Caving and Cave Diving Expedition;
Portón, Chiriquí Province
Cueva Porton, Sump II Photo: Roger Day
Republic of Panamá betwixt Costa Rice and Colombia.
* Denotes project area.
Detail of project area: James Cobbett; Appendix A.
This expedition report is dedicated to the fond memory of Alan, (Big Al) Harrison; Member of The Pegasus Club Nottingham; a fine Friend, and real Gentleman.
To honour the memory of “Big Al” the chamber in Cueva Porton was named
Alan, (Big Al), Harrison
Once again I single out Marilyn Cobbett, and indeed James for their overwhelming hospitality; even as the Covid-19 crisis deepened, forcing premature cessation of the expedition. The Team were welcomed into their home to await future resumption of international flights. On a deeply personal level I sincerely thank my pals, James Cobbett, Dig Hastilow and Roger Day for their friendship; for being such good companions during so many expeditions, their consistent enthusiasm, determination, positivity and unending good humour, even during the most testing of times. Gentlemen, without any shadow of doubt it has been a privilege, and a lot of Fun.
Photography is the primary record of any expedition; thanks to Roger and Dig for their continued commitment to record the Team's activities, and modest discoveries.
To representatives of the British and Dutch consulates in the Republic of Panamá for their advice regarding limited diplomatic flights departing Tocumen airport, Panamá.
To Senior Dagoberto Atencio Castro for his warm welcome and hospitality, and for his invitation to provide accommodation upon our return.
To the Speleological Union of Ireland for their welcome financial support.
To the Team's wives and sweethearts, (may they never meet); for their continued support, and patience whilst loved ones pursue their consuming desire; exploration.
To Pauline Cronin for her selfless, unceasing support of my addiction; pursuing the unknown these five decades. But, in particular, when the world succumbed to the Corona virus; during the many phone calls assuring Pauline we were well; at no time did she offer any inkling of her deepening dread, our return could be delayed until May, at the earliest. This selflessness convinced me she was managing well, when all the while she, like so many, experienced uncertainty and fear.
Pat Cronin, Doolin, September 2020
The 2020 trip is the ninth where members of the Pegasus CN have researched the cave potential of Panamá. Since 2005 these expeditions have investigated numerous areas with varying degrees of disappointment and success: a significant proportion of the trips conducted among testing jungle conditions. Prior to these expeditions few references to caves, or caving in Panamá existed; exploration was, and yet remains often conducted “blind”. Even with the experience gained over the previous fifteen years processing the many, and varied verbal reports is not without the risk of disappointment. Mitigating this significant risk employment of local guides help the team progress throughout this pristine environment, assembling a database of over one hundred caves hitherto unrecorded by science: many previously unentered by man. One indirect, yet rather satisfying result of these nine caving expeditions has been to contribute geological knowledge of the more remote areas; Darien 2018, Rio Teribe 2015 and 2018, to name but three.
Though global issues accelerated, enforcing the expeditions cessation the Team managed the exploration of sump II, Cueva Porton; successfully predicted the presence, and explored Cueva Lenin finally, recording an extensive area of limestone.
Panamá 2019 review
February 2019 the terminal sump of Cueva Portón was examined by the Team to assess its dive potential. This cave was previously explored by Keith Christenson and group, (July 2001), this sump was their limit; at 700 metres, this expedition successfully recorded Cueva Portón as one of the longest caves in Panamá. At that time a significant stream issued from this resurgence cave requiring the explorers to push past low, flooded sections along the main passage, which were all but sumped. February 2019; no stream was resurging, only a large damp area of stream bed was noted in its portal. Oskar, our local guide, then an employee of the adjacent quarry, explained the average wet season stream depth, at the entrance, was 0.6m, (2 feet).
The primary project, sump II, Cueva Portón Photo: Dig Hastilow
The potential of Sump II was discussed, at length; repeatedly Portón's main passage shape and size were reviewed as the most likely form of route that would continue submerged; potential dive distance debatable. Throughout its seven hundred metre length its depth achieves sixteen metres; this almost level development, suggested a horizontal dive rather than a deep one. A simple plan evolved; conduct a lightweight dive trip, using just enough kit for one diver to explore the sump, to gather data for the next stage of pushing; two divers, diving independently. The principle issue with limited equipment, in such a remote location is no available back up diver should the diver encounter an issue. Dig Hastilow would conduct the dive.
