IN 1979 WHEN BO LENANDER DIVED into a very small lake in the mountains of Jämtland in Sweden there was no Wikipedia to describe what he was doing and the “black space” he documented with his analog camera did not reveal its inner secrets.
The black space was forgotten until the summer of 1997 when some intrepid divers attempted to uncover its murky secrets, only to be beaten by strong currents, leaving the small lake quiet and undisturbed for another ten years.
A new generation of cave divers took up the exploration in 2008. Now able to dive in the winter time, when the currents were more forgiving, they sawed a hole in the thick ice which finally revealed the black space from Bo Lenander’s photo. After relentless digging through the dirt and shifting heavy sands, they finally entered the void.
EVERY SPELEOLOGISTS* DREAM is to discover something no one has ever seen before. What the divers in Bjurälven discovered in 2008 is still only partially known – they’re far from the end. What has been revealed though is that Bo’s analog photo from 1979 shows the entrance to what is now Sweden’s biggest under water cave system.
“Why? Well… I think our drive is similar to other explorers’: We want to see something new. And the special thing with cave diving is that we can’t just take a look at Google Earth and get a pretty good idea about what we will find, like climbers and alpinists. We actually have to swim there and take a look. Every meter is… totally new, to everyone. That feeling, where every stroke with your fins brings you into something that no one has seen before, is a magic one.”
Oscar Svensson loves what many people would describe as a claustrophobic nightmare. The eagerness in his voice when he’s talking about squeezing through a tight hole, hours of diving into the cave system, is special.
“No one can know what’s behind the next corner. We learn more and more about reading the caves. But then, when you thought you had a good idea about what will come next, something totally different will happen. The smallest opening can be the entrance to the widest part of the cave. It never gets boring. For me just seeing something new is wonderful, but exploring something that is new to everyone puts the experience on a different level.”
Many would say this is just an extra level of scariness. And it’s not hard to imagine that something could go wrong.
“There are dangers, of course. The biggest fear is a leaking dry suit as the water is only fractionally above freezing. To get back from the far end of what we have now discovered takes about two hours. It’s always cold down there, but a leaking suit would be… too cold.”
“EVERY NEW ENTRANCE in the system is surrounded by potential dangers so you need to think about safety that little bit longer. But everyone in this group is aware of what we’re doing, we always carry backup tubes and equipment, and backups for the backups etc and we all know that the best safety comes from keeping a level head. But of course, if something goes really wrong, you’re not exactly in the best place…”
Oscar sounds calmer and more focused when talking about the safety aspects of exploring under water caves. Which is probably the best combination – a will to explore, but enough cool to not rush and to think through the consequences. But what is the dream? What is the ultimate discovery?
“Last winter we discovered a part of the cave that was bigger than anything else we have encountered in earlier expeditions. That was a highlight for sure as it is about seven meters wide and three meters high. We named it Broadway as that’s how it felt to us after swimming and pushing through tight caves for hundreds and hundreds of meters.
Not far beyond that we reached a big cave which was impassable. We were forced to swim back through smaller tunnels – thirty to forty centimeters high – to find a way around it. There’s not much room to wiggle around, but enough to get through. In the end we could only find an opening which was too tight to squeeze through. We started digging to push through on the last day of the expedition, but we were forced to turn back.”
WHERE IS THE END, and what is an end? The Bjurälven cave system is full of smaller and bigger openings, dead ends, tight holes and parallel tunnels – an almost endless task for the patient group of divers. But do they really want to find everything? Do they wish to reach the other side?
“Just like a climber, we want to reach the top. Which in our case is where Bjurälven “disappears” into the ground about three kilometers upstream from where we enter the cave. As a bird flies, that is. As a cave goes, it could be double, or triple. At the end of the 2015 expedition we had mapped almost two kilometers of the cave, which is a lot, but very far from close to the other side.”
When Oscar starts talking about the 2016 expedition the tempo once again picks up. He speaks with the voice of an excited explorer, eager to peek around the next corner. Push through to where no human being has ever been before.
*) Speleology (also spelled spelæology or spelaeology) is the scientific study of caves and other karst features, their make-up, structure, physical properties, history, life forms, and the processes by which they form (speleogenesis) and change over time (speleomorphology). (Wikipedia)
Photos by Sami Paakkarinen
Feature image (on top) Bjuralven
Cave Diving in Sweden, source: www.klattermusen.se