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Black Belt Divers Community

A day without diving is like a day without sunshine

  • Technical Cave Mapping on the Abaco Blue Holes Cave Diving Expedition – Episode 12 Expedition Files with National Geographic

    December 15, 2016  / Blue Holes Blog / Sebastien Kister

    Sebastien Kister is a french cave diving instructor sharing his passion for the cenotes of the Riviera Maya in the Yucatan Penninsula with students from around the world. He applies his software engineer background in the development of software and measurement instruments aimed at making the underwater tasks of his fellow cave explorers and surveyors easier.

    Planning the dive! Preparing the equipment, gearing up! Exploring underwater caves! Laying line! Diving, diving and diving again! Any cave diver is thrilled at the idea of any of those steps, the common parts of our underwater explorer life. But when it comes to surveying or mapping a cave, enthusiasm is not usually the first emotion that comes to our minds. Surveying Is a time consuming occupation that requires a high level of focus while it is done. It can only go wrong … between parallax errors while reading the compass, to errors in estimating or measuring the length of the line, to the too common errors done while recording the data on the slate. To make it worse, getting a quick visualization of the data requires mastering software that is far from user friendly for the average non-geeky cave diver.

    These evils were the ones facing any good willing cave surveyor at the beginning of my professional cave instructor career in 2011. I decided to develop Ariane, a cave mapping solution, in an attempt to make surveying and mapping more accurate and user-friendly for cave divers. The software was initially tested in the field during the exploration of the Doggi cave system with the Q.D.T team in Mexico. This expedition collected nearly 20000 feet of data and allowed me to quickly tailor Ariane’s features to exactly what the cave explorers needed. After 5 years of work on Ariane, I have the satisfaction of seeing it used for mapping the caves in Abaco during this National Geographic project.

    Having taken care of Charybdis, the software part of cave survey, only Scylla, the actual measurement of the line in the cave, was left. That’s where Mnemo comes in. The result of a year of development and testing, Mnemo is a small handheld device that records all the parameters necessary to survey a cave line: depth/Inclination, length of the line and azimuth. In order to not effect the safety and cave awareness of the diver, I designed Mnemo to require as little attention as possible from its user, the actual contrary of what traditional slate/compass survey requires. Mnemo slides along the cave line collecting this data, using only one cursor and easily visible colours to control and signal the survey events.

    The second evil was thus taken care of: surveying a cave line is now (nearly) as easy as swimming along it! Some of the explorers were given the opportunity to test the unit here in Abaco. and the beginning section of Ralph’s cave was surveyed both by hand (by Brian Kakuk)  and with MNemo (operated by Sebastien Kister) yielding only a 1.8% difference. During the time the survey was done by hand it could have been done 5 times with MNemo


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  • Mapping the Labyrinth – Episode 11 from the Abaco Blue Holes Cave Diving Project with National Geographic

    Steve Bogaerts is a cave diving instructor and explorer originally from London, England who has been living in Mexico for the last 18 years. Steve first visited the Bahamian island of Abaco in 2003 and has been making regular trips since then to explore and map the incredible Crystal Caves. In 2015 Steve and Brian Kakuk were able to complete a project years in the making by connecting Dan’s and Ralph’s Caves—two of the most beautiful and important caves on the island, and the caves that are the subject of our current survey project.

    Expedition Blog 10 / Dec. 12 / By Steve Bogaerts

    Today was my last day working on the National Geographic Abaco Blue Holes project. It has been a very rewarding experience both to work with this talented multidisciplinary team and to dive the amazing caves Crystal Caves of Abaco. As one of the original explorers of these caves, I am continually awed by the surpassing beauty Mother Nature can create. Unfortunately very few people will have the chance to experience the beauty of these caves firsthand. To be able to share that beauty and wonder with other people is one of our mains aims in this project.

    One of the best ways we can do this is through cartography. Bringing back a map of your exploration allows other explorers and scientists to follow your path, to study and learn more, and most importantly to raise awareness of the need to protect and preserve this unique and fragile environment. Over the years many people have contributed to the exploration of the caves of the Bahamas, but unfortunately much of the mapping data remains missing or of poor quality.

