Explore the World's Biggest Cave From Your Couch

Is virtual reality the future of experiencing Earth's greatest natural wonders?

At F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference in San Jose, California, the social media company shared updates on React 360, an interactive WebVR and 360 content publisher. Experiences made using the technology can show up across the web and in people’s Facebook News Feeds, effectively bringing virtual reality to its more than two billion members—no headset required.

To showcase this feature, Facebook is working with National Geographic and showcasing an updated version of a 2015 National Geographic interactive VR story. In it, readers were invited to take a virtual tour of Son Doong, a recently discovered cave in Vietnam, believed to be the world’s largest.

“In the social media world, this is a big deal,” says Martin Edström, the photographer who originally captured the 360 photo spheres of Son Doong for National Geographic. “Now people can literally walk through the largest cave in the world without leaving Facebook.”

The new version of this virtual tour is updated from the original in several ways, including improved navigation, an informative audio guide, and better photographic tonality. The advancements help viewers feel as though they are really standing amid an eerie, alien landscape of enormous stalagmites in a cavern so large a Boeing 747 could fly through it—literally.

The technology to create and capture 360-degree interactive photographs and VR content has generally outpaced its distribution mechanisms. VR photographers and filmmakers have struggled to share their work with the general population. Facebook’s efforts may indicate that VR storytelling will become a more ubiquitous part of our digital media experiences.

“It's a big step toward immersive and interactive content becoming a part of the way we tell stories,” says Edström.

Revisiting Son Doong

In 2014, Edström, a photojournalist from Stockholm, Sweden, heard of a recently discovered cave in central Vietnam's Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It was being called the world’s largest. He jumped at the opportunity to capture it in virtual reality.

The entrance to Son Doong, meaning “cave of the mountain river,” was first discovered in 1991 by Hồ Khanh, a local logger. In 2009, a team of scientists and explorers, having heard tale of Hồ Khanh’s fabled discovery, contacted him and requested his help to find the cave. It took several months, but he eventually retraced his way back through the remote jungle to once again find the dark, foreboding maw in the earth.

He and the team of scientists, using proper caving systems and techniques, pushed exploration into the cave.

All were utterly astonished by what they saw.

The cave, estimated to be between two and five million years old, is believed to be the largest cave passage in the world. It’s more than three miles long, with numerous chambers large enough to hold an entire city block of New York skyscrapers. Being the world’s largest cave, Son Doong contains many appropriately gargantuan formations, including the 200-foot “Hand of the Dog,” which might be the world’s largest stalagmite, as well as baseball-sized “cave pearls,” a type of speleothem that’s typically much smaller.

Son Doong is also distinguished by two large dolines, areas where the cave roof collapsed, that let in light and created conditions for dense prehistoric flora to grow in the middle of the cave.

Fighting to Protect Son Doong

Soon after Son Doong was discovered, tourism operators moved in to convert the natural wonder into a money-making operation. Oxalis Adventure Tours currently holds the cave’s sole tourism permit and brings upwards of 800 people per year through the remote passage at a cost of up to $3,000 per person.

In 2014, another tourism company unveiled a controversial proposal to construct a 6.5-mile-long cable car through Son Doong.

“Since then, a large activist network, called Save Son Doong has been touring Vietnam, showing our VR story to local people and getting people to sign a petition to save the cave from large-scale tourism,” says Edström. “They go to universities, political rallies, and schools to let people experience this cave through our VR experience.”

In his last address to the people of Vietnam, President Obama stated Son Doong ought to be preserved, which has also bolstered the cause.

The cable-car remains just a proposal for now. This fact very well may be credited to the power of Edström’s imagery, which showed the world the spectacular natural beauty of this cave. Edström sees Facebook’s new feature as a powerful new conservation tool.

“This isn’t just a story about a cave,” says Edström. “It's a story about sustainably managing our natural heritage and making sure our grandkids still can marvel at its beauty.”

Martin Edström's work in Son Doong was supported by a grant through National Geographic Society.