Mysterious Tragedy in Waianapanapa Caves

Incident LocationDiver Names
Hawaii, Waianapanapa CavesGregory Wilhelm

Four friends ventured into the jungle of Maui to explore nature at its best, but two of them decided to take their exploration a step further into the Waianapanapa caves. However, a shocking mystery unfolded right in the dark and terrifying cave. Gregory Wilhelm went missing; all that was seen was the phone he had dropped. What happened? Would he be found dead or alive?

One of the most breathtaking places in the world to swim is the freshwater caves of Waianapanapa in Hawaii. The fact that they are the scene of a terrifying and horrific tragedy is something you would never anticipate. Every year, thousands of tourists descend The Cliffs and float into the warm waters here, but sadly, not all of them return.

The Enchanting Yet Tragic Setting

On the Hawaiian island of Maui in Hana sits Waianapanapa State Park, where the cave is situated on the Eastern tip of the island. Far from the majority of the more popular tourist destinations, is a small agricultural town called Hana. Yet, the route to Hana is one of Maui’s most popular attractions, in large part due to its isolation from tourists and the abundance of beautiful natural scenery. As you go farther into rural Maui, the road twists and turns along the shoreline, showcasing waterfalls, historic bridges, and other scenic features.

One of Hawaii’s most remote regions is reached by those who have the time to drive to Hana. In 2020, Hana’s official population was a little over 1500. There are a few tiny hotels and a few schools in the area, but overall, it’s not a place with many services, and it’s not a nice place to be if you suddenly find yourself in need of assistance. Hana doesn’t have a hospital or an emergency room.

There is a clinic, but the only thing they can do in an emergency is to take you from Hana across to the island’s other side where the hospitals are located. Instead, beaches, gardens, and parks make up the majority of the region.

Waianapanapa State Park, where the caves reside, is undoubtedly the most noteworthy of these. Waianapanapa translates to “glistening waters” in Hawaiian. This could be a reference to the freshwater caves in the park or to the ocean waves that lap the park’s boundary, where the sand is jet black from volcanic activity. Visitors must travel along a path that departs from the black sand beach and leaves inland and along the coast to reach the caves. The caves themselves are hidden among thick vegetation and, at first glance, they appear almost mystical.

Exploring Waianapanapa State Park

Each year, a large number of brave people visit the Waianapanapa cave. Gregory Wilhelm was one of these guests. Gregory, a 33-year-old from Novato, California, a tiny town located just a few miles north of San Francisco, was the victim. As a young child growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gregory showed a certain love for the great outdoors. He took part in both the Campfire Youth Summer Program and the Boy Scouts. Gregory kept his love and interest in the outdoors after he graduated from San Marin High School. He met and kept up most of his friendships because of his passion for hiking, camping, and road travel.

But why was Gregory particularly drawn to the Waianapanapa caves? Gregory seemed to have been a highly innovative individual, which was an interesting trait about him. He was interested in environmental technologies, especially solar energy and electric vehicles, and he wanted to discover a solution to counteract the harmful impacts of garbage on the environment. Gregory founded a business called Green Hauling in 2006, and the San Francisco Bay Area is still served by it today for recycling and eco-friendly trash removal. As a result, it’s clear that Gregory loved the outdoors and was also young, motivated, and eager to take chances.

It was a wonderful Sunday afternoon on the island of Maui on January 29, 2017. Gregory Wilhelm, who enjoyed outdoor exploration, was in Hana with three of his Maui buddies. The group eventually entered Waianapanapa State Park and spent some time swimming there. The group soon made their way into the jungle in search of the caves. No one knew if it had been planned or not.

Although the group may have made prior plans to investigate the caves, there is at least some evidence to show that this was not the case. Gregory grabbed his phone, turned on the flashlight, and put it in a Ziploc bag. If the exploration of the cave had been planned, a good flashlight and not a phone would have been carried along. This appears to be a fairly impromptu solution, similar to the abrupt realization that perhaps they had entered these caves without truly realizing where they were going.

Into the Depths of Darkness

There were four people in the group: two men and two women, and they all dove into the swimming hole at the mouth of the cave, like other visitors. They waded into the chilly water and took in the beauty while always keeping their eyes on the light from the cave’s entrance. Gregory eventually had the bravery to attempt to swim further into the cave, along with his male companion.

The two women decided to wait at the opening for them to come back. At this time, Gregory took his phone, which he had earlier placed in a plastic bag, and he and his friends started walking into the darkness, intent as usual on investigating the great natural beauty in front of them.

What lies in wait for them on this journey, no one knows. However, we know of these facts: the Waianapanapa caves’ water level varies greatly, which is the first factor. This may appear surprising because one would think that a pool of fresh water would remain stationary and not rise or fall. The cave’s roof, however, may well be beyond your head, or it may be so shallow that you must duck beneath, depending on when you visit.

The second factor is unless you approach the caves early in the day, you’ll notice that the sunshine vanishes nearly instantaneously after you start moving away from the cave’s mouth due to the cave’s geographic location and positioning.

Considering what we understand regarding everything that transpired afterward, the earliest Gregory and his friends might have been in the caves was extremely late in the morning, but it’s more plausible that they were entering them in the early afternoon.