    During this expedition, we are starting a complete resurvey of Dan’s and Ralph’s Caves, which Brian Kakuk and I finally managed to connect together after many years of effort in 2015. The resulting connected system is properly known now as Dan’s Cave and is one of the longest island cave systems in the world. The area surrounding Dan’s Cave has moreover recently been designated a protected conservation area by the government of the Bahamas. Producing a complete map of the caves will help in these continued efforts to protect and preserve this unique and fragile natural wonder.

    Cave survey, however, is a long, detailed, and laborious process. In addition to all the complex equipment a cave diver requires to safely conduct dives normally, surveying specifically requires many additional tools and techniques. The survey process begins by taking a GPS location fix at the entrance of the cave, which is then connected to the beginning of the permanent guideline that runs throughout the cave underwater. The GPS fix allows us to plot the survey data and the location of the cave on surface topological maps.

    From this initial fix, every point at which the permanent guideline in the cave changes direction or depth must be fixed in place with a locking line wrap. Each one of these tie-offs becomes a survey station. The surveyor records the depth at each of these stations using a digital depth gauge and shoots the azimuth to the next survey station along the guideline using an orienteering compass. They then measure the distance between the stations using a fiberglass tape or knotted line.

    All this information together with any important features or comments is recorded on an underwater slate. This basic information allows the survey team to create a “stick map,” or skeleton outline of the permanent guidelines installed in the cave passageways. This basic map can be further fleshed out by measuring the distance to the walls, floor and ceiling at every station and creating a cross-sectional sketch. Photos and video may also be recorded along with further geo-referencing at selected sites using a ground penetrating radar location tool called a “pinger.” All of this information is then downloaded to a computer survey program that creates a 3-D rendering of the cave with embedded links to photo and video of significant areas of interest.

    Surveying an underwater cave is inherently limited by the amount of time that can be spent underwater on any one dive. This is further complicated in these particular caves by the saw-tooth dive profiles of the cave passageways (zig-zagging up and down), the need to surface slowly to allow for decompression, and the fragility of the highly decorated passages. In addition these caves are extremely complex with maze-like passageways that create a complex three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of intersecting permanent guidelines. The desire to survey the cave accurately has to be balanced very carefully against the need to protect both the cave and the survey diver from any harm.

    Having said all of that, it is a very satisfying feeling to return to base camp with full survey slates and to watch the cave map grow as you input the data and gain greater insight into the hydrology and geomorphology of the area. As the map has grown, so too has my desire to discover more of the secrets of the Crystal Caves of Abaco. I hope to be back soon to continue this journey of exploration and survey.

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  • Documenting Inner Earth – Episode #10 from the Abaco Blue Holes National Geographic Cave Diving Project

    I have an odd business card. The title simply says, “Explorer.” In reality, I am the Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, underwater photographer/cinematographer, writer, dive technology contractor, instructor and motivational speaker. In a nutshell, I do the creative things that help keep me underwater and most of the time, underground in water-filled caves. This hybrid career is an occupation that defies easy description and leaves me pinching myself every day with excitement over my rewarding work.

    On this project I am reunited with friends with whom I have worked for over twenty years. It is a joy to be in the field with such a capable and effective team. We all fall into place and jump into roles that keep us extremely busy without too much direction. Whether you are washing the dishes, finding the next roll of toilet paper or blending life support gases, there is important work that keeps the expedition moving along. Everyone has to be a specialist of some sort but also a generalist who is motivated enough to see what needs to be done. Good teamwork means that everything runs smoothly and operations are safe and streamlined.

    My specialty role involves capturing everything that happens with photos and video. That means I get to miss a few dishwashing sessions, but have a lot of tasks that need my constant attention. My day begins and ends with camera maintenance. Batteries need to be charged, dome ports polished, and O-rings, cleaned. Troubleshooting and making minor repairs are a constant issue. When you take cameras and lights underwater, things will go wrong and gear will get damaged regularly. I am running four separate cameras topside and three can be encased in waterproof, pressure-proof Aquatica housings. Each camera needs to record audio as well and without a sound guy on the team, I have to do my best to keep on top of that too.

