Making geology interesting on camera is always a bit of a challenge. Let’s face it, it’s usually grey and hard and no matter how long you look at it, it’s not going to do much, not in our lifetime anyway. Rocks change in geological time and that means, a very, very long time indeed. Visual metaphors are used a lot. Time-lapse clouds and celestial bodies, lightning, rushing water and sandstorms can be used to demonstrate the forces of erosion.
But what if, on a dull grey drizzly morning you are presented with a dull grey cliff with no metaphors to hand. One way is to throw a presenter like Professor Ian Stewart over the edge of the cliff to dangle on the end of a rope. He can then extol in his inimitable style and Scottish lilt how the layers in the rock were formed at an earlier more exciting geological and visually awesome time. A single brief but cataclysmic moment which involved an entire island exploding and the resulting ash settling in the layers we can see today. This ash also suffocated an entire civilization in a matter of hours. That’s an awful lot of dramatic story to cover with some shots of a grey cliff. Geology, like the rocks we sometimes have to film is hard to do for television.
Occasionally though, Geology astonishes us with a display so incredibly awesome that the visual feast presented to a cameraman completely outshines the story behind it. I’ve been to a few such places in my life like the summit of Mount Roraima in Venezuela where the rain has sculptured the rock into monstrous grey statues. I can think of a million ways to bring those statues to life. The World’s deepest lake, Lake Baikal in central Siberia which is 5,387 feet deep is the deepest continental rift on earth widening by 2cm every year. They are truly spectacular and humbling places. These and many other places like them are the stars of geology and they are what make our Earth so Earth like.
There is one place though which is so out of this world that you could be forgiven for believing you were on a different planet. Being there is like being on the asteroid in the Hollywood disaster movie, Armageddon and yet it has often been described by the few who have been there as “the most beautiful place on the planet”. The place I speak of is Cueva de los Crystales, the Crystal Caves in Naica, Mexico.
It is a wonderful cathedral created by nature in one of the hottest environments on earth 300m below the surface, a cathedral filled with gigantic perfect crystals. To enter the cave is a dangerous business, mortally dangerous. The cave sits over a chamber of magma and it’s over 60 degrees centigrade and 97% humidity inside. To enter you have to wear a specially designed ice suit so the body doesn’t burn. Air to breath comes from a small backpack filled with frozen aluminium water bottles. A tiny pump blows air across the frozen bottles into a mouth piece so your lungs don’t burn and another tube directs cool, dry air across the eyes otherwise moisture in the eye and tears of sheer w onder w ill scold their surfaces. Even after all of these precautions have been taken can you spend only 20 minutes inside the cave.
At first it seems fine and you wonder what the fuss is about. After 5 minutes you start to overheat, breathing is more difficult and the heart begins to race even with the chilled air. After 15 minutes you’ve just got to get out. Breathing becomes almost impossible as the lungs feel like they’re going to burst, but you hold on for another 5 minutes. About now you stop caring that you are in the most incredible place on Earth. For the last few minutes you count every second. Your lungs feel like they are going to explode. At 20 you head for the exit, a metal door fixed into the natural wall of this giant geode. On the far side is mission control, a doctor and an air conditioned polythene tent set at 16 degrees You strip off down to your underwear and lie down on the cool plastic gasping at the cool air. After the heat and humidity of the cave it feels more like 5 degrees in the tent. The thermometer in there reads 33 degrees C! A scorcher of a day!
The Naica caves are beautiful and deadly. The most beautiful place on the plant? I think they probably are. The crystals , there are hundreds of them, the largest over 12 meters long and weighing 55 tons, formed over thousands of years in a hot liquid suspension of calcium sulphate dihydrate, or gypsum. Over time the crystals would eventually collapse without water to support them and so the only way to preserve them is to allow the cave to flood again. The cave was discovered by silver miners in 2000 excavating a new tunnel. The chambers and tunnels at this depth are normally filled with water which has to be constantly pumped out for the miners to work. 12 years on, the mining operations have finished and the Cueva de los Crystales has once again been flooded. We know the most beautiful place on the planet still exists; they are just hidden from us…forever.