After two amazing days with Zoltan, I had to prepare myself for the other half of the Dynamic Duo: Kenny Broad. Kenny is one of very, very few people with experience diving through some of the most challenging caves on earth. He is a good friend and has really taken me under his wing. He is one of the best in the business, yet he is one of the most humble individuals I’ve ever had a chance to learn from. It seemed fitting that I conduct the highly-anticipated Mystery Expedition with Kenny by diving into a cave.
Where from: Miami, FL
Career: Anthropologist, explorer
Cool Fact: Kenny has used his diving skills to work on Hollywood movies, help endangered species, and get to some of the deepest places on earth.
Kenny, a professor at the University of Miami, has been exploring caves for over twenty years. These underwater caves are like time capsules. By exploring them, Kenny is both peeling back layers of the earth and conducting research to predict climate recurrences in the future.
As we strapped on all of our diving and cave gear, Kenny told me that 20,000 years ago, before the Ice Age, sea level was 400 feet lower than it is today. Now some of these caves, which formed when the land was above sea level, are underwater mysteries.
When I saw Kenny put on his helmet, I knew it was game time. I knew I had to listen to every single direction he gave me. I had never dived into a cave before, so my nerves were on edge. He discussed how tight the spaces can be and explained that I would have to protect my skull. Kenny also cautioned me not to brush up against the wall or ceiling of the cave underwater because that can create an instant cloud of dust, so you can’t see a thing, not even your hand in front of your face. He said a thin line was set up in the cave to help guide us. He told me I must follow that line. Kenny also carried extra scuba tanks, lights, and diving computers for us. He even brought a spare mask.
I was concerned. How tight can these spaces be? To see an example, take a look at these photos, taken by underwater photographer Wes Skiles for National Geographic:
Kenny taught me about other challenges to consider when cave diving:
1. No GPS, charts, or maps, are available. You have to know how to exit the cave.
2. Monitor your diving gases. Only use a little going into the cave, a little coming out, and save A LOT for emergencies. Sounds easy, but this rule can be forgotten due to the beauty of the mysterious caves and your increased breathing getting in and out of tight spaces.
3. Be careful with hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous layer of gas found in some caves that can be absorbed through the pores of your skin. This layer also feels warmer and is very dangerous to breathe in.
4. Be careful of whirlpools. They are like underwater tornadoes that can suck you into tunnels. This is how trash in the ocean as big as tractor tires gets sucked into the tunnels!
5. Caves are a world of pitch-black darkness, so a flashlight is a must. In some cases, your flashlight may not be powerful enough to see more than 5-10 feet. You must bring at least three underwater lights per person.
6. MOST IMPORTANTLY - even if you know how to scuba dive, NEVER go into an underwater cave without the proper training and equipment!!!!
As an environmental anthropologist, Kenny also studies how humans have used these caves in the past. For some cultures, caves were burial sites that served as an entry gate into the underworld or a sacrificial area for the god they worshiped. But Kenny works with living people too. He studies how societies interact with their natural resources, specifically, how they use them but conserve enough so the ecosystems can thrive and supply fresh water for future generations. Over his years of research, Kenny and his team have found ancient fossils, human remains, interesting cave creatures, and sadly, a lot of garbage (below).
Underwater caves are one of the least understood ecosystems on earth. We know more about space than underwater caves. You can’t send drones into the extremely tight spaces, where there are strong underwater currents that sometimes reverse. Some underwater caves are located in the middle of forests, or underneath local communities; others are in the ocean.
Most caves form in limestone. The natural process begins with rainfall. As the rain descends from the sky, each droplet passes through a layer of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide binds to the water molecule and makes it acidic. When the rain hits the ground, a natural filtration process begins. After working its way through the soil, fresh water begins to carve out tunnels and Swiss cheese-type holes in the limestone below.
More than 95% of the world’s fresh water is beneath our feet. However, because of pollution, we are endangering our fresh water resources. In the United States, we turn on our tap water and clean water usually comes out. But in many parts of the world, people have to walk many miles to get water and then boil it before they can use it for drinking. We can’t create water, so we must take care of what we have and remember that anything we throw on the ground will end up in our drinking water eventually—either in our lakes, rivers, or underground, where most of our drinking water is held.
As Kenny and I began our descent to the cave entrance, I cleared the pressure from my ears. Going through a cave can take you up, down, and all over the place. As we entered the cave, I was greeted by darkness and fear. I thought to myself, “I’m not too sure about this.”
Slowly, we maneuvered through the entrance. We then had to dive down into the cave, where we saw an overhang of what looked like stone icicles covered by algae and roots. We continued downward and carefully navigated among the stones while making sure the pressure in my ears was fine. Then after the steep descent, we began to ascend at an angle. I felt as if I was diving through the letter J tilted at a 30° angle. As I continued to point the flashlight up, I saw a hole about 8 feet wide and the light from the flashlight sparkling on a ceiling. As we drew closer, I saw hues of brown and yellow. Once we made it to the top, I saw unbelievable beautiful crystals. These crystals were created by fresh water minerals dripping into the cave. The ones that hung from the ceiling are known as stalactites; the ones that grew upward from the ground are known as stalagmites. They grow 1 to 9 centimeters every 1,000 years.
Kenny took me through another safety procedure of removing and securing our dive gear so we could explore the cave. I was extremely excited, but Kenny continued to remind me to slow down my breathing rate. Climbing through the cave is a daunting challenge and you must be careful not to have your head hit sharp rocks or to have your feet slip on them. Kenny made it look easy, but the last thing I wanted to do was fall in the cave and hurt myself.
As we made our way around many corners of the cave, my flashlight slowly revealed a world like no other. The beauty of rocks and crystals took my breath away. There were moments when I stopped Kenny and continued to thank him for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I felt like an astronaut stepping onto a planet for the first time. As we prepared to exit, Kenny said, “Wait until you see the Jelly Fish Lake!”