Down the hill from the Porter Meadow in the shadow of Empire Grade’s steady traffic, a quintessential UC Santa Cruz landmark lies hidden but not forgotten.
Part of the Cave Gulch system, it is the Empire Cave, more commonly known as the “Porter Caves.”
The Cave Gulch cavern system also includes the “Hell Hole Cave,” part of Wilder Ranch State Park, located just off campus. The exterior walls of these caverns differ only marginally from the surrounding surface level ecosystems except for their graffiti-covered walls and the orphaned beer bottles and abandoned aerosol cans resting on the ground. Inside the caves, however, are animal habitats not found anywhere else in the world.
Spelunker Jay Severson was climbing through Hell Hole one day when he had an encounter with one such unusual animal.
“I remember coming out of the cave, and at one point I looked up and there was this spider not five inches from my face,” Severson said. “It was pretty scary looking and I’m not a big spider guy, so I almost killed it.”
Severson later met a park ranger and learned that spider, called a Meta Dolloff, is on the California Department of Fish and Game’s list of threatened species and is not found anywhere else in the world. Severson, like most people who enter the caves, had been completely unaware.
“After I found out about that, I felt really bad,” Severson said. “I had no idea that that there was a species of spider [in the cave] that was in danger of going extinct.”
The Meta Dolloff or Empire Cave Spider has long, black legs, dark bodies and yellow or orange splotching on their abdomen. The spider, which resembles an enormous black widow, is one of many species unique to UCSC’s cave environment. The caves are home to a total of 70 species, six of which are particular to the local caverns.
The Cave Gulch Pseudoscorpion is listed by Fish and Game as a species of special concern. This red and white creature is smaller than a human thumbnail and releases venom out of its long pincers.
Gage Dayton serves as Administrative Director of the UCSC Natural Reserve, which includes the Porter Caves, and says that it is important that the habitats of the caves be well-maintained and preserved for the sake of the species living in them.
“There is a big danger because these animals do not live in very many places,” Dayton said. “Damage to one small area or population can have a tremendous impact on the species as a whole.”
Some damage has already been caused to the Porter Caves at the hands of the UCSC student body. The San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Empire Cave Cleanup organization runs cave cleanup trips at the Porter Caves multiple times a year. Information and observations collected on these trips, which can be found on the group’s website, report finding habitat-harming things like fast food containers, broken beer bottles, vandalism and bonfire remnants strewn throughout the caves, particularly around Halloween.
As a result of use by students and other cave visitors, uncontrolled access is considered the single biggest threat to species in the Porter Caves. Although Empire Cave was at one point gated, cave enthusiasts blasted off the barriers to gain cave access. Since then, the university installed a ladder making for easier access to the caves.
Dayton said that if the area is not better protected, staff and volunteers from the UCSC Natural Reserve might once again close the caves to the public.
Retired Earth Science Professor Gerald Webber notes that after years of mistreatment, however, true restoration of the caves would be no easy fix and would likely have to involve better educating the public about the caves and the unique life thriving within them.
“The caves can still produce an interesting habitat for animals that are unique. And as far as cave systems go, if you keep people out of them, it’s better for the [habitat]. But if people go in, [we must] make sure they know what they’re doing,” Weber said.
Many students, however, are completely unaware of the harm being done—and what’s at stake.
A second year Stevenson literature student who didn’t want to share her name admitted that she had gone into the Empire Cave drunk with her friends and a boom box. She went on to say that she had no regrets about going there and that she might return again despite the risk of disrupting or even eliminating a threatened species.
“I don’t think spiders are very high on anyone’s list of priorities,” she said.
Second year Porter psychology student Kim Brauninger was a first hand witness to similar unawareness on the part of students when she attended a party in Empire Cave.
“It’s a thing of nature,” Brauninger said. “Why do people have to bring fucking beer bottles in [the caves]? Why do they have to desecrate it? It’s really immature to me.”
Brauninger admitted that she, like many students, was initially unaware that the Empire Cave and surrounding caverns housed unique, threatened species.
Fifth year marine biology and environmental studies student Lauren Fieberg ventured to the caves for the first time her freshman year and had no idea that threatened species lived in them. She believes that if students at UCSC were better educated about the fragility of Porter Cave ecosystem, they would respond positively.
“There have been a lot of restoration projects on campus, and I think a lot of students are environmentally conscious,” Fieberg said. “[With increased education] students would be more conscious of their habits in the cave, especially involving species that are endemic to that cave.”
After visiting the Cave Gulch caverns a few times, spelunker Severson believes that they may be beyond restoration or repair — at least in terms of geological structures — comparing them to the better-preserved California Caverns cave systems located in central California, about two hours southeast of Sacramento.
“I’ve been to the California Caverns, and those have been very well protected,” Severson said. “You can’t just go in there and freestyle your way around. You have to be with a guide, and they are very protective a lot of the cave formations that are in there.”
Severson and geologist Gerald Weber both emphasized that all of the Porter Caves, especially Empire Cave, have suffered enormous stress through the years and no longer contain any stalagmites or stalagtites, mineral deposit formations formed over long periods of time that can be found on the floors and ceilings of well- preserved caves. Many people believe that if easy access to the caves remains, these unique formations will never return.
“The [caves] that are readily open to the public—I think they’re pretty useless,” Weber said. “The stalactites and stalagmites are not going to grow back.”
Many of the individuals trying to better protect the caves say they are motivated by the extensive amount of information and unique learning opportunities created by studying cave species and habitats.
“We need more work done on the basic science of these animals,” Dayton explained. “There has been a lot of science done on the cave. We need to build on that and use that information to better educate people about the caves and make better informed cave management decisions. The caves need more protection.”
With the caves still open to the public, many preservationists and other concerned individuals have suggested that an informational sign be placed outside of the cave entrances asking visitors to be respectful and mindful of the habitats and species within.
“When most human beings see a spider, they think ‘Oh, I’m going to kill that thing.’” Severson said. “So it might be worth posting some sort of placard outside the cave to educate the general public before they go in.”
Dayton says that the UCSC Natural Reserve staff has been working this summer to create an informational sign in the hopes that it will help curtail destruction and disruption within the caves.
Barry Sinervo, one of Dayton’s colleagues, has been involved in molecular research focused on a specific type of salamander found in the Porter Caves. Sinervo hopes his research will reveal whether the cave salamander represents a different species or a sub-species of the Pacific Giant Salamander found elsewhere in the Santa Cruz region.
In an email from France, where he is currently studying lizards, Sinervo said that he would like students to respect the caves so that biologists like him can continue their research. He offered some cautionary advice to those students who plan on venturing into the caves – or want them to continue to be open to the public.
“Keep the caves clean, leave as little a footprint as possible, respect life in all forms,” Sinervo said. “Do not harass the insect and invertebrate life or the cave will end up being closed to everyone except researchers.”