The lights of the cavers’ helmets revealed the creature submerged in the clear water of Honey Creek Cave. It was a salamander, pale white in color, with red, feathery gills that branched off its head like antlers. It had no eyes.
The blind salamander might have been perfectly adapted to the cave, but the human visitors needed plenty of gear. Wetsuits to stay warm in the cold water. Flippers and floatation devices to help swim through the long, open channels of the Hill Country cave. Lights to pierce the inky darkness. Helmets to avoid bashing heads against the ornate mineral formations projecting from the ceiling.
In late July, caver Kurt Menking and his wife, Kitty Swoboda, guided San Antonio Report photo editor Scott Ball and me through the cave. Menking, a leader with the caving group Bexar Grotto, has been exploring the cavern since the 1980s with the permission of the family who owns the ranch surrounding its entrance. With more than 20 miles of mapped passageway, the Honey Creek Cave is the longest known cave in Texas.
Though the cave is near Honey Creek State Natural Area, owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the cave itself is on private land in Comal County, with motion-activated cameras near the entrance to detect trespassers. Visitors to the cave must have permission from the landowners.
The cave is downstream of a proposed subdivision of 1,700 homes and three schools, planned by neighboring property owners. Cavers have been speaking out against the development plans since 2018, when developers submitted an application to discharge treated wastewater from a sewage plant into Honey Creek.
Opposition to the development led to a new proposal to use the treated wastewater for irrigation, rather than discharging it down Honey Creek. But cavers and biologists are still concerned that trash and chemical runoff from the development will make its way downstream.
“If you could pick the worst place in the state to do this, this is it,” Menking said of the development. “If you moved it half a mile in either direction on Highway 46, it would be out of this [watershed]. It would be a problem and it would be a damn shame, but it wouldn’t be this issue.”
Adaptations for life in the darkness had made the amphibian, likely a Comal blind salamander, perfectly suited to its underground habitat. The species is listed as threatened on the Texas endangered list.
Menking and Swoboda navigated past the entrance channel, where leopard frogs and harvestman arachnids waited in the half-darkness, into the main channel. The group pushed off into the deep water, swimming against the slow-moving current.
At one point, the visitors had to submerge slightly to pass under a low-hanging formation that cavers named Whistler’s Mother because of the sound air makes when flowing through the passageway.
The journey along the main cave channel stopped at an underground waterfall of travertine, a delicate limestone formed by the steady deposition of dissolved minerals.
The group swapped flippers for shoes and climbed over the waterfall, then over a tumbledown set of boulders and rocks that had fallen from the ceiling. On the other side of the pile, the water grew deep again and stretched back into darkness.
Menking suggested turning around and exploring a side channel, containing what he called the “most decorated part of the cave.”
After a half-mile of crawling through mud and water, the cavers saw the quality of the ceiling formations begin to change. Fangs and ribbons of rock became translucent and more crystalline than the dull limestone elsewhere. Thin, clear straws hung from the ceiling, formed by the steady drip of mineral-laden water. Nodes of calcite resembled sparkling popcorn glued to the ceiling.
After some photos, the group headed back. In four hours, we had explored only a quarter mile of the main channel and a half mile of the side channel, a small fraction of the whole system.
Emerging into the midday light felt like a rebirth. Just downstream of the main cave entrance, the underground water poured out of a spring, tumbled down a terrace of travertine, and filled the stream bed of Honey Creek.