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.
Setting the personal limits
I don’t consider cave diving an adrenaline sport. In fact, it’s the opposite. Going to an extremely deep point in the ocean, just to get a number for a depth record, that is not my motivation. I would happily do, and have done a lot of very deep dives, for a reason such as a historic shipwreck that nobody’s managed to dive. I have more of a kind of Peter Pan, never grow up, child-like approach to exploration. Being there is just magical. It’s my drive.
So, I would happily do, and have done a lot of very deep dives, for a reason. It could be a deep water wreck that’s worth researching. Or a cave that’s not been explored.
I’m happy to use my equipment to the depth at which it’s rated. And there’s virtually no equipment rated to the extreme depths that have been pushed by record seekers. With regards to time in the water, again, it’s the same thing. I look at the training I had when I started to cave dive, and what I was told were redundancy and bail-out. So if something goes wrong, there’s a plan B and a plan C. Everything pretty much in triplicate.
I don’t consider myself as a risk-taker. In fact, it’s the opposite. If anything during a dive makes my heart rate goes up, I will stop and analyse what’s going on. Then I will work out why that’s happened, fix it, and then abort that dive. Because if you’re not focused and thinking clearly, processing all the information around you, basically you’re scared, and then you have a higher level of risk.
All the dives I’ve done, exploratory and otherwise, have revolved around redundancy and backup. But at the same time, being self-sufficient often within a team. Each diver is totally capable and equipped to do any dive on their own. I genuinely believe and always have, that divers who are properly trained and practice are safer than your average sports diver, snorkelling around on a reef with very little training and very little idea.
Is there any reason that I could risk my life for? No.
I’ve done rescues where pieces of the dry cave had flooded. We would dive through the flooded normally dry part of the cave, running, heavy rope, and taking food and stoves and blankets and stuff to cavers trapped in a higher, dry portion of the cave inside, so that they can sit it out till the water goes down. But if you get there and the conditions just not diveable, then no. I don’t think I can think of a single reason to risk my life, and certainly not because of laying a little bit more line or going the furthest.
A lot of people died because they pushed too far and too hard. And a lot of them were personal friends. I’ve been right on the hard end of this sport. I’ve been doing it professionally for 22 years. And if something happens, it subdues me more. It doesn’t stop me.
Crazy adventures or safe undertakings?
Basically in the general scheme of things, if you just write a description of a regular arctic cave dive and put it out on a forum, 99 per cent of divers worldwide will go, holy shit, that’s advanced and completely crazy. You’re in like three degrees of water. You’re running a 17-minute bottom time, between 50 and 70 metres, giving you a 90-minute decompression, in an overhead, on rebreathers, on trimix. It’s just like juggling chainsaws with your eyes shut. But it’s not, if you’re properly trained.
I was once training in Florida. We did a morning dive with students. We discussed that if you go into a cave without a guideline, backup gas or backup lights, you’re going to die. It’s a when not if. And that lunchtime, they pulled an open-water diver from 120 metres inside the cave, on a single tank with one torch. He’d got lost and drowned. Well here you go, here are your training guys, I said.
So it’s only dangerous if you act dangerously. The cave’s not dangerous when you have the right equipment and training, and the ability to say no. We get there one day, and the visibility and the conditions are horrendous. You go, shit, let’s go to the pub. Too many people don’t, they just go for it anyway because they’ve driven so far and they’ve filled the rebreather with the gas, and they don’t want to say no.
You need to have the equipment, the mentality and the training. And you need to keep it practised. So if you have six months off, start again. Don’t just think you can jump straight back in. What if a failure happens at the end of the penetration, the furthest and deepest point? With our abilities and training, we would just look at it as like, oh, bloody hell, how annoying is that? Now I’ve got to clean the rebreather because it’d be full of water that that’d make a horrible mess or whatever. Tell the team I’ve got a rebreather failure, let’s leave immediately!
