MAKAUWAHI CAVE – A TREASURE TROVE OF FOSSILS
From ground level, the opening in the rock face is about a meter high. It is dark inside so it is hard to tell how long the passage is, but I know it leads to a cavern. I crouch down as low as I can, try not to hit my head, and duck walk my way through.
On Kauai’s south shore lies the Makauwahi Cave Reserve. It has the largest limestone cave in the Pacific, is the most fossil rich site in Hawaii and one of the richest in the world. To reach the entrance, we saunter atop coast line cliffs where the trail’s red dirt contrasts with green shrubs and the blue ocean.
We pause often to watch the crashing waves, check for breeching humpback whales, and admire the distant, almost empty, white sand beach backed by a lushly vegetated hillside.
After safely negotiating the entrance passage and exiting the low-ceilinged cavern it led us to, we cross a large open area. At the entrance to a larger cave, we join Jerry, a volunteer guide from the Reserve Society.
Over hundreds of thousands of years, the heart of an ancient sand dune here turned to stone and formed a huge cave. About 7000 years ago, the cave’s central ceiling collapsed and the rubble blocked off the tidal ocean water. Fresh and ground water collected, forming an inland sink hole lake. An artist’s rendering of what it might have looked like features extinct birds flying over the lake and lush native vegetation.
Jerry explains “Whatever falls into the water of that lake gets preserved in the sediment in the bottom of the lake. Over the thousands of years since the roof collapsed, the sediment is now built up and the lake is now dry.” We stand on thirty-three feet of sediment recording 10,000 years of time. The layers bear evidence of a myriad of plants and animals, floods, droughts, and dramatic events such as a tsunami and hurricanes. Archaeological bores have revealed finds such as the huge talon of an extinct bird-hunting owl, bones of extinct flightless ducks, and evidence of the first settlers: fish hooks, octopus lures, and shell jewellery. All preserved in this natural time capsule.
The selection of plants for the sink hole floor restoration was guided by the fossils found. A stand of native palms is a focus point and some are almost as tall as the outer walls.
Outside the sinkhole, more reforestation with native plants is an on-going project. Integral to the process are African land tortoises. These lumbering, pre-historic looking beasts munch on low lying invasive species but do not have teeth to chew on the bark of newly planted native trees.
We follow Jerry deeper into the sand floor cave. Openings to the surface let in wind-blown sand, which is very fine and it filters down through the rock to the cave floor. In the light from his flashlight we see popcorn-like flowstone, formed from condensation, dimpling the ceiling. Water flowing through cracks in the walls has formed delicate lines of stone drapery. It is impossible to count the multitude of diagonal layers of sand that make up the limestone walls.
There are smaller caves behind this larger one. They are culturally significant for Hawaiians and are “kapu” or forbidden to others. One is a wet cave and in its total darkness live rare creatures which are totally adapted to their environment. The white Kauai cave spider has no pigment or eyes and hunts other blind cave dwelling invertebrates. They only live here and in a few other locations nearby. I am glad we are not exploring that cave!
Retracing our steps, we exit the cave and blink in the brightness of the day. Strolling around the sinkhole, we study the formations in the rock walls and admire the lush greenery of the reintroduced native and Polynesian plants. In typical Kauai fashion, a downpour suddenly starts. We take shelter in the cave near the entrance and contemplate the likelihood that thousands of years ago, early visitors to this site must have also sheltered from the rain like this.
Once the storm abates, we crouch down low and make our way out through the entrance hole.
The rim trails, which wind through more native plantings, lead us to views into the sinkhole from above. Looking at it from here, it is amazing to think of the thousands of years of history preserved just below the sinkhole floor.
For Your Information:
Paleoecologists David Burney and Lida Pigott Burney have been studying the cave since 1992 and the 17-acre cave reserve was established in 2004.
PHOTOS by K. Cullen
1 Coastal view
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