Module 5: Cave Project Ethics

Cave Project Ethics

Among serious cavers there is a set of unwritten rules governing the treatment of caves that are undergoing some type of research, exploration, restoration, or another form of project based work.  These rules are followed out of respect for the work being done and the people doing them. The primary rule is that before accessing these caves it is best to contact the individual overseeing that particular project to assure that your activities do not conflict with, inhibit, or infringe upon the purposes or intent of the project.


One of the most frowned upon activities in any serious caving community is the practice of scooping (or exploring without mapping) unexplored passages in a cave. One of the major driving factors that motivates cavers to go through the tedious process of surveying the cave is the thrill of discovery. When a caver, associated with the project or not, decides to push ahead, without the knowledge and blessing of the project leader, and explore unmapped sections of a the cave, it can create very hard feelings among project members and significantly reduce the respect of the caving community for that individual.

When working on your own project, it is appropriate to occasionally scoop ahead to gauge the scope of the project, as long as you return to the cave in a timely manner to survey the section of the cave that you scooped. Failure to do so, can again affect that cavers reputation in the caving community and result in the doors of caving opportunities closing up to them.

Project Involvement

The best way to get involved in frontier cave exploration and new discovery is to get involved in cave projects. Some project only require a willing hand and a strong back to help carry equipment, take notes, etc. Other project require more specialized skills such as reading survey instruments, survey sketching, vertical skills, etc. Check with your local grottos to find out when training of this sort is offered, or check around to meet individuals who can teach you these skills on a one on one basis. The more valuable your skills, and the more you develop a caving “resume” that shows you can do what you know, the more likely you will be invited on big project that are pushing areas no human has yet stepped foot.

The Utah Cave Survey

The Utah Cave Survey is a way for you to begin contributing to and accessing a growing cave database for the state of Utah. Once you become a member of a sponsoring grotto and request access you can think of membership in the survey as the beginning of managing your own personal cave project. Keep in mind however that membership in the survey does not automatically grant you access to every cave in the database. Each cave record has been entered in by an individual who highly values the geological, historical, biological, and cultural significance of that cave and who has invested time and effort to record the location and gather data about that cave. In many instances those individuals don’t want just anyone to have access to that record in order to protect the unique features of that cave from vandalism, intentional or unintentional. For this reason the only way to gain access to a cave that you did not enter yourself is to unlock it using a GPS coordinate that you gathered yourself or that an individual who puts a high amount of trust in you gave to you.

Some wonder why they would even bother entering their caves into the database if they don’t receive a bunch of freebee cave records in return. The reason to add your cave records is:

  1. Prevent others from duplicating work that you have already done. Even if you have a secret cave, chances are that someday someone else is going to find it and enter it into the database. If entering the GPS does not unlock the data you entered, they will probably end up naming it, mapping it, photographing it, and calling it their own cave. Had you entered the data, once they unlocked it with the GPS coordinate, they would then see your data, the name you gave the cave, and any information you collected. At that point that person could then add to the record you started, or simply call it good and never return to the cave, which would avoid impacting it further by doing that work.
  2. If you unlock a cave that you only have a GPS and photos of, once you unlock it you will then have access to maps and other data about that cave that you did not previously have access to. The data you unlock is highly confidential (in order to protect the cave from vandalism) and should not be shared with anyone outside of the Utah Cave Survey with permission. Doing so could result in a significant loss of respect throughout the caving community and many closed opportunities.

You can be assured that your cave locations and data that you don’t want to share with the rest of the caving community are safe and cannot be access by anyone other than yourself and anyone else who has the GPS coordinate. The reason why someone with the GPS can get access to the record is because in the Survey’s opinion, the most valuable piece of information about the cave is its location. If someone knows how to get to the cave, they might as well have everything else. If there is something like a map that you don’t want anyone else to have access to, list yourself as the map holder but, don’t upload it to the database. Data not uploaded however, may result in someone redoing work that you have already done. The same goes for GPS coordinates you do not enter; eventually someone will probably find the cave and enter the record.

It is up to you how you decide to manage your cave data. The Utah Cave Survey can be a powerful tool to help you do that, at the same time making you a contributing member of a collaborative community of cavers.

If you have questions about the Utah Cave Survey contact Duane McCully or Brandon Kowallis.