The University of Miami led a multidisciplinary expedition of scientists and experts to bring the secrets of a little-known underwater world to light.
Kenny Broad, director of UM’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy and associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
The underwater caves of the Bahamas, known as blue holes, are among the least understood ecosystems on the planet. That’s due in no small part to the difficulties and dangers involved in studying them: treacherous currents, extreme depths, poisonous gases, and tight squeezes through pitch-dark caverns.
Until recently, only a handful of scientists have ventured into blue holes. But in the summer and fall of 2009, a cave-diving and scientific team led by the University of Miami spent two months studying them on seven Bahamian islands. In the process, they gleaned new insights about the past history of the Earth, including previously undiscovered microbial life and abrupt climatic changes. The expedition was featured on the August 2010 cover of the National Geographic Magazine as well as in a one-hour NOVA PBS special, Extreme Cave Diving.
Richly Rewarding the Challenges
Comprising more than 150 dives in dozens of blue holes around seven Bahamanian islands, the expedition was conceived and led by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Kenny Broad, director of UM’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy and associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science faculty members Peter Swart, a geochemist and professor, and Amy Clement, associate professor of meteorology and physical oceanography, took part, as did several UM students. Funding was provided by The National Geographic Society, the National Museum of the Bahamas, and the National Science Foundation.
The blue holes are such a unique resource of information about our world that they are described in the National Geographic article as “the scientific equivalent of Tut’s tomb.” The expedition team gathered data that, according to the article, “promise to deepen our understanding of everything from geology and water chemistry to biology, paleontology, archaeology, and even astrobiology.” Because the blue holes, a primary source of fresh water in the Bahamas, are threatened by sea-level rise and pollution, the project was also designed to broaden awareness of their importance.
“What may look like an insignificant muddy hole is actually a time capsule of evolutionary history,” Broad says. "I can think of no other environment on Earth that is so challenging to explore and gives us back so much scientifically."