When you listen to Brian Kakuk, local cave diving specialist, you are transported. There is a magical world beneath your feet stretching out for miles and miles underground; decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, crystals and fossils. The only way into this seemingly fantasy realm is via the blue holes: beautiful, and sometimes ominous, openings though the fresh water lens scattered throughout Abaco and The Bahamas.
Beyond the beauty and mystery of these underwater caves is a treasure of scientific data. The pristine underwater caves are time capsules, as well as living eco-systems, preserving history. Extinction events, climate change, weather patterns, and more have been discovered in the silty layers of Dan’s Cave, Ralph’s Cave, Sawmill Sink and others.
To dive and collect the artifacts and fossils can be treacherous and exciting. But the puzzles are pieced together by local and international scientists who spend hundreds of hours sifting the data and cleaning the bones – gleaning facts that have been submerged for thousands of years.
Some scientists who have worked with Kakuk include Thomas Hiffe, a Marine Biologist at A&M University in Galveston, Texas. Hiff is an expert on cave-adapted crustaceans. Another researcher is Dr. Jennifer Macalady who is a microbiologist and astro-biologist. Her study of microbes has led her to believe that microbes are more responsible in creating caves above water than previously thought. Dr. Macalady’s research could explain models for life on other planets. Dr. Macalady laboratory is funded by NASA and by grants from several organizations, such as National Geographic and the National Science Foundation. To gather the layers of matter in the caves and study them, Dr. Peter Van Hengstum, also with Texas A&M University, has been taking core samples to understand weather cycles.
The blue holes have been surrendering their secrets for over two decades now. The 2005 discovery of a tortoise shell in Sawmill Sink by Brian Kakuk and Jim Pickar was among the first finds to grab the interest of the international scientific community, including features in “National Geographic.”
An ever growing number of crocodile fossils, added to the one discovered in 1994, also reveals Abaco once had a population of the reptiles – similar to the aggressive Cuban Crocodile.
Mr. Kakuk now heads Bahamas Underground – a company on the forefront of discoveries within Bahamian blue holes. He is often joined by Nancy Albury (one of several authors for a recent ‘Proceedings of the National Academies of Science’ paper), who conducts independent research and collaborates with other researchers working on Abaco.
Beyond scientific research, Bahamas Underground also shares the beauty of Abaco’s blue holes with adventurous divers from around the world.
Among the many beautiful and wondrous views hidden from the surface are entire rooms of crystal formations, fossilized shells such as sea biscuits and conch (indicating the presence of a reef eons ago) and striking cave formations.
These are the most beautiful caves in the world,” Kakuk said. Explorers from Japan, Australia, Germany, Spain, Italy and the United States have visited to see them. The first Chinese cave diver is expected to visit Abaco soon.
Special training, advanced techniques (such as removing your scuba tank and squeezing through claustrophobic crevices) and expensive equipment are required.
“You have to be either rich or crazy. But it is the best puzzle in the world,” he commented.
But cave-diving is Mr. Kakuk’s passion, as it is many others’ who come to witness Abaco’s flooded caverns and experience the challenge and the rewards found below.
For more dangerous passages the diver must rely on the guide rope, being essentially blind as they dig their way through mud, squeeze through fissures barely larger than themselves and monitor a limited air supply. Kakuk explained snaking his way through Pan’s Labyrinth, a recently discovered passage in Dan’s Cave, which runs one mile from the entrance of the cave to the end of the longest passage.
It took him five hours to complete that dive.