Difficulties in early 2020 meant members of the Team were unavailable until early March; eventually the 11th March was chosen to assemble in Panamá. Having arrived at James place the normal two days were spent catching up with each others lives, scrutinizing the project in detail, finalizing logistics and packing the chosen equipment. The volume of dive kit and configuration was eventually decided upon after assessments in James swimming pool; doing so reducing the inevitable loss of visibility as the diver dressed on the steep mud bank ,which descends into Sump II.
Preparations complete, kit packed; departed 08:00; 14th March. The two day journey to Chiriquí was uneventful, as expected. Stopping overnight in Penenomé the affects of the Corona virus were slowly becoming manifest; news bites announced limitation of numbers entering retail outlets commencing midnight; sales of alcohol banned forthwith, things were getting really serious, no beer! Travelling through the larger towns of David and Santiago daily life appeared, for the most part, unaffected. Other than Banks implementing obvious customer control.
Queue for bank in Penenomé; 15th March 2020 Photo: Dig Hastilow
The situation was discussed at length; JC pressing for pushing on as preparations to assail this sump had been extensive. The paucity of clear, factual information and general uncertainty was balanced against the potential for new cave, and the overall personal financial investment into the trip. Eventually the view formed if Panamá were to cancel all international flights within the next day or so, then there was little enough options available for the Team. Departing now would mean returning to Panamá City, attempting to rebook a European flight, whilst hanging about at James home. Considering every aspect available the expedition resumed its focus on Cueva Portón and the immediate area, before civilization as we knew it ended. By the time base was established in Boquete constraints were also being applied to travel within the country. Seeking an evening meal the Team found Boquete resembling a ghost town; very few places open.
Panamá Cave Project Team
At +2200 metres, within the caldera of Volcán Barú, Chiriquí Province
Dig Hastilow, Pat Cronin, Roger Day and James Cobbett
Photo: Roger Day
The landscape before the entrance to Cueva Porton presents an undulating, cultivated landscape stretching toward the Pacific. Locally, the landscape is irregularly interspersed with elongated low, profiles of igneous and metamorphic exposures. From the cave entrance, elevation 292m, (Christensen 2001), toward the north, northwest and northeast the landscape rises swiftly to form a uniform east – west ridgeline, which closely follows the 350m contour. Beyond this ridge the landscape initially flattens, then gradually rises to a number of low profile, rounded summits, of an average elevation of 500m. This area too is under cultivation, principally grazing. Using the recent edition of the Tommy Guardia maps an area was noted; its invert at 320m; its catchment area estimated as two square kilometres. This suggested cave.
View north from access track to quarry; the ridgeline follows 350m elevation. Cueva Porton entrance is to the right of the image, among the vegetation. Photo: Roger Day
Further to the dive at Cueva Portón, the Team met with quarry owner Snr. Dagoberto Castro who explained the extent of the limestone being mined, and its suitability as ornamentation, for worktops and prestigious exterior cladding for buildings.
View Southeast. Track found skirting 350 metre contour, above Cueva Portón; note jungle to the left and field structure for controlled grazing, right. Photo: Dig Hastilow
View Southeast toward Cueva Porton; one kilometre away, to the left of centre. Senior Lenin and James Cobbett above the obscure, narrow river valley. Cueva Lenin sink found over to the extreme right of picture.
Photo: Dig Hastilow
James among grazing pasture en-route to the ravine. Areas cleared of jungle are sub-divided with fencing, creating fields measuring an average of fifteen metres wide by fifty metres long, to exercise control over grazing cattle. Photo: Dig Hastilow
Approach to Cueva Lenin through the ravine; its sink at the base of the visible cliff face. Photo: Roger Day
An appointment with Snr. Dagoberto Castro, who owns the land on which Cueva Porton is situated, also facilitated a guided tour of his quarry during which the white marble limestone occurrence was explained as extending to, and potentially beyond the Costa Rican border; some ten kilometres away. Its form and colour appears unique, nowhere during previous expeditions has its like been noted.
The quarry is some one hundred metres west of the entrance to Cueva Porton and conveniently displays the true colour of the limestone found within Cueva Porton and clearly illustrates the 30 - 40° dip across which Cueva Porton has developed; the dip appears to fall from Southwest to Northeast.
The upper terrace of the quarry exposes three clear developments of this limestone deposit. The lower deposit exhibits very thin beds, the middle beds are several metres thick, and the overburden is a matrix consisting crushed rock. In Cueva Porton pieces of thin white limestone may be found among the mud and silt floor. Cueva Lenin has thin beddings exposed in the entrance rift walls.
