“It’s not something for the fainthearted, but if you’re adventurous, you’ll get a thrill out of it!”
This is what I was told when I went on a caving adventure at Batu Maloi several years ago. Located in Tampin Forest Reserve in Negri Sembilan, Batu Maloi is a wet cave which would thrill any adrenaline junkie.
Our professional caving guide brought us through the entire experience. It started with a trek through the Tampin Forest Reserve – through lush tropical rainforest, sunlight streaming through a canopy of trees, and a forest carpet of dried leaves.
We then arrived at an unusual rock formation known as Batu Maloi Cave. This cave complex under a mass of large rocks is 1km long, with a stream running through it.
The cave was fascinating to explore. Not only did I have to trek, climb, and crawl through enclosed spaces between rock crevices – some of which were less than 0.3m high – I also had to brave the cold stream waters. A thrilling part of the adventure was having to backcrawl through a small gap under the cave wall, part of which was submerged in water which, thankfully, was less than ankle deep.
Another was having to freedive (just by holding my breath, without any equipment) underwater from one cavern into the next. With just a few strokes, I could surface in the next cavern where the guide was waiting. But, it was still an unnerving experience because it was dark and I couldn’t see where I was headed.
You’ll definitely get wet during the two-to-four-hour adventure (depending on how fast everyone in the group gets through).
It is not as physically strenuous as some other extreme caves that I’ve explored: Racer Cave (a semi-wet cave where you encounter albino racer snakes) in Sarawak’s Mulu National Park; and Batu Caves in Selangor – a different part from where the Hindu temple is, where you have to crawl through tight and muddy spaces.
If you decide to try caving, make sure you have an experienced caving guide who knows the terrain. Water levels in a wet cave might change depending on the season, like during heavy downpours, and you can easily get trapped inside. Even dry caves can get flooded during rainy season.
Just what is caving or spelunking, and what does it involve?
CEO and founder of adventure portal Adventoro.com Ken Lau defines it as “an interesting recreational activity which involves exploring wet or dry caves”.
“Some say it is a way to unleash the inner Batman in you,” he said with a laugh, referring to the fact that you might encounter bats in some cave explorations.
“It involves walking, climbing and, squeezing and crawling through narrow cave passages. And you’re likely to get wet, as some passages cut through rivers or streams. Other caves might involve ziplining or abseiling,” he explained.
Lau is no stranger to recreational caving/spelunking, which is the exploration of wet and dry caves. He has explored several caves in Malaysia, including Gua Tempurung in Perak, and Fairy and Wind Cave in Sarawak. He plans to check out the Mulu and Niah Caves soon.
Lau has also explored caves in Australia: at The Grampians National Park in Melbourne, Victoria, and the Jenolan Caves at Blue Mountains, near Sydney, New South Wales.
Besides caving, there is a more specific sport known as cave diving. This, according to Seaventures Dive Rig dive team manager Pete Hamerton, involves “the exploration of underwater cave systems using scuba equipment”. Hamerton is based in Pulau Mabul in Semporna, Sabah and is a PADI tec deep instructor, PADI cavern instructor, and IANTD (Inter-national Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers) full cave diver.
Meanwhile, PADI Master Scuba Diver trainer Brian Moh, who is based in Maldives and Sabah, shared that there is a difference between cavern and cave diving.
“Cavern diving is where the divers proceed no more than 43m (140ft) into a cave, while cave diving refers to the more challenging exploration where divers go deeper, beyond that, into the cave,” he said.
Scuba Diving International and Technical Diving International instructor trainer Jason Lim, who has been in the diving business for 15 years, said that usually, a full cave diving course comprises three parts – the cavern, introduction to the cave, and the full cave.
KL-based Lim is also co-founder and training director at International Diving Research and Exploration Organisation (IDREO), a non-profit organisation created to share exploration and research information by some of the most active divers in the underwater overhead environments (including caves, shipwrecks, and mines) around the world.
“The maximum penetration for cavern diving is 60m from the surface where you can still see the sunlight from the entrance of the cavern, while the introduction to the cave will be 120m from the surface where there is no sunlight, and the full cave involves exploring further points of the cave formation,” Lim explained.
“Cave diving is considered one of the most extreme scuba diving experiences, so there are very stringent requirements for cave diving instructors. They must have gone through the full cave diving course, as well as a technical diving course for instructors. They also need to dive regularly and consistently,” said Lim, who trains cave diving instructors.
He added that a technical diving course is important, because divers learn a few types of diving configurations and also how to handle multiple tanks. They need to log at least 50 dives or more before they can go cave diving.
In Malaysia, most people would go to Sipadan in Sabah for such cavern and cave diving activities, to dive sites like Turtle Cavern and Turtle Tomb.
“To dive here, you must have an authorised guide, a permit to enter the national park, and be certified as a cave diver. That means taking the PADI Cavern Diver course. In Malaysia, this can be done at Sipadan island itself,” Hamerton shared.
Several scuba training agencies teach cave diving courses. Hamerton said TDI and IANTD are well-known and respected training agencies that have cave diving programmes.
There are some diving sites in Malaysia where you can go at any time of the year, but Moh advises to always check weather conditions before making a trip.
“Sipadan is good for diving all year round (although dry season from March to October yields better visibility). Before each dive, talk to the local guide because they would be aware of the weather conditions better.”
He also noted that surface and underwater environments can be very different. “When it rains, the water is actually warmer, so it might be more pleasant. But, make sure there is no wind or rough waves which pose a risk, and it’s just common sense not to dive in stormy weather.”
Hamerton added: “For cave diving specifically, it’s good to avoid periods where there is high flow, when there is lots of water running into and out of the cave system.”
There are many additional considerations when going cavern or cave diving, as compared to regular scuba diving. Additional equipment is required. And, additional risks are involved.
“After taking the PADI Open Water certification, you might want to go for the PADI Advanced Open Water certification, which involves diving up to 30m.
“It’s good to gain experience and confidence in diving. Go on about 60 to 100 dives. This can happen over a period of time … months, even years. Then, you can take the PADI cavern diver course,” Hamerton advised.
Should divers be concerned about accidents or fatalities? Lim replied: “The late diving legend Sheck Exley started the Accident Analysis Project, which our organisation IREO continued. On a thorough case-by-case analysis, we determine what causes the accidents that lead to fatalities. And, from each fatality, we also learn the causes.
“The information is included into our cave diving training so that we can all learn from the experiences and mistakes of others, and not make them too.”
From the cases analysed, they discovered that most fatalities were due to human error and lack of proper cave diving training.
Cavern and cave diving are high risk sports, and as such, regular scuba divers might not be prepared in certain situations.
Moh said: “Some scuba divers venture into caves without proper training in cavern diving and without a legitimate cave diving guide. Usually, there is only one entrance in and out of a cave. It’s easy to get trapped or lost and run out of air.”
He said that being overconfident puts one at risk, so when in doubt, don’t. It is better to dive another day, than to venture in and never return.