Bahamas Blue Holes 2016: Exploration in a Parallel World

Alex Brett carries the pinger to the location in the Cascade Room where it was placed directly beneath the porta-potty latrine on site. (Photo by Jill Heinerth)

Keene Haywood is the director of the exploration science program at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. The program offers a Master’s degree in Exploration Science through the Master of Professional Science (MPS) program at the UM-Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). He holds a PhD in Geography and MFA In Science and Natural History filmmaking.

Expedition Blog 4 / Dec. 6 / By Dr. Keene Haywood

Driving south down the main high way on the island of Abaco, the slightly rolling terrain of pine trees and low vegetation makes for a somewhat hypnotic drive as early morning light filters past the long slender trunks and across the green expanse. Some 20 miles south of the town of Marsh Harbor, one turns off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy road that leads west across the island.

Another world exists parallel to this forest of whispering pines. Below is a labyrinth of caves, the likes of which are only beginning to be fully understood and mapped. Dan’s Cave and Ralph’s Cave are two entrances into this otherworldly realm that few people have entered. Named after the hunters who originally found the caves decades ago, one goal for our current project is to survey and map these complex and beautiful water filled passages, exploring the edges of what is known and unknown. But the project has other dimensions of exploration as well.

Exploration—the word tends to mean different things to different people, but it seems to always seems to elicit the same emotion: wonder. What is out there? Why? What is around the next bend, the next passage? What are the social and ethical implications of revealing the unknown? Who “owns” the intellectual property and economic benefits that may be revealed? The list goes on. Trying to encapsulate this wonder and the moral and practical questions into a discipline is what exploration science seeks to do.

As the director of the exploration science program at the University of Miami, I often am often asked just what is this discipline? Broadly, the approach takes elements of observation, documentation, and communication and combines them with this wonder to develop new knowledge about our world. This program seeks to ground students in all three areas, encouraging them to embrace new technologies, follow their curiosity, and pull together multi-disciplinary approaches to answering what is out there and why, all while considering the historical and ethical context of exploration.

For this project, key components of exploration are strongly supported. Through video and photography, the caves are being observed and documented in both scientific and journalistic ways to convey different aspects of the wonder of Dan’s Cave. Through mapping, the surveying team is bringing back data to provide a permanent record of past exploration of the cave using new tools and software to understand distances, depths, and intricacies of this maze of nature. In addition, uses of emerging technologies such as 3-D printing of artifacts and photogrammetry work yield compelling new ways to preserve and communicate the wonders of Dan’s Cave to a wider public. In this case, this includes direct communication with local communities both at the site and remotely.

More of that direct-communication-approach is taking place daily for five days this week with groups of school children from the island of Abaco. These children get a chance to experience some of the wonder of Dan’s cave directly by coming to this area with their teachers to interact with the expedition team and go through a series of hands-on experiences including crawling through simulated cave squeezes, science experiments showing how groundwater picks up pollutants, making bush medicine teas with local elders, and coring trees to determine their age. While the data and images will go far beyond Abaco, it is the direct impact of experiential learning first hand by the younger generations of Bahamians that is most gratifying aspect of the project for many of us. It is in seeing the kids’ discovery and wonder in action that exploration science ceases to be an abstract idea and becomes a concrete experience not just for the school kids visiting Dan’s Cave, but for all of us.


LIVE Interview With Kenny Broad and Team

Lesson Plan: Exploring the Blue Holes

Full Teacher’s Guide

Read All Posts in This Series


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Meet the Author
Environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad is an National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Expeditions Council Grantee. Along with the late underwater photographer Wes Skiles, he was named “National Geographic's Explorers of the Year,” in 2011 for the pair's extraordinary achievements in documenting the Blue Holes of the Bahamas.