In Cueva Porton the entire length of Sump I has formed through a thick limestone bed. The upstream end of Sump I, which enters the terminal chamber above the water level, (2019/20 of Sump II, and rises to the roof of the terminal chamber exhibits significant scalloping emphasising water flow rates passing through Sump I.
View north, second terrace, note dip, thin lower beds, and thicker middle beds. Within Cueva Porton thin, isolated plates of white limestone were found upon the mud floor; these correspond with those in the above image. Photo: Roger Day
Prior to entering Cueva Lenin the dip of the surface stream bed was recorded as 2°, using a Suunto clinometer, this inclination of the stream bed remained reasonably consistent throughout the cave.
James with thin bedding, similar to that in Cueva Porton and the quarry.
Photo: Roger Day
Plotting of recorded cave entrances into the Google Earth software following the 2018 expedition suggested that many caves were formed within thin limestone formations sandwiched between other geology. From the above image it may be considered that the west-north-west orientation of these three sites is close to the common northeast angle previously established. However this is a broad assessment requiring further research. Also, the limestone here is pure white having undergone heat and pressure to create this marble form, finally, its related by the quarry owner that this limestone extends to, and beyond the Costa Rican border some fifteen kilometres distant.
Karst features adjacent Cueva Lenin.
Potential project area
South, and some thirty – forty metres above base of the ravine leading to Cueva Lenin, is a rugged limestone cliff. Among it are a number of small openings; vertical and horizontal. It is indeed quite possible one, or some may connect to Cueva Lenin, though height difference may indeed support an alternate cave development. Some 100 metres, south-west from the end of the access track to Cueva Lenin is a doline, eight metres by ten metres; its base strewn with refuse sacks at a depth of maybe 6 metres: confirming the Team's suspicions the surrounding landscape is cave bearing.
Pressing uncertainties, surrounding the Covid crisis meant the Team returned swiftly to Panamá City, but, feel thorough examination of this area would repay the effort.
Small section of cliff extending westward, 30 - 40 metres above Cueva Lenin. Photo: Dig Hastilow
James, (2 metres tall), at the Lenin Doline.
Photo: Dig Hastilow
Republic of Panamá
Length 760m (March 2020)
Depth 16m (March 2020)
UTM 0947470N x 305742E
This resurgence is located one hundred and fifty metres northeast of the adjacent quarry gate, at the end of the narrow, river bed, (dry; March 2020). The route along the river bed negotiates a confusion of large, often unstable boulders, care required.
A steep boulder pile obscures the large entrance. Speleothems are displayed along roof and walls within the portal. The size of the passage swiftly decreases to where mud banks have developed. The main passage is often triangular in section, dip of the limestone is clearly illustrated as indeed in the uppermost terrace of the quarry. Its development take it close to the quarry, which may one day, breach the main passage.
Cueva Portón entrance; Dig Hastilow. Photo: Roger Day
Original Cueva Porton survey: after Christenson K, 2001.
Cueva Portón, dive report.
Diver, Dig Hastilow
Support, James Cobbett, Roger Day, Pat Cronin.
Haste was present throughout preparations; previously packed equipment ensured a swift start. Though the diver should normally have some amount of rest, (excused too much weight), this trip required DH to carry a significant amount of gear. The decision to deploy one set of dive kit was a wise one; other loads present were rope, ladder and photographic equipment. The lack of a flowing stream, in which to cool off, and elevated temperatures, necessitated a slow, but steady pace.
A waist deep pool occupied the air space through sump I, which was a little higher than in February 2019, but still some three metres below that found by Christenson in July 2001. At first thought sumped, an inspection confirmed an air space existed.
The mud bank climb enters a large domed chamber, “Harrison Hall”, its base occupied by a deep pool. First seen in 2019 the chamber walls continued below the surface into what appeared to be a vertical pot: potentially a deep dive. A submerged opening, the far side of the sump II pool suggested horizontal development. Such water clarity had not previously been encountered during previous cave diving operations in Panamá; Courtney Cenote or Domingo's Cave, Bocas del Toro. Optimism increased around a straightforward dive.; potentially the longest, or deepest in Panamá, thus far.
