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Professor caves into fun

Posted on 02.20.2013

When you finally get a little free time, what are some things that usually pique your interest? Playing chess? Knitting? Assistant Professor of Biology Dean Wiseman enjoys caving in his free time.

Caving is an activity in which a small group of people explore a cave. The sport sometimes involves diving underwater, squeezing through small entrances or climbing up or rappelling down treacherous pathways.
According to Wiseman, a “spelunker” goes into a cave just to have fun, whereas  a “caver” is more interested in conservation and exploration. When a person is first introduced to such a sport, he or she would be considered a “spelunker,” someone who is inexperienced or visits caves for recreational fun.

A “caver,” on the other hand, refers to someone who is experienced in almost every aspect of caving and more focused on researching or exploring rather than recreation.

Wiseman said that cavers are different from spelunkers in the way that they approach the sport.

“We call it ‘caving.’ The term ‘spelunking’ is used, but [as] a caver,  and a person that takes himself seriously in the hobby, or the lifestyle if you will, the joke is [that] cavers rescue spelunkers,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman said that caving involves vigorous physical activity, including the strenuous use of the arms and legs. Caving also requires enough endurance to go hiking. Oftentimes, cavers must squeeze into small passage ways and sometimes rappel several hundred feet into a cave because there are no other entrances.

Assistant Professor of Biology Dean Wiseman squeezes through a passage on a cave diving excursion. Photo contributed by Dean Wiseman.

Wiseman said that cavers should bring several essential tools, including three independent sources of light, which typically  would be two headlamps and a flashlight; a helmet, because it is easy to bang one’s head, and the proper clothing suited to a specific cave. Overalls are a popular choice  for clothing because they keep a person from getting dirty or wet.

Beyond the necessary tools, Wiseman said that cavers should be self-reliant but use the buddy system to help ensure  safety underground.

“Be [as] self-sufficient as possible; [but] if something does go wrong, [such as an] objective hazard, slipping and falling, you’d want to have someone there to be able to assist you if the need were to arise,” he said.

According to Wiseman, one should do research before caving. He also said that the temperature in and around a cave, as well as recent weather conditions, are important factors to keep in mind for safety. When going to a cave that has the potential to flood, one has to pay close attention to the weather and check to see if there is a chance of rain or a sudden warm-up after a snowfall. Some caves are open year-round because they are elevated and do not have a flood risk, but some caves are very deep and close to water tables.

Wiseman said that cave passages are sometimes like one person tunnels, and in some areas caves may lead off into several different directions. He said that good observation skills usually help you find your way back, but he uses non-defacing marks or flagging tape as a precaution.

Wiseman has been to caves all over the world, from Mexico to New Zealand. His longest expedition was at Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, the deepest cave in the United States at 1,604 feet. Wiseman spent a week exploring Lechuguilla, which is only accessible to approved researchers and exploration teams.

Access to some caves requires permits or vouchers. Cave accessibility can be restricted for various reasons including to protect the rock formations and animal life, but also to protect an inexperienced explorer’s safety, according to Wiseman.

In Indiana, there are some caves that are open to the public including Bluespring Cave in Bedford, Ind. and Squire Boone Caverns near Corydon, Ind.

According to, there are many caves that are located on private property, and a majority of privately owned caves are tightly restricted or closed to outsiders.

Wiseman said that landowners likely choose to close caves to the public because they have sensitive ecosystems, and owners want to preserve the caves to the best of their abilities.

This summer, Wiseman plans to go to El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. In the future, Wiseman hopes to visit caves in Mexico and China.

Wiseman said that the part of caving he enjoys most is the pioneering rush that comes with exploring territory.

“Occasionally you’ll go into an area where it is relatively hard to squeeze into, and it eventually leads up to a place that you know very few people, if any, have been to,” said Wiseman. “It’s a sort of Neil Armstrong sensation.”


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