2009 International Congress of Speleology
A Saudicaves Report

The International Union of Speleology is made up of scientific and sport-caving organizations located in almost every country in the world (Saudi Arabia, sad to say, is still not a member). It was founded in 1965 and the French played such a large role in its development that it is normally referred to as the UIS, the acronym for its name in French: Union Internationale de Spéléologie.

Rubbing Shoulders in Kerrville, Texas

In the past, UIS congresses have been held in exotic venues like Beijing, Brasilia, Athens and Postojna (in Yugoslavia, if you couldn't guess),  but in 2009, over 1600 of the world’s speleologists gathered in tiny Kerrville, Texas to share their underground discoveries and, of course, to have a look at some of Texas’s justly famous caves. This Congress of the International Union of Speleology was held in conjunction with the annual convention of the U.S. National Speleological Society (NSS), allowing international and local cavers to rub shoulders and get to know one another’s customs, techniques and procedures.

One such procedure surprised a few U.S. participants at registration, when they were handed the official congress nylon briefcase. “Is it full of bricks?” most people asked when they hefted the 13-pound bag. Inside they found three thick volumes of the Proceedings of the 15th Congress. Unlike some other organizations which may publish their proceedings months or years after the event, the UIS insists all papers be submitted far in advance of the congress. Efficient indeed—and the Texas cavers did a bang-up job of printing all 2130 pages of this opus.

Publications of the 2009 ICS. Note the weight (in pounds) on the left side of the picture.

White Nose Syndrome at the ICS

A theme which dominated the congress from start to finish was White Nose Syndrome, the disease which has recently led to the deaths of over one million bats in the USA since it was first noticed three years ago in New York State.


In an all-afternoon session on this new phenomenon, Dr. Hazel Barton of Northern Kentucky University explained that a cold-loving mold called Geomyces destructans—never before seen in the Americas—was somehow been introduced into caves in New York State, from which it has already spread all over New England, north to Canada and south to West Virginia.

Hazel Barton, Gary Roberson and John Pint at a book signing.


Apparently, the first photos of bats with white noses were taken in Howe Cave, New York, in February of 2006.This mold can grow all over the bodies of hibernating bats, giving them a cutaneous fungal disease whose presence is signaled by the white coating growing on their noses. It seems that the growth of this mold somehow awakens the sleeping bat again and again, forcing the animal to prematurely use up its fat reserves. The bat becomes emaciated and hungry and may even fly out of the cave in mid-winter in a futile attempt to find food. In the end, death comes from starvation and today one can find the floors of New England caves covered with bat carcasses..

WNS: An Ecological Disaster

To make matters worse, researchers have found almost no evidence of resistance to the disease in survivors. Gordon Birkhimer, president of the National Speleological Society, called this “the most devastating wildlife tragedy to confront us in our lifetime.” David Blehert at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center has called the results of this disease “an ecological disaster” and Dr. George Veni, Executive Director of the National Cave and Karst Institute, claims it represents “the largest decline in wildlife species in one hundred years.” He points out that—because of the important role played by bats in nature’s scheme—“White Nose Syndrome could lead to global devastation of wildlife.”


Naturally, the 1600 cavers from all over the USA and the world had no desire to spread White Nose fungus far and wide, so a strict decontamination process was enforced on people who ventured underground during the convention...

...All boots, rope and gear had to be thoroughly scrubbed of mud and then submerged in a bleach solution for ten minutes. Every item of clothing had to be washed using the hottest water possible, and after that soaked in the same bleach solution and finally air dried. This resulted in several sections of Schreiner University, where the convention was held, becoming crisscrossed with sagging ropes displaying everything from underwear to helmets, for passersby to admire all through the congress...



Caving in the Middle East

Caves of the Middle East were featured a number of times during the congress. Fadi Nader, Secretary General of the International Union of Speleology, described a visit to Iran by a team from Spéléo-Club du Liban in which Iranian mountain climbers were trained in speleological exploration, rope and safety techniques, resulting in an enthusiastic new caving group in Iran.

New discoveries of lava tubes in Jordan were presented by Stephan Kempe (who, of course, referred to them as pyroducts).

¡ Stephan Kempe, co-chair of the 2009 Lava Caves Symposium


¢ Jan Paul Van der Pas (on the left), chairman of the UIS Volcanic Caves Commission with Bill Halliday, founder of the commission and co-chair of the 2009 Symposium.

Fadi Nader also described an exciting expedition to Syria in which a 1.6-kilometer-long pyroduct was surveyed in December of 2008, wresting the title of “longest lava tube on the Arabian Peninsula” from Saudi Arabia, which had only recently stolen it from Jordan. Clearly, Vulcanospeleology has taken off in the Middle East.