We can’t rule out the possibility that there are additional caves and pathways available as you swim into the darkness. It’s so easy to become lost in this dreadful gloom. The entry into one of the deeper rooms is so small that only one person can squeeze through it at a time, as stated by the few individuals who have made this terrifying expedition and returned to narrate it. Some people claim that you can go even further.

Gregory’s Mysterious Disappearance

Thereby, while we don’t know precisely how far Gregory and his friend were able to travel before anything terrible happened, we do know that they’ve parted ways somewhere in the shadows of these renowned caves. This is odd because despite the water level, it should have been very calm. There is also no current. It wouldn’t make much sense for Gregory to have gotten lost since he was reportedly the one with the light and could have seen everything on his own.

Unknown to the two women waiting by the Cave’s entrance, they were not to expect Gregory’s exit. Gregory’s friend was the only one who emerged from the shadows. It’s almost incredible that he accomplished this without a flashlight. Such terrifying news it was for the ladies, even though Gregory’s friend had miraculously managed to escape the cave alone and alive.

He had to make a scary and extremely brave decision. He would have sensed that Gregory’s life might be in danger and that no one else would be able to save him because they were so far into the lonely Jungle of Hana. He turned around and swam again into the perilous darkness, this time alone.

As loudly as he could, he called out for Gregory, yet he just received the eerie silence of the cave as a response. Gregory’s three friends would have been extremely concerned at this time, but what happened next seems to have been the trigger for their combined fear.

Meanwhile, deep in the cave, scrambling within the darkness, Gregory’s friend began to detect the tiniest glimmer of light shining from a distance. The light shone brighter as he hurriedly swam toward it. He eventually located the light source, which turned out to be Gregory’s phone’s flashlight. Gregory’s companion called his name as he swam in the direction of the light and continued to do so until he arrived.

When he picked up the phone, Gregory was nowhere to be found. This chilling discovery indicated Gregory’s impending death. His friend immediately turned around and swam back, using Gregory’s phone to light the way because he didn’t want to waste any more time.

When he got back and told the ladies of the discovery, they were horrified. They feared that something terrible had happened. The group quickly called the Hana fire department, which instantly got in contact with a rescue crew.

The Search and Tragic Discovery

The rescue team had to go more than 18 miles by helicopter from Kahului to Central Maui. But just 10 minutes after the call was made, the Hana fire team showed up on the spot. But they were finally forced to wait until the rescue team arrived, much like Gregory’s miserable friends. Nonetheless, when the rescue team came, they went into the cave.

They could see farther into the cave and, more importantly, farther beneath the water surface thanks to their brighter lights. They were able to see far away in the distance as well as far below the water. They suddenly noticed a human body in the depths.

Whose body could that have been? Tragically, it was Gregory Wilhelm’s corpse. Gregory was found to be approximately 75 feet from the cave’s entrance. This was discovered just after 1 pm, and it was a heartbreaking sight. Gregory’s lifeless body wasn’t retrieved until after 5 PM, though, because of Hana’s remote location and the rescue’s technical challenges.

An ambitious man’s life was tragically cut short by that awful event, which also left a huge hole in the hearts of those who cared about him. More significantly, it had a mystery attached to it. While drowning is the most obvious cause of death in this instance, Gregory Wilhelm’s cause of drowning is not clear. He was young, in good health, and a proficient swimmer.

The situation was quite confusing. Gregory dropped his phone, became unexpectedly separated from his friend, was unable to keep afloat, and couldn’t find his way back to the entrance. What could have happened inside the deserted cave to cause this? Regrettably, nobody knows the answer.

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What happened to Gregory Wilhelm in the Waianapanapa caves?

Gregory Wilhelm went missing in the Waianapanapa caves. His friend emerged from the cave alone, but Gregory did not return. His phone was found inside the cave, but his whereabouts remained unknown. Eventually, his body was discovered in the depths of the cave.

Was Gregory Wilhelm found dead or alive?

Gregory Wilhelm was found dead. His body was located approximately 75 feet from the entrance of the cave. Despite efforts to retrieve him, the remote location and technical challenges delayed the recovery until later in the day.

What caused Gregory Wilhelm’s death?

The exact cause of Gregory Wilhelm’s drowning is unclear. He was young, in good health, and a proficient swimmer, making his death puzzling. The circumstances leading to his separation from his friend and his inability to find his way back to the entrance remain a mystery.

What are the characteristics of the Waianapanapa caves?

The Waianapanapa caves are freshwater caves located in Waianapanapa State Park on the eastern tip of Maui, Hawaii. The water level in the caves can vary, and the caves extend into darkness beyond the initial entrance. The absence of sunlight and potential labyrinthine paths inside the caves make navigation challenging.

How did the incident unfold in the Waianapanapa caves?

Gregory Wilhelm and his friends entered the Waianapanapa State Park and swam in a swimming hole near the mouth of the cave. Gregory and his male companion decided to venture further into the cave, while the two women waited at the entrance.
Gregory’s friend managed to escape the cave alone and returned with Gregory’s phone, but Gregory remained missing. A search and rescue team eventually discovered Gregory’s lifeless body in the depths of the cave.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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