach which rose steeply from the water, and for the first time since entering the sea was able to get out, take off my fins, and try a few photos from a stable platform. The beach turned out to lie at the neck of an inner tunnel, which I followed. The low entrance was deceptive – it concealed a chamber with a room that must have been close to twenty feet high – a blow hole forming? The shape does suggest that air would be trapped here by a rising tide, and the surging swell, compressing it, seek out any weaknesses in the roof. A short shaft led deeper into the bedrock, and here the roof came lower, to just over five feet. At this point, the cave was very dark, and I was glad of the torch.

Looking back towards to the main chamber, I could see the pool at the base of the shaft, which was very beautiful. I had thought it dark, when I had looked in from the sea, with my pupils narrowed by direct sunlight, but as my eyes adjusted, I saw that it was the most amazingly luminous aquamarine, lit both from above and from below, by light leaking in from the tunnel to the sea.

After the photo shoot, I began my swim out, this time diving repeatedly to explore the floor of the “throat”. I found no sea-life, but rocks torn from the roof or the walls helped to anchor me as swells passed over. Escaping into open water, the light was dazzling. I moved further out to sea, where the visibility was very good – I swam along flooded cliffs, over bone-white scalloped sands, easily seen a good six metres or more below me. I found huge wrasse and spider crabs moving on rocks and in the weed. A time check told me that it was time to get back to the city – and dinner with Miss C – and so I returned to my entry point. Along the way, I noted a point for future exploration – a hidden beach, almost certainly cliff-bound and accessible only from the water. Just before I climbed out, I found, literally under my nose, a classic rock feature – a submerged hole or arch, a metre and a half in diameter, and quite round. I couldn’t resist swimming through it – a great photo opportunity, if one had a second swimmer.

So ended my first swim along the cliffs west of The Beach (20:10, an hour and a half after entry). It was a very exciting evening, and a visually stunning experience. I’m hooked – so much so, that I have arranged to visit again this evening with Mr. T. Adventure calling. Again.

1 comment:

Susan Adrian said...

Dear Phibius:

This was wonderful to read! Thank you! I'm a writer, and I'm about to embark on a scene that takes place in a cave almost exactly as you've described: sandstone cliffs, narrow entrance, vertical shaft/blowhole, and an inner tunnel with a beach. Would you by chance be willing to share the photos you took in this cave with me? I would of course thank you in the acks. Please let me know!

Susan Adrian (