Cave Diving – boldly going where no man has gone before

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Cave diving is classified as an extreme sport. The list of things that can go wrong is endless. Equipment or light failure, leaking scuba tanks, broken guidelines, getting lost, cave collapse and poor visibility, to name a few. This 69-year old Marine Biology Professor defies the risks and dives to places no other humans have been to discover new life.

Cave Diving is all in a typical day’s work

He’s not your typical bespectacled professor pouring over a test-tube in a dimly-lit lab. Tom Iliffe has explored more than 1,500 underwater caves over the last 40 years. He’s gone to extraordinary depths to study the biology and ecology of coastal, saltwater caves and the marine fauna that inhabit them across the globe from Australia to the Mediterranean, from Hawaii to the Bahamas.

Cave Diving Tom lliffee

Tom Iliffe diving in a lava tube cave in the Canary Islands. Photo Credit: Jill Heinerth, CC BY-ND

What exactly is this Prof. looking for by Cave Diving?

Cave Diving crustaceans

The remipede Cryptocorynetes elmorei from Eleuthera, Bahamas. Photo Credit: Tom Iliffe, CC BY-ND

Tom’s primary focus is searching for new forms of life – mostly white, eyeless crustaceans – that are specifically adapted to this totally dark, food-poor environment. Cave diving is an essential tool in his investigations since the caves he’s interested in are filled with water. There’s no other way to access these unexplored areas than to strap on your scuba tanks and jump in. While the peaks of the tallest mountains can be viewed from an airplane or the depths of the sea mapped with sonar, caves can only be explored first-hand.

It’s not just new species they are discovering, but also higher groups of animals including a new class, orders, families and genera, previously unknown from any other habitat on the planet. Some of the newfound animals have close relatives living in similar caves on opposite margins of the Atlantic Ocean or even the far side of the Earth (such as the Bahamas versus Western Australia).

Discoveries made from Cave Diving

Tom’s team of students are finding evidence that sister species of cave animals on opposite shores of the Atlantic separated from one another about 110 million years ago as tectonic plate movements initiated the opening of the Atlantic. Discoveries are also determining how environmental and ecological factors affect the abundance and diversity of animals in saltwater caves.

Cave diving Tom lliffe

Tom Iliffe diving at Cliff Pool, Bermuda. Rather than carrying tanks on his back, a tank is clipped off under each arm, allowing him to pass through low sections in a cave. Gil Nolan, CC BY-ND

Some discoveries can be completely unanticipated. For example, when they sequenced DNA from a variety of arthropods, including crustaceans and insects, the data strongly support a sister group relationship between hexapods (the insects) and remipedes, a small and enigmatic group of marine crustaceans exclusively found in underwater caves. This places the remipedes in a pivotal position to understanding the evolution of crustaceans and insects.

Death-defying research it’s an extreme sport

This is fieldwork that is a matter of life or death. However, it’s a risk he’s willing to take, and his research has had significant implications, concerning endangered species and environmental protection. Tom has had some close calls and lost a few friends along the way. His family has grown accustomed to what he does and that since he is 69, he stresses safety and being physically and mentally prepared. He also religiously abides by the cardinal rule of cave diving – that you never ever dive alone. Tom says the experience is ‘breath-taking’.

Even at this stage of his life, the risks associated with cave diving research is worth it. He says: “It’s like the Star Trek mantra come true – to boldly go where no man has gone before. The chance to discover new forms of marine life, to view never-before-seen underwater formations, vast chambers, endless tunnels and deep chasms, to swim in some of the bluest and purest water on Earth – I will take that sort of research and its challenges any day.”

He loves it and will tell you with all honesty, that he can’t wait until his next trip.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

Author: Reporter @ Amanzi

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