Karstdive 95

Under the Taurus Mountains
Karstdive Discovery

Todd R. Kincaid, Hazlett-Kincaid, Inc.

The following article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Atlas Travel Magazine.

The Karstdive cave explorations in the Taurus mountains supported by ATLAS magazine resulted in repercussions of world-wide significance. Finike's Gök Magara (Sky Cave) was explored but not to its depths. Antalya's Kirkgöz (Forty Springs) cave system could not to be investigated in full. However, one of the world's greatest reservoirs has entered the records. The discoveries made under the leadership of two American cave divers have entered history. From this point forward, it reads: "Asia's largest cave is in Turkey..."

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Before Karstdive Project began, a team of Yugoslavian divers was hired to carry out the first survey of Kirkgöz-Suluin but with their limited technology only reached a depth of 40m. In the same region, the Karstdive Project participants discovered a narrow fissure at 65m, which led to a small tunnel that wound down to 80m and eventually up along a passage to an enormous room. The two Americans returned with scooters to explore Kirkgöz-Suluin and stumbled across the "Stadium", named for its enormous size, (at least 100m in length by 60m and 50m in depth). The divers also managed to probe numerous side tunnels leading away from the "Stadium"...

 

   
Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya
In 1990, the French ADEKS team carried out two dives 63m into the Finike cave system, returning data and resulting in a rough mapping of the system. The Karstdive team entered the giant mouth of the cave and split at 45m. Gökhan Türe and Zafer Kizilkaya recorded details necessary for the project and Todd Kincaid and Jarrod Jablonski continued to a depth of 122m...

 

   
Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya
Prior to the Karstdive effort, the Finike system was known only as containing a deep cavern known as Incirli Gök Cave. Daylight streaming through the mouth of this cave located just above sea level between Kas and Finike give it an exceptional blue color. Algae floating on the surface at the cave mouth made entry difficult for the divers. At a depth of around 90m, Jarrod's scooter imploded from the excessive pressure. Apart from breaking the record on this difficult dive the team would later learn that they had investigated the deepest cave in Asia yet discovered.

 

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
The Americans made their first dive in Kirkgöz-Suluin without the aid of scooters, presuming it would be a shallow dive. Finding the contrary, they returned over an hour later, recording the following entry in their log: "This cave is endless. At 80m we found a going tunnel." It would have been risky to continue without underwater transport and the divers had to leave exploration of the "Stadium" to another day. In this photograph taken at the cave mouth the divers are preparing to submerge.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Underwater cave diving is very different from diving in the open sea. It is a self sacrificing, exhausting, high-risk activity. The slightest mistake can result in death. The Karstdive team at Kirkgöz-Suluin. Zafer Kizilkaya is making last minute checks, Gökhan Türe readies himself for a dive.

 

   
Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya
Kirkgöz-Suluin; the team members examining flow stone and travertine at a depth of nearly 40m.
A thin nylon line remembers the only link to the surface through crystal clear water, water as transparent as the air we rely upon meters above us. The lifeline spooled out as we propelled ourselves effortlessly through cave passages with the aid of underwater scooters. Jarrod and I darted out from a large hallway into what felt like oblivion. More than 30m deep and over 300m from the nearest sunlight, we had literally fallen into a room so capacious that the walls, floor and ceiling dropped out of sight. Like astronauts suspended in outer space, I couldn't stop laughing through my regulator, and when Jarrod turned to look at me in disbelief, I saw he was having the same reaction. Later, we mapped the room to be over 100 m by 100 m, and though our decompression requirements precluded us from accurately measuring the vertical height, our best guess was over 50 m. The cave - Kirkgöz-Suluin at Dösemealti, Turkey - was appropriately dubbed the "Stadium". Jarrod and I had come all the way from Florida, USA to the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey near Antalya. We joined our friends Gökhan Türe and Zafer Kizilkaya of the Underwater Research Society (SAD) to explore virgin underwater caves. What we found in Kirkgöz-Suluin is undoubtedly one of the largest underwater chasms in the world.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Jarrod Jablonski and I (Todd Kincaid), members of the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP) and the newly established Karst Research Society, are American cave divers from Florida. We traveled to Turkey in the summer of 1995 for project Karst Dive 95. Karst Dive 95 was a joint research and exploration project conducted by the WKPP and SAD in cooperation with the International Research and Application Center for Karst Water Resources (UKAM) of Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey, the University of Wyoming Department of Geology and Geophysics (UWG&G) of Wyoming, USA, the State Hydraulic Works (DSI) of Antalya, Turkey, and Kepez Electric Company also of Antalya. The goal was to explore, map, and document several underwater cave systems along the southern flank of the Taurus Mountains. Both UKAM and UWG&G were particularly interested in gaining a better understanding of the regional ground water flow system near Antalya. DSI and Kepez Electric hoped to learn how to increase the water supply to the Antalya region. Personally, the four of us (Jarrod and I, Gökhan and Zafer) were hoping to find "Power Cave".

