Speleologist, Spelunker or Caver?

What is the difference between a speleologist, a spelunker and a caver? These are a few terms you might want to know what they mean before you start flinging them around.


This word has its roots in the beginnings of modern, systematic caving. Martel attributes its origin to Emile Riviere in 1890--as a derivation of the French form "speleologie." Martel was by education a lawyer, not a scientist, and early speleology was seen more as branch of geography, than one of the more traditionally experimental sciences. The coining of the words, speleology and speleologist seems to have been an attempt to legitimize what was a questionable exercise in the minds of most surface dwellers.

Speleology has always been an interdisciplinary science, requiring one to have at least a smattering of geology, hydrology, biology, chemistry, climatology and survey techniques in addition to whatever specialty one has.

Most early speleologists were amateurs, not trained scientists, and even today, it is rare to find a degree in speleology or karst processes. The 1950's saw the rise of legitimate speleology, as scientific methods began to be applied to caves and cave life. Many experts in the field are trained as geologists, hydrologists, biologists, surveyors, are teachers, or employees of land management concerns such as parks or commercial caves. Some speleologists even today are largely self- educated in the field, with jobs having nothing to do with natural resources.

What distinguishes a speleologist from a spelunker or a caver is data. Whether it be maps, reports, drawings, photos, or full-blown scientific research, a speleologist aims for state of the art professional standards in his or her data production. A cave trip from which a speleologist learns nothing is a wasted effort, and the scientific bent frowns on purely recreational caving. Even so, many speleologists begin as cavers, "graduating" to speleologists as some aspect of the cave environment becomes their own personal niche for investigation.


A spelunker, technically, is a person who goes in caves. Originally derived from the Latin spelunca, (and the related Greek speleios), it comes from the Middle English word, spelunk, meaning cave or grotto. The word, spelunk, apparently went out of common use about 1600, though the adjective, speluncar (pertaining to caves) continued into the mid-19th Century. The name of the French bulletin of Le Societe de Speleologie*--founded by Edouard-Alfred Martel in 1895--was Spelunca. The first modern usage of spelunker in America was probably that reported by Clay Perry in Underground New England in 1939, describing a group of men and boys engaged in "a more or less systematic study of the caves and old mines of the area" who called themselves Spelunkers. Life magazine in the early 1940's may have been the first widespread use of the term in print in an article named, "Life Goes Spelunking." Through the 1950's, spelunker was apparently used as the generic term--with no good or bad connotations. A movie shown at the 1955 NSS Convention by William Hugstrunk, was entitled, "The Spelunkers." The MSM (Missouri School of Mines) Spelunker's Club was founded during this era, and the name continues to be used by that MSS grotto. Other popular publications of the '50s refer to spelunkers and spelunking without the slightest blush.

Sometime in the 1960s (according to Joe Walsh, and probably during an earlier upsurge of interest in venturing underground), spelunker began to take on the connotation of rank amateur, while those "in the know" but not degreed scientists began to refer to themselves as cavers. Steve Knutson (editor of American Caving Accidents) makes the same distinction in a 1995 article given at a Risk Management conference:
..."Note that I use the term "spelunker" to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and "caver" for those who are."

Spelunker, at this time, carries with it the image of a tennis-shod explorer, caving in cotton clothing by the light of a hand held flashlight, with butane lighters for backups. They are notorious for descending freehand, on cotton or manila rope, with little thought for the ascent. Pushing Coleman lanterns in crawlways is another favorite spelunker trick. Spelunkers differ from novice cavers in that (usually) the novice is attempting to learn correct techique. According to Clive Keen of British Columbia, "calling someone a spelunker up here is a serious insult." In the States, one wishing to be taken seriously avoids the word in self-reference, corrects others who accuse him or her of being a spelunker, and proudly displays the bumper sticker, "Cavers Rescue Spelunkers."


So what is a caver? Unlike spelunkers, whose skills are questionable, and speleologists, who seem distinctly serious and un-fun, a caver may be considered the middle of the road cave explorer.Cavers enjoy caves for their own sake, and most people whose interest in caving is primarily recreational consider themselves cavers. Cavers often possess the best technical skills in moving safely underground, and many of the innovations in new equipment have been invented by cavers.

Cavers are known as the discoverers and explorers of new caves, the people who ridgewalk and dig, rig rope and cave dive, driven by the hope of virgin passage just ahead.

Cavers will survey and map, just for the privilege of naming the passages with some awful pun. Some cavers are ardent photographers, not so much for documentation, as for slideshows and videos to entertain fellow cavers.

On a more serious note, one subset of cavers have become expert at cave search and rescue in order to provide a safety net for fellow cavers. These cavers are often called out by local fire and police forces to effect rescues for which the paid emergency services are ill-equipped, and rarely trained. So they get out of bed in the middle of the night, and travel long distances to rescue perfect strangers for no other reason than they have the know-how.

Some cavers become well-known as speleologists. Others become that strange creature known as a speleopolitician who tries to conserve caves by dealing with the various landowner and cave controlling agencies. And others disdain notoriety, and simply cave because they enjoy it. A great love of caves and their critters drives them--and they work to preserve their private paradise, with no thought or interest in others except for their caving buddies.

So now that you know the difference--what are you? A Spelunker? A Speleologist? or A Caver?

*As this was created in US ASCII, I did not have access to French accent marks. Sorry. Special thanks to Joe Walsh, Bill Mixon, Clive Keen and others for assistance.

E.A. Martel photo courtesy http://www.kliebhan.de/spelhist/, Owen photo from Missouri Conservationist, Bretz photo from Smithsonian Magazine.

2003 Jo Schaper.

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