    When I hit the water I carry my life support equipment weighing approximately 150 pounds with an additional lighting kit of 45 pounds, camera strobes logging in at 22 pounds and two cameras that come to roughly 25 pounds. Each component is carefully weighted and trimmed so that it is relatively neutrally buoyant underwater. That means I have to push the mass through the water but not fight with the weight. Once I am submerged, my right brain fights with my left. I switch between video and still photography while monitoring life support swimming through an overhead environment. I also have to arrange a creative dance with my teammates and that is where the experience comes in. I am not able to talk to them, so we work on a combination of experience, telepathy and hand signals to orchestrate stunning pictures that tell the story of swimming through the veins of Mother Earth. On some television projects I have the luxury of underwater communications and a large support team, but this a raw, voluntary exploration. There is no budget beyond the reward of a job well done.

    When I surface exhausted at the end of day, the job really begins. I rush back to our base camp, download footage and stills and start the editing process. Social media and news today is about relevance, so each evening we reach out to the world with a new expedition blog. We all take turns writing posts, but it is my role to create these short videos for you each night before I crawl into my hammock for a few hours sleep. I choose fun over polish in my edits and hope these simple nuggets of our work will bring you a little closer to understanding the life of an explorer. There isn’t a person on this team who would rather be anywhere else in the world right now. Whether we’re assembling activities for school kids, carrying equipment or surveying these stunning caves, we know we have the best job in the world.

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  • Bush Medicine and Blue Hole Botany on the National Geographic Abaco Cave Diving Exploration and Survey Project

    Maria Fadiman is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and an associate professor in Geosciences at Florida Atlantic University. She is an ethnobotanist, focusing on the conservation of human ecological knowledge and the ecosystems in which we all live.

    “I found it!” the student from the local school exclaimed as she stuck a crumpled leaf under her nose. Such shouting and foliage shoving couldn’t have made us happier. She was learning the bush.

    So, what was an ethnobotanist doing as part of a team of expert divers with the Abaco Blue Holes Expedition? Although I hope to experience the caves one day (apparently brushing up on my snorkeling skills won’t quite cut it…whatever), the outreach includes not only the intricate world beneath the ground, but also what grows on top. We are working with local experts from the Dept. of Forestry and the Bahamas National Trust to re-connect students (and teachers) to their cultural knowledge about their own country’s plants. When people know how to use their plants, they value the forest.

    Part of my learning about this world included the nights I spent camping at the entrance of the blue hole, all of us taking turns throughout the trip. I was lucky enough to be paired with Tom Morris, an expert diver and biologist who is also a dynamic storyteller (ask him about the rattle snake…or the cougar…or…right, you get it). As the sun set I lowered myself into the clear water at the mouth of the cave while ferns and limestone rock surrounded me. When the moon came out later and I craned my neck back I saw the tops of the pine trees floating up against the inky black sky with stars bursting with a glimmering intensity and I felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss world. I then looked down, brushed off my feet and got into the tent as the sand flies thought the night, and my skin, looked pretty good too.

    “Chicken Toe” Marcus said to me the next morning. He is a local bush medicine expert who works with the Bahamian National Trust. I scribbled the name in my Rite in the Rain Notebook, and repeated “Chicken Toe”. Not only is it the local name of a plant (Tabebuia bahamensis), it was also fun to say. “Or Five Fingers,” he added. “You make a tea to strengthen the five senses.”

    “Cool,” I thought. I could always use some help with any of my senses.

    After a day of collecting, I marveled at what had looked to me like a mish mash of green in the morning, emerging through Marcus’ teaching as a medicine chest by evening. We then cut up the plants, stuffed them into pots and set them to boil. As I tasted each tea, and felt healthier by the gulp, Marcus let me know that the best tea he made was the “21 Gun Salute.” Apparently I would have to try that one next time, as it took 21 (surprise!) plants and extra time to prepare.

    The next morning, Terrance Rodgers, who works for the Forestry Service, helped me brush up on my plant names, walking me around the forest above the blue holes. I quietly repeated each one to myself, practicing as I stood with the two experts, Marcus and Terrance, behind the table laden with plants and the containers of bush tea.