Dig Hastilow kitting up at the downstream end of sump I; the slope to his right leads down the gravel slope into the air space - sump pool; March 2020. Photo: Roger Day
Whilst Roger set up his camera equipment supported by James, Dig descended the short ladder into the pool, supported by Pat. Loss of visibility slowly began, however rehearsal in James pool saved time here; Dig dived off. Monitoring his progress from his lights significant depth was not being achieved. Circumnavigating the pool, twice, Dig disappeared under the far wall, where horizontal development was suspected. Returning to surface Dig reported no passage around the chamber's submerged perimeter. After an exchange of ideas Dig submerged again to work his way down the pot. After quite sometime; Dig returned to report the vertical walls became a bowl encompassing the entire floor of the pot, with a small, snug vertical, body sized tube descending a further five metres, here it appeared to enter a passage as its base seemed to end above the floor of a passage below; too tight to safely negotiate.
Reflecting on the chambers shape; with flood, wet season, conditions increased flow issuing up this vertical tube may indeed mimic that of a fire hose. Perhaps it may have been this force created the dome, quite uncharacteristic to the rest of the cave.
Plan of sump II
Section of sump II
Republic of Panamá
UTM 0304552 x 0948110
Length 149 Metres
Depth 3 Metres
Pat Cronin digging out the choke into Cueva Lenin; note Dieffenbachia plant debris. Photo: Dig Hastilow
Dig Hastilow in entrance rift. Photo: Roger Day
Low, wet crawl beyond choked entrance on the left.
Photo: Roger Day
Pat surveying; note fungi covering deposit on cobbles.
Photo: Roger Day
James in area of skylight beyond first crawl; note white limestone.
Photo: Roger Day
View into terminal pool, terminal choke around to the left a further ten metres. Photo: Roger Day
James in passage upstream of terminal choke.
Photo: Roger Day
James in section adjacent sky light; note staining to white limestone.
Photo: Roger Day
The development of Cueva Lenin is almost horizontal, its average 2° fall gives it a depth of only three metres at the terminal choke, where the stream sinks through.
With tools this choke could be opened, but only during the dry season, the low air space, and pool offer awkward conditions for two persons to dig out the choke, and deposit the spoil.
Notes on Surveys and Locations of Cueva Porton and Cueva Lenin
1) Co-ordinates are UTMs, WGS84, Zone 17N, as per the 2012 Airborne Radar survey made for “Instituto Geographica Tommy Guardia”, and as per Tommy Guardia 1 : 25 000 / Map No. 3641 IV SE, “Paso Canoas”.
2) The following is based on GPS data, which is near to “spot on” with locations and heights estimated from the reference topo map, cited above.
From GPS Hastilow, 2019 (?), E 305,745, N 947,626
Height, from Christensen (2001), GPS, 292 Metres
Height Gain: Survey, Christensen (2001): 16 metres
Drop from end of 2001 Survey (Sump 1) to 2020 Final Sump (Sump 2) level, Est : 4 Metres
Final Sump 2020 water level : 304 Metres.
Final Sump Location (Christensen Survey, JSC estimate & calcs) : E 305,402,
From GPS Hastilow, 2020, E 304,704, N 948,097
Height, From 2020 GPS, 310 Metres
Depth, to 2020 Final Sump water level, Est. : 4 Metres
Final Sump 2020 water level : 306 Metres.
Final Sump Location (2020 Survey, JSC calcs) : E 304, 748 N 948,047
Distance between Cueva Porton and Cueva Lenin
Entrances: 1,143 Metres, with Cueva Lenin entrance 18 metres above that of Cueva Porton.
Final 2020 Sumps:
667 metres, with the Porton sump at direction 101° True from the Lenin sump,
With the Final Sump water level in Cueva Lenin being 2 metres above that in Cueva Porton.
2 metres is within the level of the estimates, implying that the two sump levels may well be the same, which would be consistent with the cave passage between the two.
James S. Cobbett, 30th March 2020
Late February -Early March
Significant Covid-19 occurrence increasing in China; severe containment being introduced.
10th March. Depart 03:30 - Dublin, Ireland - Schipol.
The first death in Panamá from Corona virus; male recently returned from China.
11th March. Arrive 17:00 – Schipol - Tocumen, Panamá.
Met up with Dig Hastilow and Roger Day for onward flight
Little or no virus monitoring of passengers at Schipol airport. Noticeably fewer numbers travelling. Rear section of aircraft empty.
12th March. Planning meeting; numerous micro breweries and bars visited: a fine opportunity to finalize plans, catch up.
13th March. Purchased outstanding items; completed packing.
14th March. Depart 08:00. Panamá for Penenomé; overnight stop, numbers in retail outlets limited.
15th March. Departed Penenomé for Boquete. Some flights from Europe stopped. Arrive Boquete, established base in lodgings. Informed by host of many booking cancellations. Boquete a virtual ghost town, few establishments open.
