"Caves are among the last true frontiers of exploration"
Lat / Long
32°2′24″S / 126°5′46″E
Research & Sampling
Exploration & Scouting
The flooded underwater cave systems beneath Western Australia’s Nullarbor Karst Plain began forming more than 25 million years ago as sea levels dropped; exposing a massive limestone plain that had once been the sea floor. Early humans were the first explorers; braving darkness and superstition as they traversed the dry sections of cave to discover clear pools of blue water at the cave terminus. Underwater cave explorers would eventually pick up the trail this past century and discover massive tunnels, beautiful rooms and additional dry passageways leading further into the unknown. Fast forward to present day and the evidence clearly shows that caves, the deep ocean and outer space remain the last “true” frontiers for exploration. The Nullarbor remains one of those final “frontiers” in more ways than one.
This incredibly beautiful, yet remote and punishing landscape was home to several cave systems that had been on my cave diving “bucket list” since becoming a cave diver more than 20 years ago. The record penetrations at Cocklebiddy Cave and Wes Skiles’ Nullarbor Dreaming in the 1980’s fueled early curiosity about this part of the world and the caves beneath. I had always been curious as to why more Australian cave divers were not diving these caves on a regular basis compared to my experiences in Florida and Mexico. I was about to learn firsthand the effort and expense required along with the risk assumed to pursue a Nullarbor adventure. The Australian winter was approaching and there was a lot of work to do. The Americans needed to start packing.
[caption id="attachment_39561" align="alignnone" width="414"] Hidden beauty beneath the Nullarbor Plain (image D. Rhea)
The project planning was relatively straightforward: identify and collect samples of the bacteria slime growing in the cave and return those samples along with images and video to MacQuarie University in Sydney. The dive teams would also capture high resolution images and video of the remote cave systems for historical record using specialized lighting systems, rebreathers and diver propulsion vehicles. Secondary to that would be assessing the potential for future exploration and the logistics necessary to access the underwater cave systems safely and efficiently. We did not plan or budget enough time on this initial expedition for exploration but we agreed to keep our eyes open and adjust the plan as necessary. Being advised by Nullarbor experts Tim Payne and Dr. David Doolette that getting to the water was most of the work along with the unpredictable stability of these locations is difficult to appreciate until experienced first hand. Getting to the Nullarbor Plain is an accomplishment in itself but getting divers and diving equipment 300ft into the earth and then another 100ft underwater was every bit as difficult as they said it would be. Fortunately the underwater depth was relatively shallow at less than 100ft which allowed for nitrox and easy decompression planning. Neverthless, it was a lot of work. For the Americans traveling from Florida: 20,000 miles in the air followed by 1,500 miles each way on the ground or 1.5 days flying, 2 days driving in, 2 days setting up, 5 days diving, 2 days breaking camp, 2 days driving out and 1.5 days flying home about sums it up.
The Nullarbor Plain is a distinct geologic feature and the largest expansive (single) piece of limestone plain in the world at more than 1,500 sq miles. 25 million years ago when sea level was 300ft higher, the plain comprised the sea floor. Today, the Null-Arbor (Tree-Less) Plain is an incredible landscape with breathtaking cliffs bordering the Southern Ocean to the south, the Great Victorian Desert to the north and hidden 300ft below the surface, some of the most incredibly beautiful cave systems in the world. The cave structure, water clarity and karst features make these systems unique in all the world and their remote location and restricted access has preserved them for the most part in their original state. The scenery, geology, history and environment make this one of the most unique places on earth.
[caption id="attachment_41601" align="alignnone" width="300"]
Nullarbor Karst Plain - Geologic Feature (Image NASA)[/caption]
“If you touch that rock you will die”
(memorable quote from Dr. David Doolette that carelessness in this environment would have serious consequences)
Steve Trewavas: Project Leader (Australia)
David Rhea: Photographer (USA)
Dr. David Doolette (Australia)
Rick Nash: Photographer (Australia)
Andrew Cronan: Videographer (Australia)
Casey McKinlay (USA)
Gareth Ingham (Australia)
David Leung (Australia)
Jamie Obern (New Zealand)
Mel Jeavons (New Zealand)
Joe Monks (Australia)
Monica Balkan (Australia)
Nothing is easy on expedition and that is to be expected. However, you want to be sure you are choosing a team where the attitudes and skillsets match the challenge. Teamwork is the only way things get done with this type of project and particularly important in the Nullarbor where basic and emergency resources can be days away. Pre-expedition communication was critical to make sure the correct type and quantity of equipment, provisions and safety equipment were being prepared. Making sure the equipment and personnel arrived safely and making sure everything was managed as efficiently as possible while onsite was critical. Each member knew their role and contributed to the success of the expedition. In addition to the onsite team members, the extended team handled details from afar including web updates and equipment support (DUI, Suex, Halcyon). We were also fortunate enough to have several team members with extensive experience from previous Nullarbor expeditions and indirect support from current Australian explorers providing information including recent site conditions and planning suggestions. SRT experience was required of all team members and we were fortunate to have several team leaders who had extensive experience managing SRT setup and logistics.
“Simply put, we had our work cut out for us”
Simply put, we had our work cut out for us and the effort necessary just to get the dive equipment in place consumed most of our time. Ropes, flying foxes, traversing large chambers, setting high pressure nitrox lines, transporting video equipment and protecting the equipment from damage was critical. All these things would be challenge enough at a normal dive site but extra precautions were necessary because we did not have many “spares” should something get damaged. It was important to choose reliable, durable and high quality equipment that could withstand the Nullarbor environment in addition to standardizing those choices so that spare parts and equipment could be shared among team members.
