Photos: Diving into New Zealand’s deepest cave

Watch these New Zealanders go deeper beneath their country than ever before.
By Evan David

Hundreds of metres below the ground, far beyond where natural light has ever penetrated, a group of Kiwi cavers have discovered something small, but significant – a connection between two massive cave systems in the Arthur Mountain range of the South Island of New Zealand.

It's taken three years of exploratory trips and countless hours underground. The discovery is meaningful for a couple reasons – it makes this cave system the deepest known cave in the southern hemisphere, and, at 1200m, the second-deepest known cave in the entire world (behind the Krubrera Cave in the country of Georgia, which descends to 2,197m). Expedition leader Kieren McKay takes photographer Neil Silverwood underground with his crew.

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Team member walking below an icicled cave expedition in New Zealand.
Stalactites Calcified mineral – stalactites – descend from the roof of the Nettlebed cave system.  Nettlebed was discovered in the late sixties, but at the time, it was only explored to 800m of depth. © Neil Silverwood
Roping around
Team member roping down during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Roping around The team has descended into the Stormy Pot cave system five times in search of a connection to the Nettlebed caves. Traversing through the caves requires ropes and climbing gear. Getting to 'base camp', 500m below the ground? They had to abseil 29 times. © Neil Silverwood
Conical contact
Team member exploring the icicles during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Conical contact Stalactites descend from the ceiling of a cave, stalagmites ascend from the ground. A stalactite is created by water dripping from the ceiling, leaving small deposits of calcium bicarbonate. The stalagmite is where that water deposits calcium bicarbonate on the cave floor. © Neil Silverwood
Bound for safety
Team members hiking during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Bound for safety The cave explorers were roped to each other in case of an accident. © Neil Silverwood
Team member relaxing during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Downtime While searching for the connection between the two massive cave systems, the cavers spent between seven to ten days in the subterranean environment. Obviously, there was some downtime. © Neil Silverwood
Subterranean sport hall
Team members exploring every corner during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Subterranean sport hall Hundreds of metres below the ground, the team worked its way through tiny cracks – and massive caverns. © Neil Silverwood
Underground pools
Team members checking the water during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Underground pools The team discovered numerous sources of water, including a running river. © Neil Silverwood
Tight spaces
Team members trying to get forward during a cave expedition in New Zealand.
Tight spaces Spots like this made exploration difficult and painstakingly slow. However, it was worth it to discover the depths of what is now known as the deepest cave in the southern hemisphere and the second-deepest cave in the world. © Neil Silverwood
Mouth of mystery
Team members entering the cave during an expedition in New Zealand.
Mouth of mystery This is the entrance to the the Stormy Pot cave system, which was discovered when explorers took shelter from a storm in New Zealand's Arthur Range just a few short years ago, in 2010. © Neil Silverwood
Below-ground bath
Team member walking into the water during an expedition in New Zealand.
Below-ground bath Flowing water in the cave system was a potential indicator that the Nettlebed and Stormy Pot cave systems shared a physical connection. Here, an explorer looks to find the source of the pool. © Neil Silverwood
Searching for the link
Team members crawling through a cave during an expedition in New Zealand.
Searching for the link When the explorers who found the Stormy Pot cave system returned from their initial trip, they realised the cave system had high potential to connect to the Nettlebed cave system. They used techniques such as smoke and dyed water to try and locate the connection. In January of 2014, they found it. © Neil Silverwood