Since two thirds of the island are covered by limestone you can explore caves nearly everywhere. But some regions deserve a closer look.
1. Portland Ridge
1.1 Jackson's Bay area
The Portland Ridge is the most southern and driest part of Jamaica. The Ridge is a peninsula about 13 km long and 6 km wide, reaching a height of only 160 metres. These low limestone hills are covered with an impenetrable forest of agaves, cactus and scrub making exploration and surface navigation extremely difficult. Jackson's Bay is located at the SW corner of the hills. It was here, in 1964, that the Jamaica Caving Club (J.C.C.) discovered the Jackson's Bay Cave, one of the most beautiful caves of the Caribbean region.
| In the following years more
caves were discovered, making a huge system of more than 10 kilometres
situated in an area of less than one square kilometre. All these fossil
caves show evidence of extensive phreatic development and nearly all
are located less than 50 m above sea level. |
map from the book Jamaica Underground by Alan Fincham.
Click on the picture for a full sized map of the Jackson's Bay area.
Attention: big file size (222 kb)
Beside numerous smaller holes and blind shafts the main caves are:
Arrow Cave and Pit, Bilbo's Cave, Birthday Cave, Boarwood Cave, Crab Cave, Creeper Cave, Corner Cave, Dead-Eye Holes, Jackson's Bay Cave (9 entrances), Lloyds Cave (5 entrances), Potoo Hole (3 entrances), Two Tier Chamber Cave, Wild Goat Cave and Somerville Cave (3 entrances), Goat Cave, Drum Cave (4 entrances) and Water Jar Cave (4 entrances).
The last four caves, overlying parts of the Jackson's Bay Cave, are called the "upper level" caves. They appear to be remnants of a more ancient, and apparently independent, cave system.
Pottery shards and human bones have been found in almost all the known caves of the Jackson Bay area. As with most other coastal cave areas in Jamaica, the Jackson's Bay Caves appear to have been utilised by the extinct Jamaican Arawak Indians or Tainos.
This peaceful civilisation was wiped out in the beginning of the 16th century by the Spaniards. They treated the about two million Arawaks so harshly that in fifty years after Christopher Columbus set foot on the island all of them were dead. To fulfil the need for a cheap labour force, one of the biggest migrations of history started: the slave trade out of Africa. These people are the ancestors of the black Jamaicans.
In the caves of Jackson Bay there are also Arawak rock carvings and paintings. The carvings into stalagmites in some cave entrances can be found all over the island. However, the recent discovery of a gallery of Arawak pictographs, daubed in guano or clay on the walls below the 20 m deep Potoo Hole shaft represent one of the few pictograph sites in the island and is thus of special importance. The images presented in this unusual and, seemingly, secretive site appear to represent several animal forms, including turtles and crocodiles. While several anthropomorphic forms are also present, the interpretation and significance of many of the images can only be guessed at.
Jackson's Bay area is also of considerable paleontological importance. The American Museum of Natural History organized some expeditions (1993-1996) to this region and have recovered the fossil remains of an extinct Jamaican monkey (Xenothrix mcgregori) in these caves.
The Portland Ridge is one of the driest places in Jamaica and receives an annual rainfall of only some 40 cm. But there is evidence that when the Arawaks where living on the island the climate was much wetter than it is today. The discovery of pottery in a dried up calcited pool in the now completely dry Water Jar Cave suggests a significant climatic change has taken place since Arawak people used this location for water collection. Further evidence has come with the radio-carbon dating of the extensive deposits of fossil bat guano from several of the caves. They date from some 1,000 to over 10,000 years BP. So in the past there was a much bigger bat population compared with the small one of today. The climate had to be much wetter with a lush vegetation providing the insects and fruits necessary to support the large bat colonies.
2. The Red Hills
These limestone hills reaching a height of 800 m are located west of Kingston. Although very close to the capital the region is not very much explored by cavers. Since we visited this region for the first time in 1993 we are convinced that the Red Hills have a big speleological potential. In the vicinity of Swain Spring and Padmore we then discovered some smaller caves (Hyde Hole I and II, SC33 sink,...).