Scootering out, with the diver with the broken rebreather in the front so that at any point he can stop, say I want to go a bit slower, or stop and say can you give me some more gas, please. And he controls the exit. But at no point during that, or momentarily, would his heart rate have changed or his breathing rate gone up because he’s like, it’s not a big deal, the rebreather doesn’t work. But I’ve got all these tanks hung under my arm just in case that happens and hey look, it just has.
At the end of the day, all this equipment is worth thousands and thousands of pounds, but it’s going underwater, so one day it will leak. Just accept that. If you ever dive thinking it won’t, and there are these crazy fools out there that do this alpinist approach, so they’ll go in on that rebreather. So, when it fails, they’ll drown. But they do it based on the fact they’ve got 100, 200 or 300 dives behind them where it didn’t fail.
That’s Darwinism, exactly. But it’s a popular thing. It’s like a, it’s called alpinism because it relates back to, when they first started climbing the big Himalayan mountains like Everest, they got 50 people with siege tactics, camp one, camp two, camp three, camp four, camp five. Stock it, move back, and so on. Then Reinhold Messner turned up and ran up Everest on his own without oxygen, solo, in one day. The difference is, on a mountain, even a high one, you’ve got time to sit there and think about it for a while. Underwater you just drown, because you can’t breathe water, no matter how good you are. So, alpinism underwater is just insane. That is Darwinism.
Over 90 percent of caves are formed in a solutional rock, usually limestone. To explore you need to find areas with limestone beds. There are numerous areas like this worldwide. They’re all unique because of how the caves are formed.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock, meaning it formed by particles in a shallow tropical ocean billions of years ago. So what fell to the sea bottom varies. There are strong and weak portions of the rock. The bits that dissolve leaving behind tunnels are down to the lay of the rock.
Millions of years ago, the seas were filled with very different kinds of life forms than today. Over the millennia, soft seafloor turned into limestone, preserving a snapshot of these creatures from the past. Caves cut right through these ancient layers, displaying a rich collection of fossils and telling a geological story of the Earth’s past. Taking a close look, a bulge in the cave ceiling can turn out to be a tooth of an extinct tiger.
The characteristics of a cave can completely change over a distance of 100 meters, one reason making cave diving so enticing. Think about swimming through 100 metres of cave passage today, and memorise all of it. And the getting into a time machine and go 3,000 years into the future. The cave would be different because you’re diving in something that is alive. The acidic rainwater is dissolving rock, and the flow of the water is eroding it. So the cave is growing. It’s forming. It’s changing as you’re swimming through it.
You’re not only exploring, but you’re also seeing something that’s alive and changing like a tree would be bigger if you came back in ten years’ time.There can be things that are equally capable of living in the outside world, like fish and small crustaceans like little mini-lobsters.
There’s a unique little creature called a Proteus that’s evolved to live permanently in a cave, so they’ve lost their pigmentation or don’t have eyes. It just lives in the caves of northern Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia. And deep into very rare cave systems, you can find a live system evolved around chemosynthesis, much like the black smokers in the ocean vents in a deep ocean. A tiny little ecosystem that evolved from them would continue to survive even if the sun went out. Because they don’t use photosynthesis in any part of their ecosystem.
You can’t tell if new forms of life can be found because it’s like the bottom of the ocean. We don’t know because we haven’t been to every part of the bottom of the ocean. So, it would be a pure hypothesis to guess that there’s something down there that we’ve not seen. There’s no Loch Ness monster because there’s no food. Do the maths. So it’s going to be slime. If there’s something unknown, it’s going to be slime, it’s going to be bacteria or something tiny that you’d identify in a petri dish rather than jumping out from behind a rock and going he-he.
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.
In 2013, Phil participated in J2 exploration project as a lead diver. The team spent over 1000 hours under the earth, exploring and adding a new passage to the cave labyrinth of over 15 kilometers of mapped tunnels.
Phil is a consultant to many diving equipment manufacturers. He is also a Training Director for IANTD UK.