    As the children came to the table we explained how to rub a soap leaf (Petitia dominguensis) on their arms. Some scrubbed right away, while others looked warily until their friends placed the leaf on their skin and exclaimed “It really does feel soft!” then all would give it a try. They crushed Sweet Margaret (Byrsonima sp.) under their noses and brushed their teeth with White Sage (Lantana camara). Each student then held out a cup to taste the teas. Amidst excitement, curiosity and some fear (which adding sugar usually assuaged), for many it was their first taste of their own country’s bush medicine.

    The students then scrambled away from the table to identify plants, viscerally diving into the bush world. They reached out to touch palm fronds, laced fingers through bracken ferns, and with dogged determination smelled crumpled leaves looking for Sweet Margaret.

    With some groups we would shout “Into the Bush!” and they would clamber further up a slope (only about five feet from the port-a-potty actually). At the end of the fourth day, the first to arrive at the top of the hill was a student who had shied away from the plants when he first came to the table. He now clutched a Soap Bush leaf in one hand and a piece of Chicken Toe in the other.

    Balancing on a log he shouted, “I could live in the bush!”

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  • Beautiful Bones – Episode #7 of the Abaco Blue Holes Cave Diving Project – National Geographic

    Nancy Albury is the Abaco Manager and Curator of Paleontology for the National Museum of The Bahamas. She is responsible for management of the natural history collections as well as documentation and research of the blue holes, cave sites and their fossil assemblages.

    December 10th, 2016

    When I was a child, I was intrigued by a large cave on New Providence Island here in the Bahamas. After pestering my mother for years, we finally took a trip to see it. I remember standing in the cave for the first time, spellbound in the darkness as the bats fluttered past me like fairies in the dim light of my headlamp. It never entered my mind to be afraid of what might be in this dark place. Rather, I was hooked, captivated by the cave’s beauty and the mysterious animals that lived within.

    It was later during college that I began cave diving. My diving buddies and I would sneak across cow pastures so we could dive a forbidden cave – a considerably greater level of excitement for me than the typical college merriment. And for the past 11 years I have worked for the National Museum of the Bahamas, a job that has given me the opportunity to explore, study and document the dry and flooded caves in the Bahamas, referred to as blue holes. These blue holes have remained my personal happy place over these many years, quiet secretive spaces that hide the mysteries of our natural world.

    Blue holes are time capsules that contain some of the most intriguing collections of natural, geologic, and human history in the West Indies. Diving in the crystalline passages of a blue hole is the equivalent of time travel. Like reading chapters of a book, history unfolds in the wall rock’s layers of sand, coral and shells. Speleothems and bottom sediments hold a rich history of sea level, climate change, and the remains of plants and animals. All of these reflect the surface ecology of the time when they were deposited.

    My real passion is the fossils, some dating over 4000 years old, of a variety of animals that are extinct and give us clues of how the ecosystems functioned before human occupation. Through the millennia, animals that came to drink became prey, or fell into the blue holes as they drank. Trapped and treading water, their ultimate fate was to drown and sink into the dark anoxic bottom sediments, mixing with wind-blown leaves and vegetation that grew around the blue hole during the same time. The growing list of species that we’ve recovered from these holes includes the remains of animals that indicate a reptilian ecosystem, dominated by giant tortoises and crocodiles, the apex terrestrial predator of its day, large rodents known as hutia, numerous species of birds (many now extinct), including some that were flightless. Evidence including seeds and are used to reconstruct the past vegetation and how the environment has changed through time.  Blue holes were dry caves during the Pleistocene Ice Ages and were home to bat coloinies and giant owls roosts who left left behind the skeletal remains of their meals. Later, during the higher sea levels of the Holocene, the remains of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish also became entombed. Lucayans, the earliest humans in the Bahamas, who have no living descendants, were no less mystified than we are today and there is skeletal evidence of these paleoindians preserved in the anoxic salt water. They revered blue holes and caves as spiritual portals to the world beyond life, using them as places to bury their dead.