The bacteria sampling teams took priority in dive planning. It was critical to locate these bacteria clusters and collect samples while documenting the location and process at the same time. Upon completing the sampling plan, the dive teams then shifted into photo and video mode to capture the cave systems in the most pristine conditions possible before sediment from the ceiling became discharged by diver exhaust or sediment deposits on the rocks were stirred up. Using the Halcyon SCR RB80 rebreathers greatly reduced the sediment in the water. This along with the halocline (salt-fresh water interface) provided additional challenges when capturing images and video.
Average Depth: 100ft (30m)
Water Temp: 70f (21c)
Gas Mixes: 32% Nitrox, O2 Deco
Run Times: 60-240 minutes
Surface support teams managed the inflow and outflow of equipment. For the most part this was minimal once the equipment was positioned near the water. 500ft+ of high pressure hose allowed for tank re-filling at the water’s edge. Only video equipment, oxygen cylinders and batteries had to be removed for recharging between dive missions. Given the significant investment by all, the protocol for the photographers and videographers required hard drive backup of all media following each dive.
“Everything we brought had to work, no excuses”
Everything we brought had to work, no excuses. This was not the type of diving expedition to “test” new gear. We chose wisely and with the assistance of several long-term partners (DUI, Suex and Halcyon) we took what we needed and what could be easily shared if necessary. These types of projects highlight the importance and the benefit of a standardized platform. Divers could share dpvs, drysuits, lights and almost every piece of kit needed to operate below the surface. Suex provided 6 dpv units configured exactly the same so the divers were matched and each unit could be shared among the dive team.
Run Time: 70-115 minutes
Weight: 46lb (21.6kg)
Speed: 200ft/min (60m/min)
The primary dive team employed DUI TLS and FLX drysuits along with XM250 undergarments. This was the perfect combination of flexibility, durability and warmth given the water temp of 70f degrees. Bright colors also make for great images and video.
The Halcyon RB80 rebreather units, while not entirely necessary given the shallow depth, allowed for flexibility and options to extend the dive times for photos, video and sampling.
Video was limited by tape and light burn times so each dive counted. The Halcyon 200watt HMI lighting systems worked flawlessly and filled the massive, blue water passageways with a warm glow that captured the majestic nature of this hidden environment.
Camera Steve Trewavas:
Canon 5D mk2
Canon 16-35mm lens
Ikelite D160 strobes
Elinchrom quadra stobe set (dry cave)
Camera David Rhea:
Nikon 14-35 mm lens u/w
Nikon 10 mm lens a/w
Nikon 12-24 mm lens a/w
Ikelite D160 Strobes
Camera Rick Nash:
Nikon 18-200 lens
Video Andrew Cronan:
2X Halcyon 50wt HID
2X Halcyon 200wt HMI
Suex video mount
Final Cut X, Avid Audio
“Cave divers are in a unique position to facilitate this type of groundbreaking research”
Science objectives as noted by Macquarie University Researchers:
“These caves are home to a unique microbial slime community. We have published initial findings showing these communities are comprised of an unusual combination of microorganisms that can utilise ammonia in the seawater as an energy source, thus allowing life in the absence of light. We require multiple slime samples from distinct caves and matched water samples (for nutrient analysis) to answer the following questions:”
1. Are the ‘slimes’ in different areas of the caves, and in different caves, distinct communities, or are there common ‘players’ present in all samples?
2. Do all the communities utilise the same mechanisms for energy production?
3. To what extent do the differences and similarities discovered above correspond to the nutrient composition of the water surrounding the slime samples?
4. What impact do these communities have on their environment, for example are calcite crystals associated with the slime mantles formed by microbially driven processes?
Cave divers are in a unique position to facilitate this type of groundbreaking research and sampling. A well organized and trained dive team is also capable of documenting and capturing digital media of these remote habitats while sampling. Aside from the obvious challenges of exploration and discovery, this is science at the extreme with the potential to impact history on every dive. Many researchers suggest that these remote cave environments could be the source for future antibiotics and cancer fighting organisms since most of the already discovered antibiotics were derived from soil based organisms. Is the next modern antibiotic awaiting discovery in these caves by underwater cave explorers? Quite possibly.
The dive plan was ambitious but the team was able to achieve all planned objectives successfully. In the end sometimes this type of research generates more questions than answers. Such is the cycle of exploration and discovery.
Observations by Macquarie University Researchers:
- organism similar to but not identical to those found in other cave systems
- gets its energy from ammonia, very unusual
- electron microscopy shows interesting crystals with the organism - more research needed
- raises questions as to how it is found in many differing places
- short listed for an award for their research
LINKS & CREDITS
NKPP.org - Nullarbor Karst Plain Project Page
Australian Park Services
Paul Leslie, Jen Pavlou, Susan Long, Tim Payne, Alessandro Fenu, Robin Skoglund, Liam Allen
THE AUTHOR CASEY MCKINLAY
As a cave diver and explorer for more than 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to dive in some of the most remote and interesting locations on the planet (and make a living doing so). From the flooded cave systems of Florida and Mexico to China, New Zealand, Italy and Australia. While my passion is cave diving, what truly motivates me is to share in these expeditions of discovery with equally passionate and motivated explorers. The 2013 Nullarbor expedition was my first visit to this remote and incredibly beautiful corner of the world. The logistics were complicated, the time required is always a challenge and the expenses must be managed but I am grateful for the experience and to have shared it with my fellow team mates. I am also grateful for the support of those who choose to support exploration when it is impossible to estimate a return on investment. Like me, I believe they do so because exploring is part of who we are as human beings. Huge thanks to the team, our partners and the cave divers of Australia. Special thanks to my wife Kelly and my good friend Steve Trewavas. I am looking forward to the next visit and another adventure. Good diving.