Cave systems are the last underground frontier to be explored; they hold secrets that took thousands of years to form and can be damaged by the slightest touch. Cave conservation is necessary to keep the underground playground unspoiled, to keep the cave ecosystem and bio-network from collapsing. Many cavers don’t reveal cave locations for fear that others will damage or destroy the ecosystem. Cave photographer Stephen Alvarez captures and shares those previously unseen moments and unique environments in the uncharted underworld of caves. Caving with Stephen Alvarez
Imagine living for subterranean adventures where you are attached to a rope and slowly lowered 450 feet down into a dark underground world. This underworld has been in the making for a millennium, yet remains mostly untouched by man. Few people explore the vast and uncharted underground of caves, but National Geographic adventure photographer Stephen Alvarez is a caver by trade.
Hanging by a rope in the pitch-blackness, Alvarez coordinates other dangling cavers. At the same precise instant, all of them ignite magnesium flash powder. In that split second, while the cave is brightly lit, Alvarez captures the image with his camera.
On the upper right, a caver starts his 1,234-foot descent into Sótano de las Golondrinas in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. The cave’s entrance is the second deepest in the world, but it offers a tiny bit of light into the otherwise dark pit. Caving with Stephen Alvarez
Alvarez thrives on the underground danger that he and fellow cavers explore throughout the world. Since most people will not experience this same adventure, Alvarez shares the delicate ecosystems with us through his photo documentaries. Due to time restrictions, only the main tunnel beyond the cascade in Mageni was explored. On an island off Papua New Guinea, white-water rivers disappeared into a limestone cave that had numerous uncharted and unexplored side tunnels.
This is the Walls of Jericho in Tennessee. It is a 98-foot decent into a pit, Hytop Drop. Deep inside the earth, it has a large, bowl-shaped natural amphitheater which is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the South.
This is deepest known cave pit in the continental United States. Fantastic Pit in Georgia’s Ellison’s Cave descends 586 feet straight down into the darkness below.
The limestone is both slick and razor sharp, surrounded by underground raging rapids. Unlike the bat in the bottom picture, most of the time, cavers can see only as far as their headlamps cut into the darkness. With Alvarez along and shooting images, they all work together to light it up and capture that blink of time.
This photo adventure shoot was of Majlis al Jinn Cave, Oman. It was to determine if Oman’s 50-story deep cavern could be safe for tourists.
A shaft of sunlight shines down into the pit. Caves maintain the same temperature all year, tending to feel cool in the summer and warm in the winter. On the bottom left is Iron Hoop Cave, a long, horizontal river cave in Alabama. On the right, razor-edged limestone pinnacles are sharp enough to kill a man in Borneo’s Tardis Cave.
To get this panoramic composite which is four images of Rumbling Room in Tennessee, the cavers had to descend a 68-foot shaft. The cavern is 350 feet high, so they communicated via hand-held transceivers for the precise second to illuminate Rumbling Falls Cave.
In Handprint Cave in Belize, ancient Mayans took pigment and blew it on the walls around their hands to create negative handprints. Alvarez has been all over the world. He started his photojournalist magazine career with Time Magazine to photograph Mammoth Cave. Then, for National Geographic, his worldwide adventures and photo shoots of exotic and uncharted underground locations catapulted him to fame.
Photojournalist Stephen Alvarez photographs much more than adventuring inside the dangerous yet delicate cave ecosystems. Alvarez produces global stories about culture, exploration, religion, and the aftermath of conflict. His images have won awards like Pictures of the Year International, Communication Arts, and have been exhibited at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, France. He spends a great deal of time exploring the underground. When above ground, Alvarez lives with his family in Sewanee, Tennessee.