    A friend of mine spent his life exploring the caves and finding prehistoric sites on Abaco. For years, he was hesitant to document the sites he’d found. Sadly, he recently passed away along with too much of his life’s work. I understood his reserve; the double-edged sword of exploration and discovery is the threat of its destruction and looting. However, the best conservation often starts with education about the value of these places that is not always self-evident. I was immediately supportive of this National Geographic project when proposed because it had the rare combination of innovative outreach, mapping, and image collecting that can help further The Museum of the Bahamas goals of making these hidden realms accessible to the public.

    The incredible response from the children that we’ve taught this week is evidence of the team’s effective hands-on activities. Watching their faces light up with those special “ah-ha” moments was a flashback to the childhood adventures that inspired my own love of caves. I’m sure the children who have visited the site this week will remember these real life learning experiences for a lifetime and become tomorrow’s citizens who know and appreciate our natural history.

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  • Speaking Up for Safety

    Jill Heinerth, Dec. 10, 2016

    Jill Heinerth serves as the documentarian for the Abaco Blue Holes Project. Her hybrid career includes teaching, photo-journalism, motivational speaking, consulting and pretty much anything that keeps her underwater. She is the Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a member of the inaugural class of the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

    Kenny Broad found a hilarious video online about train safety. After a good laugh, we decided to try our hand at sending our own safety message out into the world. Our singing talents are rather weak, but our hearts are in the right place.

    Cave and rebreather diving have been called the most dangerous “sports,” and unfortunately we have all lost our fair share of friends to lapses in judgment and poor choices before they got in the water. Years of accident analysis have shown that when divers break our “cardinal rules,” accidents happen.

    In the 1980s, cave diving pioneer Sheck Exley determined that most fatalities were caused when at least one of these rules were broken:

    1. Get proper training from a qualified and active cave diving instructor before entering the overhead environment and then dive in conditions which are similar to or better than the environment you trained in.
    2. Run a continuous guideline from the open water so that in the event that visibility is lost, you will have a tactile reference to get you home safely.
    3. Always reserve at least two-thirds of your gas supply for the exit portion of your dive so that you can assist a teammate in the worst case scenario of a catastrophic gas loss.
    4. If diving deep, use an appropriate helium gas mix that leaves your head clear and your mind sharp.
    5. Dive with the appropriate redundant backup gear including at least three sources of light.

    After more recent examination of cave and rebreather diving fatalities, we have added several more specific rules that mitigate the risks. These include:

    1. Personally analyze and properly mark the breathing gas in your cylinders.
    2. Complete a proper pre-dive check prior to diving a rebreather.
    3. Pre-breathe your rebreather for five minutes on the surface in a safe place and watch your electronic controls to determine proper function.
    4. Do not jump in the water if your rebreather fails a safety check.
    5. Change oxygen sensors frequently and pro-actively, and do not dive with fewer functioning sensors than the manufacturer’s standard for your unit.

    Cave and rebreather training is available globally through training agencies and professional instructors that are good safety role models. If you choose to take on these activities, please seek out an active and experienced instructor who can take you through an industry recognized training program. The NSS-CDS, NACD, GUE, RAID, IANTD, TDI and other agencies can be found online.

    So please forgive our lack of pitch and if you want to see a truly professional and humorous safety video, check out this one from our friends in railway safety.

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  • The Life Within Underwater Caves – Blue Holes Expedition with National Geographic

    Keene Haywood is the director of the exploration science program at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. The program offers a Master’s degree in Exploration Science through the Master of Professional Science (MPS) program at the UM-Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). He holds a PhD in Geography and MFA In Science and Natural History filmmaking.

    Expedition Blog 4 / Dec. 6 / By Dr. Keene Haywood

    Driving south down the main high way on the island of Abaco, the slightly rolling terrain of pine trees and low vegetation makes for a somewhat hypnotic drive as early morning light filters past the long slender trunks and across the green expanse. Some 20 miles south of the town of Marsh Harbor, one turns off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy road that leads west across the island.

    Another world exists parallel to this forest of whispering pines. Below is a labyrinth of caves, the likes of which are only beginning to be fully understood and mapped. Dan’s Cave and Ralph’s Cave are two entrances into this otherworldly realm that few people have entered. Named after the hunters who originally found the caves decades ago, one goal for our current project is to survey and map these complex and beautiful water filled passages, exploring the edges of what is known and unknown. But the project has other dimensions of exploration as well.

