I Wish There Were Sharks In Caves
"I wish there were sharks in caves" is a fun expression to explain my equal love and desire to dive, explore, and understand both the world of sharks and underground flooded tunnels.
My passion for these two completely different entities came very early. In 1994, after a week's stay, I moved to Grand Bahama Island. Due to a series of coincidences and choices, I arrived to complete my open-water course and found myself immersed in my childhood dream of scuba diving and having sharks for friends. The same year, on my 11th dive, I was introduced to the world of caverns and eventually discovered the presence of caves.
Ben's cavern was a wide-open room, the entrance to a complex cave system with the same name in the Lucayan National Park on Grand Bahama Island. My guide was the man who would become my mentor in shark diving, Ben Rose. The system takes his name.
As a new diver, I watched in awe as he floated in what appeared to be thin air, the water so clear, and decided I would look like him one day. When I inquired about the water clarity, he explained that a freshwater lens sits on top of the saltwater from the ocean. That first cavern tour was breathtaking. Today, I have conducted thousands of cave dives and laid kilometers of new lines, but the memory of that day is still very vivid in my mind.
We glided through giant crystal columns, and our lights would sparkle through what appeared to be solid rocks. Dark corners would glow with the most beautiful light when we shone our lamps. In amazement, I watched our transition from fresh to salt and our bodies disappearing in a visual blur to reappear a few feet below. Our bubbles billowed above us and hit the ceiling in a strange mix of rumbling sounds, while the beams of our lights would create artificial shafts similar to sun rays piercing through the rocks. At the end of the dive, we floated in the back of the cavern and covered our lights. As our eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, the world we had just explored started to appear in sight. Each section and decoration silhouetted itself against the big and bright entrance. I was staring at giants resting half-immersed in fog, similar to the Stonehenge pillars, ready to tell us a story we were unaware of.
On that day, on that dive, I fell in love with the cave world. I quickly realized that I had visited the first room of a very complex castle and needed more skills and knowledge, not to mention gear, to venture further. Traveling to Florida and finding an instructor to become a full cave diver would take two additional years. Three weeks and some gruelling training later, I returned to the island armed with cave gear and the desire to explore beyond the cavern's first room.
Finally, I could swim past the castle's entrance and beyond the foyer. The more I dived, the more questions I had. The more I discovered, the more I felt there was so much more waiting for exploration. As I improved my cave diving skills and upgraded gear configurations, I learned to safely extricate information and dive into different caves and blue holes. It was, to this day, a complex process. I didn't complete these projects and experiences in a linear form. I do not have a log that shows working on one system from this day and this year to an ending time. Distance from my base, weather, tides, and available time affected my capacity to work in one system rather than another.
People knew about some holes while other locations were surrounded by mystery, legends, and half stories about possible mermaids and of half shark-octopuses living in them. While talking with local fishers and referencing stories, I extrapolated much information. I have to admit that Google Earth became a fundamental tool for searching.
The more I explored, the more I realized that these unique locations had a common point. They were delicate, essential, and, unfortunately for the most part, unnoticed, unrated, and undervalued. Underwater caves fit perfectly in the concept of "out of sight, out of mind." There were different reasons these places needed more attention and, ultimately, more care. Beauty was the first and most apparent reason, but most people are not in tune with cave divers' obsession with wet rocks. Beyond their beauty, they carried historical, anthropological, and geological information.
Caves guard the fresh drinking water and are connected to everything above, below, and around them. Parallel to cave diving, my love for sharks and working with them grew. I realized my feelings for sharks were uncommon and didn't match the public's perception. I had encountered and shared knowledge and love for sharks with many other divers, but we were the exception to the rule, a minority of voices against the rising scream against sharks. I embarked on lifelong work to change people's perception of sharks to understand them as animals and to guarantee their survival. In 2011, thanks to the cooperation between people like me, the Bahamas National Trust and the Pew organization, The Bahamas declared their whole territory a shark sanctuary. The over 40 species of sharks in our waters gained instant protection from any exploitation. At first, I relaxed and thought we had accomplished our goal: sharks were safe from harm. I still didn't have the whole picture in my mind. Like many, I felt that laws preventing the fishing and killing of sharks were enough for their protection.
As my cave diving expanded and my exploration continued, I started to venture between land and ocean, and in 2012 I connected a land-based cave to an ocean blue hole for the first time in the world. That means that I entered a cave entrance sitting on dry land and away from the shore, and a few hours later, I surfaced from a hole in the middle of the ocean, about 200 yards from the beach.
