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"A journey to the depths of the earth," is the way cave researcher Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, his eyes glistening, describes the first time he rappelled down into a cave just discovered in the Galilee.

Every first entrance into a cave is exciting, he says, referring mainly to his experience a few weeks ago when he rappelled 150 meters into the second deepest cave in Israel.

The cave was found near the Galilee mountain town of Peki'in by an amateur spelunker from Safed, Yuri Lisovates, who reported it to Shivtiel and his colleagues at the Hebrew University's Cave Research Unit.

Shivtiel says there are others like Lisovates, "a very small group of people, mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, for whom this is a sport."

He says he understands why they love caves. "Discovering a cave is a rare experience. All your senses are awake: You know that you're the first to go in, you rappel in by rope into the unknown. You don't know when you'll hit the bottom - after 49 meters, 100 meters or in this case 150 meters. On the way you find stalactites and large chambers and spaces.

The deepest cave discovered in Israel to date is near the Druze village of Beit Jann on Mount Meron. Shrouded in legend, it is dubbed by locals "the whale's mouth." The first attempt to enter it was made in the 1960s, but explorers only reached 50 meters in. In 1984, spelunkers from the Cave Research Unit rappelled in and determined that the cave is 157 meters deep.

Lisovates says the equipment they use nowadays to take measurements, which includes firing a laser beam, is much more precise than in earlier times.

Shivtiel says the Cave Research Unit plans to enter the cave near Beit Jann some day soon to measure it again. "Then we'll know which is the deepest cave in Israel."

But even after that, the "journey to the depths of the earth" will go on, because the Galilee has so many caves, only a few of which have been revealed.

"This is a world of stalactite and stalagmite caves, vertical shafts and branching crawl spaces that are some of the most beautiful in the world. The authorities should treat seriously the stalactite caves that have been discovered in recent years, beyond purely scientific interest," Shivtiel says.

Scientists and amateurs question locals when they survey the Galilee for caves. "We talk to people who know the outdoors, including elderly shepherds who remember stories from their childhood about big caves. Another way to find a place where there might be a cave is to find dolines - underground springs created when rock dissolves and sinks," Shivtiel says.

The new cave was discovered when Lisovates and his friends noticed a crack in rocky ground in a dense forest that an ordinary person would not notice. "Air was coming out of the crack, and if you have experience looking for caves, you realize that when your standing on rocky ground and air comes out from under your feet - you're on to something," Shivtiel says, revealing a professional secret.

Despite the passion to discover new caves, the ground cannot be damaged and, of course, the crevice cannot be widened. "You squeeze into the crack and go very slowly into the cave. It's sensational," Shivtiel says.

And a word to the wise: Pack an extra rope before you start your descent. "You don't know how deep you'll be going," Shivtiel warns.