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
At first glance the goals seemed simple: the exploration and mapping of underwater caves is a familiar task. However, the enormous logistical hurdles we encountered made it seem as if we were attempting to explore the moon. Because cave and technical diving equipment are not available in Turkey, the first task was to get all the necessary equipment from Florida across the Atlantic to Turkey. Fortunately, Lufthansa Airways (Germany) graciously sponsored the project by shipping the over 700 kg. of tanks, regulators, diver propulsion vehicles, lights, dry suits, etc. from Miami, Florida to Ankara, Turkey. Once in Turkey, the gear had to clear Turkish customs and it was only through the help of UKAM that we were able to finally receive our gear after four short days. From Ankara, we hauled the equipment by caravan (bus, pickup truck, and cargo company) 700 km. across the country to Antalya. We shipped in precious helium and oxygen from the British Oxygen Company (Turkey) in Ankara only to find that the fittings were incompatible with our equipment. Luckily, we had established our base at Kepez Electric Company where the capable but bewildered staff came to our rescue, fabricating the necessary adapters. Taking one problem at a time, we had almost over looked the logistics of transporting four divers and their equipment to and from the dive sites. Atlas Magazine (Turkey) provided the necessary funding to rent a minibus for longer journeys, and Kepez Electric and DSI supplied a huge 4WD truck and cars for the shorter trips. After two and a half weeks of preparations, meetings, and frustrating delays, we were finally ready to do what we came for: cave-diving.

Squashed in the back seat of the 4WD, I looked out the window toward the rugged mountains in the distance with amazement. I had suddenly realized that Jarrod and I, a couple of cave-diving college boys from Florida, were in Turkey, 10,000 km from home, about to suit up and dive under a mountain. The people here considered us the experts, the expert explorers who would fathom the depths of their fabled and mysterious submerged system of caves, produce accurate maps, and capture it all on video tape. A lump as big as the mountain lodged in my throat. Would these caves even go past the light zone? How deep? How far? How much water, and how clear? We soon would find answers to these questions and more.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Kirkgöz-Suluin... Preparations for diving are underway, equipment laid out on the rocks. Shortly they will descend into the strangely beautiful underwater world of karstified limestone.
In the late afternoon of my 17th day in Turkey, we arrived at one of the main discharges from the Kirkgözler spring system situated at the base of the Taurus Mountains. I was told that this was only one of many, as "Kirkgözler" - directly translated - means "40 eyes", but perhaps more accurately means several springs (editor's note: Kirkgözler may also mean 40 springs). The particular area to which we had come was reported to contain the biggest caves in the region. Crystal clear water emerged from a small cave at the base of a large vertical fissure in the extensively karstified limestone, but the discharge seemed low. We decided to search for another entrance to Suluin, the largest documented cave in the area. Following Gökhan like billy-goats, Jarrod, Zafer, and I scoured the jagged mountain side, looking behind every clump of trees for a cave entrance until a shout from Gökhan indicated that he had found it. A steep climb down around huge boulders into the cave revealed a magnificent pool about 10m across. The afternoon sun striking the water revealed a large cavern beckoning from beneath diaphanous water. It was stunning. We were excited, but the realization that it would take a full day to haul all the equipment over the 1km stretch from the truck and over 30m up the mountain from the plateau awoke us from the momentary dream. Thinking optimistically, we planned an afternoon dive into the spring, and hopefully we would encounter an underwater connection.

   
Photo: Gökhan Türe
Finike... Collecting survey data underwater.
Back at Kirkgöz spring, the small entrance and low discharge hid nothing. Gökhan and Zafer stayed at the entrance as Jarrod and I investigated the narrow passage. We followed a thick line for a short distance (probably left by a Yugoslavian team that had been paid to explore some of these caves) less than 50m down a tight and winding tunnel that really demanded single tanks. Jarrod attached a new reel to the existing thread, and we squeezed our way through one tight channel after another, our passing punctuated by the resonating ring of our double steel tanks striking the extremely hard limestone. Forty-five minutes later we were back at the cave entrance having found only two tunnels and reached the end of both. The conduits trended a 20m depth, leading us only approximately 270m. from the entrance. Tired and disappointed at not having found a connection, we headed home to prepare the equipment for the next day's trek up the mountain to Suluin.

