For residents of Bermuda, Crystal Caves is one of the island’s many crown jewels, but for Bermudian Michael K. Frith, co-creator of the beloved 1980s puppet TV show “Fraggle Rock,” the caves were an inspiration.
Since he was a child, Frith recalls spending time exploring the caves tunneling beneath the island’s eastern edge, about eight miles from Hamilton, the island's capital. From marveling at the finger-like stalactites gripping the caves’ atrium-like ceiling and the massive stalagmites rising from the ground to seeing their reflections glisten back at him in the subterranean expanse’s crystal-clear pool, he soaked everything in. So, years later, when famed filmmaker and puppeteer Jim Henson tasked Frith—a former Random House editor and illustrator (fun fact: he edited many Dr. Suess books) who was then working at the Jim Henson Company—and his colleagues to create a new TV show targeted at children, Frith looked no further than the “magical world” resting right beneath his feet.
But it wasn’t simply the caves themselves that inspired Frith; it was also the way they were discovered. During the last Ice Age, roughly 1.6 million years ago, the Crystal Caves formed as a result of rainwater eroding the surrounding limestone, but they remained unknown to Bermudians up until 1907, when Carl Gibbons and Edgar Hollis, two local boys, accidentally discovered them. As the story goes, during a game of cricket their ball rolled next to a small crevice that was emitting warm gusts of air. Curious, the duo began digging with their hands, dropping a rock through the narrow opening to see how far down the hole went. Hearing a "plink," Gibbons ran the short distance home and grabbed a crowbar and a kerosene lamp, and they continued digging only to find a subterranean world beneath them. Now, more than a century later, the 1,600-foot long, 200-foot deep cave system remains one of the island’s most popular destinations, seeing roughly 85,000 visitors each year.
“The thing that got me about the story [of their discovery] is the idea that these kids were suddenly in a place where no human being had ever been before,” says Frith, who is now retired. “I always felt that must have been an astonishing thing to be standing there with a flashlight and tracing its beam and hitting the stalactites, stalagmites and the glitter of the water running down them. And then there’s that amazing sound of the drips coming down, and you hear the plink plink as the drops hit the [pool of] water, and there is no other sound.”
That aquamarine pool of water figured strongly into the setting of "Fraggle Rock," which ran from 1983 to 1987, and its plot line, about a world where four anthropomorphic species (Fraggles, Doozers, Gorgs and Silly Creatures) coexisted. Although each group is culturally different and physically occupies different parts of the Fraggle universe, they're all intrinsically dependent on one another thanks to water.
“In Bermuda, we don’t have fresh water, [so we collect rainwater from our white stepped rooftops],” Frith says. “One of the things that I pushed for is having water as the connector between all of the [different groups of characters] on the show.”
Frith explains that the fictitious universe he created centers around Fraggle Pond in the middle of the cave. Its water source is from a radiator located above ground inside Doc’s workshop. During the show, the radiator will clank and he thinks there’s something wrong with it, but in reality the clanking comes from the cave, where the Fraggles are banging on a pipe because they believe that will make the water run. As the water fills Fraggle Pond, it feeds the well in the Gorgs’ garden to produce the radishes that become the basic building material for the Doozers.
“There’s this whole water cycle that goes through ‘Fraggle Rock’ and all of the different worlds there, and each group is dependent on each other to keep the world going,” he says. “That idea comes from my lying in bed at night as a kid and listening to the water as it ran from the roof, down the water pipe on the other side of my bedroom wall, and into the [water collection] tank for our house. I felt like I was in the middle of this God-given gift of water. Without that cycle, none of us could [live in Bermuda].”
The caves offer guided tours, which begin with a descent down 88 steps into the grotto below. The caverns showcase three of the five geological formations in Bermuda, but perhaps the tour's showstopper is the walk across the catwalk hovering above the cave's aquamarine pool. Tour admission includes a visit to Fantasy Cave, an adjacent cave system known for its orange-hued walls covered in calcite mineral deposits, which give them the appearance of frozen waterfalls. One visit to the caves and it's easy to understand how they spurred Frith's imagination in the first place.
“Caves are really like one’s imagination,” he says. “You’re in a place, and you see it and recognize it and understand it, but you know that a tunnel can lead you off somewhere else. It’s something that is absolutely unlimited and every one of those different tunnels can be a different adventure. And at the end of each one there can be a different story.”