Copyright © 2015 - Bill Kaunitz
Cave of the Mexican Giants
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This last chapter of my first crystal book addresses a different topic from all the other parts. Let's take a look at an extraordinary crystal cave discovered in Mexico that contains the largest selenite crystals in the world. The town of Naica in Chihuahua State, Mexico is home to one of the oldest silver, zinc and lead mines in the New World. During the long history of mining in Naica, the tunnels were extended thousands of feet underground. Today each tunnel is large enough to drive pickup trucks and heavy digging machinery into the depths of the mine. At certain levels of this mine, there are caves full of huge selenite crystals. Do you remember the cavern of huge crystals called the Fortress of Solitude in the first Superman movie? It looks just like this. Let's take a look at the real cave of giants discovered in 2000 underneath Naica.
One day in the summer of 2001, I answered a strange phone call. A woman named Leela Hutchison said she heard about my crystal museum. Leela wanted to use the meeting room for a film presentation of her journey to a Mexican crystal cave. I invited her right over!
Leela told me an amazing story about her crystal cave journey in Mexico. This cavern was discovered almost 1000 feet below ground where the ambient tunnel temperature is always above 100°F. Inside the cave, the entrance chamber is stifling hot — 128°F hot! There is a second crystal cavern connected to the first cave which measured 134°F. at almost 100% humidity. The atmosphere is more like rainfall than air. There is no escaping the drops of water in the air or on your body. Everything is dripping wet, including the crystals, which are also extremely hot.
The entrance to this giant white selenite pocket was created during standard mining procedures in pursuit of a vein of silver. The miners use a heavy-duty tractor with an overhead battering ram to create new tunnels in their search for profitable metal ore.
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This picture and the following one show small selenite crystal clusters from the Naica Mine. The picture above is a white "fish-tail" selenite that formed as a 12-inch long grouping. Unlike traditional stalactites and stalagmites, these crystals grow in every direction while immersed in water underground. They may look like stalactites, but they are not formed by slow drips of mineral-laden water over thousands of years.
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Here are some blue crystals from the Naica Mine that are related chemically to selenite. A big thanks to Richard's "WonderWorks" for letting me photograph this incredible specimen. That's Richard's hand back there for a size comparison.
In different mines, selenite can take on any color tint in the spectrum. This translucent blue group of crystals has a distinctly different shape from the fishtail selenite above. This sky blue formation is called "anhydrite" and is chemically identical to selenite. It has a different crystal structure due to varying growth conditions. Anhydrite only forms in liquid solutions over 138°F. Selenite forms below 137° F. Both are types of calcium sulfate crystals. They only grow in hot water that has a high mineral content.
There are other mines around the world where magnesium sulfate crystals grow instead of calcium sulfate crystals. Magnesium sulfate is best known as Epsom salts, named after the town of Epsom in England where they were originally mined.
If you have any selenite or anhydrite in your collection, be sure not to use any water on it. Don't leave it out in the rain, or even store it in a humid room as these salt-like crystals can eventually dissolve.
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Selenite crystals that grow in water with a high content of sand particles are called "sand selenite" or "Desert Rose." The huge Brazilian cluster above is almost three feet long, with detailed sandy blades shooting out in every direction. It looks fragile, but always amazes me with how sturdy it is during moves from one museum to another. I often take crystals like this and build steel easels or stands to lift them upright.
Oddly enough, quartz crystals sometimes grow around other crystals that wind up dissolving away. Then there is a gap embedded in the quartz that is shaped like the missing crystal. In Volume 4, you'll see some more amazing pictures of hollow crystal shapes inside of quartz crystals.
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I did not get to visit the selenite caves in person. Entry is restricted to scientific researchers. So I could not take pictures down there, and never will since the cavern was allowed to flood naturally again in 2015. My friend Leela ended up loaning me some of her pictures to use as a basis for the illustrations here. These images from various artists capture the impressionistic beauty of the big crystals.
As you will soon see, "big" is a relative term. I personally have never seen a selenite crystal over six feet long. Back in 1985, while I was selling my crystals on the roadside in Tucson, Arizona, a pickup truck driver stopped to show me his truck full of selenite columns. They were about 6 feet long; truly impressive! Each crystal weighed hundreds of pounds. The crystals in the back of the truck were stacked up like firewood. I really liked his crystals; I just didn't want to lift them. I didn't buy any of them, but now, knowing how rare they are, I wish I had a couple in my collection.
Here's the story about Leela's adventure to the selenite fortress of solitude. You can read more about the excursion in her book “Journey into the Giant Selenite Crystal Caves of Mexico ”, available on Amazon.com.
When I first met Leela, she told me that she was an accomplished rock climber who had been on many exciting expeditions. One day, a photographer friend called her and asked if she wanted to go on a caving trip. He had been hired by a sportswear company to test and photograph special hot weather clothing. This clothing is designed to wick moisture away from your body and keep you cool. Leela and the photographer ended up in a 128°F cave where water permeated the air and drenched everything around it. Everything got soaked instantly! The special clothing didn't work as well as expected in this extreme environment.
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In this picture, you can see the larger crystals in the entry cavern. Leela is already very hot, with rivers of perspiration soaking her sweaty clothes. This amazing woman and her photographer friend, Richard D. Fisher, with his specially modified cameras, ended up spending 45 minutes in the entry cave! It was like an extended sauna, but instead of relaxing on a warm bench, they spent their time climbing over gigantic hot rocks.
All they had for lighting were miners' lanterns, one of which is in Leela's right hand. This is a tiny battery powered light that does little to dispel the absolute darkness of the ancient cavern. Leela told me that the heat and darkness, along with the extreme humidity, were oppressive and frightening. Based on her vivid dreams the night before they traveled to Mexico, she felt protected, practically invulnerable. There were no injuries on this expedition.
