story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Dana Edmunds
He’s calling it “The Bee Cave,” at least for now. Apt, because there’s a hive stuck to the wall of this pit entrance, about 15 feet down. The bees are active, whizzing in and out of the 30-foot-wide, 50-foot-deep pothole in the lava fields of Miloli‘i, on the Big Island’s southwest coast. At the bottom is a scree pile (the remains of the cave’s collapsed roof), a few ti plants and two vaulted archways—entrances into the dark of an unexplored cave. They could be access points to a miles-long lava tube complex, with fantastic and surprising features yet unseen by human eyes. Could be the ancient Hawaiians camped here and left evidence of their presence. Could be just an empty dead end. No one knows.
To find out, Ric Elhard ties off to a lava boulder and tosses the coiled rope into the pit. He hooks up and backsteps to the edge, one eye on the drop behind him, the other on the hive. It’s tricky enough to rappel down walls of rope-chewing lava. Doing it through a cloud of bees makes the descent just a little more interesting.
But this is what Ric Elhard and cavers like him do: Find a hole in the ground and follow it to its end, no matter how far the drop, how deep the cave, how nasty the crawl. Ric’s been exploring the lava tubes and tectonic cracks of the Big Island since the ’70s. In 1989, he moved to the Ka‘u district from California with his partner of eighteen years, Rose Herrera, also a caver (and please, the proper term is “caver,” not “spelunker,” which connotes amateurism). Since the ’60s, when pioneering caver Bill Halliday started exploring the caldera caves of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, growing interest in the Big Island’s caves has attracted explorers from around the world who come each year to survey and map these troglodyte realms. Some are convoluted mazes with cathedral-sized grottoes, others just puka in the ground that “pinch out” after a few yards. What they’ve been discovering are among the longest, largest and arguably the most spectacular lava tube systems on Earth.
Although the entrances at the bottom of the Bee Cave are promising, maybe 25 feet high, Ric suspects the cave dead ends just beyond the twilight zone, where light doesn’t reach—but maybe not. If it seems like a lot of effort and risk for what’s likely to be a few feet of lava tube, it is. But remote as it may be, the chance that this is the entrance to an undiscovered system is enough to draw Ric to the edge of the pit, bees or no bees. Apart from the deep oceans, caves are the last unexplored frontiers on Earth. “You never know what you’re going to find until you go,” he says, taking a last look behind him before dropping over the cliff.