Caves vs Caverns: What’s the difference?


All caverns are caves, but not all caves are caverns. Caverns have unique characteristics that define it. Caverns can transform into cenotes while caves technically can’t. But more on that later.

A cave is any cavity in the ground with areas inside that are completely blocked from the sun. A cavern is a cave formed by partially acidic water flowing through soluble rocks under the ground’s surface. Caverns always have secondary mineral deposit formations and might not have an entrance.

Secondary mineral deposit formations are broadly referred to as speleothems. Most speleothems comprise aragonite, calcite, and gypsum. Stalactites and stalagmites are two of the most common mineral deposit formations. All caverns contain speleothems, but not all caves.

Another defining factor of caves is that they have an entrance/opening somewhere. The entrance of the cave is usually where the formation of the cave began. However, because caverns are formed by dissolving rocks under the surface, it’s possible for a cavern to lack an entrance. Openings that exist in caverns usually form well after the cavern itself because of slowly dissolving rocks.

Avalanches, sinkholes, and expanding valleys can all expose caverns and create entrances to them. Compared to a cave, which by definition, always has an entrance from the beginning to the end of its existence.

In terms of cave diving, the cavern part of the cave is defined as the area where you can still see light from the water’s surface while there is solid rock above you. The cavern area is always within 200ft from the water’s surface (penetration distance). A cavern is no deeper than 100ft from the ground surface. Caverns also usually have some ambient light and you should always be able to swim towards the light to get to the surface.

The cave part of a dive is the area further than 200ft in penetration and can also be more than 100ft in depth from the ground’s surface. There is no ambient light in diving caves once you reach this distance/depth.

If you’re ready to get started caving, be sure to read my Beginners Guide and check out my recommended gear section.

Cave VS Cavern Differences

Caves always have an entrance.Caverns might not have any entrance.
Are formed in thousands of ways.Are formed by acidic water flowing through soluble rock.
The cave portion of a dive has no light at all.The cavern portion of a dive has ambient light from the water’s surface.
Has no limit on depth or penetration distance.Widely accepted as being less than 100ft deep and closer than 200ft from the water’s surface.
Has no clear indication of where to exit.The exit can be seen by the amount of light in that direction.

Which Is Bigger, A Cave Or Cavern?

In terms of cave diving, the cave area is the deepest section of the entire cavity. You need to pass through the cavern portion to get to the cave, which can be over 200ft from the water’s surface. However, the size of caves and caverns varies greatly and anyone can be bigger or smaller than the other. The sizes of these natural occurrences are not defining features of either.


Cave Rock VS Cavern Rock

Caves can comprise any type of rock that has been eroded to the extent where there is an opening to get in. On the other hand, caverns are defined by the soluble rocks which have been shaped by water, usually slightly acidic, that flows through it and therefore don’t always have an opening big enough to enter.

Cave Diving VS Cavern Diving

In simple terms, cave diving implies that the diver will travel around 200ft or further into the cave, to where there is no natural ambient light. Cave diving is far more dangerous compared to cavern diving because it’s easier to lose your way or become panicked in the cave’s darkness.

The fact that you’re so far from the water’s surface makes it worse because it will take longer to get out, whether you do it on your own or rescued.

Cavern diving involves exploring the areas in the water that are still illuminated by the light coming from the surface while going further than the “open water” area. Open water becomes a cavern when there is solid overhanging rock as you move through it. Cavern diving is usually limited to a maximum of 200ft in distance from the water’s surface and 100ft in total depth from the ground surface.

Cavern diving is far safer than cave diving because you are always closer to air if you want to get out in a hurry. Even if your flashlight and secondary flashlight fail you, there will still be natural light to follow and make your way out.

cave diving

Sections Of A Cave Dive

There are three main sections of a cave in terms of cave diving, namely:

Open Water

As the name implies, this is the area where you can surface at any point just by moving upward. If the water’s surface is directly above you and no further than 130ft away from it, you’re in an open water area.

This is the safest area, which is why it’s best to spend a lot of time here before moving to the cavern area.


As soon as you have rock above you, open water changes to the cavern area. The cavern gets darker as you move further into it because the sunlight only has one point of entrance. As long as you can see where the light is coming from and you’re no further than 200ft away, you’re in the cavern area.

To go beyond the cavern area of a cave dive, you need to be certified for cave diving.


As you pass through the cavern, further than 200ft from the water’s surface, the environment will become completely dark. This is the cave area, defined by the lack of light and probable depth of 100ft or more.

What Is A Cenote?

A cenote is similar to a cavern in the way that it forms. Water flows through the soluble rock and carves out massive cavities. But the cavern only truly becomes a cenote once the roof collapses into the cavern to expose the huge reservoir of water within.


Open cenotes are defined as having no overhead rocks. This is when the roof has completely collapsed.

Semi-open cenotes are caverns with open water areas and areas where rocks form a partial roof.

Cave cenotes are caverns that have an open water area, leading through a cavern area of overhead rocks, which leads to a cave that surrounds you in rock and complete darkness.


A cavern is a type of cave or a certain section of a cave in terms of cave diving. Natural light from the water’s surface partially illuminates a cavern’s environment. The water’s surface shouldn’t be further than 200ft away to qualify as a cavern.

A cave is any opening in the ground that leads to areas where direct sunlight can’t reach. For cave diving, the cave is the area of complete darkness, it can extend for hundreds of yards and reach depths far beyond 100ft.

The risks of cave diving are higher than cavern diving and you need training specifically for cave diving to do so safely. You require training for any type of diving, but cave diving is one type that requires the most.


When you’re ready to get started caving, be sure to read my Beginners Guide and check out my recommended gear section.


I’m Rob, the owner of StartCaving. I enjoy exploring and writing about caves. I live in Ohio and like going out to Ash Cave at Hocking Hills with my family. I plan to hit up more caves across the states in the coming years but until then I will continue to write about them.

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