This was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated during John Pint’s presentations on three-million-year-old Umm Jirsan Cave and the potential for world-class caving in Saudi Arabia’s Khaybar Lava Field.

Entrance to the Wolf Passage in Umm Jirsan. Note the three figures inside the cave. Some galleries of this lava tube are over 40 meters wide.


Saudi Arabia: Kilometers of Unexplored Caves

Pint was part of the three-man Saudi Geological Survey team which mapped 1.48-kilometer-long, 40-meter-wide, Umm Jirsan System in 2007, finding, among other things, a human skull cap 4040 years old and a curious collection of basalt scrapers, pointed instruments and sharpening stones.

Basalt implements found 180 meters inside the cave, lying on top of a sediment floor over one meter deep. No archeological excavations or studies have yet been undertaken in a Saudi cave.


Pint pointed out that a geological survey of Harrat Khaybar indicates there are at least 40 other unexplored lava tubes in the area, ranging in length from one to possibly 50 kilometers. “There are many hundreds of kilometers of virgin cave out there,” says Pint, “and they are located in the cradle of civilization, where human beings have lived for the last 70,000 years.”

Congress presentations were held in nine different locations on the Schreiner campus, necessitating fancy footwork for people attempting to catch all the talks they were interested in. At the same time, bookstore and gear vendors, non-stop video shows, “lightning” Powerpoints, etc. were all beckoning, not to mention plenty of cave trips and bat-flight viewings.

Cave Photography at UIS 2009

A high point of the Congress was the Photo Salon, held at a large, well-equipped theater in Kerrville. This featured digital “slides,” video clips and prints...

...As in past NSS conventions, the names of well-known U.S. cave photographers such as Dave Bunnel and Ann and Peter Bosted came up again and again, but this year they were joined by Philippe Crochet of France, Tony Merino of Spain and Gustavo Vela Turcott of Mexico, all of whom contributed outstanding images to the show.

Gustavo Vela (left) being interviewed for Subterraneo Magazine.


The joint convention-congress ended with not one but two banquets on successive nights, both held at a genuine, sprawling, Texas ranch, complete with longhorn cattle and even horseshoe courts.

Juan Miguel González of Seville, Spain with Texas longhorn.

International Comments on the 15th ICS

So, what did participants think of it all? Here are opinions expressed by four congress-goers at the end of the event, during the long van ride from Kerrville to the San Antonio airport.

Kasia Biernacka (Poland):
“This was my first convention and first ICS congress. I met lots of wonderful people with whom I previously caved in Mexico and I made new friends as well. So, I think it was very successful and I wish I could go to another convention like this one.”

George Philips (West Virginia, USA):

“I very much enjoyed it. I think all the papers were wonderful and I enjoyed the opportunity to network, to make new friends from different countries, to see what people in the rest of the world are doing and to share experiences, equipment and ideas: in my opinion, that’s what it was all about and I think it was a wonderful success.”

Boris Sket (Slovenia):
Well, this was really a huge congress! It had great organization and it was really interesting to hear about new developments in my own personal field and also to see the karst of Texas which has springs and wells with great subterranean fauna. By the way, speleobiologists will gather next year in Slovenia, where I hope to see many of you!”

Derek Ford (Canada):
I’ve been a caver since I was 12 years old, 62 years ago. I’ve been to international speleological congresses since 1969 and was president of the Speleological Union for a period during the 1980s. This was one of the very best congresses; it was the best organized congress, immensely enjoyable. For an old guy like me, the important points are the opportunity to meet and greet old friends—most of whom came—and the opportunity to attend high-quality scientific-paper sessions and those of this meeting were as good as they’ve ever been. Quite excellent!

If you are now convinced that the UIS congresses are worth attending, mark your calendar. The next one is coming up in 2013 and ought to be held somewhere in Europe, although Saudicaves is betting on Great Britain (Near, but not quite in Europe). If that turns out to be the case, don’t forget your wellies!

¡ Frank Binney (the man who arranged for the free Shiner beer at the congress) with Michel Siffre, the French speleologist who spent long periods of isolation in caves (including six months in a Texas cave) for scientific purposes.

¢  Emily Davis of Speleobooks racing down a corridor faster than a speeding bullet.


¡ One of many 11mm clotheslines which decorated  Schreiner University during the 15th UIS Congress.

¢  John Pint awaiting inspection at one of the college dorms, at the end of the congress. "I might have been tempted to steal one of the college's paper-thin blankets," says Pint, "to use as a hankie, but, of course, I preferred to get my $50 deposit back."

Was this congress fun?

 Just ask Paolo Forti (right), who, by the way, presented a spectacular show on the mind-boggling giant crystals of Naica Cave in Mexico.