Sharks and caves

“I wish there were sharks in caves” is a fun expression I use to explain my equal love and desire to dive, explore, and understand both the world of sharks and one of underground flooded tunnels.

My passion for these two completely different entities came at a very early stage. In 1994, I decided to stay on Grand Bahama Island within the first week of vacation after completing four certification dives surrounded by sharks. The same year, on my 11th dive ever, I discovered the world of caverns and caves.

Ben’s cavern was a wide-open room, the entrance to the complex cave system that holds the same name in the Lucayan National Park, in Grand Bahama Island.

My guide was the man who would become my mentor in shark diving, Ben Rose; the system takes his name.

As a new diver, I watched in awe as he floated in what appeared thin air, the Water so clear, and decided that I would look like him one day. When I inquired about the water clarity, he explained that a freshwater lens sits on top of the saltwater coming in from the ocean. That first cavern tour was amazing. We glided through giant crystal columns, and our lights would sparkle through what appeared to be solid rocks. Dark corners would glow with the most beautiful light when we shined our lamps on them. In amazement, I watched our transition from fresh to salt and our bodies disappearing in a visual blur to reappear a few feet below. Our bubbles billowed above us and hit the ceiling in a strange mix of rumbling sounds, while the beams of our lights would create artificial shafts similar to sun rays piercing through the rocks. At the end of the dive, we floated in the back of the cavern and turned our lights off; as our eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, the world we have just explored one section at the time silhouetted itself against the big and bright entrance.I was staring at giants resting half immersed in fog, similar to a scene from the Lord of the Rings. On that day, on that dive, I fell in love with that world. It would take me two additional years to travel to Florida and find an instructor to become a full cave diver. Three weeks and some grueling training later, I returned to the island armed with cave gear and the desire to explore beyond the cavern’s first room. Finally, the castle had opened its doors, and I was entering to visit beyond the foyer.

The more I dived, the more questions I had; the more I discovered, the more I felt there was so much more waiting for exploration. As I improved my cave diving skills and upgraded gear configurations, I learned to extricate information and dive different caves and blue holes safely. With my experience, I realized that these caves were delicate and in need of protection. They contained beautiful decorations, historical and geological information, guarded the fresh drinking water, and connected to everything above, below, and around them. Parallel to cave diving, my love for sharks and working with them kept growing and expanding. I realized how my feelings for sharks were not common and didn’t match the public’s perception. I had encountered and shared knowledge and love for sharks with many other divers, but we were the exception to the rule, a minority of voices against the rising scream against sharks. I embarked on a lifelong work to change people’s perception of sharks to understand them as animals and to guarantee their survival. In 2011 thanks to the cooperation between people like me, the Bahamas National Trust, and the Pew organization, The Bahamas declared their whole territory a shark sanctuary. The over 40 species of sharks present in our Water gained instant protection status from any form of exploitation.At first, I relaxed and thought we had accomplished our goal, that sharks were safe from any harm. I still didn’t have the whole picture in my mind. Like many, I thought that laws preventing the fishing and killing of sharks were enough for their protection. As my cave diving expanded and my exploration continued, I started to venture between land and ocean, and in 2012 I connected for the first time in the world a land based cave to an ocean blue hole. That means that I entered a cave entrance sitting on dry land and away from the shore, and a few hours later, I surfaced from a hole in the middle of the ocean, about 200 yards from the beach. This cave specifically became the perfect example of the connection happening everywhere. The Water feeding into this cave comes from a heavily industrialized area of the island; the entrance sits in the middle of a settlement with many garbage disposal issues. The conditions of the water table are terrible; both lenses are polluted. Like many others, I realized that this hole was in contact with ocean life, with mangroves and nursery grounds where I had seen baby sharks swimming. That meant that if I could fit through the passageways from one area to another, so could microscopic lethal pollutants. The more I dived, the more I discovered and realized that the caves’ health was directly proportional to the health of the ocean, the mangroves, and all the places where the cave tunnels run through. While working to survey and highlight Ben’s cave, my original love, to be fully included in expanding an MPA under the Bahamas National Trust, I finally connected the dots. If I wanted sharks to survive, I needed their protection and the protection of the areas where they go to mate and leave their young.

Furthermore, for sharks to thrive, they needed a food supply. Those mangroves and particular areas known as nursery grounds are vital for the baby sharks and all of the other baby marine life growing protected before confronting the big vast ocean. Sharks maintain the reef’s health and maintain the health of the fish on the reef; they need the fish to live, the fish needs them to thrive and be healthy. Once we affect one of the pieces involved, we can quickly destabilize this complex web. Pollution travels, and it will affect all of those in that area.

Additionally, suppose we develop an area where there is a cave. In that case, we will also damage the communication channel between the internal and external parts, altering the relationship between these eco-systems. Caves are an integral part of the Bahamas landscape; they protect the freshwater, guarantee the exchange of nutrients between different locations and eco-systems. Sometimes consideration is given to the entrance, but the information about their reach below the surface is minimal.

Sharks are protected, but to guarantee their future, we also need to protect what allows them and the marine life to thrive. To this scope, I embarked on a multi-year project. I decided that we need to locate as many entrances to the caves as possible and map them. Once we can show their actual location, the water movement will better understand how one action could have potential adverse reactions or positive outcomes, depending on their conservation status.

Sharks depend on their environment as much as their environment depends on them, and caves are a vital part. We might feel as if sharks and caves are two worlds apart, but we cannot protect sharks without protecting the caves in the Bahamas. In 2019 Kewin Lorenzen, understanding the vital connection between sharks and caves,joined me to continue our exploration and map work. We usually dive at night, after work, or during our days off. The arrival of Covid and the lack of work gave us the time we didn’t have before to expand our research and reach. The support to People of the Water’s exploration is vital to continue pursuing this long-term project. To this day, we have located and mapped over a dozen systems on Grand Bahama alone, and our job has just started.

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