The next morning the real work began. Though most of the equipment was left in the cave for the duration of our exploratory efforts in Suluin, trimix and nitrox bottles needed to be remixed, O2 refilled, and scooters and light batteries required charging for each dive. This became our routine for every diving day. Each morning, the task of hauling tanks, scooters, and light batteries uphill to the cave was shared between five of us: Jarrod, I, Gokhan, Zafer, and Hakan (our team doctor). After the dive, Gökhan, Zafer, and Hakan were left to haul it out themselves, as the risk of decompression sickness left Jarrod and I unavailable. Upon arriving back at Kepez, the tanks were remixed and filled, the batteries put on charge, and decompression tables run. The day usually ended around 9.00 P.M., just in time for a quick dinner before diving into slumber.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
A dive was made at Kirkgöz II spring next to Ox Cave. Eventualy the extremely narrow passage becomes impassable to divers, narrowing to a mere crevice.
We arrived at Suluin for the first dive on August 19 around 9.30 A.M. Since the cave was reported to run deep near the entrance, we had mixed 15/50 trimix (that's 15% oxygen and 50% helium) in the back tanks with a air stage bottle and 50% nitrox and O2 for decompression. As the water rose over my head I turned away from the sunlit entrance to see the floor slope away beneath me. The cave appeared cobalt blue, a manifestation of our lights reflecting off the white walls through the limpid water. Gökhan and Zafer were snapping photos like mad. Jarrod was tying off his reel to the end of another thick line that only penetrated the cave some few tens of meters. The cave walls were blanketed with flow stone, and a stalagtite forest hung overhead. Jarrod and I pushed down and into Suluin while Gökhan and Zafer stayed in the shallows to measure and photograph the cavern. We followed it back to a passage that led in about 200m and down to over 60m deep before it apparently came to an end. We faced a small restriction in the floor, which prevented us from advancing any further; our equipment made us to bulky to pass through. Returning to the main cavern we followed another passage for around 50m when it too came to an abrupt conclusion, leading up to a surface above. (We would later find this air chamber from decompression but surfacing there revealed only more flow stone and no way out.) It looked as if no further tunnel was going to be found, and we headed back to the entrance.

Reaching the surface didn't brighten the mood either as our friends had more bad news. The Jandarma (Turkish National Guard) had come while we were submerged. Apparently the Kirkgöz region is a protected archeological site and special government permission is required to be there. Once again, we were faced with more delays. Two days passed before the necessary permits were obtained and diving could resume.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
The mouth of Kirkgöz-Suluin from inside the cave...
We returned to Suluin on August 23rd. Though morale was extremely low, we needed to complete the cave survey and shoot some more video. Once more the gear was donned and the four of us descended. Gökhan and Zafer shot video of the cavern and took more photos while Jarrod and I swam in to finish collecting the survey data. Little did we know, the tide was about to change. We headed for the deep tunnel first. At line's end, Jarrod was investigating a small fissure while I dropped down to investigate the restriction. Squeezing down to 65m revealed a small tunnel that ran back and further in. Before I could come up, Jarrod entered it with the reel, letting out the nylon as he went. We followed the small passage as it snaked circuitously down to a depth of over 80m. The passage then began to rise, and before I knew it we were traversing what seemed like a large hallway at only 45m. Turning a corner, our limestone hallway widened, exploding into an enormous room. Unfortunately, in our pessimism we had left the scooters back at Kepez not expecting to find any leads. (It always seems to work like that, probably thanks to a guy named Murphy.) I checked my air pressure to find that it was time to return. Begrudgingly, I signaled Jarrod and we headed out. At decompression we made plans for the next dive. As I remember it was captured in a single word: scooters!

