Finding answers beneath the surface: Award winning anthropologist uses deep sea diving to diffuse societal issues

Roze Brooks

World famous environmental anthropologist Dr. Kenny Broad visits the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts as part of its National Geographic Live series on Tuesday, March 27.
World famous environmental anthropologist Dr. Kenny Broad visits the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts as part of its National Geographic Live series on Tuesday, March 27.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts launched its “National Geographic Live” series last Tuesday in Helzberg Hall, featuring world-renowned environmental anthropologist Dr. Kenny Broad in a segment titled “Extreme Cave Diving: Exploring the Blue Holes of the Bahamas.”

Broad and late underwater photographer Wes Skiles were honored as National Geographic’s Explorers of the Year (2011) for extraordinary documentation of reservoirs in the Bahamas.

“Most associate the Bahamas with fruity drinks and umbrellas or gambling away kids’ college money,” Broad said.

On a projection screen, Broad displayed high-definition underwater photos and videos taken during the excursion, along with diagrams dissecting a reservoir.

Broad’s mission was to establish a connection between conditions of underwater caves versus urgent societal issues like climate and water resources.

This information was retrieved by using common diving aesthetics and equipment that wouldn’t disturb newfound environments. He stressed that even high-tech satellites couldn’t fully penetrate hidden potential that he and other divers have discovered.

Similar to Alice following the White Rabbit, discovering these holes required curiosity. Broad explained that vast caves could extend below the smallest surfaces.

Because of difficulty locating these caves, Broad said “It’s the least understood ecosystem because it’s the least explored.”

Using a labeled diagram, Broad explained that holes can descend hundreds of feet deep, created by both a chemical reaction and fluctuations in sea level over thousands of years. This rich marine history offers insight into current environmental conditions through analyzing artifacts, cave and stalagmite formations and other discoveries.

There are several layers within a reservoir. On the surface, rainfall accumulates into a thin layer of fresh water. As an ocean’s salt water seeps over the reservoir’s mouth, it slowly sinks toward the cave floor. Salt water clusters sink until they reach the reservoir’s lowest layer, isolated from oxygen. Divers encounter a red, smog-like substance called hydrogen sulfide. Broad advised swift maneuvering through this extremely toxic element, warning that minimal contact can make one feel as if they’ve consumed “a 12 pack for breakfast.”

Once past this hazard, Broad’s team was often rewarded, discovering not only new living species, but perfectly preserved fossils tracing back at least 10,000 years.

Broad’s chosen career has proven extremely dangerous. Risks include caves collapsing, oxygen tanks running low, getting lost below solid ground due to lack of visibility or losing hold of the cord navigating back to safety. Even leisurely diving can cause eventual lung damage.

Broad described a near-death experience when his hammock flipped, launching him head-first into the cave wall. This knocked him unconscious, and he landed in the body of water below. He was saved by a support rope that wrapped around his body, keeping him above the surface until he was rescued. Broad also shared an encounter with a lobster who nearly separated him from the safety line used to relocate a cave’s entrance.

“I consider myself an ocean conservationist, but go ahead and eat as much lobster as you want,” he said.

Broad stresses that when a negative gut feeling strikes and a situation feels unstable, it shouldn’t be ignored. These instincts warrant an “unwritten, judgment-free courtesy” of cancelling a dive, which even Broad admits using.

Not all of Broad’s team was professionally trained. Some were self-taught in what he dubs “civilian science,” but their accomplishments are just as credible. Even Skiles, killed in a low-risk dive soon after the Bahamas expedition received no formal education. He established himself as an innovative photographer, and is now a pioneer among colleagues.

Offering a tip, Broad asked, “Any kids in the audience? You should drop out of school.”

Broad couldn’t deny that individuals who chose an alternative to institutionalized education can be successful. He also negated myths that ground-breaking discoveries require travel to tropical locations.

“Last time Kansas City was covered in ice was 600-800,000 years ago. There is potential for caves in Missouri to be 1,000 feet deep.”

The real obstacle is not only facing diving dangers, but embracing Missouri’s characteristically chilly waters.

Broad shared anecdotes for both amateur and experienced divers, as well as attendees interested in degrees in related academic fields. Broad admitted his passion for diving overpowered any scholarly motivation. Compromising with his mother’s Navy suggestions, he attended UC Santa Barbara, dedicating free time to paramedic/community diving. He received Literature and Art degrees, but returned to school, receiving his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University.

Future anthropologists and self-proclaimed explorers can utilize Broad’s work to expand on these discoveries. This project has involved climate change, unveiled lists of new species and pristine fossils and pinpointed a culprit of water pollution.

Evading detrimental societal concerns has been an everlasting perplexity for environmentalists and politicians alike. As new information emerges through leading examples such as Broad’s, what lies beneath the surface could soon spearhead revolutionary progress.

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