“The reward is the possibility of seeing something beautiful, something that nobody has seen before you.”
Even with lights, it is dark, and the sense of claustrophobia is overwhelming. Passages wind off in different directions to confuse the careless or unprepared. And should you find yourself in danger in these tunnels in the Earth’s crust, there can be no quick escape; no way to scream, even. Why? Because Russia’s Orda Cave is not only deep underground, it is also underwater. As cave diver, Bogdana Vashchenko warns, “There are hundreds of ways to die in a cave, and many divers never come back.”
The Orda (or Ordinskaya) Cave is located in the shadow of the Ural Mountains, in Russia’s Perm Region at the border of Europe and Asia. It is the longest underwater cave system yet discovered in the former USSR, measuring 4,400 meters (14,435 ft) long – most of this underwater – and up to 43 meters (141 ft) deep including its dry sections. The cave also contains the longest subterranean passage fully flooded with water, which 935 meters (3,067 ft) long. And in terms of the size of its underwater galleries, it is one of the world’s biggest caves of its kind. What’s more, new smaller passages and caverns are still being found. So it’s definitely not a good place in which to get lost.
“The first time I went to the Orda cave in 2005 I immediately fell in love with it,” cave diver Bogdana Vashchenko tells Environmental Graffiti. Her husband Viktor Lyagushkin is the photographer who took these stunning photos, part of a book project called Orda Cave Awareness. “It was an incomparable delight,” she enthuses, “floating in zero gravity in giant rooms filled with absolutely clear water.”
Entering the icy waters of the cave system’s submerged section is a challenge in itself. The temperature can be a freezing -20°C (-4°F) at the surface, with the water temperature itself a heart-stopping 5°C (41°F). Making matters more difficult are the slippery steps and ladders one must navigate when descending from the surface entrance down to the water.
“As you enter the cave you feel the air temperature drop and you just know the water will be cold,” says another cave diver, Lamar Hires, of the descent into the Orda Cave. “There were patches of ice in the cave left from the previous winter thaw.” Chilling – quite literally!
Yet the rewards are great for braving the frigid waters. “Orda Cave is very diverse and each passage is different,” says Vashchenko. “Therefore, swimming in it is never boring. Each dive is very different. Moreover, it is not completely explored and you can always find a place where nobody else has been. This inspires me for each new dive.”
“For millions of years this amazing place has existed,” says Vashchenko, offering a glimpse of a grand history that makes our existence on the planet pale in comparison. “Water formed this palace when there were no humans here to see it.”
But now, of course, there are. “It is a special feeling,” she says of exploring the caves. “I think it's the same feeling cosmonauts have on the Moon. You are hanging with no gravity in this strange, unusual world. You fly like a bird over its landscapes.”
Orda Cave is known to divers as a “white bride” because of the chalky color of its gypsum rock, which formed around 200 million years back in time. Yet, this gypsum, while gorgeous to look at, also presents difficulties for explorers. “If you touch something it may break off in your hand,” explains Hires. And this can prove more dangerous than it might sound...
“If you try to ceiling walk it may rain down on you,” says Hires, expanding on the difficulty of diving in gypsum caves. Indeed, he’s even “watched a piece of the ceiling the size of a cinder block fall from the ceiling” and seen boulders at the bottom of Orda Cave “the size of cars and buses, sheared from the ceiling and resting on the floor.”
For those not in the know, cave diving is a combination of two occasionally risky but popular sports – caving and SCUBA diving. The result is an activity that is far more challenging and potentially more dangerous than either activity considered separately.
As well as losing their way in the myriad passages, cave divers have to contend with low visibility, potentially strong and tricky water currents, and perilous depths. And, as suggested, there is no easy getaway. In case of an emergency, cave divers cannot swim straight to the surface but instead have to trace their path all the way back to the exit, which may be a long way away.
Naturally, such hazards are not lost on Vashchenko. “We understand the danger of such dives, but take it gently,” she says. “We manage the risks and try to make our dives safer. In addition, I want to say that all divers who were involved in the [photographic] project trained a lot to be able to find exits from the most difficult situations.”
Like any underwater cave complex, Orda Cave is not a place for those likely to be afraid of its depths. “Do we feel fear? The answer is ‘no’,” asserts Vashchenko. “We control our risks, we manage them. Before each dive we discuss each possibility to find solutions to any situation that may arise. If it is too risky, we do not dive.”
And yet, overall, risks are part of the terrain. “Is it risky? The answer is ‘yes’,” says Vashchenko frankly. “You must be aware of each step, or you will die.”
“Thank God, Orda has been kind,” she adds, “and up until now all the divers who entered its labyrinths have returned home. Although maybe it is proof of their high level of ability.”
Because of all the potential hazards and difficulties, cave diving is a rather elite sport. In order to gain access to watery chambers like these, a diver has to undergo extensive training, and indeed most fatalities associated with the sport are associated with a lack of such preparation or else inadequate equipment.
Cave diving requires the use of specialized equipment like dry suits and rebreathers (closed circuit breathing apparatus). The divers also use guide lines to find their way around the often maze-like tunnels. Not using a proper guide line is thought to be the leading cause of death among divers who venture into caves without proper training.
There is yet another consideration Vashchenko says divers take into account when it comes to planning a successful dive. Occasionally, she tells us, lots of small problems can mount up as one is embarking on an expedition – with strobes or non-essential equipment like camera housings, for example. This is a warning sign.
“It happens to all cave divers,” says Vashchenko of such pre-dive technical glitches. She reveals that when too many things go wrong before an expedition, divers have been known to say: “the cave does not want to see you.”
According to Vashchenko, there is a kind of mysticism to cave diving and its associated dangers. “Cave divers believe that caves are alive,” she says, “That there is some kind of spirit living there.”
“If the cave does not want to see you but you insist, strange things may happen to you,” she adds.
As for the task of photographing the Orda Cave, Vashchenko says: “We worked hard. It’s a job. We had a stunning cave, and our task was not to spoil the photos through incompetent actions.”
“The team practiced at the surface and then did lots of dives to get a good result,” says Vashchkeno on the preparations undertaken in order to get these stunning pictures. “It was physically hard; the water temperature was about 5 degrees [underwater] in the cave and 20 degrees below zero at the surface.”
And not only was it cold, but each time the team descended into the caves they had to take all their equipment with them, the best part 50 meters down. “It’s hard, but we wanted to show people this beautiful cave so that they could share our admiration,” concludes Vashchenko. And seeing these amazing photographs, we’d say they have succeeded in doing just that.