Discovering the earth’s last hidden frontiers
Phil Short has been a dive industry professional for over 20 years. He has trained hundreds of divers and participated in demanding cave rescue operations. He has explored some of the world’s deepest dry caves and spent thousands of hours diving water filled passages. Research and archeology are also his passion, including such assignments as the Antikhytera survey project in Crete. But what is down there that draws Phil to explore these submerged realms?
In my youth, I took an interest in exploring dry caves. I then started descending and climbing the vertical sections of the dry cave. I learned to use ropes and inevitably ended up getting to points where the cave flooded. So I learned to dive, purely to extend my caving hobby.
People say, what do you go in there for, what's there? And you say, did you ever go to the Grand Canyon? They go, yeah. And you say, why? It's amazing, nature created this great big canyon. There're all these different colours and all these different structures, and it's just visually amazing. There you go! It's the same reasoning as in exploring caves. It's just pretty impressive that nature, geology, evolution, God, or whatever your belief is, created these amazing things like Everest or Grand Canyon. As cave divers, we get the privilege to see equally amazing and stunning things. The drive's the same.
I think it is impossible to describe to someone who's not done it, what it’s like to be Livingstone walking through the jungle, trying to find the source of the Nile or Hilary standing on Everest for the first time. Unless you've had the privilege of being able to see what nobody else has seen before, I don't think you'd understand it.
I've been to places, laid a piece of line, in a piece of passage that's never been seen before, and nobody even knows I've been there. I've not put it in a magazine or on a film or even told anyone, because it was just like it was, in my eyes at that time. I'm not doing it primarily to tell everyone else how great it was.
Abundance of unexplored caves
Cave diving is the last field where human beings are mandatory for exploration. In Victorian times, when somebody climbed a mountain, that was it. They were the first. Now technology has taken over. You can take a look at a picture of a mountain, a valley, jungle, or a gorge before you go there. It has been all mapped.
When you get to the end of the line in a cave, tie your line to that line and swim around the corner, you're the first human being there. It's true exploration, much like Shackleton, Scott and all of these early explorers did because there was no choice. In cave diving, there's still no choice, and that's why I’m so passionately driven by it. Anyone with a sensible budget can find new territory.
A lot of people ask if there's any way of determining just how many cave systems, or how many kilometres of passage there are worldwide. The simple answer is that people are still exploring, so that's an obvious no.
No current machine can explore a cave. You can guess by measuring the amount of water going into a karst. You can say there are ten billion gallons of water in this aquifer. But what you can't determine without physically going there, does all that this water flows through penetrable passages and where it goes.
There are some extremely remote locations that have been explored mineral and oil companies, but with no interest of caves. They'll say there's limestone. We know there's a cave, but nobody's been able to get an expedition off the ground to go and look for it.
You could count the number of cave entrances, but that would not tell much what is behind of those entrances. In the Dordogne and Lot, the Hérault, and the Ardèche areas in France you've got a fairly well-documented number of caves that are diving-only caves or springs. But if you go into the Pyrenees or the Alps, you've got massive amounts of the dry cave that inevitably end in flooded sections.
You could look at appropriate books and tell how many known cave entrances and how many kilometres of surveyed or mapped passage there are in the United Kingdom. We have cave regions such as the Mendip Hills, South Wales and the Yorkshire area. And a very small amount in the west coast of Scotland. And they're very well explored, very well documented. But they're not finished. But the United Kingdom just one small area. When you look at remote wilderness areas like the centre of Papua New Guinea, there's a massive limestone karst. It would take numerous explorers a lifetime to chart the area.
The entrance is almost always where the water comes out. A spring, or in Europe often called a resurgence. What goes in, is often going be many small entrances where water comes off the mountain into the cave. But the branch work of passages from the main entrance can be very diverse, like a labyrinth. Currents and floods may move gravel or sediments, and all of a sudden there's a hole that wasn't there before. That is the way new passages are often found in the big European caves.
New cave systems and new passage within existing cave systems are constantly found. For example, one of the most famous cave systems is the Devil's system in the Ginnie Springs complex in central Florida. It consists of two entrances, the Devil's Eye and the Devil's Ear. The end point of the main line used to be approximately 4,800 feet from the entrance. It remained like that for a decade. Then a bunch of cave divers, using new technology equipment, basically managed to open up a passage of what was once considered to be the end, and they added nearly the same amount of distance on and doubled the depth of the cave.
Just where you think it's all over, somebody goes back and says no, it isn't. So you never say never because, when you look at it, the water goes into the mountain somewhere. And it comes out somewhere.
So it's a definite no, it's impossible to determine how many caves there are. That's why we keep exploring to try and find more.
How far can a man go?
When it comes to the extreme distances and depths, one tends to ask oneself what is the limit, how far can a man within a cave environment go. The Wakulla Karst Plains project is an American exploration team working in North Florida, consisting of the main two push divers of Jared Jablonski and Casey McKinley, extended their explorations to a 28-hour long dive that connected two cave systems. They were spending 10 hours at 100 metres of depth.
Their limitation is nutrition. They're trying to work out how they can stay hydrated and fed for being under water for more than a day. They're underwater. They're not like a commercial diver that can get out and do the decompression phase in a dry room that's pressurised. They're in the water for pretty much that whole time. Some periods with the upper body from chest up out so they can drink a little fluid and eat some basic food. But they're getting problems with nutrition and energy to last that long.
I went to a presentation from an explorer that at one time did the world depth record in open water. He said at the depth beyond 300 metres it was physically very difficult to breathe even. And he didn’t have to do anything. He just dropped to that depth, stationary, sat there, very briefly and then ascended without having to fin, so no work. And if you talk to the physiological experts in diving, the limit is going to be the ability of the human being to draw air into their lungs at depth, basically work of breathing. Your muscles are only strong enough to push out against limited pressure and drawing gas at such a depth. So there is going to become a finite limit.
But then when you look at explorers in technology like Phil Nuytten, who built the original one-atmosphere Newtsuits for commercial diving and is now successfully building what they call swimmable one-atmosphere suits made out of ceramics that basically fit like an exoskeleton, and I choose my words carefully, but they look like Iron Man, quite literally. He thinks you could have joints to enable you to swim, at 300 metres, come to the surface, virtually instantly, with no decompression penalty, get out and go to lunch. So will that swimmable technology in a Newtsuit become so well-defined and so manoeuvrable and so dexterous that we can cave dive in it, for seriously deep cave dives or very long cave dives, potentially the technology is there.
If anybody will fund people to go cave diving is a different matter. So the limits are basically down to our fragile shells that we have to cart ourselves around in, the human physiological limits how long can we stay nutritionally sound to keep operating, hydrated, and physically be able to suck air into our lungs. So I think that's pretty much the limitations that we've got.
Phil Short has been a dive industry professional for over 20 years, during which time he has logged over 6000 dives with over 3000 hours on Closed Circuit Rebreathers. Phil Short is a cave diving specialist. He has explored systems all over the world, including huge cave systems in Siberia. He is also well known for his exploration of Swildon's Hole in the Mendips, United Kingdom.
As an educator, Phil has trained scientific groups, including US National Parks Service, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Archeologists of the Chinese National Museum in Beijing. Search and Rescue Teams, such as the UK Police Strathclyde Underwater Search team, and Media teams from the BBC.
Phil began working with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the Antikhytera search and survey project on the Island of Antikythera in 2011. Phil is currently the project Dive Operations Manager.