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Mission to Palawan

Twenty-two years have passed since the legendary expedition in 1989, the first of many Italian explorations of the Saint Paul Karst on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.

The recently completed expedition, which took place in February and March 2011, involved as many as 30 Italian speleologists, plus one from Spain and one from Belgium, as well as the collaboration of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park rangers and a number of local guides.


Recent explorations have taken the length of the Underground River complex to over 30 km, thanks to the discovery of over 5 km of new tunnels.

The biggest tunnel, dedicated to the anniversary of the birth of the Italian nation (150 Years Gallery), features long stretches of remarkable dimensions, with splendid areas of speleothems, full of helictites. More surprises were in store at the nearby Little Underground River, which had been awaiting another visit since 1989. In this cave, which is only “little” in relation to its big brother, almost 3 km of tunnels were discovered, with some particularly beautiful epiphreatic passages.

Altogether, almost 10 km of caves were found, 7-8 km of which were newly explored.


On the outside, the upper areas of the south-eastern sector of the St. Paul massif were investigated, leading to the discovery of several large sinkholes and a number of entrances. Finally, towards the end of the expedition, a climb was made to the top of the 1028 metre high Saint Paul Dome, which, to the best of our knowledge, had never been climbed before.


In conjunction with the explorations, external topographical surveys were performed using differential GPS, and scientific research was made regarding mineralizations, hypogeal meteorology, microforms of corrosion, the geochemistry of the waters, and the hypogeal forms associated with variations in sea level.

Particularly significant was the discovery of the fossilized skeleton of a sirenian from the Miocene ages (some 20 million years ago), encased in limestone.

The local authorities, in particular those of Puerto Princesa, wanted to give official recognition to the great work carried out by the La Venta Association in recent years; this work has become fundamentally important since the Underground River was selected as a finalist for the new seven wonders of the natural world (


This recognition is a reward for speleology as a whole, and particularly for Italian speleology, which has rarely received acknowledgement of this kind for its work.

Lessons in parseltongue at the little underground river

An account from expedition member Luca Gandolfo


In March I took part in my second expedition with La Venta, bound for Palawan, an island in the Philippines that has been attracting explorations since the Eighties. Despite the many expeditions to the area, our 2011 trip had a host of surprises in store for us.


We have been back for a while now, but the memory of that day, the 16 March, is imprinted permanently in my head and heart. When I read through the notes written the day after our exploration of the Little Underground River, what particularly comes back to me are those moments, those adrenaline-soaked sensations that come from venturing out where no man has ever been before, in the bowels of the Saint Paul Dome. “


Some visit the main river and some visit the little one, but our lives here are all tied to the same, almost obsessive name: Underground.


Given the good weather conditions, we set off early, nine of us, headed for the Little Underground River. Having completed the entry phases from the sea without a hitch, we are greeted, at the end of the first lake, by a fine snake, with black and blue stripes, a couple of metres long, all entangled upon itself… Well, we are in a tropical cave, and snakes are part of the local fauna, but when this splendid creature slithers silently into the lake, all our "explorer" minds are crossed by the same thought: “what if we find this beastie waiting for us in the water on our way back?!”

(Note: this sea snake, “Laticauda Colubrina”, is ten times more dangerous than the black mamba, due to its venom; it has been calculated that 1.5 milligrams of it are enough to kill an 80 kg man.)


But we don't have time to think about it for long, a couple of snapshots, and on we go. A little way further on, we split up into three teams: two survey groups and one of photographers.


My team continues for twenty-odd stations, and finally we reach the point of exploration, the sump, which was full when Alessio found it just two weeks ago, but now it is dry! With Ivy and Andrea, we crawl into this awkward passage between rocks and a sludge made of water and sediment, deep enough to sink your entire forearm into it. Better not to think too hard about what might happen if it starts to rain outside, considering the narrow space.

Instead our minds are set on the current of air lashing our faces; who knows what surprises the cave may finally have decided to reveal to us. The cave is much smaller than the Subterranean River, but enchanting, full of splendid shapes, although much of the time we have to move around with our heads bowed, or crawling, but it goes on… and on…


As always, when you are heady with the desire to carry on exploring, time becomes your worst enemy, especially here, and especially if you have to swim out into the sea, this sea, to wait for the pick-up boat.


We decide to end our survey at station 84, over 1.5 km from the exit, at a fork in the passage, and then off we scurry, as quickly as possible along the right hand branch, until the passage is too narrow to continue. We turn back, and throw ourselves headlong into the left hand branch, dripping with sweat in our wetsuits. Andrea continues, while Ivy and I make a brief climb up into a fantastic little conduit, full of little dry pools, and with a nice draught that cools our faces, but we cannot hang about a moment longer, cursedly, it is time to gather up our equipment and head for the exit, leaving it to the imagination of our hearts to dream of how this adventure might continue.


On our return, thanks to the clear waters, we are able to spot the “beastie” at the bottom of the last lake, and pass it by carefully, making our way towards the exit. There, before putting on our flippers and swimming out to the boat, we spot another snake, far bigger than the other, lying a few steps away from us, practically at the mouth of the cave that leads to the open waters. But once again, it is best not to think too much about it. It's time to leave, and restore the cave to its rightful owners! “


Luca Gandolfo