There are over 1,400 caves on Vancouver Island. The ones closest to the Comox Valley are at the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park
To learn more about these natural cavities, you can either read it in books, go search the Internet, or go out and enter one for real.
But a new interpretive centre that was recently opened at Horne Lake is providing those who are less adventurous, not physically able, or possess a fear of tight enclosures another means to learn about the underground world.
Richard Varela, the director of Island Pacific Adventures from Comox that manages operations at the park, officially opened the cave theatre last week. He considers it a significant tool in promoting cave conservation.
"It's a project that's been a long-time coming," said Varela who has been providing cave tours in the park in the last 20 years. "We will be able to share the cave environment with so many people that would never had have the ability to go into a cave, or who have been slightly uncomfortable doing so, and they can now learn about our caves, see how magnificent they are and learn why they're so important to protect."
Varela said the challenge they've faced in the past is trying to make people understand why caves need to be approached with a modicum of care.
"The problems with caves are they are slow to recover, they grow slowly, and they're easily impacted," said Varela. "Despite the fact they're made of rocks they're still a very fragile environment. They need protection."
The delicate formation of rocks inside the caves like stalactites and stalagmites are sensitive to human touch. They take thousands of years to form and can be damaged with one misplaced hand or foot. Oils in the skin can essentially kill the growth of these formations.
There is also a fear of vandalism.
"The caves are being abused," said Varela. "The caves are being spray painted and this after decades of guided tours and education going out. They were still being misused. It's wrong. If this was a provincial park somewhere else and they were spray-painting trees and damaging the environment they'd put a stop to it. But because it's happening underground, nobody has seen the impact."
Horne Lake Caves have been named the Best Natural Outdoor Site in BC by Attractions British Columbia. There are seven caves in the park that attract around 30,000 visitors each year.
Varela, however, noted that around 20,000 of those visitors never get to see the caves. This is where the interpretive centre becomes handy.
"Those are the people we are trying to reach out to," Varela said. "It's important to let them know why the caves are formed, how do we protect them, and why are they are worth protecting. People need a way to know about this environment. If they're not going to go in the caves, not get the message from our guides, then we have to provide it in another way. That's why we came up with the idea of a cave theatre."
The concept was derived following a trip to Hawaii where Varela said they did an 'R & D' - rob and duplicate. They visited a state park that draws more than a million people a year that go snorkeling in the reef and damaging the reef. In order to minimize the strain on the underwater rock formation and prevent further destruction, an interpretive centre with a theatre was created.
"Nobody was allowed to go down on the reef and snorkel it without watching a five minute video on 'why are reefs important, what are we trying to protect, and how to snorkel the reef without damaging it. I looked at that and I thought, that's what Horne Lake needs."
The Horne Lake project cost $45,000 and was funded through the provincial government, support from nearby municipalities, and donations from various groups and organizations. The plan also included making the cave theatre wheelchair friendly.
"One of the things that motivated us to expand it to those who are in wheelchairs is because we weren't seeing a lot of them and we knew they were looking for more recreational opportunities," Varela said. "This was an easier way to get people to understand how the caves are formed. These are people who never would normally visit the park. So we're happy to see the wheel-chair accessibility coming-together soon."
Once inside the cave theatre, visitors will get to watch a five-minute educational slide show about the caves and a three-minute video created by Vancouver Island University students.
The staunch supporters of the park - the Canadian Cave Conservancy, Vancouver Island Cave Exploration Group and B.C. Speleological Federation, welcomed the new interpretive centre.
BY MICHAEL BRIONES, COMOX VALLEY ECHO AUGUST 16, 2011