Symi: below the surface

It has always struck me as odd that Symi, an island made up almost entirely of limestone, has no cave systems, or at least none that I could find out about.

The ‘Round-the-Island’ boat trips advertised from the harbour offers a “Visit to Cave for swimming”.  When I went on the trip some years ago I swam from the boat into the cave but it seemed shallow, no obvious opening further in, at least above water level.  Just a sea cave.

There is a cave, Spilia Skordhalou, part way down the long path from the spine of the island to Nanou Beach but though a fairly large opening that also had no depth and no obvious way on.

Symi has the reputation of being the hottest and driest of the Greek islands and I have heard it said many times that the island has no water.  Indeed until the commissioning of the desalination plant a couple of years ago water was brought to the island several times a week by sea tanker from Rhodes.

But there is water, apart from that collected in sternas from run-off.  I know of at least 5 permanent ponds. Two of them are on beaches and so probably brackish, the others are at a higher level including one at Gria, a deserted village at about 200 metres above sea level (see the end of the last post ).  The water in these ponds is not from run-off because levels remain fairly constant throughout the summer drought. They must therefore be fed by underground aquifers.

It has been suggested, on Tilos not on Symi, that it is difficult to account for the reliability of flow of freshwater springs purely by rainfall on the island.  It is further suggested, quietly, that there may be aquifers under the sea from nearby Turkey which shares a similar geology and has significantly higher rainfall than the dry, hot rocks of the Greek islands offshore.   I haven’t been into the system but Otter Hole, a cave system near Chepstow in the Wye Valley, runs under the tidal river.  The Aegean is wider between Turkey and the islands but not enormously so, indeed it is a swimmable distance, though not for me.  It seems a plausible hypothesis but I know of no direct evidence.

There are also springs on Symi as well as on Tilos.  I know of at least 3 with a constant flow.  The monastery of Zoodohou Pighis, meaning ‘water of life’, at about 260 metres ASL and not much more than 1 km along the mountain flank from the Gria pond, has a spring long ago tapped for monastery use in the courtyard.  Now it is tapped to feed showers for tourists with a black polypropylene pipe on the surface stretching the 2 kms to Horio, heating the water as it flows.  Where did that water go before it was tapped in such large amounts?  What are the hydrological and hydrogeological consequences of such large-scale abstraction?  I have known planning inquiries turn on such issues but that is not my point here.

So there is plenty of evidence of underground water on the island.  Water flowing through limestone usually erodes it physically and chemically resulting in …… cave systems.   There is also plenty of evidence of water eroded limestone on the surface of Symi with whole sections of mountainside covered in rocks sculpted, smoothed or sharpened by water.  Why not underground?

I have walked a lot on Symi, much of it ‘off-piste’, but seen no evidence of cave openings at top or bottom of any systems.  True, the spring at Zoodohou is behind a locked steel door so poking around in a water supply would not be encouraged.  True the resurgences could be below sea level, including perhaps the ‘Round-the-Island’ cave.  Yet I had hoped to find something I could get into.  If the resurgences are below sea level they would be sumped.  I have free-dived sumps in Swildon’s Hole in Somerset but they are a known quantity.  Here they are complete unknowns

As a teenager I used to catch the train into the Derbyshire Peak District.  Most of the time I went to the Dark Peak, millstone grit country, but increasingly I started visiting the White Peak, dry valleys cut into limestone.  There I would find cave openings in the side of the crags and armed with a hand-held, tinny metal torch and a bobble hat (‘toque’ for North American readers) I would crawl in and explore.  I loved it.  The tighter the squeeze the more fun it was.  My mother didn’t think so because inevitably I arrived home caked in mud and eventually I was banned.

Wondering about the absence of evidence of cave systems on Symi isn’t something which keeps me awake at night but it is something which niggled away at me.  It was therefore with some excitement that, following a discussion over a nightcap in Lefteris’s Kafenion, that on my last day on the island, indeed my last day in Greece this year,  a friend who lives on the island and I set out to look for a cave that she remembered visiting 20 years ago.

After an hour and a half walking, coming out of the cypress forest into a rocky clearing on the shoulder of the mountain at about 250 metres ASL, overlooking Skoumisa Bay and the island monastery of Agios Emilianos and its causeway …… we found it!  What a memory!!!  What a triumph!!!

The entrance was not enormous, smaller than that on the Nanou path, but significantly bigger than some systems I have been in.  It was like going back to my teenage days in Derbyshire.  With no proper clothing (I was in shorts, T-shirt and sandals) and armed only with torches and sunhats we went inside.

The ground dropped away steeply, sloping at more than 45 degrees from the horizontal following the dip of the strata and was very loose.  Nevertheless with great care not to cause a slide or dislodge large pieces of delicately balanced rock we managed to get far enough inside to establish that this was not a shallow scrape like so many others.  As it descended, the passage turned to the right and the entrance was soon out of sight.  Reaching a point where it dropped sharply and continued to veer rightward it was time to resist the urge to go deeper, quell the euphoria, and carefully climb back upwards.

Looking down from the shoulder of the hill to Skoumisa Bay and the island monastery of Agios Emilianos

Looking down from the shoulder of the hill to Skoumisa Bay and the island monastery of Agios Emilianos

The cave opening

The cave opening

Pink calcite deposits on one side of the passage

Pink calcite deposits on one side of the passage

Creamy calcite overhead

Creamy calcite overhead

Silhouetted against the entrance

Silhouetted against the entrance

Climbing back out ..... carefully

Climbing back out ….. carefully

We were both buzzing as we headed back to Lefteris’s to tell the sceptics.

We would need to return another day with more appropriate gear. But not this year.  As the last day of my summer in Greece it was pretty special.

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5 Responses to Symi: below the surface

  1. Andy Prickett says:

    Hi Barry
    Intrigued about the cave. We are visiting Symi this September and would be interested in checking out the cave. Where is it in relation to the path from the Ionis church? or is it nearer to the ridge to the west.
    If you are on the island then you could join us on the gorge descent to Nanu or even the one to St Georges, although you would need a harness for the latter.
    Regards
    Andy

    • BarryH says:

      Hi Andy
      Will contact you via e-mail about the location of the cave. Plan to be on Symi mid-April to the end of July. Hope to be on Nisyros during September but will liaise about a few days on Symi to look at the cave and St George’s gorge descent. Hope to explore upwards in Skordhalos cave as well. Floor should be an archaeological dig but upwards looks a lot more fun. Let me know your dates.
      Best wishes
      Barry

      • Andy Prickett says:

        Hi Barry
        That would be great.
        We will be on Symi from 20 September for between 7-10 days before going on to Kalymnos.
        You will need a harness for the St. George’s descent but not for the Nanu gorge.
        Our email is
        Just back from a great 2 weeks in the Moroccan Anti Atlas.
        Regards
        Andy

  2. BarryH says:

    Hi Andy Will be in touch later in the summer ….. but you need to send me your e-address. I’ll send details of a route to the cave if my trip back to Symi in September doesn’t materialise.
    Regards
    Barry

  3. Andy Prickett says:

    Hi Barry
    Our email is
    We will be arriving on Symi on 20th Sept and are planning to catch the ferry to Kalymnos on 30th September.
    Regards
    Andy

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