This cave specifically became the perfect example of the connection happening everywhere. The water feeding into this cave comes from a heavily industrialized area of the island. The entrance sits in the middle of a settlement with many garbage disposal issues. The conditions of the water table are terrible. Both lenses are polluted. I realized this hole was in contact with ocean life, with mangroves and nursery grounds where I had seen baby sharks swimming. That meant that if I could fit through the passageways from one area to another, so could microscopic lethal pollutants. The more I dived, the more I discovered and realized that the caves' health was directly proportional to the health of the ocean, the mangroves, and all the places the cave tunnels run through. While working to survey and highlight Ben's cave, my original love, to be fully included in expanding an MPA under the Bahamas National Trust, I finally connected the dots. If I wanted sharks to survive, I needed their protection and the protection of the areas where they go to mate and leave their young.
Furthermore, for sharks to thrive, they needed a food supply. Those mangroves, and particular areas known as nursery grounds, are vital for the baby sharks and other baby marine life being protected before confronting the big vast ocean. Sharks maintain the reef's health and maintain the health of the fish on the reef. They need the fish to live, and the fish need them to thrive and be healthy. Once we affect one of the pieces involved, we can quickly destabilize this complex web. Pollution travels, and it will affect all of those in that area.
If we develop an area on top of the cave, we risk damaging the communication channel between the internal and external parts, altering the relationship between these ecosystems. Caves are an integral part of the Bahamas landscape. They protect the freshwater and guarantee the exchange of nutrients between different locations. Sometimes consideration is given to the entrance, but the information about their reach below the surface is minimal.
Sharks are protected, but to guarantee their future, we must defend what allows them and marine life to thrive. To this scope, I embarked on a multi-year project. We need to locate as many entrances to the caves as possible and map them. Once we can show their actual location and the water movement in each one, we will better understand how one action could have potential adverse or positive outcomes, depending on their conservation status. Sharks depend on their environment as much as their environment depends on them, and caves are a vital part of this complex circle. We might feel that sharks and caves are two worlds apart.
My work received needed help and support when in 2018, Kewin Lorenzen joined me. Together we are a team involved in the work with sharks and cave exploration. While we continue our educational work about sharks, we have also located and mapped over a dozen new systems on the island of Grand Bahama alone.
We have identified a dozen more that show signs of being a cave system, but prevented us from entering due to restricted or collapsed entrances. Our work is completed through our nonprofit, People of the Water. We support the Bahamas National Trust, a governmental organization founded to identify, protect, and preserve key areas around The Bahamas.
While both diving professionals, we use our spare time to complete exploration and educational work to promote conservation. Our work starts at home, identifying areas we want to visit to verify the presence of water and possibly a cave entrance. When we have a full day available, we leave in the morning, armed with hiking gear and a GPS. We drive as far as we can over the island's abandoned roads and hike the rest. Sometimes, it's over one kilometre from the car to the actual entrance through treacherous terrain, with crumbly rocks and water-filled holes we sink to our groin in. Once at the spot, if there is any positive sign, we take turns to enter and snorkel. We plan to return and carry gear to explore if we can spot an entrance. Generally, we alternate and carry cave gear for the first dive, enough for one of us to enter. If the cave goes, we start the exploration plan to bring back all the necessary equipment for the second person.
We do not use porters or help. We carry, explore, and return all on our own. Some caves require three round trips up to one kilometre each way to bring all we need for the dive. Others add a half-kilometre swim from the edge. As we walk over uneven terrain, it is a long and strenuous day.
During some of our more remote explorations, we carried containers and tarps to hide in the bush and leave the gear behind to avoid the several trips back and forth to the car. Using sidemount rebreathers has made this planning possible, saving some major work. If we know we will explore several days in a row, we leave the tanks by the cave entrance, break down the gear, and only bring back the rebreather, our drysuits, and undergarments.
These caves stretch through the island like invisible yet efficient circulatory systems and are intrinsically connected to ecosystems above and below the ocean's surface. They are the perfect example of how one depends on the other and how we must create a better conservation program. For as strange as it may sound, we cannot protect the oceans without protecting sharks, and we cannot protect sharks without protecting the caves.
In 2020, during the lack of work and the world lockdown, we had the time to discover and explore two new cave systems. It all started one night when Kewin could not fall asleep, but I will let him share the story of the world of the "Heims," Niflheim, the land of the fog, and Svartalfheim, the land of the dwarfs.
Upcoming Dive Shows
Shearwater Research will be at the following dive shows: