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Kenny Broad: Into the Deep

Cave diver offers a guided tour of an underwater wonderland as part of “Faces of Our Planet 2011” at the Garde Arts Center

Star Trek may have boasted about boldly going where no human has gone before--but Kenny Broad actually does it. Broad, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is a cave diver and, Saturday, he came to the Garde Arts Center to talk about his experiences in an underwater wonderland that few people see.  

Presented in conjunction with National Geographic Live, Broad’s talk and slide presentation was the final event in Mystic Aquarium’s Sea Research Foundation’s “Faces of Our Planet” series at the Garde and it attracted a good crowd, particularly for a sunny Saturday afternoon.

When Broad asked how many people were divers or cavers, a surprisingly large number of people in the audience raised their hands. Broad, however, is one of only a handful of people in the world to have explored the Blue Holes of the Bahamas.

Bahamas' Blue Holes are an extensive network of underwater caves that are among the least studied and most threatened habitats in the world. Ninety percent of Earth’s unfrozen fresh water is stored in underground aquifers but because most are accessible only to divers, scientists know little about them. Broad is trying to change that.

Some of the caves Broad explores are easy to find, appearing--as the name suggests--as dark blue holes in open water. Others, however, are mere slits in the ocean floor or, inland, may appear to be nothing more than a small swimming hole or a tiny hole in the ground that divers must squeeze through headfirst. Broad said that after his mother saw one of the pictures in his slide show of his feet sticking out of a hole in the ground she asked, “You went to school for how many years to do this?”

It’s a tight fit at first but the underground network of tunnels often leads to crystal-covered caverns of enormous size. Broad, of course, never knows what he’s going to find. Some holes in the Bahamas have been used as dump sites for garbage. “I’ve seen swing sets back there,” Broad says. That’s not what he’s looking for, however.

Broad describes the caves as “time capsules,” because the stable, oxygen-deprived environment perfectly preserves organic matter. He has found fossils, including an owl's nest filled with bones, and even ancient human remains in the blue holes. Cave formations such as stalagmites, meanwhile, are more like time machines that scientists can use to see what climate conditions were like on Earth millions of years ago.  

Although Broad--an associate professor at the Division of Marine Affairs and Policy at the University of Miami--is a trained environmental anthropologist, many of the people he dives with have no scientific background. Yet, he says, these amateur divers have made dozens of scientifically significant discoveries, including previously unknown life forms among the tiny, colorless, and blind creatures that inhabit the dark caves. “So if there are any kids in the audience,” Broad joked, knowing there were many, “tell them to quit school and go diving.”

After the presentation, Broad took questions from the audience. As cave diving is one of the most dangerous activities on Earth, however, he decided to answer the one question everyone asks first: Has he ever had a close call?

Broad told the audience about the time a lobster cut the guide line he uses to feel his way out of caves in the darkness. He showed photos of the resting sharks he frequently passes and footage shot when a whirlpool nearly sucked him deep into a cave. He described the tingling and numbness he feels every time he passes through a layer of poisonous hydrogen sulfide. But after all was said and done, he told the crowd his closest brush with death came rather more unexpectedly.

Broad was spending a night on a scaffolding platform in a cave when he fell out of his hammock. He plunged 12 feet, striking his head on the way down so hard that he was unconscious when he hit the water. If his arm hadn’t become snagged on a piece of equipment, he would have gone under. Broad says his head was barely out of the water when he came round and then he had to scream for help over the deafening roar of a waterfall.

Not everyone is so fortunate. On the exact day that National Geographic’s article on diving the blue holes came out last year, Broad says his longtime colleague, cameraman and explorer Wes Skiles, died in a diving accident in open water. Broad understands the risks but he thinks they're worth taking. In fact, he’s off on another expedition on Monday.

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