blue holes

Tom Zanes Award

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The “Abaco Blue Holes Expedition Live” video portfolio was selected by the judges for the Tom Zanes Award (Best of Show) in the 2017 NSS Video Salon held in New Mexico this week. The video portfolio was created for online audiences during the 2016 National Geographic Blue Holes Exploration and Outreach Project. My goal for the project was to shoot, edit and release one video each day of the expedition. It was a daunting task, but well worth the lack of sleep!

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Counting on Collaboration

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Brian Kakuk is a former U.S. Navy Diver, part owner of The Bahamas Underground Technical and Cave Diving facility in Marsh Harbor, Abaco Island as well as Founder/Director of the Bahamas Caves Research Foundation.  He is also a consultant to the Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation/National Museum of the Bahamas.

Farewell to the Team           

Most people who know me know of my military background. Navy diving was something I had aspired to since I was a child and being part of an elite team was something that I felt drawn to whole heartedly. I’ve always felt comfortable and most importantly, safe, when my peers and I functioned as a well-practiced crew, each person bringing their own expertise and talents to the table to efficiently reach our cumulative goal.

For last two weeks, a group of people diverse in talents, and varied in origins have conducted such efficient, expert and safety conscious efforts in association with our National Geographic Blue Holes Mapping and Educational Outreach program. Our assemblage of volunteers includes educators, explorers, technical experts, Bahamian NGO’s, government employees and of course, our students. We have all come together with a common goal of exposing the world the exquisite, rarely-seen part of our planet that exists right under our feet.

Although this December session was only two weeks long, the story behind the building of this team and the common goals for the protection of Abaco Caves go back more than 10 years. Working with the Bahamas National Trust, The Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation, Friends of the Environment, The Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, The University of Miami, The University of Florida, The Florida Natural History Museum and the Ministry of the Environment’s Forestry Department, the players in this team have worked hard to find common ground in conserving these irreplaceable, cultural treasures of the Bahamas.

In 2005, one of our team members, Dr. Kenny Broad, wrote our first exploration grant to The National Geographic Society. I was stunned when we received the great news that they felt our project was worthy of funding and promotion.

This was a major step in the team’s conservation efforts. With the support of The National Geographic Society, our diverse group has been validated. Such high-profile recognition of our efforts helped launch more grants, documentaries and magazine articles while countless images, posts and blogs within the cave diving world blanketed social media on the interwebs.

The Bahamian people are extremely proud of their heritage and culture. Blue Holes and underwater caves have long been steeped in mystery and Bahamian folklore. They have been culturally intertwined with the inhabitants of these islands both now and before Columbus made landfall.

The Crystal Caves of Abaco have been seen on television documentaries around the globe in multiple languages. We have demonstrated to governmental agencies that these sites are worth much more to the Bahamian people as they are now, than if they were exploited for other short term gain, commercial purposes. They truly represent the uniqueness, the timelessness and the unrivaled beauty of our small island nation.

Our basic goals were to map as much of the Crystal Caves of Abaco as possible, while getting our message out to as many students as possible, both locally and internationally. Mission accomplished!

But another important accomplishment was achieved. Two weeks ago, some of our team had never met. Others were long-time friends who had experienced some of the most exciting expeditions of our lives together. But from every part of this multi-faceted project, new friends were made, new professional associations were formed, new expeditions have been planned and most of all, we bonded as a team. The comradery created by our experiences during this effort will last a lifetime, from team leaders to students.

It is routine practice for conservation groups to paraphrase Baba Dioum, the Senegalese forestry engineer: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

But from the beginning, this project has been the embodiment of his words. From the original exploration, the recognition of this exceptional ecosystem that affects biodiversity and human health, and the efforts to share images and insights about these places locally and beyond, we proudly say again: mission accomplished!

It is with the deepest gratitude that I thank all the team members, both old and new. Individuals, agencies, and ministries who have been tenacious, both then and now. You all helped to bring the Crystal Caves of Abaco out of the darkness and into the hearts of the people of the world.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Abaco Blue Holes Project Expedition Files #2

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Expedition Blog 2 / Dec 5, 2016 / Tom Morris

Team member, Tom Morris, has been exploring caves around the world the world for almost fifty years. Tom Morris is a biologist and diver who lives in Gainesville, Florida. Today, Sunday, is his 70th birthday. His birthday present was a passport that he left in his car before heading across the Florida Straits by boat to join the team. He can now leave the Bahamas when the time comes, although he would rather remain in the Bahamas, where the pines sing, the bracken is tall, and every other plant is an aphrodisiac.