16th March. The push on Sump II, Cueva Portón; supported Dig Hastilow, sherpa'd dive equipment to dive base.
17th March. Sixty nine, (69), cases confirmed in Panamá.
Explored one kilometre northwest of Cueva Portón, examining a subtle depression on the Tommy Guardia maps, situated behind the 350m ridge. Encountered narrow, steep sided valley. Dug out entrance, explored and surveyed Cueva Lenin.
18th March. To locate Cueva Tigre on the Sendero Los Quetzales Stopped at 2500 metres by Ranger refusing further access along the desolate trail.
19th March. Departed for Panamá City; informed of imminent establishment of multiple road blocks to control movement.
27th March. Dig Hastilow obtains seat on British government chartered flight to Schipol without guarantee of onward connection.
29th March. Roger Day and Pat Cronin obtain seats on the last Dutch government diplomatic flight from Tocumen.
Health - Welfare
On several occasions Team members experienced painful skin rashes, the result of contact with this ubiquitous plant. Treatment is by thoroughly washing the afflicted area with clean water. The plant thrives throughout the country and forms dense areas beneath the jungle canopy. The temptation to wildly thrash through such areas swinging a machete should be avoided as sap entering the eye has a similar affect as introducing acid.
Dieffenbachia bowmannii. Image Wikipedi
Doxycycline was taken both as a prophylactic to inhibit malaria and Weil’s disease. Malarone was also used requiring adherence to ingestion with food.
Weil's disease is a severe form of leptospirosis. This is a type of bacterial infection. It's caused by Leptospira bacteria, from contact with the urine, blood, or tissue of animals or rodents that are infected with the bacteria, most commonly occurring through contaminated fresh water
Symptoms may include fever, chills, coughing, diarrhoea, vomiting, headache, muscle pain, particularly lower back and calves, a rash, red and irritated eyes and jaundice. One member required emergency treatment for Kidney failure in 2006.
Upon arrival in Panamá the air temperature was 36°C, this, norm, remained fairly constant throughout the duration, and its enforced isolation. Hats were of a large brim form; Tilley Hats being the most common.
Whilst caving and negotiating the jungle, gloves were used; each member chose the type what best suited their own requirements: fabric, plastic and leather.
Very much personal preference; strength and of loose fitting, necessary to facilitate movement. Two members used cotton boilers suits, the others tough heavy trousers and heavy duty cotton shirts.
For the most part the Petzl Duo with LED bulbs were deployed, these do have their shortcomings. Integral with the helmet they suffice most requirement on expeditions such as these. One member used a Fenix head torch, compact with excellent light choice levels and powerful beams it proved far superior to the Petzl.
Again personal choice, though over these many expeditions Colombia shirts have become favourite with one member.
Haix boots were the choice for half the Team; comfort and ankle support exceeding superior when negotiating surface terrain, and on occasion, that encountered underground. Wellington boots were the choice for several Team members.
Cueva Lenin was initially choked with flood bourne debris; fresh and deposing. Such locations are the abode of creatures. A Mussurana, (snake), alerted the Team to the presence of Fer-de-Lance, snakes; quite poisonous. Mussurana's were introduced to control the Fer-de-Lance.
Mussurana, (2.5 metres) at Cueva Lenin.
Photo: Roger Day
Fer-de-lance, (0.7 metres)
Photo: Dig Hastilow
Fer-de-lance, is a highly venomous pit viper species which extends from southern Mexico to northern South America. They are found in a wide range of lowland habitats, often near human habitation. Because of its proximity to settlements and its defensive temperament, it is more dangerous to people than many other snakes. This species is the main cause of snakebite incidents within its range.
Though of no real threat from being bitten, Team members bare hands often, unavoidably came into contact with their excrement, particularly during surveying. A considerable number roost throughout Cueva Lenin.
One of the smaller, multiple vampire bat roosts, throughout Cueva Lenin.
Photo: Roger Day
Fresh water Crab; Cueva Lenin. Photo: Roger Day
Spider in Cueva Lenin streamway; James boot for scale.
Photo: Roger Day
Spider found en-route to Cueva Lenin.
Photo: Dig Hastilow
Within the active streamway of Cueva Lenin were curious circular “hairy” forms/deposits, on a great many of the cobbles along the streamway. Surveying outbound closer observation realized it a fungal growth, appearing to develop on bat faeces. Hands, exposed during the survey process, were washed thoroughly upon exit.
Fungi growth, from bat excrement, main streamway, Cueva Lenin.
Photo: Roger Day