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Water is the source of life

Despite the extent and diversity of its landscape, China is only now beginning to emerge in the collective awareness as a country where cave diving is possible. Local legal regulations, restrictions, and difficult logistics mean that access to caves, if at all feasible, requires meticulous planning and often almost diplomatic efforts.

Born and raised in China, Melanie Cristau became fascinated with the unexplored caves in the Guangxi province and, along with Jani Niskanen, undertook the first attempt at their systematic exploration. These caves serve as sources of drinking water for the local community, which further complicates the matter.

Rapid urbanization threatens the pristine landscapes of Du'an, and protecting its delicate ecosystems and preserving the water quality in the caves has become a priority. Knowledge about the extent and connections of the flooded caves in this area, which can only be gained through their exploration, will allow for the preparation of a better plan to protect these waters.

Why did you decide to take on this project?

Born and raised in China, after discovering the joys of cave diving, I always wanted to explore more of the local regions, especially after being stuck in one place during early stages of the Covid pandemic.

Caves in Guangxi are vast and still largely unexplored, so of course, we couldn't resist their lure. Also, after the initial test trip from the year before, we discovered that there was a rich marine life and still many uncatalogued blind fish species. We became curious to learn more about them.


Why is this project also important from the local communities point of view?

Water is the source of life. Local villagers use these spring waters for drinking, watering their fields, etc. Understanding where it comes from is essential to preserve its quality better.

Also, with China's fast development pace, some environments may become urbanized quickly. It is, therefore, vital to go there now and study what is still untouched, especially the numerous unique blind fish species, before it gets lost forever. We have only been going there for a couple of years, but in this short time, several cave entrances were blocked because of the construction of new roads and factories.

The area we explore is still a poor and underdeveloped rural area of China. We understand the locals desire a better life and want to link with the more developed area, but this should not happen at the expense of the environment. A better understanding ofthe flooded caves
and their connection to the ecosystem can help in more sustainable planning for future development in this area.

A better understanding of the flooded caves
and their connection to the ecosystem can help in more sustainable planning for future development in this area.

What were the biggest challenges during the exploration so far?

First, diving into a new environment with little structure is never easy. Thankfully, we had the help of local divers to help us juggle the diving logistics. Outside of the logistics of diving in a relatively large area, with regular hours of driving and exploring remote areas, the main challenge was dealing with local regulations and superstition.

Diving is not a very popular sport in China, especially cave diving. Thankfully, the local administration supports it but doesn't always know what it entails and requires. Also, China has had a strict Zero Covid policy. The local farmers use the spring water, making many villagers paranoid about people entering them. They closed off several springs and cave entrances to avoid supposed contamination.

Finally, there are quite a lot of superstitions around the caves. Several times, we have come out of dives with local villagers asking us if we saw the white buffalo underwater, a local deity and guardian. And in some places, they just plainly refused us to dive, worried that we would steal their white buffalo. It sometimes requires long-lasting contact and good relationships with the local villagers to gain their trust and access to the caves.


Considering the multitude of problems you encountered, would you do it again?

Absolutely! These caves can get deep, and I am reaching my depth and experience limit. Therefore, I will need more training, especially with Trimix, before going deeper into the caves.  

↓ Melanie Cristau and Jani Niskanen just before starting a dive in one of the caves.
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↓ Landscape of the Du'an karst area.
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↓ Exploring caves in the Du'an area requires diving in a sidemount configuration.
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