During the expedition of 1998 a team explored a 85 m deep pit. This abyss is the home of an enormous bat colony. At sunset there is a fantastic spectacle when the animals leave the cave. They fly along the walls of the huge pit in big spirals upwards and fly into the night. This huge migration takes more than 20 minutes. The cave was baptised "Bat Tornado Cave". But it is possible that the cave is the unexplored Diamond Hole number 3.
This deep shaft indicates that the easy accessible but largely unexplored Red Hills hides an enormous potential for caves and is worth a detailed exploration.
3. The John Crow Mountains
The John Crow mountains are located North East of the Blue Mountains. This coastal mountain ridge is a gigantic NE-inclinated limestone slab. The highest summits reach 1200 m. Because the prevailing trade winds are from the east and the mountains are the first obstacle they bump into, an annual average rainfall of an unbelievable 635 cm is measured.
So there is potential of very deep caves indeed. But before you start packing first listen to Michael Ray Taylor. He is one of the very rare cavers who ever visited the region.
"Lush, gentle slopes hike an upper ridge, the size and shape of Manhattan, that is a jagged hell of limestone crevasses and rotting, thorn-covered vegetation. Shadowed by a dark canopy of tree ferns and elfin forest, the place looks ideal for guerrillas, cannibals, black leopards and surviving Tyrannossauri." ...
And he continues:
"It was the toughest going imaginable. On the average, it took an hour to hike an eight of an mile in the John Crows"
Only for the toughest among us :)
4. The Cockpit Country
One of the most surprising limestone landscapes in the tropics is certainly cockpit karst. This is limestone rock which has been weathered and eroded to form an impressive maze of small hills and depressions.
From the air it looks like an oversized egg-tray, with steep-sided, closed depressions or cockpits.
In Jamaica there are three regions with this type of karst: the Cockpit Country, the Dry Harbour Mountains and the Crofts Mountains. Here we will concentrate on the Cockpit Country.
This karst plateau with an area of 250 square kilometre (100 square mile), has an elevations of 600-700 m (2000 - 2300 ft). There are an estimated total of 4500 depressions. The conical shaped hills in between the cockpits can reach 600 feet (180 m) and are covered with a dense canopy of trees, 50-60 feet high (15-18 m), known as wet limestone forest.
Tower-karst is found at the borders of cockpit karst. This landscape consists of isolated, steep sided limestone hills with slopes varying from 60 to 90 degrees with heights of some 100 - 150 m (330 - 500 ft) above the surrounding land surface.
So what has Cockpit Country to offer to us cavers? The rugged terrain, the lack of water and the vegetation makes Cockpit country an extreme difficult terrain to explore. In the past there were several foreign expeditions to the borders of the Cockpits. The hope was to discover large cave systems. You must know that this area gets a lot of rain (during the wet season 4 meter of rain!) and that all the water disappears under the ground. So it seems logic to expect big underground rivers. But all that was found were numerous smaller pits choked with mud.
Yet there is still hope. When you visit Windsor Great Cave at the borders of the Cockpit County you will see that this fossil cave was once a big drain with a diameter of 50 m...
A word about the two pictures you see here of cockpit country. Although based on real map data the two pictures are 100 % computer generated. You can also download a virtual flight over this area. Download the AVI-file (3.0 MB).
5. Concord Area
6. The south coast
7. No caving but worth the detour!
Bioluminiscense in Rockbay, Falmouth
A summary from the report of the first Belgian expedition in '93 to Jamaica:
"At night we went sailing in the bay. The water was perfectly calm. Then we jumped in the water. The experience was incredible: we swam in a cloud of green light. When we left the water, the water droplets continued lighting like emeralds on our skins for a second."
The bioluminiscense in Rockbay is according to experts the most beautiful example in the world. The light is produced by millions of micro-organisms known as Pyrodinium bahamense. They are related to the Dinoflagellates. By turbulence of the water, they start lightning , what can be observed as a green shining cloud.
There is another bay with the same phenomenon in La Parguera, Lajas, Puerto Rico. Another and even better site is Vieques a little island east to Puerto Rico. This phenomenon actually exists in many bays in the Caribbean but some are more impressive than others. Many thanks to Heather Crawford for the information.
If someone knows of other places in the world, please give me a sign.