Yesterday while at breakfast, I casually ran into Brian Kakuk, a world renowned cave diver. He is the Director of the Bahamas Cave Research Foundation, owner of the Bahamas Underground Technical Diving Facility, a diver for the National Museum of the Bahamas, and has had contributed to some amazing work including those featured in National Geographic, BBC, and even Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I was speechless after seeing some of these pictures; red streams of bacteria suspended in the water column hundreds of feet underwater, translucent sheets of crystal, entire rooms full of helictites, stalactites, and stalagmites.
He had just finished giving a talk on cave diving at the nearby Forfar Research Center and is headed to conduct some research for the National Museum of the Bahamas. Naturally, I eagerly asked to join.
Considering how dangerous, technically challenging, and how unlikely it is that I will ever experience cave diving for myself, I am happy to partake in any way I can and to live vicariously though him…
that is how I got here, writing in the middle of the Bahamian jungle covered in 100% deet, hidden in a mosquito net, wearing long sleeves and pants waiting for Brian to surface from his cave dive of the day.
We finally arrived at the site of the fresh water inland blue hole. It wasn’t quite what I had imagined. To my surprise, the entrance has been turned into an unofficial dump site by a local school and subsequently the local area residents. Apparently locals decided it is easier to dump trash here than to bring it to the dump. I saw beer bottles, cans, bags, old cars, washing machines, even an old thermometer. Brian said this was all recent and that when he first found this blue hole the area was still in pristine condition. He has tried to reach out to the local school to try to convince administrators of the issues with this illegal dumping, has contacted the private land owners, and even local government offices to little avail.
We walked over the cans and past the car junk yard for a few minutes before making an abrupt turn into the bush. We carried the dive equipment while ducking and dodging branches of poisonwood, a nastier indigenous–way worse version of poison oak. We finally reached an area dramatically different from the pined areas I have seen along the sides of the road. Instead of pine trees, there were lots of original native vegetation, trees, shrubs, ferns, and swamp areas, it looked more like the Bahamian jungle I had envisioned.
Brian sets up his equipment including a small tank of pure oxygen, two tanks of mixed air, multiple head lights and two Pro Go cameras to document the experience.
He steps into a shallow area and he turned on his lights to make his descent. Within minutes his lights faded and he disappeared.
It is hard to imagine the 100 feet deep cavern is connected to this shallow one foot deep wading pool and runs as far out as 500 ft!
His main objective today is to measure and record artifacts and archaeological remains for the National Museum of the Bahamas. He found this blue hole 13 years ago while exploring the nearby ruins of an old plantation. This fresh water blue hole used to be above water but was inundated 13,000 years ago as water levels rose in the area. The water contains a hydrogen sulfide zone (smells like rotten eggs) and layers of hydrogen sulfide reducing bacteria. The bacteria will eat up the hydrogen sulfide and in the process deplete oxygen in the water and form an anaerobic area at the bottom, creating perfect preservation conditions at the bottom of the blue hole. Prior to becoming flooded, the cave was home to Lucayan Indians (enslaved and wiped out by the Spanish) and generations of large owls, both now extinct. Owls do not fully digest everything they eat. They spit out owl pellets, or little balls of ruminants of their meals (bones, fur, and whatever they cannot digest). Over many generations of owls, thousands of pellets are deposited. Brian is working with the museums to document and identify the species in these pellets in order to find how the diets have changed and what environmental conditions this is reflective of. Brian is also working with archaeologists on the Indian artifacts he has found.
Brian’s work is incredible and brings together a very broad range of disciplines. He not only contributes valuable archaeological data and furthers our understanding of the local changes in biodiversity, he is also works with scientists to study sedimentology, geology, geochemistry and climate science. He has a truly interdisciplinary mentality. Although he is well aware of the dangers he face in his line of work as a technical cave diver, this is his passion and his way of furthering human knowledge. Even more inspiring is his commitment to protect the environment he is exploring and the artifacts. Unlike many thrill seekers in the diving industry or treasure hunters, Brian is fully conscience of diving’s potential for good and bad. He takes extreme care to not disturb sensitive cave environments and always consults the right experts to make sure he is not damaging relics or other irreplaceable artifacts. As a cave diving instructor he also takes time to select equally cautious and respectful students. It is a slight understatement to say I have the utmost respect for him and what he is doing. Brian’s caution and conscientious conduct, shared by the amazing staff at Small Hope, is a real inspiration. I wish all divers and dive operations could be more like this.