Curiosity comes with a warning after cave rescue
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Curiosity comes with a warning after cave rescue

The international rescuers go home. The Thai rescuers start the work of several months of retrieving equipment and restoring the Tham Luang Nang Non environment to something like it was before thousands of people accessed it to find and rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave. The Thai community mourn a compatriot. The rescue controllers breathe more easily, and must be analysing every aspect of the rescue, torn between satisfaction and sorrow. The boys and their coach recover their health and begin the process of rejoining society, but now as celebrities.

The media coverage has likely confirmed for many people in Australia that caves are dangerous and uncomfortable places that no ordinary person would want to go near: "why did the boys even go in there,” they ask.

Thai rescue teams work to save the 12 boys and their coach from the Tham Luang cave complex.

Thai rescue teams work to save the 12 boys and their coach from the Tham Luang cave complex.

Photo: Tham Luang Rescue Operation Center

The story has illustrated that cavers have a sense of adventure, like to explore and are prepared to wriggle around in tiny, contorted spaces. It may have inspired many people to consider exploring caves themselves. But such curiosity must come with a warning. Most cave rescues in Australia are to save people who have not had the training and practice that is usual in the caving community.

We all now know that conditions can change quickly in caves and that safe caving requires specialised knowledge and skills, just as specialised as surfing or paragliding.

Less well known is that cavers are also concerned with conserving the cave environment. Caves have often laid undisturbed for millennia. Many have existed for tens of millions of years and have evolved unique and strange life. We’re mostly familiar with the idea that caves can yield fossils of prehistoric animals, but they have also stored plant fossils for aeons. Cave deposits can provide evidence for climatic conditions over an enormously long span of Earth’s history.

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Cavers have developed techniques and the knowledge to conserve caves and to manage the risks of their chosen activity. They are happy to share these ideas, since a better understanding of caves helps protect these enviornments and promotes safety.

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So, if the tales of bravery, cleverness and excitement from Tham Luang have inspired you to try caving, please begin your caving explorations with experienced leaders or guides. There are adventure tours offered by tourist cave operators that will guide you into some caves and some youth groups also have experienced leaders who can help you develop the skills and know-how required to cave responsibly and safely.

Across Australia, there are 26 caving clubs, or "speleological societies", with well-skilled and knowledgeable members who cave often and are ready to share their expertise. I recommend that you find a caving club, try out an introductory membership and get to know cavers who share your interests.

You’ll learn to respect caves, anticipate hazards and evaluate risks. You’ll see some amazing sights and get opportunities to enjoy diverse caves around the world. It’s a recreation that exercises all parts of your body and mind and offers opportunities for almost anyone to build on your strength and fitness.

The world needs people with a taste for adventure and an understanding of the natural environment. Caving allows you to be one of them. Just make sure you do it in a way that sets you up to understand and negotiate that special, if risky, environment that is a cave.

Brian Evans is the co-ordinator of the Australian Cave Rescue Commission.