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«OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND»

“Out of sight, out of mind has true meaning when trying to involve people in wanting to protect something they have never seen nor can imagine how it can exist.»

A JOURNAL BY CRISTINA ZENATO

I have been a cave diver since 1996 and obsessed with the idea of being one since my 11th logged dive in 1994 when I was introduced to the beauty of the underwater and underground world of Grand Bahama island by my mentor, Ben Rose. Ben was the first person to go scuba diving in Ben’s cavern, named after him, during the late 60s.

The two main entrances and two additional smaller entrances have been protected under the Bahamas National Trust park since the 80s, but it was not until a few years back that the rest of the cave future came to question as to the land surrounding the park wasn’t yet protected. Talks of development were made and concerns over the future of the cave surfaced.

As I had been supporting the Bahamas National Trust for several years, I received a special cave diving permit to conduct assessment and survey in the entire system, diving beyond the cavern area, the only part open to divers.

I entered a world that had been unseen and untouched for over thirty years and completed the exploration and survey of the cave that brought back 34,472 feet (10,705 meters) of surveyed passages ways. This survey was then placed over Google Earth and a full view of where the cave is located under the ground came to life. It was not an easy task, the tunnels are low and filled with microbial growth, most of which coats the ceilings and rains down with each exhalation. The water table is a freshwater layer over a saltwater layer creating what’s known as the halocline, a more or less one-foot high transition between the two different density medias, a beautiful visual until disturbed by the swimming diver or any other kind of movement. The result is a constant “fata morgana” throughout the cave, making it hard to read any instruments, compasses in particular and at times even the guidelines.

This work was then submitted by the Bahamas National Trust for the 2020 project, a governmental initiative to expand MPA in the entire Bahamas by 20% by 2020. It was not until recently that the submission was approved.

With the arrival of new technology, I am now going back to the same cave to bring back more information but also better images. The protection for such a special place can never have too much information provided.

In the last twenty-three years of cave diving, the technology surrounding the gear used has improved the length, comfort and capabilities of explorers to venture further and endure longer exposures. I have learned to make full use of each new improvement. Moving from back mount to side mount cave diving in the last few years into side-mount rebreather cave diving I have been able to extend the bottom time and reduce the decompression requirements. The lack of bubbles in this specific cave has proved very valuable in keeping better visibility throughout the work, avoiding the issues I encountered earlier of total silt out due to percolation.

The projects that have been discussed and approved with the Bahamas National Trust are several and each one presents some challenges but also the hope for some extreme rewards.

A team of two, Kewin Lorenzen and I will complete a 3D map of the major cavern area, highlighting the most interesting spots for divers to see during their tour. This 3D map will also be connected to a series of video segments that will allow any viewer to click on a specific location on the map and see through a video what a diver can see. This interactive map will be placed in the visitors’ centre at the park for everyone to view and understand what lies under their feet. A more complex project aims to bring back the videos along with the entire map of the cave highlighting beautiful and crucial areas. This work can only be completed by two divers, one working on the survey while the other works on the video for each segment. There is no other way but to dive the entire system.

These caves are not only beautiful but are also very important. They are a historical and geological treasure, with vital information about climate change, rising and falling of the oceans, weather conditions through the past millennials; they preserve fossil remains of original inhabitants of these islands, they are a unique eco-system with their incredible creatures, but they are also the link between eco-systems above and below the waterline.

Caves reside under the pine tree and palmetto forests, growing over a thin layer of earth coating very porous limestone rocks. When the rainwater, slightly acidic because of carbon dioxide contained in it, hits the ground and mixes with the organic and inorganic it becomes more acidic and weather through the limestone finding its way in its chambers below and either creating fascinating flowstone decorations (during Ice Age) or depositing a clean, scrubbed layer of fresh drinking water ready to use on top of the saltwater coming from the sea. Removing the forest and building or disposing of human-produced chemicals would create a more acidic reaction damaging the filtering capabilities of the limestone and as a consequence polluting the water table below.

As these passageways are connected to the ocean and spring into mangroves, the contaminated water would be able to disperse in those different environments, affecting all plants and animals living in them. When looking at a map of a cave it appears like the web of a confused spider, but like all webs, it has far and different reaches.

Protecting this web requires for people to understand how it works, to appreciate its value and to connect to it. As not everyone is or can be a diver and even less cave diver, bringing to the surface the map of the cave, the beauty of its tunnels and rooms and explain the connections becomes vital to the cave itself and as a consequence to all the creatures living not only in its proximity but depending on the areas influenced by it, including humans.

Out of sight, out of mind has true meaning when trying to involve people in wanting to protect something they have never seen nor can image how it can exist. The project we are currently on is going to bring the sight of these areas so that people will learn to mind about them.

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