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What Lies Beneath

Blog # 4 / Dr. Keene Haywood / Dec. 6, 2016

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.

Driving south down the main high way on 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 twenty 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 project goal is surveying and mapping these complex and beautiful water filled passages, exploring the edges of what is known and unknown. But the project has other dimensions of exploration.

Exploration – the very 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 uses elements of observation, documentation, and communication to bring together this wonder and pull it together into 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.

For this project, key components of exploration are strongly supported. Through video and photography, the caves are being observed and documented in both scientific and journalistic ways to convey different aspects of the wonder of Dan’s Cave. Through mapping, the surveying team is bringing back data to provide a permanent record of past exploration of the cave using new tools and software to understand distances, depths, and intricacies of this maze of nature.  In addition, uses of emerging technologies such as 3D printing of artifacts and photogrammetry work yield compelling new ways to persevere and communicate the wonders of Dan’s Cave to a wider public.  In this case, this includes through direct communication with local communities both at the site and remotely.

More direct communication approach is taking place daily for five days this week with groups of school children from Abaco.  These children get a chance to experience some of the wonder of Dan’s cave directly by coming to this area with their teachers to interact with the expedition team and go through a series of hands-on experiences ranging from crawling through simulated cave squeezes to science experiments showing how groundwater picks up pollutants to making bush medicine teas with local elders to coring trees to determine their age. While the data and images will go far beyond the island of Abaco, it is the direct impact of experiential learning first hand by the younger generations of Bahamians that is most gratifying aspect of the project for many of us. It is in seeing the kids discovery and wonder in action that exploration science ceases becoming an abstract idea and begins to be a concrete experience not just for the school kids visiting Dan’s Cave, but for all of us.

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