When the camera strobe light illuminated the cave, they saw giant blue, gold and clear crystals growing in every direction. This was obviously different from the usual drip-formation stalactite caverns that are found in different places around the world.
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Now we have arrived in the main cavern of the selenite cave. These huge crystals grow from the floor right up to the ceiling! They grow from wall-to-wall. They stick up into the air with huge sharp points. They point downward and in every direction. I offer many thanks to artist John Enright for capturing the spirit of the caves in this amazing artwork.
Some of the photos from this expedition were used in a Smithsonian Magazine article in April 2002, about the Naica selenite discovery. After Leela's expedition in 2001, many scientists descended into the caves by 2007. There is now a series of rooms carved out of the nearby rocks to accommodate scientific expeditions and research projects. Huge air conditioners and dehumidifiers were installed to make the area safer for exploration.
While Leela and her small team of cavers explored this crystalline sauna in shorts and t-shirts, more recent visitors now use special heat-resistant orange-colored safety suits with 40-pound ice packs strapped to their backs. These scientists are partially protected from the hazards of the caves. The air they breathe passes over ice to cool it to tolerable levels. When the ice melts out from the special thermal suits, the explorers only have a few minutes to run out of the cave before their bodies and brains overheat.
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Hardhats are a necessity in the cave, not a luxury. We can't really get a sense of what these caves are like because it is pitch black down there. Leela was climbing through gaps in these large, hot and jagged hidden crystals. She could only see a small area directly in front of her, illuminated by the tiny lantern. What a brave woman! She has subsequently shared her story with thousands of people:
These special caves have been featured in two issues of National Geographic Magazine, the April, 2002 Smithsonian Magazine and two National Geographic television shows from 2008 and 2010. I urge you to look them up for a fantastic voyage.
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Leela's journey in this amazing cave is almost over. She could only spend five minutes at a time in the hottest cavern before her body overheated. After cooling down, she went back for another five minutes session, followed by a THIRD five minute session. Her arms and legs turned lobster-red as her body threw off extra heat. Her clothes were completely drenched with perspiration and there is a river-like flow down her arms and legs. Everything glistened with sweat and humidity.
When it's time to leave the hot cave, there is no hesitation involved!
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This image shows Leela's last moments in the selenite cave. She is running as fast as she can to get away from the heat before she passes out. Her hands and arms were bright red and her knees are baked from kneeling on the hot crystals. The miners were nice enough to let her take these two small crystals home. These selenites are now treasured members of her collection.
At times, Leela was asked to climb huge diagonal crystals. She managed these slippery slopes with bare hands and knees. This was all done in complete darkness with only one tiny headlamp on her helmet. At certain times, the photographer would ask her to stop, turn towards him, pose and smile for the camera. Leela later told me that all the smiles were actually grimaces of adrenalized fear.
Some of the selenite crystals found on other levels of this mine were harvested and sold to collectors all over the world. However, these two caverns, totaling some 10,000 square feet, have been protected for posterity. These caves were allowed to go back underwater in 2015. The giant crystals spent over a million years under water, slowly growing to lengths of 35 feet and individual weights exceeding 60,000 pounds.
Over the years, as the mine gets deeper and deeper, down to a depth of 2200 feet, it has a tendency to flood with ground water. This water is heated by magma under the earth's crust. This promotes crystal growth in some areas where the chemical conditions are exactly right.
There is one basic reason why the miners could ever enter these caves. They constantly pump water from the depths of the mine. Due to this fluke of history, the selenite caves had already been drained before the miners found them. Over 23 Olympic sized swimming pools of water were pumped out of the mine each day by massive turbine engines running constantly.
It's nice to know that special places like this exist inside our planet. In your imagination, can you go to crystal caves where selenite, diamonds, emeralds, quartz and other special gems grow? Where will your imagination take you?
While these are the largest selenite crystals ever found, there are other kinds of crystals that grow even bigger. Legend has it that a 45-foot long quartz crystal was once mined in Brazil that weighed over 88,000 pounds. One third of the length was reportedly almost ice-clear! Since the crystal no longer exists, it was likely carved into pieces to create major stone sculptures in the 1950s.
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I have also heard a story about a giant spodumene crystal, a type of brown kunzite, which was found many years ago in Russia. The report of the discovery indicated this crystal was 150 feet long and far too massive to move. It's probably still in the ground. I wish I could tell you its location, but perhaps that story is a modern myth.
There is no telling what other kinds of caves will be found in the future. Not too long ago, in the Lechuguilla Caverns of New Mexico (near Carlsbad Caverns ) another giant selenite cave system was discovered. The shapes of these crystals are completely different from the Naica crystals. I recommend you look up Lechuguilla Cavern so you can get a glimpse of another crystal wonderland. Cavers have already discovered some 300 MILES of Lechugilla's spectacular selenite deposits.
And now, on a final note, let's bring it all back to the quartz crystals of Arkansas. Every now and then, miners discover magnificent caverns, some 50 to 60 feet long, filled with the most incredible quartz crystals that you can imagine. In Volume 2, you'll see some of these fantastic museum pieces that have been lovingly harvested from the depths of the earth.
I hope these crystal stories have brought an increased curiosity and sense of wonder into your life. Please see the following books in my crystal series to explore hundreds of new pictures of the world's most fantastic quartz crystal gems.
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Please visit more quartz inclusions in Volume 4, Inside the Crystal.
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More rutiles appear in Volume 4, Inside the Crystal.
To purchase Book 2 in the "Crystal Collecting with Crystal Bill" series Crystal Love Story, go to www.ElegantCrystals.com