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Divers of the Karstdive project at Kirkgöz-Suluin conducting safety checks prior to diving.
That dive set the stage for the rest of the trip. We spent two more days exploring Kirkgöz-Suluin. We discovered the Stadium on the next dive, the largest water filled room I have ever encountered. Flow stone, travertine draperies, and stalagtites covered the walls - that is, the walls we could see. One whole dive - over 40 minutes in the Stadium - was spent following three walls of the same room. We couldn't explore the top of the rooms without violating the decompression ceiling. The bottom was more than 20m below. I felt like a fly on a window looking for a way out. So many leads fanned out before us that one year of diving could be spent trying to count them all. Another day was definitely in order, but we faced two immediate problems. First, our exhaust gas was dislodging sediment from the ceiling, reducing visibility all along our path; and second, hauling the equipment up and down the mountain was back-breaking work. Red tape and delays had compressed our time-table to such an extent that accomplishing our goals meant back to back diving for the remainder of the trip. For four consecutive days we carried hundreds of kilograms worth of equipment up and down the hill. Five days would have to be enough. On August 25 we descended into Kirkgöz-Suluin for the last time. We explored and surveyed several side tunnels leading away from the Stadium and brought video camera and video lights to document our finds. All total, Suluin revealed over 800m of passages, a room the size of a football stadium, and a wealth of archeological artifacts. Satisfied with a job well done, we carried the equipment down the mountain one final time and headed back to Kepez. We had only two more days to hit the last two targets before our equipment would have to be packed for the return trip to the USA.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Kirkgöz-Suluin... Gökhan Türe waiting for Todd and Jarrod.
The next stop was Düdenbasi, a large spring discharging from the travertine plateau just outside of Antalya. It was like familiar territory. The setting was reminiscent of a Florida encounters: a large magnitude spring discharging from a lat carbonate plateau. The spring and the surrounding area have been converted into a state park where tourists come from all over the world to see the lush oasis in the otherwise arid Turkish landscape. From a diverted stream channel water falls over travertine cliffs to mix with the water from Düdenbasi below. The height of the waterfall, the blue water at the bottom, and lush green trees and grasses combine to create a spectacular setting for a dive. Sadly, attention is quickly diverted from the wondrous natural beauty to the piles of litter on the shores and the knowledge that though the water quality is still good, the current practice of sewage disposal directly to the travertine plateau without treatment will inevitably have it's effects. It's unfortunate that such a beautiful place should be subjected to the litter of tourists and the environmental catastrophes created by man. Expeditions such as this one will hopefully raise the public awareness and help foster a concern for conservation and environmental protection in the Antalya region.

Anticipating a shallow dive, we used air in the back tanks with one nitrox stage bottle and O2 for decompression. Gökhan and Zafer admitted some difficulty in swimming against the flow but managed to collect photographs of the entrance. To overcome the high discharge, Jarrod and I headed in full speed with scooters. The visibility was poor, however, only around 3m, which in a conduit such as Düdenbasi (12 min diameter) impeded our progress. It was a constant struggle to maintain a close formation. Jarrod led with the reel while I made the necessary wraps in the line to insure that it remained tight in the high flow. Too much slack could result in a dangerous entanglement. Holding true to the apparent "Turkish Tradition," Düdenbasi came up with a surprise. After penetrating 400m, the tunnel had dropped to a depth of over 65m, and lacking the necessary decompression gas for a dive this deep we were forced to turn back. Though another dive was certainly in order, our time-table couldn't permit it, and we had to say good-bye to this mysterious tunnel at Düdenbasi, at least for 1995.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
Calibrating the oxygen level.
We spent another late night mixing gas, filling tanks, charging lights and scooters, this time loading it all into a minibus. The following morning's four-hour drive would take us to our last target, Gök Cave, a reportedly deep cave somewhere near the town of Finike on the Mediterranean coast. Luckily the bus came with a driver - most of its passengers were dead on their feet. Elvan, Gokhan's wife, had come down from Ankara to join us, but she probably found better conversation with the driver on that trip. We arrived in Finike around 11:00 a.m. on August 27th. From there a French report on the cave that had been prepared some years before provided the only directions. It felt like our luck had changed when we quickly found the cave just beside the highway only 1.5km south of Finike. That feeling quickly disappeared, however, when we found that getting to the water required a 30m hike up the mountainside followed by the same distance down a treacherous scree slope into the entrance of the cave. The slope was also covered in goat dung which was not only distasteful but also quite slippery. To make matters even worse, the cave was only 10m. away from the blue warm water of the Mediterranean Sea. After joking about going for a nice open water dive, we bit the bullet and began hauling equipment up another mountain.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
At Düdenbasi an artificial waterfall has been created by a drainage channel from Kepez Power Station and water flowing from irrigation channels. Divers preparing to submerge.
A beautiful blue pool sat at the base of an immense cavern in the side of the karstified limestone mountain. Long strands of green algae floated calmly on the surface. The water was colder than Kirkgöz and Düdenbasi and was quite salty. Since Gök Cave was thought to be a deep, we came prepared with 15/50 trimix in both the back tanks and in a single stage bottle each. Air, 50% nitrox, and O2 were brought in for decompression. After all the equipment had been brought in and set up, decompression tables were run to cover any imaginable contingency. We had been diving for the last 4 days straight and wanted to play it safe. In 5 minute intervals from 3 to 55 minutes, tables were cut on a lap top computer and transferred onto an underwater slate for 7m depth intervals from 60 to 100m. It took over an hour and everyone's patience wore thin. But we were prepared, at least I thought we were, for anything Gök Cave had to offer.