    Exploration—the word tends to mean different things to different people, but it seems to always seems to elicit the same emotion: wonder. What is out there? Why? What is around the next bend, the next passage? What are the social and ethical implications of revealing the unknown? Who “owns” the intellectual property and economic benefits that may be revealed? The list goes on. Trying to encapsulate this wonder and the moral and practical questions into a discipline is what exploration science seeks to do.

    As the director of the exploration science program at the University of Miami, I often am often asked just what is this discipline? Broadly, the approach takes elements of observation, documentation, and communication and combines them with this wonder to develop new knowledge about our world. This program seeks to ground students in all three areas, encouraging them to embrace new technologies, follow their curiosity, and pull together multi-disciplinary approaches to answering what is out there and why, all while considering the historical and ethical context of exploration.

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  • Augmented Reality and a Welcome from Cristina Zenato

    Nat Geo Blog #6 December 9, 2016 – Cristina Zenato

    Cristina Zenato, yes, of the Santa Cristina Zenato vineyard, a native of Garda Lake, Italy, has been living in Grand Bahama Island for over 22 years, where she runs educational diving programs and technical diving at the Underwater Explorers Society. When she’s not diving, well, she’s diving – facilitating shark research, cave exploration, and coral reef restoration among many other activities.

    Twenty-two years ago I came to the Bahamas from Italy to learn to scuba dive and I discovered they had sharks on the dives here, an animal I have always been fascinated by and attracted to. After only a week I decided to stay and make the Bahamas my home and diving my life. The island was beautiful for me and full of new experiences. The first question I had was about fresh water “how could islands without mountains, rivers, lakes have so much fresh water available?” The answer was right below my feet – underwater caves that dot the forested island.

    It wasn’t long after I learned about these caves that I wanted to dive them. I discovered cave diving thanks to Ben Rose. Watching him on my 11th dive ever, floating in water so clear he looked he was in space, I fell in love with cave diving. Since then I have explored every possible available line and when the lines ended I started to explore. I have met a lot of incredible divers along the way and learned a lot from each one of them. Now on this project, here in the pineyards of Abaco, I am watching as two of today’s most prolific cave explorers submerge together for a survey dive. What it comes to mind are two quotes that go very well together:

    “Knowledge is power” and “with power comes great responsibility.”

    Knowledge on this expedition is present in abundance, with nearly 200 years of cave diving knowledge on this one team. Tom Morris, for example, the cave exploring biologist on the group, at age 70 brings 57 years of cave diving and knowledge to the team. But numbers are relative if this knowledge is not used correctly, you can have 57 one-year experiences or 57 years of experience.

    This team is composed of curious explorers, inventive engineers, talented photographers, that have been on every corner of this planet, and they have explored and collected scientific information and communicated it via diverse media. Their knowledge roams in many different directions.

    The team members, Dr. Kenny Broad, (25 years of cave diving), Brian Kakuk (30 years), Jill Heinerth (23 years), Steve Bogaert (25 years), Tom Morris (57 years), myself (20 years) do not want to keep all this experience for themselves, they have an invested interest in sharing their knowledge so it can be used to improve the way we live. They want everybody, and especially the local people of the Bahamas to benefit from it.

    A central goal of this project is outreach with local school kids and classrooms throughout North America via ‘hangouts’ organized by “Explore by the Seat of your Pants” and National Geographic. Our basecamp is set up in an interactive style, with stations about forestery, fossils, cave diving, cave mapping and herbal medicine. Local school children are organized in teams, rotate through the stations and learn about the integral relationship between the forest, the caves and the fresh water table beneath their feet. Every morning one of us enters the cave to place the pinger to illustrate to the kids topics ranging from cave tracking to pollution transport, and to collect cave critters (that we release at the end of the day). It is indeed the quietest time of the day, my morning meditation. Once back on the surface, the camp comes to a buzz to activities and noises. Later in the afternoon, after all the educational activities have ended we re-enter this world each one with a new task, surveying, photogrammetry, and returning the ancient animals to their peaceful home. Each dive brings back a bit more knowledge that we hope to share in as many ways as possible.



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