Caving but not caving in

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By Mags Z. Maglana

The Point Being

Saturday, April 19, 2014

SO THERE is such a thing as the mammalian diving reflex and when triggered, it enables us to stay underwater for long periods of time.

This instinct, which we share with other aquatic mammals, adjusts human oxygen output. Bradycardia, or the heart rate dropping by 10% to 25%, sets in. Blood flow to our extremities (fingers, toes, hands, feet and arms) is constricted thus allowing more blood for the brain and heart. Fluids are allowed to pass throughout the lungs and chest cavity at great depths, thus stabilizing pressure and preventing organs from getting crushed.

The mammalian diving reflex is triggered when our faces, and not just any other body part, hit cold water. It heightens human chances of survival in case of submersion by accident, even when one is unconscious, and prolongs our survival time in cold water, more than when one is without oxygen on dry land or in hot water.


We are wired it seems to survive places that are watery, cold, deep, and by extension dark. More than just a motivation for going scuba diving and freediving, this seems a good motivation as any to try caving. So when the opportunity to check out the caves in Kapalong, Davao del Norte presented itself, I went.

Caving, also known as spelunking in the United States and Canada, and potholing in the United Kingdom, is a sport that entails utilizing a combination of skills – wriggling sometimes crawling through tight places, slogging sometimes swimming through flooded places, climbing down or up as needs be -- all in the dark, broken only by small spotlights. The skills required are set by the caves themselves, so some caves are literally walks in the park. But I think central to any serious commitment to caving is the sentiment best described by cavers themselves: “a love of the unknown and a tolerance for pain”.

Dabawenyos and those living in Southern Mindanao who are up to the challenge have opportunities to try caving. Kapalong is presenting itself as the ‘caving capital of Mindanao’. Situated beside the Suaon Natures Park, Kapalong has twelves caves, four of which have been opened for exploration, the rest have been designated as protected. The four include Okbot, Otso, and Alina Caves and the Sua-On Underground River. Kapalong hosted the 10th National Caving Congress of the Philippine Speleological Society in April 2010. There are also other cave systems in Mawab, Monkayo and Laak in Compostela Valley. Caving enthusiasts and adventure travel groups organize trips, and provide guides as well as protective equipment.

Objectively speaking I was far from being physically fit. But after having gone through the more challenging Alina Cave, which involved a short 90-degree wall climb, I did not want to pass up Okbot Cave. Despite an aching knee, I plunged right in; all that mattered was being aware of the cave and its complexities, and moving on by taking the next step and the next handhold. Despite all the splashing and noises that our group was making, it felt quite and peaceful. It was like being in the ‘zone’ so to speak, or what psychologists describe as “flow, a state of complete immersion in an activity”. A lot of it seemed instinctive.

So perhaps like the mammalian diving reflex, there are other instincts that are embedded in us humans, but which we have silenced as we were taught more socially acceptable behavior. Perhaps these instincts teach us to seek the unknown and to not mind the pain – to go caving, but not to cave in.

As Christians commemorate Lent 2014, let the rites and rituals of these holy days remind us of the original narrative – of one who was not cowed by the unknowns of capture and death, who was unafraid to experience pain, knowing perhaps instinctively, of the renewal and redemption that is to follow, his and others.


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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on April 20, 2014.


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