   
Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya
Gökhan Türe busy adjusting his camera at the entrance of Kirkgöz-Suluin before diving.
After gearing up, Jarrod and I descended into the cavern to decide whether video would be in order. I was immediately overwhelmed by the size of the entrance. Later it was measured to be over 80m in diameter. The water was "air" clear, and the cave immediately dropped deep out of sight, heading deep into the mountain without diminishing. After dropping scooters and decompression bottles, we returned to the surface for Gökhan and Zafer, the video camera, and every light we had. Trying to stay above 30m, the four of us slowly swam around the cavern entrance video taping massive speleothems on the walls and ceiling, and the spectacular view of the sun filtering into the gargantuan mouth of the cave. After 15 minutes it was time to split up. The camera and lights were handed off to Gökhan, and Zafer, Jarrod and I headed down. Even though the water was crystal clear we couldn't simultaneously see both sides of the tunnel at once due mainly to it's sheer size. Being in the middle brought a disturbing feeling of insignificance. Jarrod picked the left wall and we continued to follow the ceiling which ran at a slight but noticeable angle that took us continually deeper. While Jarrod spooled out the line, I made the wraps around stalagtites so huge that it was like giving them a bear-hug to get the line around. Finally, we came to a ledge on top of a huge snow-white wall. At 90m below the surface the ledge provided a necessary depot for our scooters - they aren't designed for that kind of depth. Making another wrap, I followed Jarrod in his descent along the face of the wall where the conduit kept going in and down. Looking at my depth gauge, I realized that Gök Cave had also held true to the "Turkish Tradition" as we were passing 110m and still dropping. We finally tied off the reel on top of a huge fallen boulder at 117m. The cave appeared to bottom out. A small restriction looked enticing but, being 20m deeper than our deepest decompression schedule, we had no time to think about anything but getting out. Returning to the scooters at 90m, a loud popping sound was a sure sign of trouble. Jarrod's scooter had imploded from the excessive pressure! Using the motor to keep it up, Jarrod swam it out while I finished collecting the survey data. Unfortunately, I was too busy with the survey to see for myself, but Jarrod said that he could see the sunlit entrance all the way out from the 80m depth.

Three and a half hours later we broke the surface of the water a little apprehensive about decompression sickness but still overwhelmingly excited at having explored such a tremendous cave. We had penetrated over 230m of Gök Cave to a depth of 117m, with a total bottom time of 25 minutes, excluding the 15 minute video dive. As it turns out, Gök Cave is now the deepest known underwater cave in Asia. The expedition couldn't have ended in a better way.

   
Photo: Hakan Gönendik
The cave mouth of the Finike system. The deep blue water of Incirli Gök Cave with floating green algae...
All told, two years of joint planning between Turkish and American divers, and one month of intense preparations, meetings, and red tape produced only 8 solid days underwater. Nevertheless, diving through the Stadium at Kirkgöz-Suluin, dropping 117m down into Gök Cave, and becoming good friends with fellow underwater explorers from this far away land of Turkey made it all worth while. Working together, we were able to explore 5 different cave systems. Survey data was collected from each system that will give the universities, DSI, and Kepez a better idea of the groundwater flow system in the Antalya region. Water and rock samples will aid ongoing studies at UKAM regarding the history of karstification in southern Turkey. And, much of the exploration was captured on video tape to be shared with the world. Karst Dive 95 was truly a cooperative effort, for without the help of our many friends and sponsors nobody would have even gotten wet. It would take too much time to properly list all the people that took part in the project, but, beyond our sponsors mentioned earlier, special thanks go to American Underwater Lighting (USA) (who supplied us with the video camera and lights), and the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section (USA) who supplied over 3000m. of nylon exploration line, 1600 m. of which were left in the caves as our trail, a memory of our discoveries.

Of course there will be a Karst Dive 96. Gökhan and Zafer will come to Florida next summer to receive formal cave and technical training. Undoubtedly more divers will participate, both Turkish and American. And, though there will hopefully be more logistical support, more problems and who knows how many more surprises will arise through the "Turkish Tradition," but Jarrod and I plan to find out!


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