Most people who visit the Bahamas end up on New Providence Island, home to Nassau and all its tourist amenities. I appreciate Nassau’s attractions, but I am drawn by the wilder side of the great archipelago, and by its rich geological and natural history. So, when my friend Kenny Broad invited me to join this expedition to Abaco Island’s newest nature preserve, I jumped at the chance.

Most everyone on the expedition team flew over from Florida, but Kenny and I needed to ferry a ton of expedition gear on his boat. Crossing the Gulf Stream is always a great adventure. After loading gear we left Miami in the dark AM and motored into the confused and rough seas of the Gulf Stream. As the sun rose we were treated to the visually stunning deep blue of the Straits of Florida, caused by two thousand foot depths and nutrient-poor clear water. Fortunately, Dramamine worked its magic, and my usual tendency to seasickness was no problem.

Hours later, the taller buildings of Grand Bahama Island came into view, and the water gradually changed to the nice turquoise color of shallower Bahama Bank waters. We worked our way along the coast, recently ravaged by hurricane forces, keeping a close eye for dangerous rocks, and entered the main Grand Bahama Port of Entry. An overrated problem of my missing passport was overcome and we fueled up and headed over to the infamous Lucayan Waterway to anchor in protected water for the night. The Waterway is a more or less 100-foot wide canal dredged across the entire width of Grand Bahama Island to create valuable waterfront property. The canal was a horrible idea, and drained part of the island of billions of gallons of scarce fresh water, and allowed salt water to contaminate a significant portion of the islands rocky aquifer.

The next morning we cruised in the calm protected waters of the Little Bahama Bank. The Bahama Banks are a carbonate factory, and corals, calcareous algae, and chemical processes have, over millions of years, deposited an incredible nineteen thousand feet of limestone sediments. The sediments were all formed in shallow marine conditions, just like today, with subsidence matching the rate of production. The many islands of the archipelago, large and small, are just the tiniest tip of this carbonate “iceberg.”

A few hours later found us dockside in Marsh Harbor. Here the generally unrecognized part of every expedition began in earnest. All the thousands of pounds of equipment had to be unloaded and taken to our vehicles. Everyone gets to enjoy the work, even the expedition leader (Kenny). Fortunately for Kenny, his labors were interrupted by a necessary visit to the harbor master. This was the second of many times that the expedition members will delight in, moving the gear. Expeditions are a great weight loss program.

It was great to be back in Marsh Harbor. This small town is reputed to be the third largest town in the Bahamas. It is full of friendly people, all driving on the wrong side of the road. I have heard a number of people remark that most of the Bahamas is like Florida used to be one hundred years ago. I believe it, and I like it.

We drove a mile or so to the Friends of the Environment compound, where we moved all the gear once again (third time). This excellent organization, along with the National Museum of the Bahamas (Antiquities, Monuments, Museums Corp.) is helping sponsor the expedition and is letting us use their new guesthouse. The rest of the day and much of the night found us putting together SCUBA and other gear.

The next day found us moving (fourth time) much of the equipment out to Dan’s Cave and setting up shelters and prepping for the arrival of primary school students on Monday. The site is beautiful. The setting is picturesque Caribbean slash pine forest (Pinus caribaea var bahamensis), known locally as pineyards. The bracken fern (Pteridium aqualinum), usually about two feet high in Florida, is head-high in the pineyard shrub layer. Poison wood (Metopium toxiferum), is scattered throughout. Winter migratory birds from the continent are moving about in the bushes. Forestry burns the pine forests about every three years to keep combustible fuel at safe levels. The trade winds sing in the pines.

The December temperatures are pleasant. Perfect for moving gear.

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Exploration in the Classroom

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We’re a few days from departure for the Blue Holes Project. Equipment is on its way and team members are assembling from several countries. We have posted our first education outreach session in the column on the right side of this page. Two more Google Hangouts sponsored by National Geographic and Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants are coming soon!

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