Expedition Blog 1 / Dec. 4
4am on Dec. 4, officially the second day of our Nat Geo cave diving expedition to Abaco, The Bahamas. My umpteenth trip to Bahamas, but my first blog, so I’ll keep it relatively short, sentimental, sardonic, informational, and therapeutic for my insomnia:
Quick summary of the expedition’s start: rough seas crossing the tip of the Bermuda triangle (did not find Atlantis, by the way); overloaded boat with unwanted sloshing water beneath the deck from a broken water line, soaking critical gear; electronic navigation system gone haywire, forcing us to actually navigate with a compass (you can get a picture of these ancient devices on the interweb for the younger readers); key expedition members out w/ bizarre infections in ears and lungs; forgotten passport by unnamed team member (Tom, last name and address available upon request); failure of some critical dive equipment; two broken bones by my son, Jasper, on his birthday the day after I left (which I missed and promise to make up for); waiting hours for visit by prime minister which was cancelled at last minute; and I forgot my hair care products. But we have coffee. A lot of it.
My first expeditionary trip here was over 25 years ago, led by the late Wes Skiles, an exploration and filmmaking pioneer of the subsurface, and a larger-than-life character who died in 2010. It was my first true cave exploration, and as I surfaced at 2am from an ocean cave with an empty reel in my hand after laying out almost 1000 feet of line—in what are known here as blue holes—I held up the reel in a display of shameless hubris to Wes and the others on the back deck of the boat we were living on.
His response: “Where’s the data?”
I had laid the line in this untouched world, but brought back no survey information, no pictures, no water samples, only images in my head. It was my lesson in the difference between adventure and exploration and I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since.
Connecting With Schoolkids
In many ways this project is the culmination of the lessons learned by many of us on the team. We’re mapping this cave system that could prove to be the most extensive island cave system in the world. In doing so, we’re testing new underwater technologies and hoping to create the first virtual-reality/3-D room of an underwater cave system to be used for education, and developing an interpretive trail above the cave system. But the most rewarding part of the expedition is an extensive outreach and education component involving ethnobotany, water experiments, and surface exploration games, with school kids at the site for all sorts of hands-on activities. Beyond the local impact, we’re live broadcasting via satellite to classrooms in the Bahamas, U.S., and Canada, where the kids can interact with the explorers, scientists, and other kids across the ocean.
Our project, funded primarily by the National Geographic Society, is a collaboration between the Bahamian Government, local NGOs, and the University of Miami, and it’s supported by many local organizations. Over the next few weeks, there will be blogs on topics ranging from cave diving, water resources, 3-D technologies, and speleology from team members who come from the Bahamas, United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy, Canada, and France.
Risks and Rewards
To state the obvious, exploration is not without its risks. Wes died underwater, almost the same day that his photos made the cover story of the August 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine, bringing to life these same caves that we’re diving, with many of the same team members from that project with us on this trip. The article brought to life the otherworldly beauty and the scientific treasure trove that these windows into the underworld hold. These vast networks of limestone passageways are time capsules with many incredible features: cave formations that allow us to understand ancient and modern climate patterns; extremophile forms of life can live in darkness without oxygen and in toxic (to humans!) hydrogen sulphide; and genetic clues to the biogeochemistry (great scrabble word, by the way) of how life evolved on earth billions of years ago (and may survive now in the far reaches of space). The anoxic (no oxygen) deeper salt waters preserve all sorts of fossils, giving us tantalizing clues to animal and human migrations and disappearances in this low lying, carbonate platform, separated by deepwater canyons.
Beyond the scientific value, the reservoirs of lighter fresh water supplied by rain that sit atop the denser salt water in these coastal systems—often called aquifers—hold most of the planet’s fresh water that is not locked up in ice. They are out of sight, out of mind, subject to all sorts of pollution, and (near the coast) to salt water intrusion caused by sea level rise and overconsumption for human uses.
Ok, so that is our rational justification for exploring these places: science and human health. Truth be told, we’re drawn to the them because beneath our feet, often off the side of the road, you can jump into a muddy hole and enter an innerspace that is challenging (mentally and physically) to explore, and as alien as your imagination can see.
The area we’re working in is primarily inland pine forest dotted with windows into this network of limestone caves that has recently been designated a conservation area by the Bahamian government. Many thanks go to National Geographic and the dedicated explorers and conservationists who have brought this invisible innerspace to the public’s attention, particularly the policy makers who are protecting the future generations’ water resources and the rare forms of life that live in these hidden worlds beneath our feet. Our hope is that this project provides the data and the experience for the local and faraway folks to appreciate and protect this finite resource.
Stick with us the next few weeks for videos, blogs and honest insights into the good, the bad, and the ugly of exploration.